Tag Archives: Marcus Garvey

‘Bring In All Rastas, Dead Or Alive!’

Sir Alexander Bustamante

Sir Alexander Bustamante

Those are the infamous words of Sir Alexander Bustamante, national hero and first prime minister of independent Jamaica. Bustamante’s turn of phrase comes straight out of the Wild West: “Wanted dead or alive.” Bustamante apparently conceived all Rastafarians as outlaws in a Hollywood western who had to be exterminated by any means necessary.

Issuing a death sentence, Bustamante literally turned all Rastafarians into villains. Guilty or innocent, they could no longer expect to enjoy the protection of the law. All Rastafarians were completely demonised and became victims of comprehensive state brutality. How did this come about?

images-6Half a century ago, at about 4 a.m. on ‘Holy’ Thursday, six bearded men set fire to a gas station in Coral Gardens. They were armed with machetes, guns, bows and arrows. I suppose it was cowboys and Indians, Jamrock style. The leader was Rudolph ‘Franco’ Franklyn, who had a big grievance against the owner of the gas station, Ken Douglas.

Franklyn and several other bearded men had long been squatting on land in Coral Gardens. They lived in relative peace until the land was sold to Douglas. Naturally, the new owner asserted his right to the property and attempted to drive the squatters off the land. As is often the case, the squatters refused to budge.

During one of several attempts at eviction, Franklyn was shot by the police. He survived but was told by a medical doctor that he would die sooner rather than later from a bullet lodged in his body. Determined to take revenge on his assailants, Franklyn sought allies to launch his counter-attack.

DREADLOCKS AND COMBSOME

images-3At the time, there were two groups of Rastafarians living in MoBay: the dreadlocks and the combsome. The dreadlocks lived on Railway Lane and the combsome squatted in Coral Gardens. Franklyn irrationally proposed that both groups of Rastas join forces to burn down Montego Bay. The dreadlocks rejected the scheme on the basis that Rastas defend ‘peace and love’.

Franklyn, who seemed to subscribe to the philosophy “I don’t give a damn, I done dead already”, pressed along with his plans. Instead of burning down all of MoBay, he settled for Douglas’ gas station, an obviously flammable target.

http://www.songstube.net/video.php?title=Zombie%20Jamboree&artistid=6603&artist=Harry%20Belafonte&id=131586

On the morning of the attack, there was only one attendant at the station, Mr George Plummer, who fled for his life to the nearby Edgewater Inn Motel. He, clearly, had no shares in the company. A Mr Marsh, who was at the motel, foolishly ventured out to investigate the matter. In a most unfortunate turn of affairs, he was murdered. By midday, seven others lost their lives, including Franklyn.

According to a Gleaner report published on April 13, 1963, “The Montego Bay Fire Brigade had responded to the fire alert at 4:53 a.m. from the house of Dr Carol Delisser. The blaze at the gas station was brought under control after 5 a.m. led by Supt Sydney Burke, who joined the police squad that rushed up from Montego Bay under Inspector Fisher. Five vehicles, including two civilians, started into the hills after the Rastafarian gang. Among those chasing the gang was Mr Causwell, who was on his way to Kingston but decided to give some help to the chase.

Rose Hall Great House

Rose Hall Great House

“They drove through two miles of rough terrain from the ruins of Rose Hall Great House. The search party ran into the gang or rather ran into an ambush. The bearded men attacked from an overhanging cliff above. In the fight which ensued, two of the gang were shot to death and Corporal Melbourne and Mr Causwell were cut down. By then, it was discovered later that Headman Fowler had been already cut down about a mile from his home on Tryall Farm.”

The day’s gruesome events became known as ‘the Coral Gardens Incident’. But this was much more than an isolated ‘incident’. Franklyn’s murderous rampage was a sign of the fundamental inequities of Jamaican society. Landlessness is a recurring a problem which has never been properly addressed by successive pre- and post-Independence governments.

WINSTON CHURCHILL’S CIGARS

images-1The response of Bustamante’s government to the terrible actions of six bearded men was brutally excessive: “Bring in all Rastas, dead or alive!” Why should all Rastafarians be exterminated because of the actions of six men, especially since the ringleader had already been killed? Bustamante’s irrational call signified much more than a need to restore the peace. The Coral Gardens ‘Incident’ was a chilling episode in a long history of state violence against Rastafari.

In 1954, under the premiership of Bustamante, a major Rastafarian encampment, Pinnacle, was burnt down. The camp was located in St Jago Hills, close to Sligoville. Pinnacle was a productive agricultural hub, yielding rich crops such as cassava, peas, corn and, of course, ganja. Maintaining African traditions of collective labour, Pinnacle flourished under the leadership of Leonard Howell.

images-2French journalist Hélène Lee, author of The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism, published in 2004, proposes that Howell was the first Jamaican ‘don’ in the best possible sense of that word. He was a don in the British sense of a university professor. Howell was a Garveyite who valued scholarship.

He was also a charismatic community leader who gave hope to landless Rastafari who left Kingston’s concrete jungle for the hills of St Catherine. Pinnacle comprised approximately 5,000 acres, even though Howell owned only a conservative estimate of 150 acres and, possibly, up to 400.

Winston Churchll

Winston Churchll

According to anecdotal evidence, much of the ganja produced at Pinnacle found its way to the warfront during the Second European War. Ganja was seen as therapy for the troops. It was even rumoured that Winston Churchill’s famous cigars contained much more than tobacco. In 1953, Churchill visited Jamaica, staying at the Tower Isle hotel. Was there any connection between his visit and the destruction of Pinnacle? I leave the answer to conspiracy theorists.

No Extinguisher, Big Problem

imagesThose German men in that inflammatory Saturn ad should have had a fire extinguisher in their tiny kitchen.  Even if the Jamaican flag did ‘catch a fire’ like the Bob Marley and the Wailers album, there would have been no need to take it to the streets. The fire could have been extinguished immediately, and an international incident would have been averted.

Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs wouldn’t have had to issue a statement on the improper use of the Jamaican flag, including an appeal to the appliance manufacturer to “repair this most unfortunate breach”.  Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange, JLP spokesperson on culture, wouldn’t have needed to call on Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to take up the matter at the highest diplomatic levels.

http://adpressive.com/saturn-electronics-commercial-banned-burning-jamaican-flag-030613/

All of the fuss over the ad is a classic example of life imitating art, or, more accurately, artifice.  The real-life protest mirrors the outrage of the masses of ‘Germaican’ fans in the fictitious drama who invest cultural capital in our flag and what it represents:  a nation of people who excel in all sorts of fields.

jamaican-bobsledder-1And beyond all reasonable expectations!  How could Jamaicans really think we could compete internationally at winter sports? Quite easily!  Bobsledding is no big deal.  We have a history of go-kart racing.  Freestyle skiing?  ‘A no nutten dat!’  Errol Kerr certainly carried our flag with grand style at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The high visibility of the Jamaican flag on the world stage, particularly at the Olympics, both summer and winter, is the very reason it was selected for ‘desecration’ in the Saturn ad.  Which other nation’s flag would have excited that extreme response?  Cynics will argue that our flag was abused in order to cut Jamaicans down to size.   They’ve missed the point.

