‘Man To Man Is So Unjust’

I recently heard an alarming interpretation of the first line of Bob Marley’s song Who the Cap Fit.

The proverbial statement, ‘man to man is so unjust’, is now being decoded as a condemnation of male homosexuals. Or, to use the politically correct term, men who have sex with men (MSM). Incidentally, the ‘homo’ in ‘homosexual’ does not mean ‘man’. It’s not Latin; it’s Greek. And it means ‘same’.

So, technically, ‘homosexual’ refers to both men and women; and, more recently, to all other genders who have sex with each other. These days, sexuality is not a straight-forward business at all. Queer sex is not always a simple case of ‘same’ sex. Some sexual combinations cross multiple lines. And new sexual positions require sophisticated acrobatic skills – both literally and psychologically.

Bob Marley knew his words could be distorted. In an interview published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1981, this is what he said about the Kaya album: “You have to play it and get your own inspiration. For every song have a different meaning to a man. Sometimes I sing a song, and when people explain it to me, I am astonished by their interpretation.”

deceptionSome inspired interpretations make absolutely no sense. There’s no evidence in Who the Cap Fit to support the ‘same-sex’ interpretation of that opening line. The song is not about sexuality. It focuses on trust, hypocrisy and deception. Admittedly, these issues do come up in sexual relationships across the board. But the song is not about condemning men who have sex with men.

IRRATIONAL HOMOPHOBIA

Jamaica is back in the news for our irrational homophobia, as evidenced in that astonishing misinterpretation of Marley’s song. UK Channel 4 has done an exposé on outcast youths who are living underground. Here’s an excerpt from the promo for the documentary which aired last Friday:

“Jamaica has a reputation for intolerance of homosexuality. Male gay sex is punishable by 10 years’ hard labour and violent hostility is entrenched in the island’s culture. Unreported World meets one group of gay and transgender people who are now living in a gully, which is usually designed to carry flood water and rubbish from the city.

“It’s hot, crowded, infested and filthy. But it’s the only place these 25 people are able to call home. There are no facilities: cooking and washing-up are done in the gutter. Water comes from a broken pipe under a road bridge. And it’s not in a poor part of town, but in the middle of New Kingston, the capital’s business district.”

outerdarknessThis is a complete disgrace. Not on the homeless who have taken refuge in the gully; but on all us who live somewhere! We cannot self-righteously keep on singing the same old Sankey from the Book of Leviticus. We have to move past the rhetoric of abomination and change our inhumane attitudes to queer people. We cannot continue to cast them into outer darkness.

UNJUST GAY-RIGHTS ACTIVISTS

We also have to challenge unjust gay-rights activists when they misuse their collective power and victimise others. The recent termination of the contract of Professor Brendan Bain, director of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) initiative, is a complicated case of competing rights.

The press release issued by the Office of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies states: “The issue in question arose about two years ago in a high-profile case in Belize in which Caleb Orozco, a gay man in Belize, challenged the constitutionality of an 1861 law that criminalises men having sex with men (MSM).

“Professor Brendan Bain provided a statement on behalf of a group of churches seeking to retain the 1861 law. Many authorities familiar with the brief presented believe that Professor Bain’s testimony supported arguments for retention of the law, thereby contributing to the continued criminalisation and stigmatisation of MSM. This opinion is shared by the lesbian, gay and other groups who are served by CHART.”

I speculate that many of Professor Bain’s detractors have not read his now-infamous statement. There, he clearly affirms that he was “given no instructions by any party”. He makes no reference to the contested law. Professor Bain gives well-documented scientific evidence on public-health issues relating specifically to men who have sex with men.

53108bainprotestj20140521ng_300The UWI press release comes to a disturbing conclusion: ” … It has become increasingly evident that Professor Bain has lost the confidence and support of a significant sector of the community which the CHART programme is expected to reach, including the loss of his leadership status in PANCAP [Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV& AIDS], thereby undermining the ability of this programme to effectively deliver on its mandate.” That’s not a good reason for firing Professor Bain.

