Una Marson Born Too Soon

On International Women’s Day, Jamaica’s first playwright, Una Marson, was celebrated with the launch of two of her plays, Pocomania and London Calling. They had long languished in the archives of the National Library of Jamaica. The plays were finally published last year by Blouse and Skirt Books, in collaboration with the National Library. Founded by the formidable Tanya Batson Savage, this quirkily named press is a model of cultural enterprise.

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The Jamaican expression ‘blouse and skirt’ signifies surprise. And, perhaps, it is a shock to even Tanya herself that her small publishing house has grown so rapidly. In 2005, she established Blue Moon Publishing, now Blue Banyan Books, which she modestly describes on her website as “a small publishing ‘hut’ located in Kingston, Jamaica”.

The hut is quite spacious. It has room for specialist audiences. Blue Banyan Books publishes fiction for children. Blouse & Skirt Books publishes poetry and prose fiction for young adults and adults. Over the last decade, Tanya has published nine books, including the award-winning All Over Again by A-dZiko Simba Gegele.

RELATIVE PRIVILEGE

Una Marson’s extraordinary life is an inspiration for young women today. She accomplished so much in spite of the circumstances of her times.  Marson was born in rural Jamaica in 1905. This was a mere 40 years after the Morant Bay Rebellion. Not much had changed for poor black people by the beginning of the 20th century. Jamaica remained a fundamentally racist society, denying the black majority access to the basics for survival.

tumblr_matjv5m92T1rf692no1_400By contrast, Marson enjoyed a life of relative privilege as the daughter of a Baptist parson. She was educated at the elitist Hampton School, an institution about which she appeared to be conflicted. She was alienated from her white and brown classmates. But Marson did value the education she received at Hampton. It prepared her for the world of international politics in which she later moved with sophisticated ease.

After leaving Hampton, Marson went to Kingston. Her first job was with the Salvation Army doing social work. Then she worked with the YMCA. Soon she entered the field of journalism and in 1928, she started her own magazine, The Cosmopolitan, which appeared monthly from 1928 to 1931 when it folded.

The name expressed the outward reach of Marson’s vision. She declared in the magazine, “This is the age of woman: What man has done, women may do.” Well, it’s not everything men have done that women should do. But you know what Marson meant. Women needed to break free from confining stereotypes.

SEDUCED BY HER BOSS

In July 1930, Marson self-published a collection of poetry entitled Tropic Reveries; and, a year later, another, Heights and Depths. Then came the successful staging of her play At What a Price in 1932. It’s a sobering story. A young middle-class girl from the country comes to Kingston to work as a stenographer. She is seduced by her boss, a white foreigner, gets pregnant and her life mash up. She has to go back to the country in disgrace.

The exploitation of women and girls in Jamaica is an old story. Admittedly, tricking an overage woman is not at all the same as sexually abusing underage girls. But the issue of vulnerability is similar. Some women are quite naive and expect men to behave honourably when they have absolutely no intention of doing so.

that-suspicious-memeYoung girls have to be taught to be suspicious. They cannot be left on their own to learn the cold truth that what they optimistically expect is not necessarily what they will receive. They often get much more and much less than they bargained for. At What a Price was enthusiastically reviewed in the Jamaica Times: “It is to her credit and ours and may be the beginning of a Jamaican dramatic literature.” It was.

AN EXCEPTIONAL LIFE

Soon after making her debut as a playwright, Una Marson left Jamaica for England. There she continued writing her “Autobiography of a Black Girl”, which she had started when she was only 25. Marson knew from quite early that her life was exceptional.

In London, she would become an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. In April 1935, she represented the Jamaican Women’s Social Service Club at the 12th Annual Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship held in Turkey. Her brilliant speech to the assembly championed both race and gender equality.

Marson returned to Jamaica in 1936 and became the first female writer for the radical newspaper Public Opinion. Her opinions were decidedly feminist. It is in this period that she wrote the play Pocomania about an upright, middle-class young woman who is trapped in respectability. She is almost freed by the kumina drums.

Back in London in 1938, Marson began to do scriptwriting for BBC radio. By 1941, this led to her becoming the producer of Calling the West Indies, a programme in which soldiers sent messages home. The following year, Marson turned the programme into Caribbean Voices. Writers from all over the West Indies shared their work on air. Marson had created a virtual literary community.

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I keep wondering how much more Una Marson might have accomplished if she’d been born 50 years later. There would have been so many more opportunities for her as a black woman of distinction. Who knows?

Poetry can’t pay light bill!

maxresdefaultOn Tuesday, March 1,  Mutabaruku gave a riveting talk on ‘The Business of Reggae Poetry’ at the University of the West Indies, Mona. It was the first in a series of ‘Reggae Talks’ this month to celebrate the work of the Department of Literatures in English. No longer teaching only literature, the department has expanded its course offerings to include film and popular music.