Hate crimes

     images-3 The protestors in the ad can be forgiven for their righteous anger.  They don’t know the whole story.  Viewers of the ad have no excuse.  They know that the real culprit is a defective coffee machine.  That’s what caused the fire.   It forced the endangered men to turn a private matter into a most public affair.  Their cramped living quarters could not contain the fire so they end up trampling the Jamaican flag in a full view of surveillance cameras.

images-1The burning flag becomes national news.  A female news anchor announces, “Our top story today: rioting on streets, as burning Jamaican flag leads to country-wide protests.”  A diplomat in an international setting declares, “We all love Jamaica. These people are burning the Jamaican flag!” A baffled journalist at the scene of the ‘crime’ asks, “The question is:  why all this hatred?”  Of course, it’s not hatred at all.  It’s admiration.

Though I’m quite willing to concede that the Saturn ad was well intentioned, I must admit that I do find it troubling.  The burning flag is the least of the issues. The average Jamaican is not going to go out on any demonstration because the national flag got burnt accidentally.  I suspect that most of us watching that Saturn ad would just kiss our teeth and ask how come ‘di eedyat man dem never throw lickle water pon di flag an out di fire inna di kitchen, an no tek it outa road’.

What struck me most forcibly was the way in which the Jamaican flag got caught up in a specifically European culture of political violence. ‘How we get mix up into dat?’  When a black man is interviewed on the street, his immediate response to the crime is retaliation:  “If they burn our flag, I’m going to burn theirs”.  It’s now a racialised hate crime.

images-2Despite the apparent affirmation of the power of Jamaican identity as represented by the flag, the Saturn ad seems to be feeding on fears of foreign culture.

Burning Questions

2dabcbe173      Ellen Koehlings and Pete Lilly, co-editors of Riddim, Germany’s upscale reggae/dancehall magazine with a bimonthly circulation of 45,000, ask a penetrating question in their chapter of the Global Reggae book: “How did it come about that youths from European countries without significant Caribbean communities are able and motivated to recreate something that is genuinely Jamaican in origin but can, to a certain extent, even compete with what’s happening in Jamaica today?”

Ellen and Pete argue that German folk music had been taken over by the Nazis and so was discredited.  This music could not, therefore, be embraced as the source of modern pop songs.  So German youth tuned into the music of Britain and the United States to find a language to express their ‘post-Holocaust’ identity.

images-5Then they discovered Bob Marley who embodied the spirit of rebellion against ‘ism and schism’. So the Jamaican flag and the reggae sound track of the Saturn ad are both signs of German identification with a ‘cool’ culture.  But why “Murderer”?  I much prefer the ‘get in and get happy’ vibe of the VW Super Bowl ad.

Both ads celebrate German technology.  But the scenes of social chaos in the Saturn ad are problematic. The image of Jamaica is tainted by association with street violence. When the new coffee machine goes on and the only flames are in the street, the voice of authority declares, “The world needs better technology.  Saturn:  that’s what technology should be all about”.  But the ad is not all about that.

Bowing to the demands of literal-minded fanatics, protocol experts, humourless viewers, incompetent readers of signs etc. etc., the electronics company has done the decent thing. It has pulled the ad.  But the flames of dissent have not been entirely doused.  If Saturn doesn’t already do so, it needs to start manufacturing extinguishers.  For all sorts of fire!

 

Superpower Jamaican Accent for the Super Bowl

       images-11Don’t mind the IMF.  Thanks to Volkswagen of America, Inc., we’re been reminded yet again that Jamaica is a cultural superpower.   According to Wikipedia, “A superpower is a state with a dominant position in the international system which has the ability to influence events and its own interests and project power on a worldwide scale to protect those interests”.

       Of course, the meaning of ‘power’ in that definition is, essentially, political, economic and military.   Superpowers are the big guns of the world.  The British Empire in the bad old days of in-your-face colonisation was the first ‘modern’ superpower.  Britannia ruled the waves, captured lands far and wide and now evades reparations.  After all, Britons never, never, never shall be slaves – not even to fundamental principles of natural justice.

cold-war  Eventually, all across the globe, exploited colonies demanded independence and the sun finally set on the British Empire.  The Soviet Union and the United States of America both inherited the superpower mantle and aggressively fought for supremacy in the Cold War.  These days, China, India, Brazil and the European Union are all ready to claim superpower status.

Clearly, Jamaica is not in this big league. We’re not in the ‘Group of Eight’: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia the U.K. and the United States.  We’re not in the ‘Plus Five’:  Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa.  We’re in no group.  We’re in a class by ourselves.

tumblr_m8xebjur1d1qaflnqo1_r1_5003

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson image

Long ago, Marcus Garvey gave us the formula for our greatness:  “God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be.  Follow always that great law.  Let the sky and God be our limit and Eternity our measurement”.

Garvey also wickedly said, “The whole world is run on bluff”.  But he certainly wasn’t bluffing when he conceived the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL).  Garvey had a grand vision of what black people could achieve.  Although he was born on a small island, Garvey was not insular. His consciousness was continental.

Peter Phillips and Miss Mattie

Like Garvey, Louise Bennett celebrated the unlimited potential of the Jamaican people.  In one of her most amusing poems, “Independance” – yes, “dance” – Miss Lou creates a raucous character, Miss Mattie, who gives a most entertaining account of what independence means to her.  It’s not the song and dance of constitutional arrangements.  It’s much more primal:

Mattie seh it mean we facety

Stan up pon we dignity.

An we don’t allow nobody

Fi teck liberty wid we.

 

Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

An she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independant to.

Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips

Miss Lou here wittily suggests that so-called ‘ordinary’ people like Miss Mattie are way ahead of politicians in their understanding of power dynamics.  Perhaps Peter Phillips should ask Miss Mattie to come along to the IMF negotiations.  She would not be afraid of proposing her own conditionalities.

Indeed, Miss Mattie has a rather expansive view of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small,

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!

 

Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean

 

Turning History Upside Down

black_britain   Miss Mattie shows up in another humorous poem by Miss Lou, “Colonization in Reverse”:

What a joyful news, Miss Mattie

Ah feel like me heart gwine burs –

Jamaica people colonizin

Englan in reverse

Taking our cultural “bag an baggage” to the stepmother country, Jamaicans turned history upside down, reversing the flow of influence.

