‘Leggo Beast’ Tamed At School

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On May 30, three male teachers at Vauxhall High School allegedly held down a schoolboy against his will and forcibly assaulted him. No, it was not sexual exploitation. But it was certainly a demeaning abuse of power. The adults violently cut the child’s hair while he kicked and screamed in protest.  Why did these authority figures feel entitled to act in this shameful way?

I suppose they had determined that the student was a ‘leggo beast’ and it was their duty to tame him. But it is their own behaviour that is beastly. No adult should ever turn a child into an animal by robbing him of his dignity. Especially over a hairstyle!

Vauxhall High School has a dress policy that includes strict rules about how boys’ hair must be groomed. I gather that hair must be the same length all over the head. So no funky hairstyles are allowed. In addition, hair can’t be more than two inches high.

How did the powers that be arrive at that arbitrary figure? Why would another inch of hair not be acceptable? This regulation seems to be a direct attack on black hair, which grows up and out, not straight down. Is the two-inch rule equally applied to all kinds of hair?

BORN TROUBLEMAKER

I haven’t had a chance to talk to the student who was attacked by the very people who should have been protecting him at school. I would have liked to ask him what his hairstyle meant to him. I’m not assuming he has a grand philosophical reason for wanting his hair to grow past the two-inch limit.

Perhaps, the student was just plain unruly. I was told that he’s a bleacher and wears tight pants. As if those are clear signs that he’s a born troublemaker! But why did this young man feel so passionately about his hairstyle that he had to break the rules? I guess he’s a stylist for whom image is important. Why shouldn’t he be able to express his sense of style at school?

creative_hands_edit-960x480Students whose creativity is highly developed are inclined to be unruly. They are also likely to become the filmmakers, musicians, fashion designers, hair stylists, entertainment lawyers, etc, of the future. They need special care, not abuse. I think all high schools should identify creative students who can be allowed some freedom of expression.

Dress codes, for example, could be flexibly applied to these students. It is pure folly to cling to the superstition that wearing a school uniform and following all the grooming rules will guarantee academic achievement. In fact, all students could be allowed to dress casually one day per month. It just might enhance creativity.

SCHOOLS FOR THE ARTS

We keep talking about the creative industries as an essential component of economic development. But we don’t seem to understand that we have to nurture creativity. School should not be an institution that forces all students to fit into the same mould. There should be room for individuality.

It’s time for the Ministry of Education to establish schools for the arts that would allow creative students to learn in an environment that suits their temperament. There should be at least one school in each parish that would produce talented students, ready to contribute to national development through the creative industries.

Last Friday, I was fortunate to see the University Players’ brilliant production, ‘Garvey the Musical, Roots Reggae Rock’, written and directed by Michael Holgate. It was a special performance for students from Brooklyn College and The Queen’s School.

 

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Holgate, who is tutor-coordinator at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, writes a mythic story. Garvey comes back to life and is alarmed to realise that black people still have deep-rooted issues with identity. Skin colour remains a perplexing issue as young black people say they hate black skin.

One of the most intriguing characters is Jonathan, who refuses to answer to that name. He prefers to be called Scrubs, for obvious reasons. He’s a committed bleacher and a DJ who is dying to ‘buss’ like his idol Vybz Kartel. And, by the way, I keep making the point that if there had been a recording studio at Calabar and if deejaying had been on the music curriculum, Adidja Palmer might not now be imprisoned in the role of Vybz Kartel. Instead of ‘sculling’ school to go to studio, he might have gone to university as well.

The conversations between Garvey and Scrubs are most entertaining. When Scrubs hears the story of Garvey’s two wives who were once best friends, he calls the national hero a “gyallis”. It’s a struggle for Scrubs to understand Garvey’s assertion of an ‘African’ identity. As a youth in Jamaica, Scrubs knows that Africa is a continent of shame. Eventually, he comes to understand Garvey’s message of race pride with the help of the ancestors.

Frederic Aurelien, a freshman student at Brooklyn College, told me that Garvey’s Pan-African vision was still relevant for Americans. And Amelia Smith, a grade nine student at Queen’s, said that Garvey’s message was applicable to her today. This inspiring play should tour the country as one of the premier events for Jamaica 55. And Garvey’s empowering message must again resound across the world: “Up, you mighty race, accomplish what you will!”

Time for Jamaican Language Day

On Easter Monday, I went to a party for one of my friends who recently retired from banking. There was a very high concentration of former NCB managers. They exchanged entertaining stories about the early days when black people started to break through the glass ceiling of upper management at the old imperial Barclays Bank.