In January, the big-time poet and recording artiste Linton Kwesi Johnson was visiting writer. He gave an intriguing talk, describing his stellar career as a case of ‘Reggae By Accident’. Mutabaruka also revealed that it was purely by chance that he became a recording artiste.

He was in his teens at Kingston Technical High School when he discovered his talent for poetry. His English teacher, Mrs Pusey, gave the class an assignment to write a poem. Muta called his composition ‘Birds’. The opening verse went like this:

“Birds are lovely things to see

Just to see them flying free

Birds with many colours

Is wonderful to see them flying for hours.”

With a big laugh, Muta reminded us that the poem was written by Allan Hope, his birth name. ‘Birds’ was a far cry from the militant poems for which the politically engaged writer would become world-famous. But in that early poem, the theme of freedom was already evident. Now I don’t want to sound like those literary critics at the UWI Creative Arts Centre who Muta mocked in his talk, much to the amusement of the receptive audience.

Muta insisted that what the poet writes is exactly what he means. And there’s no need for elaborate analysis of the text. He was dumbfounded by the assessment of his more mature poems made by high-brow critics like John Hearne and Mervyn Morris, who would spend long minutes deconstructing a single line of verse. It just didn’t make sense to him.

‘TURN OFF THE LIGHT!’

The schoolboy Allan Hope would certainly have said that his poem was just about birds flying free. All the same, I feel completely free to interpret the poem as a symbolic representation of a young man’s desire to break free from conventional expectations of his potential. And I don’t mind if either Allan or Muta laughs at me.

Instead of being confined to so-called technical subjects, Muta was finding a new medium of soaring self-expression. His mother, Sylvia, was not amused. When Muta stayed up late at night beating out poems on his typewriter, she would command him to “turn off the light! Poetry can’t pay light bill!” Muta paid her no mind. He kept on burning light and blazing out poems.

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Even though Muta disdained the literary critics at UWI, he did want to get exposure for his poems. So he sent them far and wide. At last, Swing magazine published ‘Festival’ in July 1971. Here’s the first verse:

“Yes, mi fren

A festival again

Run come look

Big pot a cook.”

That was Muta’s big break. It was Johnny Golding of Golding’s printery who put out the magazine, and he paid Muta $4.00 for that first poem. Note the position of the decimal point! Even so, those days, that was nuff money. Golding published Muta’s first poetry collection, Outcry, in 1972. It opened doors. Muta was invited to perform on a reggae show that Jimmy Cliff hosted in Somerton. His signature chant, “Every Time I Hear De Sound”, mash up di place.

Muta made his Sunsplash debut in 1980. His friend, Malaika Whitney, negotiated the contract. His fee was the princely sum of $2,000. Muta ended up with $200. Malaika’s commission was 10 per cent and the fee for each of the four members of the backing band was $400.

Muta’s first overseas tour was even more disastrous. It was organised by John Blackwood, a Jamaican booking agent in California. Muta performed in sold-out venues across the US. He came back home with not a single dollar! By the time expenses were deducted from his fee, there was absolutely nothing left. It was looking like Mama Sylvia was right.

Muta realised that he had to quickly learn the business. He figured out that he didn’t need an expensive band. His words were powerful enough. And he mastered merchandising. At his concerts, he sold records, posters of his poems and T-shirts with his image. And he took Rasta craft on consignment when he went on tour. Poetry was finally becoming profitable. Muta was able to show his mother that poetry not only paid light bill. It bought house and land and high-end cars.

‘LOVE AFFAIR WITH LITERATURE’

Tanya+ShirleyThe ‘Reggae Talks’ continued on Tuesday, March 8 with Bob Andy speaking on the topic, “Stages On My Journey’. In celebration of International Women’s Day, Tanya Shirley performed a selection of her poems. It was at 6 p.m. in Lecture Theatre 3, Faculty of Medical Sciences, thanks to the dean, Professor Horace Fletcher. And nuff rispek to the Creative Production and Training Centre for recording the talks!

‘Love Affair With Literature’ was held at 11 a.m. on Sunday 6 at the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre, Faculty of Humanities and Education, UWI. Olive Senior, Mel Cooke, Adzika Simba Gegele and writer-in-residence Vladimir Lucien read from their work. Poetry does pay but, this time, admission was free.

Creating Wealth From Culture

In December 2015, The UNESCO Creative Cities Network dubbed Kingston a ‘Creative City of Music’. This distinction confirms what we already know. Kingston’s culture is world-class. In spite of all the problems of urban blight, the city does have the potential to become a livable home for all of us, and an attractive destination for tourists.

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But the history of the city is far from glamorous. Kingston was founded in July 1692 as a place of refuge for survivors of the Port Royal earthquake. They camped on the seafront in dreadful conditions. And mosquitoes ravaged them. Approximately 2,000 survivors of the earthquake died from diseases carried by mosquitoes.