These days, our distinctive Jamaican ‘Patwa’ is the preferred language of youth culture in England.  Last summer, in a moment of deranged grief as the embers of widespread riot died down, the British historian David Starkey lamented the success of Jamaica’s reverse colonisation of England:  “black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together, this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.”

http://http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/13/david-starkey-claims-whites-black

It’s not only England that’s been colonised by Jamaican culture.  It’s the whole world, as Miss Mattie would say.  Which brings us to the VW Super Bowl ad that had 4.6 million hits by Friday morning.

Why does it feature a white man from Minnesota speaking with a stilted Jamaican accent?

http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9H0xPWAtaa8

a)   The man was born in Jamaica, migrated as a ‘yute’ and hasn’t been back in a very long time.  But he tries his best to sound Jamaican.

b)   The man was born in the US to Jamaican parents and has never visited Jamaica.  But he tries his best to sound Jamaican.

c)   The man was born in Minnesota, went to Jamaica on vacation, fell in love with the language and tries his best to sound Jamaican.

d)   The man was born in the U.S., has never been to Jamaica except on the Internet, fell in love with the culture and tries his best to sound Jamaican.

e)   The man is a pretty good actor who was coached by a Jamaican and tried his best to sound Jamaican.

In an excellent interview with Jamaican blogger Corve DaCosta, the star of the VW ad, Erik Nicolaisen, said, “I have been a lifelong reggae fan, and as a voice actor I have tried to put a little patois into my repertoire”.  Jamaican popular music has been a potent medium for spreading our language across the globe. As Miss Mattie confidently asserts, Jamaica is not in the Caribbean Sea; we’re in every ocean of the world.

Adam Stewart

Adam Stewart

As was to be expected, some very clever Jamaicans have produced a brilliant spoof on the VW ad.  It was Adam Stewart’s bright idea.  As CEO of Sandals Resorts International, he knows a thing or two about VWs.  The brand is in the family of companies.  The creative team at Sandals ran with Adam’s idea.  The satirical remake features a happy-go-lucky black man speaking English with a German accent. He dances off-beat and gets everybody in the nightclub to follow suit; he eats jerk chicken with sauerkraut and inspires the jerk man to do the same; he arrives to work seven minutes early and, when he is chided by his boss, cheerfully promises to return in ten minutes.

The Jamaican dub version of the VW ad slyly mocks German efficiency.  It also takes a crack at our own willingness to follow fashion. We often copy others who are copying us.  But since the inspiration for the original ad appears to be the perception that Jamaicans set standards that the whole world can imitate – whether it’s exceptional happiness or inventive language – it’s all in good fun.

The Jamaican presence at the Super Bowl wasn’t just the VW ad.  It was Beyoncé doing the dutty wine, to the invigorating beat of Sean Paul.  And to makes things even more like home, there was that nicely orchestrated power cut!  Jamaica is a superpower. Be happy about it. Yeah, mon!

http://http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xx9m51_beyonce-super-bowl-halftime-show-2013-hd_music?start=81#.UREVG45D70c

 

 

 

 

Honouring Queen Mother Mariamne Samad

Mariamne Samad named herself after a woman who was stoned to death. As a child, she’d read a book of Bible stories which told the tale of Mariamne, the second wife of King Herod. As she remembers it, Herod’s son by his first wife, Doris, accused his stepmother of adultery. Confronted by Herod, Mariamne fearlessly stood her ground, proclaiming her innocence. She was put to death all the same.

Wikipedia gives a much more elaborate version of the story in which men fighting for power used women as pawns. Herod married Mariamne, the niece of his rival Antigonus, “in an attempt to secure a claim to the throne”. He banished his first wife and their three-year-old son. No wonder the boy was ‘carrying feelings’ against his stepmother.

King Herod

To cut a very long story short, Herod was so obsessed with Mariamne’s beauty he gave instructions that if his wife outlived him, she was to be killed. He did not want her to remarry. Naturally, Mariamne was not amused. Once she discovered Herod’s madness, which she certainly did not see as love, she refused to have sex with him. Herod’s mother and sister saw the falling out as opportunity to get rid of Mariamne. They accused her of plotting to poison her husband. She was convicted and executed.

MARCUS GARVEY IN HARLEM

Like her formidable namesake, Queen Mother Mariamne Samad is a fearless woman who has long stood her ground. On the 1st of September, she celebrated her 90th birthday. Earlier that week, we had a very long chat as she related some of the high points of her life. I was amazed at the ease with which she can recall events from more than half a century ago. Her short-term memory is just as intact.

Mariamne Samad, formerly Muriel Allman, was born in Harlem Hospital in 1922 to Alice Allman, née Brooks, and George Allman, a gold miner from Guyana. Her parents met while listening to Marcus Garvey speaking on a street corner in Harlem. Muriel’s parents became ardent Garveyites and raised their daughter in keeping with Garvey’s philosophy and practice of self-reliance.

Muriel met her husband-to-be, Clarence Thomas, when she was only 14 years of age. She was a member of the Garvey Legion and he was a stern leader of the children. Three years later, they were married. As she put it, “Most of my peers went into factory work, but I went into marriage.” Some cynics may not see the difference as clearly as Muriel did.

‘ALL THAT FOREIGN STUFF’

Three months after their marriage, Muriel discovered that Clarence was a Muslim. She was an agnostic, like her father. Clarence wanted them to change their names, but Muriel refused. She didn’t want “all that foreign stuff”. Clarence, to his credit, didn’t insist. By then, he must have realised that Muriel was no walkover. In fact, she was quite feisty.  She once teasingly accused him of being a ‘predator’ for snatching her from the proverbial cradle.

It was a near-death experience that forced Muriel to agree that the whole family should adopt Muslim names. In a case of mistaken identity, their son Teddy was almost murdered by a gang of youth who came looking for another Teddy Thomas. It was a five-year-old boy who persuaded them that they had the wrong Teddy Thomas. Teddy soon became Sayeed.

The imam who was presiding over the renaming ceremony had recommended Maryam for Muriel. But she didn’t like the Mary bit and chose Mariamne instead. And Clarence Thomas became Abdul Samad. Reborn in America, Clarence had been born in Jamaica. In 1965, Mariamne Samad came to see what her husband’s country was all about.

Commodore Hotel

The Samads had been part of the Federation movement in New York. Mariamne remembers meeting Norman Manley at a grand reception at the Commodore hotel on 42nd Street. He touched her Garvey button, which she always wore, and said, “He was a great man.” Surprised, she responded, “What? From you?” To which Manley replied, “I was just doing my job.”