After much liquor had flowed, one of the men cornered me. This was not a sexual advance. It was purely academic. He wanted to discuss a subject on which he was sure we disagreed. I knew what was coming. Sure enough, he wanted to know why I was against Jamaican children learning English; and why I was proposing that Patwa be used as a language of instruction in school. He proudly told me that his daughter was fluent in several languages and was teaching English in Japan. He even phoned her and we had a quick chat.

I asked my interrogator why he thought I didn’t want Jamaican children to learn English. He couldn’t give a straight answer. He vaguely said that’s what he’d picked up from the media. And he simply didn’t understand my position, especially since he knew I had a PhD in English. As far as he was concerned, I was either wicked or mad. Wicked because I was selfishly knocking down the ladder I had climbed. I didn’t want others to get the opportunities I’d had. Or I was mad because I wanted to lock Jamaican children out of the world of English, a global language, and imprison them in a local language, Jamaican.

WASTE OF TIME

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The fact that I’ve been teaching English for more than 40 years didn’t matter. So I patiently explained that I actually do want all Jamaican children to learn English. And other languages as well! I also want them to learn the differences between English and Jamaican. And that’s where the trouble starts.

For many educated Jamaicans, Patwa is not a language. It’s nothing but ‘broken’ English. Calling this non-language ‘Jamaican’ is pure foolishness. Teaching children the differences between Jamaican and English is a waste of time. Just focus on teaching them English! Forget about their home language! That’s how we’ve been teaching English for decades and it certainly has not been working. There are many tertiary-level students who are not competent in English.

Shouldn’t we be trying other methods if we really want all of our children to learn English? A few years ago, I taught a basic English course for staff at one of our commercial banks. I carefully pointed out differences between the grammar of English and Jamaican. At the end of one of the classes, an attentive man asked, “Why nobody never teach us like this before?” Perhaps, because the Ministry of Education is satisfied with the status quo.

HIT OR MISS

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Last Sunday, a group of us went to Cable Hut Beach. It’s no Pearly Beach. The sand is black, like the patrons. And it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get in: only $200 for adults and $100 for children. The property is being refurbished and the restaurant building is not completed. It’s a beautiful, grand hut with a magnificent view out to sea.

So we went to Corn Shop at Nine Miles where we got delicious roast fish and sprat. I am not putting no ‘ed’ on ‘roast’. It’s Jamaican! As we were ordering our food, a nice gentleman started up a conversation. Same story: Why aren’t Jamaican children learning English these days? Is it because of all this emphasis on Patwa?

He learned English the painful way. English grammar was drilled into him. For many Jamaicans of a certain age, John Nesfield’s Manual of English Grammar and Composition, first published in London in 1898, was the bible that opened the pearly gates into high society. It was widely used both in England and the colonies.

Things and times have certainly changed. Even in England, there are now huge debates about the effectiveness of teaching old-school grammar. One of the problems is that many teachers of English there have not learned the grammar of the language in a systematic way. So their teaching is hit or miss.

Most of our primary-school English teachers have an even harder time. English is their second language, not their first. They don’t know it intuitively. And many of them have not been efficiently taught the structure of English. Their teaching of the language is more miss than hit. And we’re surprised that students are not learning English.

CULTURAL DIVERSITY

Celebrating-Language-UN-English-Language-DayLast Sunday, April 23, was United Nations (UN) English Language Day. The UN website states that Language Days were established in 2010 “to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity, as well as to promote equal use of all six official languages”. These are, in alphabetical order, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

April 23 was chosen for English because it’s both the birthday and deathday of William Shakespeare, England’s most celebrated dramatist. Conspiracy theorists claim that he didn’t write all those plays. All the same, these long-lasting literary works demonstrate the beauty and power of the English language.

Every country has its own great writers. In the spirit of cultural diversity, let’s make September 7 Jamaican Language Day. It’s Louise Bennett-Coverley’s birthday. As she would say, “Every dog got im day an every puss im 4 o’clock.”

Derek Walcott’s loose tongue

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In 1970, Derek Walcott wrote a philosophical introduction to a collection of his plays. The title of the essay, What The Twilight Says: An Overture, is intriguing. There, Walcott recalls his youthful days in St Lucia learning the craft of writing in the 1940s.

