“Don’t draw my tongue! And don’t trouble this girl! Because I don’t fraid a no man, no gyal, nowhere!” Translated into English, Portia Simpson Miller’s infamous declaration sounds rather tame: “Don’t provoke me! And don’t antagonise me! Because I’m not afraid of any man or any woman anywhere!’
That’s the power of the Jamaican language. It gets you in the gut. And in the head! On top of that, body language amplifies the meaning of words. So Sister P repeatedly beats her chest, vigorously waves her right hand emphatically shakes her head from side to side. She pulls out all the stops. After all, she’s at a People’s National Party (PNP) political rally, not an election debate.
Incidentally, the English expression ‘pulling out all the stops’ comes from the language of the pipe organ. As a former organist at the North Street Seventh-day Adventist Church, I do know a thing or two about this musical instrument. Pipe organs have stops that control the flow of air through the pipes. Pulling out the stops literally pumps up the volume.
Sister P effectively uses her organ of speech to show her supporters (and detractors) that she’s a militant woman in the tradition of Nanny of the Maroons and a whole host of African warrior women like Queen Nzinga of Angola and Nana Yaa Asentewaa of Ghana. Nzinga led a relentless war against Portuguese slave traders in the 17th century.
Much later, Yaa Asentewaa rose up as commander of the Ashanti army in the famous battle against British colonialism in 1900, known as the War of the Golden Stool. The covetous British predators held up the Ashanti people at gunpoint, demanding that they hand over the golden stool, the symbol of the sovereignty of the nation. The Ashanti refused, and war ensued. Yaa Asentewaa defeated the British, reclaiming independence for her people.
‘Tun down di ting’
In the 2007 election campaign, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) attempted to draw Portia Simpson Miller’s tongue by provocatively distorting her battle cry. Her fierce words became the mouthpiece, so to speak, of the JLP advertising campaign. I suppose it was easier to knock down Portia Simpson Miller than to prop up Bruce Golding.
Sister P’s image was digitally ‘enhanced’ to make the then prime minister look as if she was stark staring mad. The commercial worked beautifully. Even hard-core PNP supporters were duped by the dishonest JLP advertisement which appealed to rank class prejudice. Portia Simpson Miller’s fearless use of the Jamaican language and her fiery disposition turned her into a virago. She was obviously disqualified to be prime minister since she could not represent Jamaica with dignity on the world stage.
I’m surprised that the PNP did not counter that fraudulent depiction of Portia Simpson Miller with compelling images of her commanding presence at global meetings, such as those of the International Labour Organisation, and other transnational forums at which she often receives standing ovations for her stirring speeches.
Just before the 2007 election, I had an amusing conversation at the Papine Market with a middle-class woman who introduced herself as a long-standing member of the PNP. She confessed that she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Sister P. She feared that Mrs Simpson Miller would ‘throw her frock tail over her head’.
I laughingly pointed out the fact that Sister P’s elegantly tailored suits could not go over her head. But, of course, this conflicted woman was speaking metaphorically. In the middle of the Dudus-Manatt debacle, she rather sheepishly made another confession. She was so ashamed that she hadn’t voted for Sister P.
In 2011, the JLP has again resorted to drawing Sister P’s tongue. G2K is desperately trying to revive that discredited commercial. Portia Simpson Miller’s powerful words are misinterpreted as evidence that she needs ‘anger management’. A mocking female chastises her: “No sah! Self-control, Sister P. Tun down di ting, yu behaviour too loud.” Too loud in comparison to what? I suppose the 13 pretty ladies surrounding Andrew Holness.
Voting for the dead
Cynics like to say that most politicians are dead from the neck up. And, in Jamaica, duppies have a way of rising from the grave and voting in elections. But voting for the dead is not only about corrupt politicians and corrupted voting lists. I always vote in honour of my disenfranchised ancestors who never ever got the chance to have a say in who should ‘run tings’ in this country.
For more than three centuries, enslaved Jamaicans could not vote. In 1834 when slavery was abolished, black people became entitled to vote – in theory. In practice, it wasn’t that easy. The right to vote was tied to property ownership. If you couldn’t afford to vote, you had no voice. You definitely had to ‘tun down di ting’.
These days we take the right to vote for granted. So much so that some of us can’t even bother to exercise that right. We assume that if we don’t vote, we can’t be held responsible for the mess politicians usually make. But non-voters actually end up electing candidates by default. By doing nothing, they choose to vote for whoever wins. It’s as simple as that.
Furthermore, the precious right to vote is a great social leveller. As Louise Bennett put it so pointedly in her poem, Revelation:
Everybody got a vote, an
Every vote gwine swell de score;
Missa Issa, Missa Hanna
An de man wat sweep de store.
This week, as Jamaicans of all social classes go to the polls to elect a prime minister, we are faced with a choice between a self-confident woman and a self-satisfied man. And there’s a world of difference between the two. But don’t draw my tongue.