I do support repeal of the Belize law that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal”. But I am appalled by the decision of the UWI administration to bow to belligerent gay-rights activists, bringing down disgrace on a distinguished academic who has done so much to protect the health of MSM. Man to man is so unjust. Who di cap fit, mek dem wear it.

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Sexual Falsehood Top To Bottom

ninth-280I got several emails last week from angry people trying to persuade me that Dwayne Jones was responsible for his own murder.  His crime was not cross-dressing.  It was deceit. But since the whole point of cross-dressing is to deceive, this distinction really makes no sense.

Some people passionately argued that the men who were deceived into thinking that Dwayne was female were the real victims.  And they had every right to take defensive action.  One woman compared the deceit to rape.  This is how she put it:  “There is an emerging way of telling stories nowadays that lays no responsibility on the victims whatsoever and I don’t get it.

“Dwayne was Jamaican.  Why did he put himself at risk like that? AND!!!! he also put the lives of other men at risk.  If no alarm had been made, some of those other men would have been labelled gay. Some of the men who were wined upon against their will may even have been traumatised for life.   As my friend was when his schoolmates from a prominent Kingston high school raped him”.

But the men who were ‘wined upon’ were quite willing to participate.  Dwyane did not wine on them against their will.  It was not rape.  It was consensual wining.  As far as the men knew, they were not dancing with a man.  Dwayne had become the self-styled ‘Gully Queen’.  It was pure theatre.

Simone Perrotta, Christian ChivuCross-dressing men are not necessarily gay.  And dancing with a cross-dressing man doesn’t automatically put a man at risk of being labelled gay.  Full body contact between Jamaican men is not always taboo.  It’s perfectly acceptable on the sports field. Footballers passionately embrace when a goal is scored.  It’s a ritual of the game.  I know it’s not exactly the same as wining in the dancehall.  But the body language is similar.  It’s just a different dialect.

BLOODY CLOTHS

Perhaps I’m expecting too much of Jamaican men.  But I think a self-confident man could have acted far differently to the outing of Dwayne.  A real man could have made a joke of it. He could have just said, “Bombo claat! Di bwoy good!  Im ketch mi fi true!” And even though Dwyane didn’t have a bombo, the profanity would have been enough of a judgement.

a-dictionary-jamaican-english-frederic-gomes-cassidy-paperback-cover-artThe so-called ‘bad’ word, ‘bombo’ is a perfectly good word of African origin, meaning ‘vulva’.  But like many other elements of African culture in Jamaica, the word has been devalued.  The word shows up in Eric Partridge’s 1949 Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English where it’s described as “West Indian; orig[inally] a negroes’ word”.

Our own Dictionary of Jamaican English, published in 1967, notes that in the Zulu language there’s a similar word ‘bumbu’, meaning ‘pubic region’.   So a cloth for the bombo, like a cloth for blood, is simply a ‘sanitary pad’.  How a clean cloth could become a very dirty word in Jamaica is a whole other story.

And talking of cleaning cloths, I got an informative email from a Jamaican living abroad: “When I first came to Asia, I noticed that many men carried a small packet of wet wipes.  I asked what it was used for.  I learnt only Muslims did this. I learnt that they used it in the bathrooms to wipe their penises to ensure there was no dribbling after they passed urine. Urine on clothing is considered unclean and it is avoided like the plague.”  So our male cross-dressers at Caribbean Fashion Week do have a point.

LETTING THE COCK OUT

rooster-prev1230259193QKMb3gAll of the angry email-writers stopped short of saying that Dwayne should have been put to death.  They couldn’t quite go there.  But none of them laid any blame on the woman who let the cock out of the bag.  I think she should have taken a less scandalous approach.  She could have called Dwayne aside and said something like this:  “Hey bwoy!  Yu mad! Yu no know dem man wi kill yu if dem find out?  Mind yu self!”  But she didn’t.