“I sighed up a continent of envy when I studied English literature, yet, when I tried to talk as I wrote, my voice sounded affected or too raw. The tongue became burdened, like an ass trying to shift its load. I was taught to trim my tongue as a particular tool which could as easily have been ordered from England as an awl or a chisel … .”

Theatrically, Walcott puts on the mask of a young man struggling to find his tongue – both voice and language. But the accomplished poet is no longer tongue-tied. The mature Walcott demonstrates his complete mastery of the language of English literature, both sound and substance. The ironic tension between what is recalled – the raw tongue – and how it is called to mind – the images tripping off the tongue – that is the pleasure of Walcott’s craft.

‘FAR ABOVE ITS SUBJECTS’

In What The Twilight Says, Walcott gives a frank account of his lifelong quest to fashion a literary language that sounded like his natural speaking voice. He confesses his alienation from the very subjects of his poetry, his own St Lucian people: ” . . . The voice of the inner language was reflective and mannered, as far above its subjects as that sun which would never set until its twilight became a metaphor for the withdrawal of Empire and the beginning of our doubt.”

tight_knotsThat’s quite a tight knot of images. Hear how I unravel it: the “inner language” of Walcott’s poetry is like an absentee landlord distantly imposing authority on its subjects. In the very act of “reflective and mannered” writing about his people – his subjects – the poet assumes the imperious pose of coloniser.

But Walcott is also forced to subject himself to the demands of the language of empire. Language is the medium of ideology. It summons the ghosts of the past. As an agent of literary domination of his own people, the poet himself becomes implicated in the imperial enterprise.

ASININE FICTIONS

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The setting sun of empire does not automatically allow the Caribbean intellectual to find his tongue. The poet as colonial subject often becomes the victim of self-doubt. Can he speak for himself? Is he ready to play the lead role in the drama of his own life? Or must he continue to inhabit the asinine fictions of congenital inferiority?

By contrast, the vast majority of Caribbean people have no such anxieties. They simply refuse to trim their tongue. Walcott’s St Lucian subjects and their confident cousins across the region are, quite often, well aware of the distance between the patriarchal language of empire and their nurturing mother tongues.

As our own Jamaican poet and public intellectual Mutabaruka so wickedly observes, “The language we talk we can’t write; and the language we write we can’t talk.” Mutabaruka speaks to the compounded failure of the educational system in Jamaica to a) teach literacy in the mother tongue, Jamaican; and b) ensure that all students can, in fact, competently speak the official language of literacy, English.

A SEDUCTIVE MISTRESS

Spellbound by the English literary tradition, the youthful Walcott is, at first, unable to loosen his tongue. Eventually, he stops playing the ass. He finds another language to express the full range of his artistic sensibility. Walcott writes about this discovery in the third person:

“On the verandah, with his back to the street, he began marathon poems on Greek heroes which ran out of breath, lute songs, heroic tragedies, but these rhythms, the Salvation Army parodies, the Devil’s Christmas songs, and the rhythms of the street itself were entering the pulse-beat of the wrist.”

The theatre of the street is a seductive mistress who lures the poet from his more respectable muse. Or, at the very least, forces the muse at home to dance to a different beat. Pure slackness! And that potent image of rhythms in the wrist confirms the value of literacy as a medium for transmitting and transforming oral knowledge.

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The imported tools of empire made the young Walcott envious, alienating him from his own culture. He would later claim both English and his own St Lucian Creole as intimate languages to voice his distinctive Caribbean identity. Derek Walcott has written 24 volumes of poetry, 25 plays and several other books. He has received numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for literature. His tongue and wrist became very loose indeed.

Derek Walcott is the most celebrated creative writer to have studied in the Department of Literatures in English (formerly, just English) at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Generations of poets, playwrights and novelists were cultivated in that department. It’s a roll call of distinction.

Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris, Slade Hopkinson, Jean D’Costa, Velma Pollard, Dennis Scott, Rachael Manley, Wayne Brown, Rawle Gibbons, Kendel Hippolyte, Robert Lee, Merle Collins, Kwame Dawes, Curdella Forbes, David Heron, Marlon James, Tanya Shirley, Ishion Hutchinson, Kei Miller, Joanne Hillhouse, Ann-Margaret Lim and so many more! The poet/dramatist is dead. Long live poetry, drama, fiction and all the arts!

What’s up at the National Gallery?

Last Sunday, the main exhibition of the Jamaica Biennial opened at the National Gallery downtown Kingston. It was a grand affair, attracting an unusually large crowd of enthusiastic patrons. There are also exhibitions at Devon House and the National Gallery West.