It wasn’t ZIKV or chik-V. And, by the way, chik-V didn’t come to the Caribbean in the 21st century. As early as 1827, the disease was already in the region. In a case of mistaken identity, it was called dengue. That name comes from the Kiswahili language of East Africa. The word ‘dinga’ means ‘seizure, or cramp’.

But the big difference between chik-V and dengue is arthritis. Chik-V weakens the joints. And it has devastating consequences, both physical and social. For example, The Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases reports that, in 1827, “when the disease first appeared in St Thomas [US Virgin Islands], several Negroes, who, being all at once attacked with pain in the knees, had fallen down, [and] were actually apprehended by the police for drunkenness”.

SUSPICIOUS OF GOVERNMENT

Kingston gradually recovered from its disastrous start. By the middle of the 18th century, it had become the commercial centre of the island. Sitting on the seventh largest natural harbour in the world, the city was ideally located to be a global player in international trade.

1375285952-1In 1891, Kingston hosted the Great Exhibition. It was a very ambitious affair. Its aim was to show Jamaicans all the latest in foreign products and machinery; and to exhibit Jamaican products to foreign investors. The Jamaican economy was in decline and a small group of visionaries realised that something grand had to be done to drive productivity. One of them was George Stiebel, who made his money in shipping and mining.  Devon House was one of his homes.

The Exhibition wasn’t an easy sell. As Joy Lumsden reports in a 1991 article in the Jamaica Historical Society Bulletin, “From the start, it was feared that the attempts to get people to send produce to the exhibition was an indirect way of finding out how much they produced so that taxes could be increased.”

Sounds familiar. Many players in the field of the creative/cultural industries are now very suspicious of the Government’s relatively new interest in their work. Where was the Government when the music industry, for example, was struggling to establish itself in Kingston’s concrete jungle? And why the sudden interest in the earnings of the industry?

DISTINGUISHED WRITERS

UNESCO identifies seven creative fields in which selected cities are judged: Crafts and Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Media Arts and Music. I think Kingston’s creativity extends way beyond music. We could just as easily have been recognised as a creative city of literature. And it’s not only Kingston; it’s the entire country.

Jamaica has produced a whole heap of distinguished writers. Edward Baugh, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Erna Brodber, Colin Channer, Michelle Cliff, Neville Dawes, Kwame Dawes,  H.G. DeLisser, Lorna Goodison, John Hearne, Roger Mais, Rachel Manley, Claude McKay, Kei Miller, Mervyn Morris, Tony McNeill, Mutabaruka, Velma Pollard, Claudia Rankine, Trevor Rhone, Andrew Salkey, Olive Senior, Dennis Scott, Tanya Shirley and Sylvia Wynter are just some of the writers whose work has received international recognition. Many have won major literary prizes.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, who was born in Chapelton and migrated to the UK as a child, enjoys the distinction of being the second living poet and the only black poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

lead_960Marlon James recently won the 2015 Man Booker prize and a 2015 American Book award for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.  With all its blood and gore, the novel is Kingston hard-core. James’ transformation of the murderous reality of the city into brilliant literature is a powerful manifestation of the creativity of Jamaicans.

CULTURAL CAPITAL

In the 1970s, the Jamaica Tourist Board rebranded the island this way: “We’re more than a beach. We’re a country.” UNESCO’s designation of Kingston as a ‘Creative City of Music’ is good news. But we’re much more than music. We’re a creative country in so many domains.

So how are we going to turn our new UNESCO branding into cultural capital? And where is our museum of Jamaica music? It’s on Water Lane, an alley in downtown Kingston. The creators of our music deserve much, much better than this.

The director/curator of the so-called museum, Herbie Miller, has been given basket to carry nuff water. He has done his best to apply tar. Every Sunday in Reggae Month, he hosts a public forum on our music at the Institute of Jamaica’s lecture hall.  This year, the focus was on Don Drummond.

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Kingston is, indeed, a capital city for music and literature. If only all our politicians could understand this and invest in our culture!

Big Tingz A Gwaan Fi Mis Lou

Two spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.

CHAKA-CKAKA SPELIN Miss Lou dead an gone. But wi naa figet weh shi do fi big up fi wi Jamaica culture. A she mek plenty a wi know seh wi no ha fi shame bout fi wi heart language. It a no no bad talking. A one good-good sinting. Wen wi long-time people dem did come from Africa, dem never get no chance fi walk wid dem bag an pan. Dem come wid dem two long hand. Tie up. A thief dem thief de man bring dem ya so. Dem never plan fi come. miss_lou_cover_final_2

Still for all, dem bring nuff culture inna dem head cup. It did full up. Dem bring dem talent an dem skill. Dem a farmer, artist, doctor, lawyer, teacher, soldier, banker, cook, stylist – all kind a different-different profession. An dem bring dem whole heap a language from all bout. Wen di English people dem force on fi dem one dehgeh-dehgeh language pon di African people dem, dem dis twist it up, an bruck it up, an mix it up wid fi dem owna language dem. An dem mek up one new language. Jamaican.