Dwayne’s deception is an extreme version of the sexual games people play all the time.  These days, women have mastered the art of deceit.  They completely reengineer themselves:  false hair, false eyelashes, false nails, false breasts, false bottoms, false everything.  You can actually buy panties in local stores with padded bottoms.  And men have been known to stuff their briefs, especially when the contents are very brief.  A most wicked falsehood!

Picking up a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ at a dance is a very risky business. You really don’t know if you’re going to get fish or fowl.  It’s a big chance you take.  And as for online dating, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.  People just lie, out and out.  I’m amazed by the statistics you hear on American television about all the marriages that dating services have arranged.  I keep wondering about the divorce rates.

Before

I got a most intriguing email about a Chinese man, Jian Feng, whose unnamed wife gave birth to a rather ugly baby, in his opinion. The child looked like neither parent.  Feng assumed the child was a ‘jacket’ and accused his wife of adultery.  But that was not her abomination.  The rather plain woman had done extensive plastic surgery to make herself beautiful.  Genes don’t lie so the baby came out looking like the ‘real’ mother.

article-2223718-15B43F0C000005DC-575_306x423Jian Feng filed for divorce on the grounds that his wife had deceived him. He won the case and was awarded US$120,000 – more than  the US$100,000 his wife had spent on plastic surgery.  I suppose if Feng had been a certain kind of Jamaican man he would have batter-bruised his wife physically.

But divorce, in this case, is emotional abuse.  Why couldn’t Feng have lived with the fact that his wife simply wanted to be beautiful?  In much the same way, Dwyane Jones just wanted to be the gully queen.  Death is a very high price to pay for that forbidden desire.

Addicted to Salt Fish

One of my favourite calypsoes is the Mighty Sparrow’s pungent tribute to salt fish.  The distinctive flavour of this delicacy makes the calypsonian salivate in verse after tasty verse.  And we all know that the fleshy salt fish over which the singer’s sensitive tongue playfully lingers is not to be taken literally.  Well, not entirely so.  That’s what makes the salty lyrics so sweet.

I have no problems with Sparrow’s celebration of the pleasures of savouring figurative salt fish.  In fact, he must be applauded for bringing into the open, so to speak, a subject that is often concealed in the kitchen cabinet.  Caribbean men love to eat certain kinds of salt fish in private – though some of them would never admit it in public.

What does bother me is our cut and dried addiction to salt fish of the literal kind.  All through the Caribbean – Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, right around the arc of islands to Aruba – salt fish is in our blood.  And it’s a provoking irony of history that salted cod, which was brought to the Caribbean as cheap food for enslaved Africans, has now stepped up in life.

‘One People’ documentary

A couple of Saturdays ago, on my regular market run to Papine, I went to Ras Hopeton’s cookshop to see if he had any fritters that had just come out of the frying pan.  I like my fritters crisp and hot.  Ras Hopeton’s shop is beautifully decorated with Ethiopian/Rastafari flags.  There are pictures of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I and the equally imperial Marcus Garvey. Empress Mennen and Prince Immanuel are there, as well as Queen Ifrica.  On a more mundane level, Red Rose tea, Wrigley’s and Pepsi signs are very much in evidence.

Hellshire before sand erosion

I was quite disappointed when Ras Hopeton told me he’s stopped selling fritters.  At $450.00 per pound, salt fish is just too expensive.  So now he’s doing only dumplings.  I questioned his decision, pointing out the big difference between the price of the dumplings – $25.00 and the fritters – $70.00.  His profit margin would be much higher from throwing in a little salt fish.  In any case, I really couldn’t buy ‘so-so’ fried flour. It’s not as if I was at Hellshire eating festival, along with one of Aunt Merle’s fat parrot fish.