‘NEW BLACK NATION IN THE WEST’

When Independence followed the collapse of the West Indies Federation, Mariamne welcomed the birth of ‘a new black nation in the West’. But Jamaicans weren’t ready to be black. Mariamne’s daughter, Sayeeda, came to Jamaica to take part in the Independence celebrations. She had a Miriam Makeba hairstyle and people just laughed at her. It was Sonny Bradshaw and his Big Band who embraced her, giving her an opportunity to perform with them.

SEs Mariamne Samad’s own mother-in-law, Imogene, was quite upset by her son’s choice of wife. She is alleged to have said, “I don’t mind Clarence marrying an American. But why he has to marry this black one and she don’t have tall hair?”

When she found out what ‘tall’ hair meant, Mariamne was quite unfazed. At the time, she had an Afro, dyed a beautiful rust colour. And she always wore African clothes. In fact, she’s credited for introducing the dashiki as an African-American fashion statement.

Sister Samad has spent most of her life as a Black Power activist. In New York, she established the Sankore Nubian Study School on Garveyism and was frequently invited to teach African history and Garveyism in the New York public-school system.

Now resident in Jamaica for more than three decades, Sister Samad still continues to teach and live Garveyism. During Heritage Week in October 1999, she was installed as Queen Mother in a grand ceremony that acknowledged her role as an exemplary female elder. Much earlier, in the 1970s, she was similarly honoured in Ghana.

Regretfully, Sister Mariamne Samad has long outlived her husband. Unlike Herod, Brother Abdul was not foolish enough to have plotted his wife’s death. He knew better than that. His Mariamne had to stay alive to sustain their life work: honouring the legacy of Marcus Garvey.

Who is Jamaica?

The morning after Emancipation Day, August 1st, I took out my prized Independence commemorative plate from the hand-carved mahogany cabinet in which it’s kept.  It was a gift from the mother of a long-ago boyfriend who, incomprehensibly, complained constantly that she loved me more than him.  Needless to say, he didn’t last.  Gender politics in Jamaica can be quite complicated.

The plate does have a little chip, but it really doesn’t matter.  It’s the spirit of the thing that counts: a little bit of tactile history.  The decorated plate features the Jamaican coat of arms.  On February 3, 1661, Jamaica became the first British colony to receive its own arms.  The Latin motto grandly declaimed: ‘Indus uterque serviet uni’ (Both Indies will serve one).  From East to mythic West, colonial relations of domination were inscribed in heraldry.

1661 Coat of arms

The coat of arms memorializes the Amerindian people of Jamaica.  There is a woman bearing a basket of pineapples and a man holding a bow.  At school we were taught that they were Arawak.  These days, they are Taino.  But the subtle distinction is purely academic.  The native people of Xaymaca, as the island was once called, are extinct. In their culture, the pineapple symbolized hospitality.  Genocide was their reward for the naïve welcome they gave Christopher Columbus.   They survive only in the coat of arms and in the modest museum that is dedicated to their history.

Perched above the Taino man and woman is a crocodile.  This reptile has fared much better than the indigenous people.  Its descendants are still alive.  A popular tourist attraction is the Black River safari which allows foolhardy explorers to get up close and personal with crocodiles.  An ad for the safari promises:  “A smiling crocodile right alongside the boat.  You can touch him if you are brave”.

At Independence in 1962, the national motto, enshrined in the coat of arms, was changed to “Out of many, one people”.  Though this might at first appear to be a vast improvement on the servile Indies, both East and West, the new motto does encode problematic contradictions.  It marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting compulsively that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial.  In actuality, approximately 90% of the population is of African origin; 7% is mixed-race; 3% is European, Chinese and East Indian combined.

It was my high school English teacher, Miss Julie Thorne, who, for me, first interrogated the racial politics of the supposedly unifying motto.  She had come from the United Kingdom to teach on an international   development program much like the Peace Corps.  As an outsider, she could immediately detect the fraudulence of the homogenizing racial myth.  She asked us students a rather cynical question.  “Out of many, one people?  Which one?”

The classic Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, released in 1972, documents the mood of the earlier decade.  Optimistic rural youth migrated to Kingston and the smaller towns, looking for fulfillment of the promise of Independence.

On my commemorative plate, there’s a map of Jamaica which highlights Kingston, Spanish Town, Mandeville, Montego Bay and Port Antonio.  These were the centres of commerce to which ambitious youth gravitated.   Jimmy Cliff, the star of The Harder They Come, sang their hopes:

‘You can get it if you really want,

But you must try, try and try, try and try

You’ll succeed at last’.

Cliff’s lyrics echo a famous 19th century exhortation that has been much spoofed:  “‘Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.  Schoolchildren in Jamaica memorized that gem.  It motivated us to excel.  But ‘it’ often proved elusive, especially for the underclass who had no sustained access to formal education even after Independence.

The Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote an empathetic novel The Children of Sisyphus, published in 1965, which skillfully recounts the uphill battle of those who tried to make it in Kingston, or ‘Killsome’, as Peter Tosh wittily dubbed the city.  The crushing boulders of oppression kept rolling back down.  Trapped in a cycle of repetitive failure, pauperised people struggled, nevertheless, to make meaning out of despair.

Reclaiming ancestral traditions of resistance, the urban poor fashioned new languages of survival.  Reggae music became the heartbeat of a people who refused extinction. In the words of Bob Marley’s “One Drop”:

“Feel it in the one drop

And we still find time to rap

We making a one stop

The generation gap

So feel this drumbeat as it beats within

Playing a rhythm resisting against the system”.

Reggae music filled the gap between reality and expectations. It articulated the philosophy and opinions of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.  The reggae drumbeat evoked Rastafari philosophy and livity, a coinage that is the decided antithesis of levity. With biblical authority, Rastafari claimed the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 as fulfillment of the prophecy recorded in Psalm 68:31:  “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”.

Marley’s conception of reggae as a rhythm of resistance brilliantly traces the lineage of ‘word, sound and power’ that connects African Jamaicans across several generations and to the continent.  The deployment of music as a therapeutic weapon of resistance is a long- established tradition in African Jamaican culture.

The abeng, a wind instrument of West African origin made from cow horn, is preserved in Jamaica by the legendary Maroons who emancipated themselves from enslavement.  In highly tactical wars of resistance, they defeated the British, asserting their right to self-government. The abeng sounded the alarm, protecting the Maroon strongholds from sudden attack.

The relationship of the Maroons to the wider community of African-Jamaicans is complex.  They signed a treaty with the British which demanded that they return belated runaways to plantation slavery.  Betrayal of other blacks was the price of their own freedom.  It is a familiar tale – divide and rule.

