In her poem “Red Rebel Song,” Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze created a familiar character sounding a lot like her own self:
“I is de red rebel
accepting I madness
declaring I song
nah siddung eena attic
tek no fire bun
I singing it loud
I singing it long
Think seh I done
I jus a come
I I I own rainbow
I I I own song”
On August 4, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze joined the ancestors. She is certainly not done. Death will not silence her song. And her rainbow promise will not fade. Breeze has left a legacy of poems, short stories, scripts for theatre and film as well as numerous recordings of her vibrant performances that will, indeed, endure. Her exceptional body of work confirms her place as a major figure in Caribbean literature. From the sturdy roots of dub poetry, Breeze branched out into other literary genres. But she never forgot the power of performance that is such a fundamental element of dub poetry.
Professor Emeritus Mervyn Morris, Poet Laureate of Jamaica from 2014-2017, recounts in Women Of the Word Breeze’s theatrical control of the non-verbal elements of performance: “Although I’d heard the poem, it was the first time I saw her perform the ‘Mad Woman’s Lament’, ‘Riddym Ravings’. A couple of gestures she made at that time were really astonishing; like a gesture, a sudden gesture for sort of putting the plug back in. It was really alarming you could feel everybody freeze at that moment. Obviously that kind of detail, I think, is very carefully calculated.”
THE MAD WOMAN IN THE ATTIC
Born in Patty Hill, Hanover in 1956, Breeze learned quite early the maddening dynamics of colour and class in rural Jamaica. In an interview with Professor Stewart Brown, himself a poet, Breeze confessed: “[W]hen I started going to primary school in the sixties I was the brown-skin girl with long hair and if my pencil dropped someone would pick it up for me.” By the time Breeze got to Rusea’s High School in Lucea, she fully understood that the deference of an anonymous black ‘someone’ to brown skin was an essential element of the demeaning legacy of colonialism in Jamaica.
It was probably at Rusea’s that Breeze encountered the novel Jane Eyre by the English writer Charlotte Bronte. There she did ‘A’ level Spanish, Geography and Literature. In Bronte’s fiction, the Englishman Edward Rochester goes to Jamaica to marry the heiress Bertha Mason for love of her money. Born in the West Indies, Bertha is Creole and not quite white enough. Treated abominably by Rochester, she succumbs to the madness that, supposedly, runs in her family. She is taken to England where she is imprisoned in Rochester’s attic. Bertha sets fire to the house, Rochester is crippled in the blaze and she dies. In “Red Rebel Song,” Breeze summons the ghost of Bertha in order to distance herself from the suicidal fire in the attic. She is a survivor.
At Rusea’s, Breeze studied not only Geography but the teacher as well, Brian Breese. The learning must have been mutual. They married in 1974. Breeze taught at a secondary school in Hanover and also worked with the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission during her marriage. The Breeses had a son, Gareth, who would captain both the Jamaica cricket team and the West Indies Under-19. He’s now a coach for the England Women’s Cricket Team. The couple separated in 1978. Breeze would later birth two daughters: Imega, Executive Director of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica; and Caribe, UK Head of Digital Marketing at PortfolioMetrix.
Breeze moved to Kingston and enrolled in what was then the Jamaica School of Art to study Drama. She became part of the emerging dub poetry movement. Her evocative stage name, Breeze, was a lasting gift from her marriage. After a year at Drama school, she retreated to the hills of Clarendon, having sighted Rastafari. Chanting down systems of oppression is a recurring theme In Breeze’s body of work.
In the short story “Cousin Eva,” Breeze passed judgment on the political elite who have failed to fulfill the useless promise of both Emancipation and Independence: “All through her tears, she thought of Independence Day, the excitement in the village, and all the school children marching along the road with their new flags and the mugs that had been handed out with the emblem on the side. She still had hers, unused, in the cabinet. She had thought then that all the people without land would have been given a small piece and a title because, surely, independence meant owning your own land, but no, that didn’t happen, and so she prayed again.”