Robbed of my fritters fix, I started to contemplate the culinary legacy of transatlantic slavery.  If that sounds too highfalutin, let me put it another way.  Why is ackee and saltfish our unofficial national dish?  On Independence day, as I watched the One People documentary, produced by Justine Henzell and Zachary Harding, I was amused to see how many people said their favourite Jamaican dish is ackee and saltfish: Donald Quarrie, Beverly Anderson Duncan, Mutabaruka, General Colin Powell, Sean Paul, Ainsley Henriques, Romain Virgo, Jack Scorpio, Constance White and Cliff Hughes.  Elephant Man was one of the exceptions with his mouth-watering description of roasted yam cut in two, pasted with chiffon butter and topped with roasted salt fish.  For Michael Lee Chin, it’s mackerel run down.

Import substitution

The ackee in the popular national dish is an appropriate enough symbol.  According to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, the ackee plant “was brought here in a Slave Ship from the Coast of Africa, and now grows very luxuriant, producing every year large quantities of fruit”.  The ackee was introduced around 1778 and it has certainly taken root in Jamaica.  Ackee also migrated to the Eastern Caribbean but it’s not usually eaten there.

The salt fish in our unofficial national dish is another story.  Unlike the ackee which has become totally Jamaican, imported saltfish is a symbol of our continued dependence on foreign goods and services.  Surrounded by a sea of fish, we still believe that Canadian cod or, more recently, Norwegian salt fish is the ideal complement to ackee.

One of the best policies advocated by the democratic socialists of the 1970s was import substitution.  I know I’m going to be accused of glamourising a period of Jamaican history that so many people feel was the closest thing to hell, thanks to Michael Manley.  Supermarkets practically empty of foreign foods!

But import substitution wasn’t just a matter of deprivation.  It was an opportunity for us to experiment with local raw materials and create new products.  Since we’re so stuck on ackee and saltfish, why haven’t we come up with a high quality local alternative to imported cod?

Culinary slavery

Just like our CARICOM partners in the Eastern Caribbean who don’t eat ackee, we are missing out on perfectly good local foods simply because we’re afraid to experiment. For example, the purple flower of the banana plant is edible.  I’ve seen it on sale in Asian grocery stores in London.  And the leaves of the sweet potato plant can be cooked down like calaloo.  Quite a few years ago, on a research visit to the Fiji campus of the University of the South Pacific, I discovered curried green jackfruit.  It’s absolutely delicious.

I think the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI) needs to do a global audit of food items from other tropical countries that are readily available in Jamaica and which we’re wasting simply because we don’t know their full value. I know it’s a real challenge to re-educate one’s taste buds.  Food culture is harder to change than ideology.  I get vexed with myself every time I buy an expensive piece of imported salt fish.  Fresh fish is just about the same price, if not a bit cheaper.  But I’m a victim of history.  Still, I’m trying to emancipate myself from culinary slavery.

Apologies to the ‘Penis Poet’

Ralph Thompson

It would be most unfortunate if, at this late stage of his distinguished career, Mr. Ralph Thompson were to be reduced to the ignoble stature of ‘penis poet’.  I could barely forgive myself for any role I might be perceived to have played in bringing such dishonour on the head of a fine poet.

All the same, I’m rather surprised to see that Ralph is carefully distancing himself from the delightfully pungent humour of the earthy poem he performed last month on the open mic at the Calabash International Literary Festival. In a somewhat petulant letter to the editor, published in the Gleaner on Monday, June 18, 2012,  Ralph grimly insisted that I had failed to grasp the depth, if not the length, of his penile poem.

The provocative headline of the letter was “The Full Monty On My ‘Penis’ Poem”. I suspect that Ralph didn’t have a thing to do with that strip-teasing headline; it’s far too suggestive. A mischievous editor appears to have been having a little fun at the poet’s expense.  And the wicked allusion to ‘the full Monty’ also implies that I didn’t quite have a handle on the poet’s meaty meaning.