But even on the plantations, maroon traditions of resistance took root.  Forced to survive in the very belly of the beast, enslaved

Africans perfected weapons of war from within.  Silent poisoning of their supposed masters was a deadly tool.   And music, the drumbeat of resistance, was a potent language of communication through which those who were forced to simulate accommodation to servitude were empowered to exercise agency.

The word ‘abeng’ is of Twi origin.  This language provided much of the African-derived lexicon of the Jamaican Creole language that is now the mother tongue of most Jamaicans.  Devalued by the elite, the language of the majority speaks to the marginality of African culture in the construction of the nation state.

Conversely, cultural icon Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, has used her heart language to affirm Jamaican identity.  In her humorous poem “Independance”, [sic], which satirizes the song and dance of the elitist project of constitutional decolonization, Bennett creates a vociferous working-class persona, Miss Mattie, who has a rather grand vision of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

Jamaican

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small.

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!

Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean

English 

She hopes they’ve warned the mapmakers

To stop drawing Jamaica so small

Because that little speck

Can’t show our greatness at all!

Moreover we must tell the mapmakers

That we don’t like our position –

Would they be kind enough to take us out of the sea

And relocate us in the ocean

Jamaicans are island people with a continental consciousness.  We remember our origins across oceans of history.  For us, Independence is not just about constitutional rearrangements.  It’s in our blood.  From Miss Mattie’s perspective:

Jamaican

Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

And she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independent to

English

We are independent by nature

That’s how we’ve been born and bred

And she’s happy to see

That the government has now become independent

Elitist and popular conceptions of the Jamaican character finally converge.  Independent is who Jamaica is.

Happy Birthday All The Same, Buju!

It’s Buju Banton’s 39th birthday today and it ‘hurt mi to mi heart’ that he’s behind bars.  Buju should be walking like a champion down Redemption Street.  Instead, he’s trapped in Uncle Sam’s conspiracy to derail his career.  It’s not an easy road he’s been forced to travel.

The Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison certainly understands the difficult path of the Rastaman as he ‘trods’ through creation.  In her poem, “The Road of the Dread”, she declares:

Lorna Goodison

That dey road no pave

like any other black-face road

it no have no definite color

and it fence two side

with live barbwire

And no look fi no milepost

fi measure you walking

and no tek no stone as

dead or familiar

for sometime you pass a ting

you know as . . . call it stone again

and is a snake ready fi squeeze yu

kill yu

or is a dead man tek him

possessions tease yu.

That poem, published in 1980 in Goodison’s first collection, Tamarind Season, uncannily predicts the way in which a snake-in-the-grass squeezed Mark Myrie, teasing him with the possessions of a dead man.  That trip to the warehouse to inspect a boat turned out to be a one-way street to catastrophe.

Spreading propaganda

Brought down by a paid informer, Mark Myrie seems to have carelessly forgotten what Buju Banton knows about the ways in which the political systems of the West work to spread propaganda against the innocent.  In his prophetic pan-Africanist chant, ‘Til I’m Laid to Rest, on the ‘Til Shiloh album, he details his sense of alienation in the Diaspora and his longing for repatriation.

‘Til I’m laid to rest, yes

Always be depress

There’s no life in di West

I know di East is di best

All di propaganda dem spread

Tongues will ha fi confess

Oh I’m in bondage living is a mess

And I’ve got to rise up alleviate the stress

No longer will I expose my weakness

He who seek knowledge begins with humbleness

Work 7 to 7 yet mi still penniless

Fa di food upon mi table Massa God bless

Holler fi di needy an shelterless

Ethiopia await all prince and princess

A decade ago, when ‘Til Shiloh was released, Buju’s bondage was metaphorical.  Today, it’s all too literal. Having foolishly exposed his weakness – running up his mouth with a stranger – Mark Myrie is paying a terrible penalty.  He’s facing the prospect of incarceration for fifteen years.

Myrie could have been given a mere three-year sentence if he had yielded to the temptation of a plea bargain.  But he has resolutely refused to concede guilt.  Some may say he’s foolish to hold out for justice.  But those of us who believe in his innocence completely understand why Mark wants his name cleared.

Stamina Daddy and Mr. Mention

‘Til Shiloh was a decisive turning point in the artist’s stellar career.  It marked his transition from dancehall DJ to roots reggae Rastafari icon.  Buju’s first two albums, Stamina Dadda and Mr. Mention, both released in 1992, are classic dancehall.  Most of the tracks focus on sexual love.  Buju pays respect to the shape and flexibility of the well-endowed woman in tunes like Mampy Size, Bxtty Rider and Love How the Gal Dem Flex.  But it’s not only the woman’s body that Buju admires.  It’s also her intelligence and her capacity to make her way in the world:  “Unu move up inna life no doubt about that”.

The early albums also include the exceptional ‘bad-man’ tunes Gun Unnu Want and Man Fe Dead.  Assuming the persona of the Hollywood gangster, Buju Banton discharges dangerous lyrics with unbelievable bravado: “Di amount a gun wi have wi can’t run outa stock”; and “Gun shot fi bus up inna informer head”.

But there was also the occasional politically charged song that anticipated Buju’s later preoccupation with social justice.  In How the World A Run from the Mr. Mention album, Buju takes up the mantle of the Warner man:

Where food is concerned there is a problem

Uman can’t find food fi gi di children

While di rich man have di chicken back a feed di dog dem

But woe be unto dem

He who rides against poor people shall perish inna di end

Voice of Jamaica, released in 2002, featured even more tunes focusing on social issues: Deportees (Things Change), Operation Ardent and Wicked Act featuring Busta Rhymes.

On tour in France in the 1990s, Buju had a Damascus Road conversion.  At the launch of his Rasta Got Soul album at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Buju told a compelling story of the impact of Burning Spear’s performance:  “Di man deliver such a set dat if dem never call mi right weh, mi just run come back a Jamaica. So mi inna di dressing room now an mi start tink inna mi self, it start come to me, ‘Mark, you’re not ready for this. No, you’re not. Yu lickle Bxtty Rider an yu lickle Love Mi Browning weak. Dis bigger dan you, man.’”

The very next day, Buju turned to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry for a spliff and advice: “Lee, mi waan music, Iyah! Weh mi see di I dem a do, an mi see dem a play, mi cyaan, mi mi waan music, man.” This is how ‘Scratch’ responded: “Heh heh heh heh heh! Yu have to go out and make the music that the people can feel wid a humanistic approach.” The result was the masterful Til Shiloh.

Marcus Garvey

Til I’m Laid to Rest documents Buju’s trod across Africa and his ‘overstanding’ of Marcus Garvey’s vision of African Redemption:

What coulda bad so bout di East?

