Throwing Words and Calling Foul

Zafer (Turkey), 2nd place winner

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.

Looking for Hot Sex (and Romance)

Sperm and egg

Desperate situations require equally desperate measures.  Two Mondays ago, I discovered that one of my courses in the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona was at risk of being cancelled because of low enrolment.  I took immediate action.

I designed an ad with the seductive headline, ‘Looking for hot sex?’ Romance appeared on the second line in small print and in brackets. It wasn’t quite an afterthought.  But it didn’t get top billing. Sex was definitely the ‘grabber.’   Everybody knows that sex sells:  alcohol, cars, medicine, insurance, pet food, airline tickets, toilet paper – just about everything.  So why not literature, the mother of all advertising stories?

To be honest, this wasn’t a case of bait-and-switch:  appealing to fiery passion and delivering cold reason.  There was a lot of both sex and romance in the required texts for the course, African/Diaspora Women’s Narrative. I simply highlighted some of the ‘hot’ issues in the books.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s novel, Tar Baby, was hyped in this way: “A ‘high-colour’ fashion model in Paris swops her white lover for a black man.”  This was the hook for Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel, Changes:  “A Ghanaian woman divorces her insecure husband and becomes the second wife of a sexy, polygamous Muslim.”

“The widow of an upwardly mobile African-American man remembers their passionate lovemaking”.  That’s how Paule Marshall’s novel, Praisesong for the Widow, was marketed. The most difficult book on the course, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, written by Erna Brodber, was undressed to bare essentials: “A Jamaican woman falls in love with a black militant, loses her head and finds her culture.”

Tsitsi Dangarembga

The tag line for Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy came as easily as the heroine: “An upright young woman from the Caribbean searches for hot sex in urban America.”  The only book in which the main character was too young to be having sex was Nervous Conditions, written by the Zimbabwean novelist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga.  So instead of focusing on sex, I highlighted sexism.  Not entirely unrelated but not quite the same.

Selling literary sex toys

By the end of the week, the number of students registered in the course more than doubled and we were good to go. And they kept on coming.  The number tripled last week. I’m not claiming that my unorthodox advertising campaign was the only reason for the dramatic increase.   Students often register late.  But sexy marketing couldn’t have hurt.

The department secretary, Mr. Doniq Salmon, reported that, as he was putting up flyers, he was almost run over by eager students wanting to see what it was all about.  One of them thought we were selling sex toys!   Interestingly, what the ad revealed was just how prudish Jamaican society really is – even in the supposedly liberal environment of a university.

One of my male colleagues confessed that the ad did catch his attention but he hadn’t wanted anyone to see him reading it in the open. After all, he was a respectable married man, presumably getting hot sex and romance at home.  He was delighted to find the ad on another notice board in a less public location that allowed him to satisfy his desire to read it in relative privacy.  He was most amused, and, perhaps, disappointed to see that it was only an ad for my course.

Flyers put up in the immediate vicinity of the Faculty Office kept on being taken down; not by uptight censors, I hope.  The Head of Department, Dr. Nadi Edwards, teasingly chastised me for bringing literature into disrepute. All the same, he was quite pleased that the course didn’t have to be cancelled and conceded that the sexy ad must have been enticing.

Afraid of feminism

In the 1980s when feminism was still a hot topic, that course on fiction written by African, African-American and Caribbean women routinely attracted well over a hundred students.  These days, many young women are afraid of feminism.  They think that being feminist means they won’t get a man.

But feminism is not about rejecting men.  It’s a challenge to patriarchy, that oppressive system which imprisons both men and women in rigidly defined gender roles.  And many young men are cautious about studying literature – especially feminist literature – for fear they will be seen as ‘soft’.  That’s one of those crippling gender stereotypes:  literature is not a ‘manly’ subject.

As it turns out, it wasn’t just my course that was in trouble.  For the last five years we’ve seen an ominous decline in course registrations in the Department of Literatures in English.  Several factors account for this falling off.  For one, tuition fees have gone up. And students are also worried that they won’t get jobs after investing in university education.

On top of that, there’s been a significant reduction in the number of high school students doing literature up to CXC level, even worse, CAPE. So the pool of qualified candidates for tertiary programmes is drying up.  I think the Ministry of Education needs to consider making both English language and English literature compulsory subjects for all high school students.  They do make a very good pair.

Jamaica Library Service event

One of the best ways of developing English language skills is to read literature. Stories, poems and plays teach the nuances of a language in a most entertaining way.  I have to thank the Jamaica Library Service for the bookmobile that came to my neighbourhood twice per month when I was a teenager.  I got four books at a time and read with relish.

Of course, studying literature is not just about learning the mechanics of a language.  Literature is an exciting gateway to many worlds – real and imagined.  We really shouldn’t have to resort to sex to sell that idea.