Tuesday gone, di first book weh write bout Miss Lou launch up a University of the West Indies, Mona. A Prof Mervyn Morris write it. An a Ian Randle Publishers bring it out. It name Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. Prof Morris tell wi bout di whole a Miss Lou life.

Den im talk bout how shi did act inna pantomine an shi write some a dem. An shi did collect up Anansi story. An shi do Ring Ding programme pon TV. An shi write nuff poem. An Prof Morris tell wi bout Miss Lou an fi her Aunty Roachy weh did deh pon radio. Di last-last ting Prof Morris tell wi bout a di dead lef. Wa Mis Lou call di ‘whole a heap a culture an tradition an birthright’ weh left fi wi.

RESPECT DUE!

An a Prof Eddie Baugh launch di book. Im show wi seh a long time now Prof Morris did a study Miss Lou. In a 1963, im did preach one sermon, ‘On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously’. Yu see dat deh comma. It serious. It mean fi seh a no joke Prof Morris a joke.

Im know seh wen certain people hear bout ‘reading’ Miss Lou, dem a go waan laugh. Dem no know seh Miss Lou write down her poem dem, fi instance. Dem tink she shi dis get up an chat. Nutten no go so. Wi ha fi understand seh Miss Lou sit down an tink bout wa shi a go get up an seh. Respect due!

Dis ya Thursday, Prof Morris an Prof Baugh a go deh pon NewsTalk 93FM a talk bout di book. A di programme “Big Tingz a Gwaan”, weh mi an di yute Tyane Robinson do. It broadcast 4:30 in a di afternoon. An it come on back pon Saturday 3:30. So unu fi try ketch it. Wi talk in a so-so Jamaican. http://www.newstalk93fm.com/programmes/big-tingz-ah-gwaan/

Den mi deh a Liguanea Plaza last year an one man pass mi an seh, “Miss Lou daughter”! It sweet mi so till. One a di ting mi find out in a Prof Morris book a dis: Miss Lou womb did tek out chruu it did a gi her problem. So shi couldn’t have no pikni. Well, mi know seh Miss Lou got nuff culture pikni an gran-pikni an great-gran-pikni. Give thanks!

PRAPA-PRAPA SPELIN Mis Lou ded an gaan. Bot wi naa figet we shi du fi big op fi wi Jamieka kolcha. A shi mek plenti a wi nuo se wi no afi shiem bout fi wi aat langwij. It a no no bad taakin. A wahn gud-gud sinting. Wen wi lang-taim piipl dem did kom fram Afrika, dem neva get no chaans fi waak wid dem bag an pan. Dem kom wid dem tuu lang an. Tai op. A tiif dem tiif de man bring dem ya so. Dem neva plan fi kom.

imagesStil far aal, dem bring nof kolcha ina dem ed kop. It did ful op. Dem bring dem talent an dem skil. Dem a faama, aatis, dakta, laaya, tiicha,suoja, bangka, kuk, stailis – aal kain a difran-difran profeshan. An dem bring dem uol iip a langwij fram aal bout. Wen di Inglish piipl dem fuos aan fi dem wan dege, dege langwij pan di Afrikan piipl dem, dem dis twis it op, an brok it op, an miks it op wid fi dem uona langwij dem. An dem mek op wahn nyuu langwij. Jamiekan.

Chuuzde gaan, di fosbuk we rait bout Mis Lou laanch op a University of the West Indies, Mona. A Prof Mervyn Morris rait it. An a Ian Randle Publishers bring it out. It niem Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. An Prof Morris tel wi bout di uol a Mis Lou laif.

Den im taak bout ou shi did a kina pantomain an shi rait som a dem. An shi did kalek op anansi tuori. An shi du Ring Ding pruogram pan TV. An shi rait nof puoem. An Prof Morris tel wi bout Mis Lou an fi aar Aunty Roachy we did de pan riedyo. Di laas-laas ting Prof Morris tel wi bout a di ded lef. Wa Mis Lou kaal di ‘whole a heap a culture an tradition an birthright’ we lef fi wi.

RISPEK JUU!

An a Prof Eddie Baugh laanch di buk. Im shuo wi se a lang taim nou Prof Morris did a stodi Mis Lou. In a 1963, im did priich wahn sorman, ‘On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously’. Yu si dat de kama. It siiryos. It miin fi se a no juok Prof Morris a juok. Im nuo se wen sortn piipl ier bout ‘reading’ Mis Lou, dem a go waahn laaf. Dem no nuo se Mis Lou rait dong aar puoem dem, fi instans. Dem tingk se shi dis git op an chat. Notn no go so. Wi a fi andastan se Mis Lou sidong an tingk bout wa shi a go get op an se. Rispek juu!

Prof Morris

Prof Morris

Dis ya Torzde, Prof Morris an Prof Baugh a go de pan NewsTalk 93FM a taak bout di buk. A di pruogram “Big Tingz a Gwaan”, we mi an di yuut Tyane Robinson du. It braadkyaas 4:30 in a di aaftanuun. An it kom aan bak pan Satide 3:30. So unu fi chrai kech it. Wi taak in a suoso Jamiekan.