Everybody want a piece

Africa fi Africans, Marcus Mosiah speak

Unification outnumber defeat

What a day when we walkin down Redemption Street

Banner pon head, Bible inna hand

One an all mek wi trod di promised land

Buju go down a Congo stop inna Shashamane Land

Di city of Harare is where Selassie come from

In Addis Ababa then Botswana

Left Kenya an end up inna Ghana

Oh, what a beauty my eyesight behold

Only Ethiopia protect me from the cold

Keep the faith, Buju!  You’ll soon be walking down Redemption Street again.

Dying To Be Beautiful?

Crazy as it may seem, some supposedly sane people are quite prepared to risk death in order to fit the current model of what it means to be beautiful. Whatever that is. Just think of all of those exploding breast and bottom implants!

This week, the Montego Bay campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Jamaica, raises the provocative question – dying to be beautiful? – at its very first scientific conference on ‘Body Image, Eating Behaviours and Health in the Caribbean’. Pre-conference seminars will be held at the Kingston campus this Wednesday and Thursday. The main event starts on Friday in the Second City.

The ‘Kingston’ and ‘Montego Bay’ campuses of ‘UWI, Jamaica’ exist only in my imagination. The reality is far more wordy and confusing: the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, now has two campuses: the Mona campus in Kingston and the Western Jamaica campus in Montego Bay.

More than six decades ago when the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) was founded as an outpost of the University of London, there was only one campus – at Mona.

Branding UWI, Jamaica

Three more campuses have been established over the years: St Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago; Cave Hill in Barbados; and the Open Campus which hosts 42 sites, both virtual and physical, serving 16 countries across the Creole-Anglophone Caribbean. Since Mona is no longer the only campus in Jamaica, it would make sense to move with the times and change the name.

But sentiment often prevails over good sense. Many graduates of ‘Mona’ would not be happy to hear that their campus no longer existed – in name. All the same, UWI, Mona, really ought to rebrand as UWI, Jamaica, with two campuses – Kingston and Montego Bay. Eventually, there may even be a Mandeville campus! Would that have to be named generically as the ‘Central Jamaica’ campus?

Sam Sharpe Square, Montego Bay

Associating the Jamaican campuses of the University of the West Indies with easily recognised names of cities would actually strengthen the institution’s brand. ‘Kingston’ has much greater global brand recognition than ‘Mona’. And ‘Montego Bay’ definitely has more vibes than ‘Western Jamaica’. But whatever name you call it, the new UWI campus is certainly making a big impact in the west.

Half Moon

Last month, I was the keynote speaker at the End of Year Awards event for the Half Moon resort. The taxi driver who took me back to the airport enthusiastically sang the praises of the Montego Bay campus when he heard I taught at UWI. His granddaughter is a student there. She’s enjoying the challenging academic programme. This, after all, is not a university ‘fi stone dog’. But the thing he valued most was the fact that it was so cost-effective for her to live at home. The family didn’t have to go to all the expense of finding accommodation in Kingston.

‘A man is never ugly’

The UWI, MoBay conference is co-hosted with the Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders and Eating Recovery Center, based in the United States. The centre was established in Philadelphia in 1985 as a residential facility for women suffering from a range of psychological problems disguised as food issues: anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. The centre now has several branches. Dr Jennifer Nardozzi, who practises at the Coconut Creek facility in Florida, is one of the distinguished conference panellists.

Traditionally, men didn’t have problems with body image. They were not expected to be beautiful. Their role was to be breadwinners. They didn’t worry about how much bread they ate. The Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta puts it beautifully in her satirical novel, The Joys of Motherhood: “A woman may be ugly and grow old, but a man is never ugly and never old. He matures with age and is dignified.”

Danny Padilla

These days, men have got on the beauty bandwagon. And they are suffering the consequences. Pumping iron as if it’s going out of style; skin-bleaching, cosmetic surgery. You name it; men are doing it. Nobody seems to be satisfied with the package they’ve inherited. And even after all of the ‘fixing’, some people will never ever be happy with how they look. Beauty is a moving target.

Racist editorial policy

The UWI conference covers a wide range of topics: the ethics and practice of cosmetic surgery; the social, psychological and medical aspects of skin-bleaching; healthy eating and exercise; medical and cultural norms that define body image; skin tattooing and plastic surgery; standards of beauty.

One of the highlights is the panel discussion with local celebrities which focuses on ‘Defining sexy: Fluffy or Skinny Women; Black or Brown Skin (to Bleach or no), Tattoo or no Tattoo?’ Vybz Kartel was invited to be one of the panellists but, of course, he’s now out of circulation. Perhaps he’ll get bail in time for the conference.

I was most amused to see that Novia McDonald-Whyte will be giving a plenary lecture, following a panel on ‘Standards of Beauty’. Her topic is not advertised. I wonder if she’ll be talking about the racist editorial policy of the Observer‘s notorious ‘Page 2′, which usually features almost exclusively ‘high-colour’ socialites.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Independence, we need to question our national motto, ‘Out of Many, One People’? Is Jamaica really a multiracial society? Obviously, not! We are a black-majority nation with a small minority of other racial groups. Our national motto is clearly delusional.

Fabricated by the brown/white elite half a century ago, the motto symbolises the arrogance of those who consider themselves entitled to rule. Disregarding the black majority, the self-centred minority deliberately falsified the truth. They concocted a motto in their own image: ‘Page 2′. No wonder the black in the flag represented ‘hardship’. In the spirit of Marcus Garvey, I propose an emancipated motto: ‘One Aim, One Destiny, Full Freedom’. That should cover just about everybody.

Back Pay For Slavery

The principle of reparations was established long ago in the 1833 Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies.  But there was a catch to the Act.  Not much different in essence from the original sin of catching Africans for enslavement in the Americas.  Reparations were to be made to the perpetrators of human trafficking, not to the victims.

This is how the Act opens:  “Whereas divers Persons are holden [held] in Slavery within divers of His Majesty’s Colonies, and it is just and expedient that all such Persons should be manumitted and set free, and that a reasonable Compensation should be made to the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves for the Loss which they will incur by being deprived of their Right to such Services . . . ;”  etc, etc.

Laura Facey Cooper monument

This is a classic example of the diabolical mindset of ‘wicked white people.’  Slaveholders were legally entitled to the services of their slaves and therefore had a right to ‘reasonable Compensation’ for loss of service.  The enslaved had no such rights or entitlements.  They were freed with nothing in their two long hands; just like that rather sad-looking couple trapped in a basin of water in New Kingston’s ‘Emancipation Park’.