The letter itself elaborates the point:  “In two of her recent columns, Carolyn Cooper, in commenting on a poem I read at Calabash, has used my name as a springboard for some of her general opinions about sexuality. This has been done in good fun, I am sure, but has inadvertently served to trivialise an otherwise serious poem.

In the interest of civility and protection of my reputation, I would be grateful if you would publish the poem in its entirety so that readers can judge for themselves the theological and poetic integrity of the work”.

Infectious laughter

William Blake illustration of the Book of Job

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!  ‘Mi sari, mi sari, mi sari, mi sari, sari’! I’ve exposed the poet’s impeccable reputation to the risk of infectious laughter by drawing undue attention to the opening line: “At 84, I have outlived my penis”.  The poet intended to discharge theology, not sexology.  Like the Old Testament Book of Job, the poem raises a deep question: why do the righteous suffer?

Or, more precisely in this instance, why does the righteous man suffer from sexual impotence? The answer is that one must just learn how to make a deal with God and accept his will, however unpleasant the circumstances. Memory of the itch and scratch of sexual ecstasy will persist. Writing poetry becomes an act of divine sublimation.

At core, Ralph Thompson’s poem is about the perversely pleasurable tension between sexual desire and sexual frustration.     For ease of reference, here’s the ‘non-penis’ poem in its entirety:

It’s a deal

“Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be.”

– Browning

At 84, I have outlived my penis

and now by His grace there is a peace of sorts.

But how to cope with memory, its walls scrawled

with graffiti of recall, where itch

still lingers dreaming ecstasies of scratch.

But I have learned from Job to bargain with the Lord –

a deal that He, post mortem, will contra

the excruciations of my journey

against the penances assigned to sin,

the divine books balanced.

Before Alzheimer’s dirty sleeve erases all,

quick, write a poem.

A cheap trick?

 Having dutifully made ‘a peace of sorts’ with Ralph, I still have lingering questions about the thrust of that potent opening line.  By focusing on the penis, I seem to have cut short the full extent of the poet’s weighty philosophical meditation. The ‘poetic integrity of the work’ has, apparently, been adulterated.

Ralph would have us believe that the alleged death of the penis wasn’t just a cheap trick to hook the reader/audience.  It was actually meant to signify the mysterious way in which God moves to perform his wonders.  Unfortunately, resuscitating a dead penis does not seem to be high on the list of divine priorities.

Calabash audience 2012

Fair is fair. I could much more easily accept Ralph’s ponderous theological argument with great civility if the opening line of the poem had been “At 84, I have outlived my knees”.  Of course, that decidedly unsexy line would have drawn no irreverent laughter.  Instead, the mature audience at Calabash would have nodded sympathetically. And the poet would have seemed rather lame.

Knee failure is a familiar ailment for many of us who are not quite 84. And well-oiled knees are a pleasure akin to sex that only those who are suffering from arthritis would understand.  Not to mention the delicate fact that certain sexual positions are off-limits to the weak-kneed.

Knee versus penis:  no contest.  I just don’t understand why Ralph can’t concede that a poet who could deliver such a penetrating line with a straight face is a cut above the rest.  This is not an impotent man whose identity is defined by half a foot, more or less, of dangling flesh.

Hans Sebald Beham illustration

In any case, sex is a theological issue.  It’s not a trivial matter.  Some theologians argue that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was sex.  That’s why Adam and Eve realised that they were naked only after eating it.  Not each other, of course.

I think Ralph got a little weak-kneed after reading my columns and decided that he had to take a stand against slackness, however feeble. But he’s done himself an injustice.  In his haste to demonstrate “the theological and poetic integrity of the work”, he has deflated the humour that buoyed up a rather depressing subject.

Ralph frames his own poem with a famous quotation from Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra”, a very long and very mournful reflection on ageing. Browning wrote the poem at the age of fifty-two, three years after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who had Jamaican roots. I much prefer Ralph’s version.  The dead penis made his poem spring to life:  the real deal.