Den mi de a Liguanea Plaza laas ier an wahn man paas mi an se, “Mis Lou daata!” It swiit mi so til. Wan a di ting mi fain out in a Prof Morris buk a dis: Mis Lou uum did tek out chruu it did a giar problem. So shi kudn av no pikni. Wel, mi nuo se Mis Lou gat nof kolcha pikni an gran-pikni an griet-gran-pikni. Giv tangks!

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

Miss Lou is dead and gone. But we won’t forget what she did to celebrate our Jamaican culture. She is the one who made a lot of us understand that we don’t have to be ashamed of our heart language. It’s not talking bad.  It’s a very good thing. When our ancestors came from Africa, they didn’t get the chance to bring all their belongings. They came empty-handed. And their hands were tied.  They were abducted and brought here. They hadn’t planned to come.

All the same, they brought lots of culture in their heads. Full to the brim. They brought their talents and skills. They were farmers, artists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, soldiers, bankers, cooks, stylists – all kinds of different professions. And they brought a whole variety of languages from the continent. When the English people imposed their single language on the Africans, they twisted it, an mangled it up, an mixed it up with their own languages. And they created a new language. Jamaican. Unknown-2

Last Tuesday, the first book to be written about Miss Lou was launched at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Prof Mervyn Morris is the author. And it was published by Ian Randle Publishers. The title is  Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. Prof Morris tells us all about Miss Lou’s life.

Then he focuses on her career.   She acted in pantomimes and she even wrote some of them. And she collected Anansi stories. And she hosted the Ring Ding programme on TV. And she wrote lots of poems. And Prof Morris tells us about Miss Lou and her Aunty Roachy who were on radio. The very last thing Prof Morris talks about is legacy. What Miss Lou herself described as all of that culture and tradition – the  birthright –  that’s left for us.

RESPECT DUE!

And it was Prof Eddie Baugh who launched the book. He said Prof Morris has been studying Miss Lou’s work for a very long time. In 1963, he preached a sermon, ‘On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously’. That comma is very significant. It means that Prof Morris really isn’t joking.

He knows that when certain people hear him say ‘reading’ Miss Lou, they’re going to want to laugh. They don’t know that Miss Lou wrote her poems, for instance. They think she just got up and chatted off the top of her head. That’s not so at all. We have to understand that Miss Lou sat down and thought about what she was going to get up and say. Respect due!

This Thursday, Prof Morris and Prof Baugh are going to be on NewsTalk 93FM  talking about the book. It’s the programme “Big Tingz a Gwaan”, which the young man, Tyane Robinson, and I  do. It comes on at 4:30 in the afternoon. And it’s aired again on Saturdays at 3:30. So you should try to try to catch it. We speak pure Jamaican.  (How yu like that bilingual pun!)

Then I was at the Liguanea Plaza last year and a man passed me and said, “Miss Lou daughter”! I was so amused! One of the things I found out in Prof Morris’ book is that Miss Lou had had a hysterectomy because she’d been having lots of problems. So she couldn’t have children. Well, I know that Miss Lou has lots and lots of  culture children and grand-children and great-grand-children. Give thanks!

Do All Household Helpers Steal?

417656_251659581637258_1041631005_nLast Sunday, the third annual ‘Dis Poem Word Festival’ was staged in Hope Bay, Portland. It was a beautiful setting by the sea. Conceived by Ras Takura, an enterprising poet, the festival was held in honour of the ‘Iancient’, Mutabaruku – poet, political philosopher and talk-show host on both radio and television. In the mystic ‘I and I’ language of Rastafari, ‘Iancient’ means ‘elder’.

Now Muta is two years younger than me. I don’t know about him, but I am certainly not ancient. Although I have to admit that I was once asked by a very imperceptive woman if Muta was my son. She clearly needed glasses. It sweet Muta when mi tell im. Im laugh so till! An im seh im know it must burn mi. All mi could do was laugh.

images-3Anyhow, I was quite happy to accept Ras Takura’s invitation to read at the festival in honour of the ancient. I’m not a poet. But since it was a ‘word’ festival, I figured I was free to interpret ‘poem’ rather loosely. I decided to tell a story I’d written two decades ago, which I’d dusted off for the ‘Kingston Pon Di River’ festival last year. Incidentally, the river winds its way to Hope Gardens on June 30.

417844_10201239447410234_62773901_nMuta likes to throw words at brand-name poets who keep performing the same works over and over. I figured I could get away with it as an amateur. In any case, this was a new audience. My story, “Live-een Helper”, is told from the point of view of both the helper and her employer. It raises the twin problem of theft and trust. It’s a big chance of trust you take bringing strangers into your home, even when they come with superlative recommendations. These are often quite fictitious.