The poet Linton Kwesi Johnson recognised the revolutionary consciousness in Breeze’s “very carefully calculated” performance of her brilliant poetry. He invited her to participate in the 1985 International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books in London. Breeze took the festival by storm, launching a stellar career in the UK as a creative writer, actress, lecturer and recording artiste. But she always wanted to come back home for good.
Breeze’s short story “Return” seems transparently autobiographical: “Somehow, before too many years dreamed by, she was going to find a way home, own a little piece of land with trees and flowers she had planted, build a house where she could live and work. This island couldn’t give birth to her, to the voices she heard inside her head, and then tell her to stillborn them. Sometimes she could feel them, rusting in her chest and sometimes, in rarer moments, she could spit out a pearl, shined up, from hugging herself too tight. But she knew something was dying, slowly, in the cold.”
Breeze did come back to live in Jamaica. And even though the dreams of her fictional self did not entirely come true, she was at peace in the warmth of her island home. Exactly one week before she died, Breeze called to give me her new phone number. And she told me, matter-of-factly, that she’d recently had a nervous breakdown. I wasn’t alarmed. Breeze’s head had a way of tekin her. And she sounded so bright and full of life.
It was Theseus in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream who mockingly asserted, “The lunatic, the lover and the poet/ Are of Imagination all compact.” In this context, ‘compact’ means joined together. Breeze was a lover and a poet with an extraordinary imagination. She was most certainly not a lunatic even though she did hear voices in her head. Refusing to ‘stillborn’ this insistent chorus, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze released her songs to the world. They will resonate for generations to come.
As someone who knew Jean Lumsden ‘Binta’ Breeze from about 1970. I must say I am truly taken aback and saddened by her untimely passing. I knew she is going to be as a mystic in death as she was in life. She was a fun-loving youngster who knows the genuine nuances of life and pity, not those who are irresponsible. A caring human being who sees the oppressed as a part of her responsibility to preserve their rights and freedom. You have left us so early and you started life pretty early as well because she passed the Common Entrance Examination at age nine (9). She worked her way in school to become the head girl in the academic year 1972-73. Jean is a very revered member of her alma mater Rusea’s High School and almost everybody during different eras can attest to her grand and unique legacy. For as long as I can recall she has been writing poems to protect the most vulnerable within our midst. I recall when in 1980 when there was a campaign to lessen the number of children in Jamaica she wrote “panther and pearl can’t save your soul you’ve got to have a little self-control.” Binta was a dynamic practitioner of the art and was no loose cannon as some might think. She was also a distinguished member of the British empire.
Reblogged this on Petchary's Blog and commented:
I recently wrote an obituary for Jean Binta Breeze for Global Voices, wiping away a tear or two as I wrote. I saw her in performance more than once, in London, and it was an emotional experience for me (perhaps because I have also had mental health issues in my life, and still fight those battles). I very much enjoyed this post by Professor Carolyn Cooper… The reference to “Jane Eyre” resonates with me – it was my favorite book as I was growing up and still right at the top of my list. There are some powerful connections here. Thank you Prof for this very touching tribute.
I’ve only ever seen Jean Binta Breeze perform once at London’s Southbank, but it was a performance that I’ve never forgotten and I love her poetry. Thirty plus years after I had listened and watched her performance, the day I learnt of her death, I was able to recall her amazing voice in my head.
Thank you Dr Carolyn Cooper for your eloquent and beautiful tribute to Joan BB. Also enjoyed the reference to Jayne Eyre and particularly the heroic spin for Bertha. A brilliant novel, but a reminder that it is also a pretty dark book which actually highlights slavery, colonialism, imperialism and the perception and treatment of women during episodes of compromised mental health. With Jean BB maybe we are reminded that there is sometimes no dualism between what is language as madness and genius.
Yes, Jean BB definitely had a lot to shout out about on behalf of women and humanity. The power of her words will continue to influence generations to come. Peace always.
Nuff thanks for your appreciative response! I tried my best to tell Breeze’s complex truth.