When I talk about ‘wicked white people’ I don’t mean specific individuals who have done me personal wrong. I’m not speaking about singular acts of evil.  It’s a far bigger issue.  What concerns me is the collective crimes against humanity committed by gravalicious people who consider themselves absolutely entitled by God and nature to dominate the world.  In many instances, these self-proclaimed rulers just happen to be white.

Crocodile dance mask from the Torres Strait Islands in a current exhibition at the British Museum

In the age of colonial conquest, ‘wicked white people’ as a special interest group committed crimes of unapologetic horror.  They ravaged  other people’s bodies, souls, lands and histories; they vandalised sacred objects and then locked them away in ‘museums’ – those cemeteries of other people’s culture.  ‘Wicked white people’ invading and stealing, stealing, stealing without conscience.

I know I’m going to be accused of racism for exposing ‘wicked white people’ to public scrutiny in this way.  But that’s just another ploy of ‘wicked white people’ and their collaborators to perpetuate mental slavery.  It’s racism to talk about racist behaviour.  But actual racist behaviour is not racism.  It’s just human nature.  What an irony!

 

Justice versus expediency

So let’s say instead that ‘nice and decent’ white people agreed that it was “just and expedient” to set the enslaved free. But the yoking of justice and expedience in the Act for the Abolition of Slavery reveals the central philosophical and practical dilemma at the heart of the emancipation enterprise.

Justice seemingly puts emancipation on solid moral ground.  Expedience erodes all claims to moral authority.  It was expedient to emancipate enslaved Africans because plantation slavery had become an expensive proposition.  The substitution of beet for cane turned West Indian sugar into a rather sour deal.

After centuries of mostly verbal outrage – incessant talk, talk, talk about ‘wicked white people’ – we, the collective victims of transatlantic slavery, must finally decide to take legal action in the largest class-action suit in the history of the world.  This is a truly wonderful idea. Not the wishy-washy, everyday sense of ‘wonderful’, meaning simply ‘great’; it’s the mind-blowing, original meaning of the word: full of wonder.

Five hundred years after the rape of the body and land of the original inhabitants of this part of the world; five hundred years after the violent uprooting and enslavement of millions of Africans, we, their descendants, both native and immigrant, must lay claim to rights of reparation.

 

In the sweet by and by

For many Africans in the Diaspora, it is in religion that we find hope for reparations.  The Christian religion seems to recommend long-term investment in the celestial stock market. The concept of reparations has best been expressed in pious hymns like this:  “In the sweet by and by I’ll have a mansion so bright and so fair, won’t it be glorious when I get there in the sweet by and by?”  God will repair the breach.  God is the ultimate Human Rights Arbitrator.

Then we have those Africans who want hard cold cash in the here and now.  Think of the title song from the movie The Harder They Come:  “They tell me bout the pie up in the sky waiting for me when I die.  But between the day you born and when you die, they never seem to hear even your cry.  So as long as the sun will shine, I’m gonna get my share, what’s mine.  The harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all.”

That’s an excellent anthem for the Reparations Movement, the Garveyism of our times.  It’s the same kind of daring that made Marcus Garvey conceive the Universal Negro Improvement Association and Communities League:  a global movement of African peoples who see themselves as having a shared history and a common destiny.

And don’t think it’s a joke.  With derisive laughter cynics like to say, ‘when you get the money you can check me.’  But the Jews got compensation from the Germans; Japanese-Americans got compensation for the atrocities committed against them.   Why not Africans? I’d like to know what, exactly, our National Commission on Reparations is doing about it.

If you think that after five hundred years it’s now too late for reparations, just remember Psalm 90:4 in which David, himself a Jew, converses with the Supreme Arbitrator:  “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”  Come to think of it, all we’re really talking about is half a day’s back pay.

Tanya Stephens to lecture at UWI

The Mona campus of the University of the West Indies brings down the curtain on International Women’s Month with a big bang.  On Thursday, March 31, the ‘infallible’ Tanya Stephens will give a public lecture in the Assembly Hall on the topic, “Music, the Power to Shape Societies,” hosted by the Department of Literatures in English.

Ms Stephens is one of the songwriters whose lyrics are studied in the Department’s innovative course, “Reggae Poetry”.   The other prescribed poets this year are Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and Buju Banton.

And, yes, veteran journalist Ian Boyne, I still believe in the innocence of Buju.  My heart is much too heavy for glib opinions on the catastrophic circumstances in which the Gargamel now finds himself.  Many commentators, and even some musicians, are gloating.  ‘Time longer than rope.’

If worst comes to worst and Buju is forced to spend a long, long time in prison, he will have to take comfort in the experience of other great men who learned to turn adversity into opportunity, as in the famous case of Marcus Garvey.

The African Studies Center at the University of California Los Angeles houses an important project with global reach focusing on the papers of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA.  The project director is Professor Robert Hill, a Jamaican academic who has devoted much of his distinguished career to preserving Garvey’s intellectual legacy.

The Center’s website notes that “Garvey met the challenge of imprisonment by applying a significant part of his time to writing. ‘African Fundamentalism,’ perhaps his most famous essay, was published as a Negro World editorial in June 1925 and quickly made its way onto the walls of UNIA members as a manifesto of the philosophy of the Garvey movement.

“Garvey also turned his hand to writing verse, producing and publishing ‘The White Man’s Game – His Vanity Fair,’ a lengthy polemic that he later republished under the title the Tragedy of White Injustice. It is, indeed, tragic that ‘white injustice’ enables unprincipled individuals to make a ‘good’ living in America as informers and entrappers.

‘Room to exercise our minds’

Tanya Stephens’ lecture will challenge stereotypes of dancehall as a “betrayal of reggae; the tragic case of the child doing violence to his mother”, to quote Ian Boyne in full melodramatic mode.  Tanya is a dancehall DJ who knows that verbal creativity is not limited to reggae.

In “Way Back,” she reflects on her own best practice as a dancehall DJ, critiquing sub-standard composers who substitute un/dress for verbal skill:

I wanna take you way back

To when a girl on a mike’s worth

Wasn’t determined by the length of her skirt

I mean way back to creativity before MTV, before BET

Tanya celebrates lyrical prowess:

Let us journey past this melody

Give us room to exercise our minds

Take me to another place, another time,

Better hooks, better rhymes

Stronger lyrics every line,

You could even press rewind

Come with me,

Let us journey past this fallacy.

We have come to expect ‘phalluses’ not ‘fallacies’ in dancehall lyrics.  But this is precisely the dominant fallacy: that dancehall culture is all body and no mind. “Language is the dress of thought” is a famous witticism of the Roman orator Quintillian that was translated into English by the poet Dr. Samuel Johnson.  Some DJs are, indeed, completely naked, lyrically speaking.  Tanya’s thoughts, by contrast, are very well dressed.