CLASSIC JINNALSHIP

100dollarbillI once had a helper, Gloria, who helped herself to a US$100 bill and replaced it with a one-dollar bill which looked like it had suffered a very long minibus ride through Kingston at rush hour. It was all crushed up, bearing no resemblance to the rest of the notes in the envelope. When I confronted Gloria, she insisted that she had not made the switch.

She then asked me, “How much money yu did have?” Now this question is a classic piece of jinnalship designed to shift attention from the real matter at hand and to create doubt in the mind of the victim. Pure strategy! If you’re not sure how much money you had, how could you be so sure you’d been robbed? Fortunately for me, I had my bank receipt, which I promptly flourished. Gloria was not impressed. She insisted on her innocence.

CallingTheBluffWebBut nobody else had come in the house since I’d brought the money home the day before. I decided to call Gloria’s bluff. I called the police. In a most amusing turn of events, one of the officers who interviewed her offered to give me a US$100 bill that he just happened to have on him if I would agree not to press charges. He must have thought I was born yesterday! But I really couldn’t let them arrest Gloria for a hundred US dollars even though 20 years ago that was a fair bit of money.

lightfingers_smallI commended the officer on his generosity, telling him I hadn’t realised there were men of such compassion in the force who would sacrifice their own money to help out a poor young woman who found herself in a difficult situation. All he was asking in return was that Gloria come to the station for counselling. Miss Gloria had a very ‘healthy’ body, even though her fingers were rather light. I had no idea how the counselling would go, but it was none of my business. I had got back my money.

A RATHER DISTURBING STORY

images-4When one of my friends heard my story, she asked me how come I don’t know that all helpers steal, no matter how well you treat them. I protested. I may be naïve, but I refuse to believe that there are no honest helpers left in Jamaica. To prove her point, my cynical friend told me a rather disturbing story. She knew of a helper who had been working for two days a week at the handsome rate of $4,000 a day.

Things were going along quite well until her employer started to get the uneasy feeling that money was disappearing from her purse. But she really couldn’t believe that the helper was stealing from her. She figured she must be just forgetting exactly how much money she had. One morning, she decided to count the money in her purse, which she then placed in her handbag. Sure enough, at the end of the day, a thousand-dollar bill was missing.

images-6Her helper vigorously denied that she had stolen the money. The brazen question she asked in her defence was, “Why I would take only $1,000?” Pretending not to understand either multiplication or addition, not to mention subtraction, the helper seemed to claiming that such a small sum was beneath her dignity. If she was going to steal, she would steal big. But if, over the course of a year, she stole only $1,000 each time she came to work, that would amount to more than $100,000! One-one coco full basket; one-one thousand dollar empty purse.

images-7And, I suppose, the helper’s justification of her systematic stealing would probably be that if her employer didn’t miss the money, she really didn’t need it. It could be put to much better use. My friend told me that when the helper realised she was going to be fired, she had the nerve to announce that she needed the job. But, of course! If you are well paid and can also get away with theft, you have a very good job indeed! Sounds a lot like politics.

Who is Jamaica?

The morning after Emancipation Day, August 1st, I took out my prized Independence commemorative plate from the hand-carved mahogany cabinet in which it’s kept.  It was a gift from the mother of a long-ago boyfriend who, incomprehensibly, complained constantly that she loved me more than him.  Needless to say, he didn’t last.  Gender politics in Jamaica can be quite complicated.

The plate does have a little chip, but it really doesn’t matter.  It’s the spirit of the thing that counts: a little bit of tactile history.  The decorated plate features the Jamaican coat of arms.  On February 3, 1661, Jamaica became the first British colony to receive its own arms.  The Latin motto grandly declaimed: ‘Indus uterque serviet uni’ (Both Indies will serve one).  From East to mythic West, colonial relations of domination were inscribed in heraldry.

1661 Coat of arms

The coat of arms memorializes the Amerindian people of Jamaica.  There is a woman bearing a basket of pineapples and a man holding a bow.  At school we were taught that they were Arawak.  These days, they are Taino.  But the subtle distinction is purely academic.  The native people of Xaymaca, as the island was once called, are extinct. In their culture, the pineapple symbolized hospitality.  Genocide was their reward for the naïve welcome they gave Christopher Columbus.   They survive only in the coat of arms and in the modest museum that is dedicated to their history.

Perched above the Taino man and woman is a crocodile.  This reptile has fared much better than the indigenous people.  Its descendants are still alive.  A popular tourist attraction is the Black River safari which allows foolhardy explorers to get up close and personal with crocodiles.  An ad for the safari promises:  “A smiling crocodile right alongside the boat.  You can touch him if you are brave”.

At Independence in 1962, the national motto, enshrined in the coat of arms, was changed to “Out of many, one people”.  Though this might at first appear to be a vast improvement on the servile Indies, both East and West, the new motto does encode problematic contradictions.  It marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting compulsively that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial.  In actuality, approximately 90% of the population is of African origin; 7% is mixed-race; 3% is European, Chinese and East Indian combined.

