At the opening of the ‘world-a-reggae’ poster exhibition last Sunday at the National Gallery of Jamaica, I had an arresting conversation with one of my upper-upper uptown friends. In a conspiratorial tone she insisted that she had to have a word with me. Then she disclosed that one of her grandfathers was Scottish from Port Royal and the other was Haitian. One grandmother was Indian. She didn’t mention the other. My friend wanted me to know that she was ‘out of many, one’. And she was Jamaican.
I agreed. I didn’t see a problem. Then she told me she’d gotten to understand that I was saying that people like her are not Jamaican. I was ‘flabberwhelmed’. That’s a lovely word from one of the novels I’m teaching this semester: Changes, by the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo.
Where did my friend get this nonsense? I’ve never said ‘out of many, one’ people are not Jamaican. I’m not crazy, though to judge from some of the feedback to my columns on the Gleaner’s website, you would think I’m certifiable. My friend couldn’t come up with any particular source. She had heard it or read it somewhere. ‘Yu see how people get bad name!’ Just like that.
All the same, I was glad she had confronted me. I was able to reassure her that I definitely thought she was Jamaican. Of course, I also had to gently remind her that she didn’t look like the majority of Jamaicans. Then I tried to explain the real issue as clearly as I could. It’s mostly ‘out of many, one’ people who are usually used to represent the national motto. It’s as if they are the sum total of the Jamaican people. She got my point.
Who is Jamaica, Again?
I’ve been trying to figure out how this wicked rumour started. It might have been triggered by the provocative headline of that New York Times opinion piece I wrote which was published on August 6th: “Who Is Jamaica?” But if you read the article you would immediately see that my answer does not exclude anybody. Whosoever will may come.
The column generated a lot a debate in the local media. And a lot of misunderstanding. Once I realised how contentious the article had become, I asked the Gleaner to republish it. I know lots of people don’t have access to the Internet. Anyhow, so far, the Gleaner hasn’t seen fit to make the column available to the local audience. ‘Mi ongle hope a no bex Marse Gleaner bex, seh mi a kip man up a New York wid im. Mi a free agent’.
Where could this untruth have come from? One of my colleagues had brought to my attention an article written by Jean Lowrie-Chin, published in the Observer on August 20. I’d read it and ‘mi just kiss mi teet’. I figured Jean was ‘playing fool fi ketch wise’. She couldn’t possibly be throwing words at me.
I decided to take a second look. Jean’s column is headlined “Jamaica Still Ahead of the Race Curve”. And she asks an inflammatory question: “Will the UWI Mona folks who refuse to accept non-blacks as Jamaicans forgo their salaries and professorial chairs, since they are so heavily subsidised by non-black business owners who contribute significantly to our national coffers?”
Who are these “UWI Mona folks”? Are they, perhaps, mythical? Jean is a distinguished graduate of the UWI’s Department of Literatures in English. So she knows about myth and metaphor, connotation and denotation, imagery and symbolism and lots of other literary terms. She couldn’t possibly have asked that question without being conscious of its nuances. But ‘since as me know it coulda never me she a talk bout, she can gwaan throw her corn. An me wi call foul’.
Craziness is relative
But quite apart from that foul ‘throw-word’, I’m surprised that Jean Lowrie-Chin doesn’t seem to understand the principle of academic freedom. Why should any professor at the University of the West Indies – or any other academic institution for that matter – feel constrained to say only what private sectors companies want to hear? Perhaps that’s how it works in public relations.
Jean isn’t the only culprit. In a letter to the Editor, published in The Gleaner on September 29, with the headline “Cooper Stuck in Racist Confrontation”, Elvena Reittie tells an outright lie in her last sentence below: “On Sunday, September 23, 2012, Professor Carolyn Cooper expressed concerns about the selection of children who were first displayed on the Jamaican two-dollar bills. She feels that Afro-Jamaicans who now form the greater portion of our population were not fairly represented in the picture. She feels that the selection of the children should have been all black Afro-Jamaica children.” I never said that.
Minority groups in Jamaica tend to get jumpy when black people start to talk about racial politics. In a column published on January 16, 2012, headlined “An Honest Look at Jamaica”, Jean Lowrie-Chin asserts: “Jamaicans have hybrid strength from the intermingling of various ethnic groups and there is nowhere in the world that enjoys our high level of racial harmony. So let us vehemently reject Carolyn Cooper’s declaration that those of us whose ancestors did not hail from Africa are mere ‘minorities’.” I didn’t say ‘mere’.
Privileged people in Jamaica are not prepared to lose status, even if it means admitting that they can’t do simple maths. All that ‘minority’ literally means is smaller in number. The sad irony of race in Jamaica is that numerical minorities tend to hog the majority of social space in so many arenas. That’s why Jean Lowrie-Chin can ask, with a flourish of unquestionable authority, “And what is this crazy accusation of racism in the selection of those featured in the Observer’s Page 2?” I guess the right answer to that rhetorical question is this: craziness is relative.