My column last week, “Intellectual capital for Caribbean development,” focused largely on the 46th annual conference of the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA). It provoked this response on The Gleaner’s website from Carlton Reynolds: “Where is the intellectual capital? At UWI? Lot of capital wasted at conferences, by intellectuals and government officials, and you are wasting yours on this pursuit of a language that does not exist. We are truly short of intellectual capital, and that is why our country is in such a sorry state.”
Reynolds’ dismissal of our supposedly non-existent Jamaican language is similar to the former devaluation of Palenquero, the language created by the Palenque Maroons of Colombia, which I highlighted in the column. On the issue of the Palenque, I am indebted to Mr Joseph Pereira, former deputy principal of The University of the West Indies, Mona, and a scholar of Latin American culture and literature, for pointing out an error in my column. Palenque is not the first African free village in the Americas, despite the claim on Colombia.co
In approximately 1570, Gaspar Yanga, who was born in Gabon, established a community of Maroons in Mexico. Their treaty with the Spanish colonisers was made in 1630, long before the Colombian Palenque were recognised as free people in 1691. In Brazil, the Palmares Maroons set up a free village in 1605. The Colombian story of being first is a myth. But it’s certainly an enticing tale to promote heritage tourism.
ATTACK FROM BELOW
In the opening panel of the CSA conference, Dr Claire Nelson, a sustainability engineer, and I engaged in conversation on global Caribbean futures, taking into account the history of the region. The layout of the sugar plantation, for example in Jamaica, was designed for the maximum security of the outnumbered whites. Placing the great house on a hill made surveillance relatively easy. But this commanding location did not guarantee social control. There was always the deadly possibility of attack from below. The revolutionary spirit of the Maroons was often manifested in the very belly of the plantation. Subversive strategies were used to resist enslavement such as killing livestock and setting cane fires.
The brilliant Cuban-Jamaican cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter provided the grounding for our conversation. In her 1971 essay, “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Wynter argued that the plantation contained the seeds of its own destruction – the plot: “But from early, the planters gave the slaves plots of land on which to grow food to feed themselves in order to maximize profits. We suggest that this plot system, was, like the novel form in literature terms, the focus of resistance to the market system and market values.”
Following Wynter, Claire and I used the word plot with three distinct meanings: as a secret plan, for example to escape enslavement; as the main events in a literary work; and as a small parcel of land for agriculture. The provision grounds on which enslaved Africans produced food for themselves became the root of an alternative, liberating market economy. Africans, who were conceived as commodities, were able to control the products of their own labour.
In her essay, Wynter quoted the Guatemalan novelist, poet, playwright, journalist and diplomat Miguel Ángel Asturias who won the 1967 Nobel Prize for literature. He defined the clash between plantation and plot as a fundamental conflict between, “… the indigenous peasant who accepts that corn should be sown only as food, and the creole who sows it as a business, burning down forests of precious trees, impoverishing the earth in order to enrich himself.”
Claire and I proposed that, as we attempt to plot Caribbean futures, we must recognise that sustainable agriculture is essential for emancipation from the modern plantations on which we are now economically enslaved. Dependence on loans from international funding agencies is a trap as efficient as iron weights on the neck, hands and feet. Claire, who worked at the Inter-American Development Bank for 30 years, described herself as an indentured worker on the development economics plantation. She used her position there to plot liberation and decolonise the future.
The literary plot is also essential to help us imagine Caribbean futures. Sylvia Wynter wrote a brilliant novel, The Hills of Hebron, which was published in 1962. It tells the story of the New Believers, a religious group rooted in the peasantry. Descendants of enslaved Africans, they are betrayed by Prophet Moses, who “promised them those things that had been lost in their trespass across the seas, across the centuries.” False prophets, like deceptive politicians, are unable to provide truly visionary leadership.
In the six decades since Independence, our creative writers have continued to challenge us to construct a humane future. Diana McCaulay’s apocalyptic novel, Daylight Come, published in 2020 is a warning about the dread consequences of unchecked environmental degradation. The novel is set in 2084 on a fictional island, Bacaju. There, the heat of the sun is so intense that outdoor activities must be done in the relative cool of the night. The day is for sleeping.
McCaulay is one of nine writers who will read from their work on Sunday, June 12 at Ormsby Hall on Victoria Avenue: Jovanté Anderson, Staceyann Chin, Kaleb D’Aguilar, Yashika Graham, Marlon James, Kei Milller, Tanicia Pratt and Roland Watson-Grant. Hosted by PREE, the online literary magazine, the event starts at 2 p.m. and admission is free. In the absence of the Calabash International Literary Festival, this stellar gathering is healing for the soul.
We must plot our own stories. Claire is a global futurist who has written a challenging book, Smart Futures For a Flourishing World. I’m a literary critic and I’ve written two books – Noises In the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture; and Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture At Large. Claire and I ended our conversation with two proverbs. One is traditional: “Old file can’t sharpen new machete.” The other is brand new: “Plantation a plot fi tie wi foot, wi a plot fi run weh an plant fi wi owna future.” We’re certainly not wasting intellectual capital.
Thanks for this informative and insightful post.
An absolute pleasure!
Another great informative article sister, I should read them more often.
I must admit I do not like the idea of formalising the Jamaican language though. I don’t like the idea of some intellectual telling mi ‘ow fi write, speak ar spell in patios. It should be a language controlled and developed by the common people. I think it will lose its fluidity and fluency somewhat if it is boxed/ caged by some Jamaican intellectual.
I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “formalized.” The Jamaican language already has form and structure. And it was developed by the “common people.” What the linguists have done is to study the structure of the language. And one of them, Frederic Cassidy, developed a writing system for the language. But lots of Jamaicans make up their own writing system as seen on social media. The advantage of a formal writing system taught in school is that we would all be on the same page. Cassidy and another linguist Robert LePage listened to how Jamaicans use the language and they both compiled the Dictionary of Jamaican English which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1967. In those days, Jamaican was seen as a regional dialect of English. Since then, Jamaican has been acknowledged as a distinct language. And new words keep on being created. Some of them have even entered English. The language isn’t boxed in because it’s studied. It expands. And it keeps changing to suit the needs of its speakers. But, perhaps, you mean you don’t want Jamaican to be recognised as an official language because you see this as another form of control. But it’s not. It’s about giving respect to the speakers of the language.