It was my high school English teacher, Miss Julie Thorne, who, for me, first interrogated the racial politics of the supposedly unifying motto.  She had come from the United Kingdom to teach on an international   development program much like the Peace Corps.  As an outsider, she could immediately detect the fraudulence of the homogenizing racial myth.  She asked us students a rather cynical question.  “Out of many, one people?  Which one?”

The classic Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, released in 1972, documents the mood of the earlier decade.  Optimistic rural youth migrated to Kingston and the smaller towns, looking for fulfillment of the promise of Independence.

On my commemorative plate, there’s a map of Jamaica which highlights Kingston, Spanish Town, Mandeville, Montego Bay and Port Antonio.  These were the centres of commerce to which ambitious youth gravitated.   Jimmy Cliff, the star of The Harder They Come, sang their hopes:

‘You can get it if you really want,

But you must try, try and try, try and try

You’ll succeed at last’.

Cliff’s lyrics echo a famous 19th century exhortation that has been much spoofed:  “‘Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.  Schoolchildren in Jamaica memorized that gem.  It motivated us to excel.  But ‘it’ often proved elusive, especially for the underclass who had no sustained access to formal education even after Independence.

The Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote an empathetic novel The Children of Sisyphus, published in 1965, which skillfully recounts the uphill battle of those who tried to make it in Kingston, or ‘Killsome’, as Peter Tosh wittily dubbed the city.  The crushing boulders of oppression kept rolling back down.  Trapped in a cycle of repetitive failure, pauperised people struggled, nevertheless, to make meaning out of despair.

Reclaiming ancestral traditions of resistance, the urban poor fashioned new languages of survival.  Reggae music became the heartbeat of a people who refused extinction. In the words of Bob Marley’s “One Drop”:

“Feel it in the one drop

And we still find time to rap

We making a one stop

The generation gap

So feel this drumbeat as it beats within

Playing a rhythm resisting against the system”.

Reggae music filled the gap between reality and expectations. It articulated the philosophy and opinions of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.  The reggae drumbeat evoked Rastafari philosophy and livity, a coinage that is the decided antithesis of levity. With biblical authority, Rastafari claimed the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 as fulfillment of the prophecy recorded in Psalm 68:31:  “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”.

Marley’s conception of reggae as a rhythm of resistance brilliantly traces the lineage of ‘word, sound and power’ that connects African Jamaicans across several generations and to the continent.  The deployment of music as a therapeutic weapon of resistance is a long- established tradition in African Jamaican culture.

The abeng, a wind instrument of West African origin made from cow horn, is preserved in Jamaica by the legendary Maroons who emancipated themselves from enslavement.  In highly tactical wars of resistance, they defeated the British, asserting their right to self-government. The abeng sounded the alarm, protecting the Maroon strongholds from sudden attack.

The relationship of the Maroons to the wider community of African-Jamaicans is complex.  They signed a treaty with the British which demanded that they return belated runaways to plantation slavery.  Betrayal of other blacks was the price of their own freedom.  It is a familiar tale – divide and rule.

But even on the plantations, maroon traditions of resistance took root.  Forced to survive in the very belly of the beast, enslaved

Africans perfected weapons of war from within.  Silent poisoning of their supposed masters was a deadly tool.   And music, the drumbeat of resistance, was a potent language of communication through which those who were forced to simulate accommodation to servitude were empowered to exercise agency.

The word ‘abeng’ is of Twi origin.  This language provided much of the African-derived lexicon of the Jamaican Creole language that is now the mother tongue of most Jamaicans.  Devalued by the elite, the language of the majority speaks to the marginality of African culture in the construction of the nation state.

Conversely, cultural icon Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, has used her heart language to affirm Jamaican identity.  In her humorous poem “Independance”, [sic], which satirizes the song and dance of the elitist project of constitutional decolonization, Bennett creates a vociferous working-class persona, Miss Mattie, who has a rather grand vision of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

Jamaican

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small.

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!

Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean

English 

She hopes they’ve warned the mapmakers

To stop drawing Jamaica so small

Because that little speck

Can’t show our greatness at all!

Moreover we must tell the mapmakers

That we don’t like our position –

Would they be kind enough to take us out of the sea

And relocate us in the ocean

Jamaicans are island people with a continental consciousness.  We remember our origins across oceans of history.  For us, Independence is not just about constitutional rearrangements.  It’s in our blood.  From Miss Mattie’s perspective:

Jamaican

Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

And she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independent to

English

We are independent by nature

That’s how we’ve been born and bred

And she’s happy to see

That the government has now become independent

Elitist and popular conceptions of the Jamaican character finally converge.  Independent is who Jamaica is.

‘Worl-map Fi Stop Draw Jamaica Small!’