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Devon House, First Home of the National Gallery of Jamaica

The Biennial has four levels of exhibits, as outlined in the beautifully produced catalogue: six special projects by invited international artists; two tribute exhibitions honouring Alexander Cooper and Peter Dean Rickards; elite invited artists; the juried section.

Why are some artists automatically given a free pass into the Biennial? And so many of them! Thirty-four invited artists entered 61 pieces. One hundred and ten artists submitted entries to be judged. Forty-nine were accepted with a total of 66 entries. If both the invited and juried artists had been restricted to one entry each, at least 44 additional juried entries might have been included.

Dr Veerle Poupeye, executive director of the National Gallery, addresses this contentious issue in her insightful ‘Introduction’ to the catalogue: “By far, the most vexing question has been whether the invited artists system should be retained, or whether the Biennial should become a fully juried or curated exhibition instead. As is to be expected, many invited artists would not like to lose their status, but others in the artistic community feel that this perpetuates undesirable hierarchies and also makes it difficult to give curatorial cohesion to the exhibition.”

‘PRACTICAL FEASIBILITY’?

In email correspondence with me, Dr Poupeye confirmed that one of the criteria used to select entries in the juried section is “practical feasibility, for instance with regards to size”. Why is this criterion selectively applied to the juried section and not to invited artists?

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Fosuwa Andoh, Visual Griot

Which brings me to that hell of a drum made by invited artist Laura Facey, in collaboration with the unacknowledged international African artist Fosuwa Andoh, visual griot. Fosuwa is a textile artist and ceramic/glass crafter who came to Jamaica to direct a Prince’s School of Traditional Arts project. She established a successful pottery workshop in Rose Town. Fosuwa provided technical advice for curing the cowskin and she attached it to the body of the drum. Without her input, the artwork would be nothing but dead wood. And you know how unfulfilling that can be!

Decorated in the red, white and blue of imperial flags, Facey’s drum seems to embody colonialist fantasies: “I made the drum so that we may talk to our ancestors and bring more peace and reconciliation into our lives.” But the scale of the drum is far beyond human proportions. Our African ancestors would not recognise it as an instrument of communication. This monstrous drum has shock value, and that’s about it.

And it was quite a production to get the drum into the Gallery. According to a Gleaner article published two Sundays ago, “The two sections of the entrance door were completely removed”. In addition, “a glass partition, mounted on a concrete wall, and which separates the lobby from the drum’s temporary resting spot, also had to be taken out”. How practical and feasible was that?

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Then, “with the effort of 37 Jamaica Defence Force soldiers, the drum was slowly brought into the space. The lifting and pushing of the drum itself brought some entertainment to onlookers as the instructor raised and lowered his voice, army-style, in giving directions to the able-bodied men”. Was this regular JDF work? Or was it a roast?

The 30-foot drum sounds much smaller in metres: only 9.144. But, however you measure it, that’s a lot of space in a relatively small gallery. The drum dominates the main exhibition hall, leaving little room to view the exhibits on the adjacent walls. How many more juried entries might have been able to fit in that space, I wonder?  And Ms Facey has two more pieces in the exhibition at Devon House!

DIGITAL JAMAICA EXHIBITION

As soon as I stepped into the main gallery, a well-known artist said I looked like a work of art and I should just stand there and let people walk around me. I had a good laugh. This was my cue. I gleefully told her I was making a subversive fashion statement.

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Images of the work of one of my favourite artists were printed on my dress – thanks to graphic designer Rodane Gordon at Hot Off The Press who did an excellent job! The artist had submitted two entries to the Biennial and both had been rejected. But I made sure the beautiful work was at the exhibition, if not in it. The artist I was chatting with completely understood my visual statement. Her work had also been rejected.

I’ve decided to curate a Digital Jamaica Exhibition. I’m inviting the 61 artists whose work was rejected by the Biennial jury. I also welcome those artists who were not included in the invited category. Well, I’m not actually curating. It’s an open-entry exhibition. Whosoever will may come. I’ll let the viewers decide on the value of the work.

I’ve secured the services of an internationally recognised art blogger who will design the website. I know some of the rejected artists may not want to appear in the ‘Fringe Biennial’ for fear of never ever being accepted in the ‘real’ one. A pity! Those artists who do want to participate can contact me for details at the email below. When one door is closed, many more are open.