In the song “Who is Tanya?” the DJ describes herself as the “gyal weh come fi change di whole game wid a pen.”  Elaborating the image of writing, she adds,  “Well although di mike a mi favourite utensil,/  Still numba 1 wid a numba 2 pencil.”  The humorous interplay of 1 and 2 and ‘utensil’ and ‘pencil’ is characteristic of Tanya’s witty style. The word ‘utensil’ also suggests the DJ’s escape from the trap of domesticity through the power of the pen and the mike.

Women in Reggae

Ibo Cooper

Tanya Stephens’ lecture marks the revival of the brilliant public forums on ‘Women in Reggae’ that used to be hosted by the Reggae Studies Unit at UWI to mark International Women’s month.  The first forum, held almost a decade ago in March 2002, was organised by Mr. Ibo Cooper who was then a research fellow in the Unit.

Judy Mowatt, Cherry Natural, Lady G, Lady Saw, Angie Angel, Queen Ifrica and attorney Sandra Alcott spoke with passion about their experiences in the reggae music industry. Tanya Batson, writing for the Gleaner, reported that “One of the major problems appears to be the ‘commodification’ of women in the industry. Ms. Alcott noted that many women were often pressured to engage in sexual relations with producers in order to make record deals.”

Ms Batson also reported that “[t]he other major problem faced is beauty standards. Ms. Alcott stated that many record producers will not sign female artistes who are above the age of 21 years. This is in keeping with the idea that the female artiste should be ‘sexy’, ‘good-looking’, and ‘young’.

Queen Ifrica

“This is not true of male artistes, who can tie their looks to a part of their act, whether it be a ‘big belly’ or any other feature deemed ugly. Furthermore, she also noted that ideas of female beauty are not in favour of the black woman. ‘Our standards of beauty have for too long been based on Western ideals woven from fantasy,’ Ms. Alcott said.”

Pam Hall, Sabrina Williams, Jana Bent, Shirley McLean, Italee, Crissy D, Ce’Cile, Nadine Sutherland and attorney Diane Jobson have all been speakers at the UWI ‘Women in Reggae’ forums.  Tanya Stephens’ lecture promises to be an eloquent celebration of the creativity of Jamaican women.

Whose Black History Month?

So we’re celebrating Black History Month again. Like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, Black History Month is yet another commodity we’ve imported from the United States. As Saundrie-Kay, a graduate student in history at the University of the West Indies, Mona, puts it so passionately, “From Black History Month start, a pure Martin Luther King mi a si pan my TV, enuh. Mi nah si nuh Marcus Garvey. Mi wanda a wah a gwaan enuh.”

What is ‘gwaaning’ is that it’s much easier for Jamaican society to acknowledge black history at a distance than close up. If we were really serious about excavating our own history, we would start asking ourselves all kinds of difficult questions like, “How come Jamaica’s national motto is ‘Out of Many, One People’?” On the face of it, we’re a nation of black people with a small percentage of ethnic minorities. But not in the eyes of those who conceived the motto.

You see how ‘real-real’ Jamaican black history would get us ‘inna prekeh!’ Certain ‘Out of Many, One’ people might get vexed and start demanding to know if they are not genuine Jamaicans too. Of course, they are. But they are not all that many.

They Came Before Columbus

A single month of black history is certainly not an adequate substitute for what we really need: the integration of black people’s history into the official narratives of the societies in which we find ourselves all across the globe. Indeed, black history is not just for black people. It’s world history.

Many of us still don’t know, for example, that Africans came to the Americas before Columbus. Ivan Van Sertima, a linguist and anthropologist from Guyana, wrote a brilliant book on the subject, which was published in 1976. Its subtitle is ‘The African Presence in Ancient America’. In the introduction, he tells an exciting story:

“I came across three volumes in the private library of a Princeton professor. They had been published half a century ago and their title fascinated me – ‘Africa and the Discovery of the Americas’. They represented a lifetime of dedicated scholarship by Harvard linguist Leo Wiener. Professor Wiener had been working on a grammar of American languages in the early years of this century when he stumbled upon a body of linguistic phenomena that indicated clearly to him the presence of an African and Arabic influence on some medieval Mexican and South American languages before the European contact period.”

‘Whole heap a mix-up mix-up’

But it’s not only academics who contest the myth of European ‘discovery’ of the Americas. The singers and players of instruments also tell their musical version of the truth. This semester, I’m teaching an innovative course, ‘Reggae Poetry’, in which we analyse song lyrics as literary texts.

We go right back to the roots of poetry in song. The word ‘lyric’ comes from the Greek word ‘lyre’, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a stringed instrument of the harp kind, used by the Greeks for accompanying song and recitation”. Over time, the medium became the message and the name of the instrument was transferred to words of song.

One of the songwriters we’re studying is Winston ‘Burning Spear’ Rodney. A recurring theme in his repertoire is revisionist history. In ‘Columbus’, Spear rewrites the grand narrative of European conquest in a few vivid lines:

I and I all I know

I and I all I say

I and I reconsider

I and I see upfully that

Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar

Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar

Ah, yes, Jah, he’s a liar

He say that he is the first one

Who discover Jamaica

I and I say that

What about the Arawak Indians and the few black man

Who were down here, before him?

Burning Spear knows that Africans explored the Americas before Columbus. Having reconsidered the fraudulent colonialist history he’s been taught, Spear comes to this logical conclusion:

“A wat a whole heap a mix-up mix-up

A whole heap a ben-up, ben-up

Go ha fi straighten out!”

Tell-lie-vision

What difference could it make to African-Jamaican children to discover that their ancestors came to the Americas not only as enslaved beasts of burden but as mapmakers, explorers, engineers, architects, linguists, poets – the whole range of human capacities? Could it mean that they would no longer need to bleach their skin, vainly trying to erase the marks of servitude?

Last week, a talented young singer and songwriter, Cen’C Love, launched her first CD, Love Letters. She’s the daughter of Bunny Wailer and Afrocentric fashion designer Millie ‘Sequoia’ David. In the spirit of the black-heart man, Cen’C chants down the lies the media tell our children and she bewails the failure of parents to teach self-love:

Cen'C Love

The girl skin black and pretty ’til she reach sixteen

Find out bout the magic of the bleaching cream

Mama never teach her seh black is power

The system always show her seh black man lower

And the tell-lie-vision – pure light skin and horse hair

So she buy the weave and try fi get her skin more fair

You’re so much more than that.

Black history is so much more than a month of Martin Luther King. In Jamaica, it must mean emancipation from the twisted lies we tell ourselves about our society. And parents can’t leave it to the media to teach the children the truth. Our entire educational system must take on the responsibility of straightening out the ‘ben-up ben-up’ history we have inherited from our colonisers.