In a series of humorous poems written at the height of Independence euphoria in the early1960s, Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, raises some quite serious questions about Jamaica’s readiness for the rigours of independence.  In the opening verse of the poem, “Independance” – yes ‘dance’ – Miss Lou expresses her misgivings about the strains of the nation’s new political status:

Independance wid a vengeance!

Independance raisin Cain!

Jamaica start grow beard, ah hope

We chin can stan de strain!

Miss Lou acknowledges the fact that Independence is much more than the song and dance of Festival celebrations. It requires a capacity for self-sacrifice that some Jamaicans may stubbornly resist:

No easy-come by freeness tings,

Nuff labour, some privation,

Not much of dis an less of dat

An plenty studiration.

In “Independence Dignity” an excited speaker addresses a Jamaican away from home:

Dear Cousin Min, yuh miss sinting,

Yuh should be over yah

Fi see Independence Celebration

Capture Jamaica.

Miss Lou’s choice of the word ‘capture’ suggests that Independence may prove to be a rather restrictive state of affairs.  Like the ‘privation’ and ‘studiration’ that are the price of Independence, the level of discipline that the new nation’s status requires seems far different from the usual unruly conduct of some out of order Jamaicans:

Yuh waan see how Jamaica people

Rise to de occasion

An deestant up demself fi greet

De birt a dem new nation!

Not a stone was fling, not a samfie sting,

Not a soul gwan bad an lowrated;

Not a fight bruck out, not a bad-wud shout

As Independence was celebrated.

This amusing catalogue of all the bad behaviour that is temporarily suspended suggests that after rising to the occasion for one ‘degeh-degeh’ day, a lot of people will soon fall back on their old ‘lowrated’ ways.  The strains and stresses of behaving properly might prove to be very taxing.

The Higher Monkey Climb

Louise Bennett

In “Jamaica Elevate” Miss Lou creates yet another enthusiastic character who also writes to a Jamaican in the Diaspora, singing the praises of the new state of Independence.  But the speed with which the weight of Independence is dropped on Jamaica – biff, buff, baps – leaves the letter-writer dizzy:

So much tings happen so fas an quick

Me head still feel giddy!

Biff Referandum! Buff, Election!

Baps, Independence drop pon we!

Jamaican High Commission, London

At the root of the poem is the cautionary Jamaican proverb, ‘the higher monkey climb, the more him expose himself.’  The presumptuous elevation of Jamaica to a scanty army, an unformed navy, consuls and ambassadors who ‘Dah rub shoulder an dip mouth/ Eena heavy world affairs’, is clear evidence of the pride that goes before the fall.

The make-do armaments of the newly independent nation are remarkably similar to the stones that are not flung in “Independence Dignity.” The more things change, the more they remain the same:

We defence is not defenceless

For we got we half a brick,

We got we broken bottle

An we coocoomacca stick;

But we willin to put down we arms

In Peace and Freedom’s name

An we call upon de nations

Of de worl to do de same.

‘Me Heart Go Boop’

Sir Clifford Campbell,
first native governor-general

In “Jamaica Elevate” Miss Lou also raises the vexing issue of colour and class politics in the newly independent nation.  She highlights an amusing case of mistaken identity, underscoring old antagonisms. The new, native Governor-General, the Queen’s representative, resembles a family member, Bada John.  At Independence, the changing face of authority would seem to confirm the ‘elevation’ of not just the Jamaican state, but, more important, black people.

But with wicked wit Miss Lou reveals the purely superficial nature of what appears to be fundamental social change.  The immediate response to what looks like Bada John’s picture in the newspaper humorously defines the usual circumstances in which a black person would be deemed newsworthy in the media politics of the times – the heralding of misfortune:

Di fus day im picture print, de

Paper drop outa me han;

Me heart go boop, me bawl out

‘Something bad happen to John!

Sir Kenneth Blackburne, last British governor and first
governor-general of independent Jamaica

‘Meck dem draw de picture big so?

Him too ole fi pass exam!

Him no buy no sweepstake ticket?

Someting bad happen to John!’

Of course, nothing bad has happened to John.  But in the eyes of some backward Jamaicans, the resemblance between him and the Governor General would have been a clear sign that something bad had happened to that high office.  The representative of the queen really ought not to look like her subjects.

A Speck of Greatness

In all of the mockery of the grand rhetoric of Independence, Miss Lou does affirm the high self-esteem of so-called ‘ordinary’ Jamaicans. Miss Mattie, for example, has a rather expansive vision of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!

Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean

What independent-minded Miss Mattie does acknowledge is the fact that map-making is not an exact science.  Territorial borders shift as power dynamics change.  Furthermore her vivid image of repositioning us out of the sea and putting us into the ocean is a recognition of the transatlantic origins of the Jamaican people.

Our history is one of migration.  All of us foreigners who came, willingly or not, and now call this island our own, do have a sense of ancestral homelands. This speck of Jamaica is great because our conception of ourselves is not dependent solely on our present insular location. Beyond the boundaries of this little island, we envision landscapes of greatness that we can also claim as ours.