Drawing Sister P’s Tongue

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.

Nana Yaa Asantewa

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.

Portia Simpson Miller at the ILO, Geneva

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.

The spirit of emancipation: Isaac Mendes Belisario’s hand-colored lithograph “Queen Maam” (1837-38)

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.


7 thoughts on “Drawing Sister P’s Tongue

  1. Carolyn, it appears you should have been the Campaign consultant/manager. I was also wondering why the campaign manager didn’t use clips of Portia participating in international conferences since her ‘international representation’ seems to be the anxiety of many Jamaicans. I was especially thinking of when Essence Magazine featured her in a 2005 issue as the top 25 women shaping the world. I remember the excitement my sisters and I got from this and to top it off another Jamaican woman, Afua Cooper was also featured among the top 25. I am sure many of those who doubt her abilities and reputation on the world stage are not aware of some of these accolades. Unfortunately, prejudice to the mother tongue and the masked respectability that pervade Jamaican society always tend to take precedent. Loved the article!


  2. On the average most persons see the advertisement with negative implication if you have a feel of the whole scenario one would realize the true dynamics. He expressions can be termed as if she is behaving like a virago but truly in not being cynical. One will realise that it is a fundamental and most natural way of expression by the average Jamaican even those stanch distractor. Portia is a strong woman of African stock whose mode of expression will not make good well and will not be readily received from the average person from the middle or aristocratic class. With the ploy that the opposition JLP has employed can and will almost deceive even the very elect – even those who will play an integral role in ensuring that Sister P is placed back in Gordon House at the helm of the partisan politics in Jamaica. Even the electorates who are going to play crucial and critical part in the new experience for Mama P. In this namecalling election where the JLP seems to have more money in party financing and is making it sound among the constituents in the various constuencies the PNP has to be careful. We as PNP supporters have to be more radical in our various mechanism we use to carry the message of hope to our comrades who are on the edge and are now undecided. The prime focus now is for us to ensure that they decide whom to vote for and now before it too late and they are captured by the others who seeks for them. As such we have to be proactive in monitoring the very persons we consider to be necessary in the cance of the PNP reach back to the top of political arena. It will be apocalyptic if the ruling JLP find themselves back in Gordon House and we allow them to be a pivotal part again in decision making and legislation designing. We will be ending into a cul-de-sac subsequently an irretrievable decadence which will stifle economic growth and prosperity.

  3. Dear Carolyn:
    Another brilliant piece of work. This middle-class prejudice against Portia Simpson Miller irritates me to distraction. And quite frankly, I think some in the party has reinforced it. I see others have recalled her very positive notice in international fora so I won’t bother to recount them here.

    Portia needs to ignore all of them and just be herself. She is an accomplished politician, has great political instincts, moves with ease among people and the mass of our people understand her. Leave that suck tongue G2K bwoy to time.

  4. The more Seiveright and the G2K try to make PSM look bad, the more I for one love her, one bit of advice to her, she should most of the time ignore her detracters especially DS and the G2K…(they) DS and the G2K is a real turn off, and only a very greeeeeen person would support them with their dirty politics. When they lose the election on the 29th one will see the “bangarang” that will start at Belmont Road and will continue for a long time, spreading all over the Island….mark my word.

  5. Congratulations, Jamaica, on a drama free Election Day. I am pleased that voters chose the best person for the job. A wise and strong woman can hold us together as a nation. Mr. Holness, unfortunately, lacks a warrior’s wisdom and would end up pulling us further into a maelstrom of conflict and desolation as a nation. It is time for us as a nation to look beyond our wants and pay attention to our collective needs. Leadership. Future. Prosperity. The only sad outcome of this election is that Lisa Hanna will be photographed again handing out free chicken back from the trunk of her Mercedes.

  6. Pingback: Silencing Women | Myal Weed

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