From Stony Gut To Big Gut

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Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson poster

August 12 was the 150th anniversary of Paul Bogle’s long march from Stony Gut to Spanish Town. Forty-five miles! Bogle led a delegation to King’s House, located then in the Old Capital. He wanted to meet with Governor Eyre to make his case on behalf of the suffering people of St Thomas. It was a mere 31 years after the declaration of Emancipation. And the legacy of enslavement was bitter.

Black people were free in theory. But, in fact, we were still imprisoned in the old, exploitative colonial system. Whites firmly held on to power, manipulating politics to suit themselves. Blacks could vote; but only if we could afford to pay the criminally high poll tax. In the 1864 elections, not even 2,000 of the 436,000 black people could afford to vote!

Nature also conspired against poor people. Cholera and smallpox ravaged Jamaica. In 1865, the effects of a two-year drought made matters worse. Work became scarce as several plantations went bankrupt. Economic prospects for black people were grim. There were rumours that we were going to be enslaved again.

I suppose Paul Bogle wished to discuss all of this with the governor. But Eyre refused to see him. He was a man with a very hard heart and too much power. Eyre’s father was a clergyman, which just goes to show that a religious upbringing is no guarantee of basic decency.

Eyre became governor of Jamaica in 1862 and seems to have had nothing but contempt for the ‘natives’. George William Gordon, a brown Jamaican who defended the rights of the black majority, enraged Eyre with his outspoken condemnation of the governor’s racist policies.

‘ADDING PRUDENCE TO INDUSTRY’

Before Bogle tried to meet with Eyre, a group of concerned citizens from St Ann had sent a letter to Queen Victoria, routed through the governor. They wanted to rent Crown lands at an affordable cost. Missis Queen sent a malicious response. Eyre gleefully made 50,000 copies, which he distributed far and wide. It was even read in church.

evil_smiley_face_round_stickers-ra5e82c3af3944768995f28c88eb804a7_v9waf_8byvr_324Here’s an excerpt: “… The prosperity of the Labouring Classes, as well as of all other classes, depends, in Jamaica, and in other Countries, upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly, or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted, and for so long as it is wanted; and if they would use this industry, and thereby render the Plantations productive, they would enable the Planters to pay them higher Wages for the same hours of work than are received by the best Field Labourers in this country; and as the cost of the necessaries of life is much less in Jamaica than it is here, they would be enabled, by adding prudence to industry to lay by an ample provision for seasons of drought and dearth; and they may be assured, that it is from their own industry and prudence, in availing themselves of the means of prospering that are before them, and not from any such schemes as have been suggested to them, that they must look for an improvement in their condition; and that her Majesty will regard with interest and satisfaction their advancement through their own merits and efforts.”

In other words: Unu fi work out unu soul case fi next to nutten; an gwaan tek di lickle monkey money weh di planter dem a pay; so di planter dem can mek plenty money an gi unu back lickle bit. An unu fi band unu belly an save some a di lickle money fi when trouble tek unu; because tings inna Jamaica no cost so much like inna England; an stop bodder-bodder mi bout gi unu Crown land fi rent. An mi wi well glad fi see how unu a go mek it pon unu own.

GUT GUIDELINES

Fast-forward to the 21st century and this sounds a lot like what Mme Christine Lagarde might say to Minister Peter Phillips if im was to lost im pass go aks her fi gi wi a ease up wid di whole heap a money wi owe IMF. Austerity is the name of the game.

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Sir Patrick greets St. Thomas delegation. From left are Professor Neville Ying, Dorette Abrahams, Norma Brown-Bell, Loriann Peart-Roberts, and Mayor of Morant Bay Ludlow Mathison.

Paul Bogle died for the cause of black empowerment. So did George William Gordon. How many of our politicians today, whether PNP or JLP, would put their lives on the line for their constituency? How many would walk 45 miles to make a case on our behalf? How many of them could walk 45 miles? Or even 4.5 miles?

Quite a few of our politicians are so fat they just couldn’t make it. They are living high on the hog. Throw mi corn, mi no call no fowl. I think we should establish gut guidelines for politicians. Beyond a certain size, they would just lose the work. By the way, the gut in Stony Gut is not the same as big gut. The first is a narrow passage; the second is a huge channel.

On the anniversary of Bogle’s march, our present governor general, Sir Patrick Allen, met with a delegation from St Thomas. He couldn’t make up for Eyre’s wickedness in both failing to listen to Bogle’s appeal and brutally suppressing the Morant Bay Rebellion. But Sir Patrick did admit that the parish has long been neglected. Even now! And that took guts.