“I saw it in one of the two Gleaners.” That’s what a friend of mine said a couple of weeks ago when I asked her where she’d heard about a news item we were discussing. And she didn’t mean online and print. We both had a good laugh. We couldn’t believe that in the 21st century, Gleaner was still the generic name for a newspaper. And it’s not just in Jamaica. Even in the diaspora, readers of a certain age think of British, Canadian or American newspapers as Gleaners.
The Gleaner Company must be quite pleased with the enduring appeal of its brand name. For almost two centuries! As Shabba Ranks would say, “Dem a brandish.” On the other hand, I don’t suppose the owner of that much younger newspaper would be amused to see that it is branded as one of two Gleaners – especially after 21 years in business. If it’s any consolation, having two ‘Gleaners’ is a good thing. It gives the consumer choice. Monopolies have a way of becoming very arrogant.
I used to write a column for ‘the other Gleaner’ in the 1990s. When I read some of those articles now, I’m amazed at how little things have changed over the last two decades. We keep on having the same quarrels about language and colour and class and beauty contests, for example.
TO DI WORLD
An earlier version of last week’s column, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’, was published in 1993. And I proposed then that we start to judge beauty in distinct racial categories. My positively race-conscious Miss Jamaica competition – both World and Universe – could work in one of two ways.
Each year, contestants all of the same racial type could compete against each other: one year only African; the following year only ‘Out of Many One’. And so on: European, Chinese and Indian. Every type of beauty in turn! Equal opportunity. Affirmative action.
Or, each year, we could have contestants of all the racial types competing in segregated contests. Each contestant would be judged in the usual categories, according to the standards of her own racial type. Not someone else’s. The contestant who got the highest individual score, whatever her racial category, would be the overall winner.
This second option might be harder to manage. There would still be a sense of competition between racial categories. But just think of all the money the promoters could make running five beauty contests each year instead of just one! And it wouldn’t matter if the judges of international contests couldn’t see the beauty in our Miss Jamaica. We’d be confidently sending a message ‘to di world’ that we acknowledge the beauty of all of our women: ‘red and yellow, black and white’.
BLACK DON’T CRACK
The following year, as the annual quarrel about beauty contests heated up, I wrote another piece about sidelined royalty: farm and festival queens. These competitions are not even billed as beauty contests. It’s ‘talent’ that seems to count.
One of my male friends sent me a wicked response to last week’s column: “Next time I see a good-looking, dark-skinned woman, I will, as seems to be required by the current code, have to compliment her for her intelligence and talent, the favourable characteristics which women of her look are stereotypically assigned.”
Brains do last longer than beauty. And, in any case, since ‘black don’t crack’, as the African-Americans say, the intelligent and talented black woman often ends up looking much better than many a ‘beauty’ in the long run!
QUEEN OF QUEENS
Heritage Month will soon be here. We continue to celebrate Queen Nanny of the Maroons as an alternative model of queenship. Beyond the beauty contest business! In 1994, The University of the West Indies Press published Maroon Heritage, edited by the archaeologist Kofi Agorsah, who excavated many sites in Jamaica.
In that collection, there’s a brilliant essay by historian and poet Kamau Brathwaite in which he creatively makes sense of the myth that Nanny used her bottom to deflect the bullets of British soldiers: “There is no way that Nanny could have turned her back & done what they say she did. But she could have turned her back, lifted her skirt, & displayed the derriere as a symbol of derision & abuse which is a very common feature of ‘the culture’, as you know.”
Well, all I could think of when I read that lovely bit of mythmaking by Brathwaite was the image of Nanny in a batty-rider. I know some people will be absolutely offended by this imaginative ‘disrespecting’ of Nanny’s queenly image. But, let’s face it. The bottom is a very political surface in our culture. Sexual politics.
Which brings us to Miss Jamaica Dancehall. The potent female bottom in dancehall culture is surely related to the myth that Nanny used her bottom to ward off the bullets of British soldiers. In any case, in many African cultures, female elders will threaten to denude themselves as a way of bringing delinquent males in line.
So Queen Nanny can be seen in a new light: the sexy warrior queen. Perhaps, she’s an unexpected role model for today’s dancehall queens. A royal exposure of the female body! And you can say you saw it in the original Gleaner.
The Jamaica Observer’s intoxicating editorial on ethnic stocking in T&T, published on December 11, 2012, made a lot of otherwise level-headed people rather tipsy. Unable to hold their liquor, commentators across the region weepily lamented the crudeness of the Jamaicans in daring to bring into the open the closeted subject of racial politics in the two-island republic.
The provocative headline of the editorial, “The more important issue is abuse of substance”, managed to pretend that speculation about alleged alcohol abuse in high places was a relatively minor matter. It is not. In these times of global crisis, Caribbean nations need leaders with a sober head.
As they say in T&T, “Gopaul luck eh Seepaul luck.” That’s the equivalent of our Jamaican proverb, “Puss an dog no have di same luck.” Except our version is not race-specific. Perhaps, it’s because Jamaica is not as racially diverse as T&T. Our proverbs probably don’t need to be quite so racialised.
In any case, since my name is not Paul – whether “Go” or “See” – I know I’m stretching my puss luck by doggedly putting my mouth in the lingering debate about ethnic stocking in T&T. I really ought to take Jack Warner’s advice. As a mere Jamaican “cockroach”, I should not foolishly interfere in the “fouwl” business of the people of Trinidad and Tobago. We go see.
Raymond Ramcharitar must take full blame for dragging me into the foul coop. In his article published in the T&T Guardian on Wednesday, December 19, 2012, with the rip-off headline, “Who is Jamaica?”, Ramcharitar makes a completely unfounded claim: “An indispensable preamble to the Jamaica Observer’s December 11 “ethnic stocking” editorial is an op-ed by Jamaican (UWI) academic, Prof Carolyn Cooper, in the NY Times on August 5.”
I suppose Dr. Ramcharitar is an agile creative writer and cultural critic who usually manages to jump over ideological hurdles with ease. But this leap is rather wobbly. Ramcharitar attempts to hang on to a very tenuous link that only he can see between the Observer editorial and my much earlier article which had absolutely nothing to do with ethnic stocking in either Jamaica or T&T.
The focus of my polemical piece was the self-centredness of the “colour-blind” elite who continue to assert the fiction, enshrined in the national motto, that Jamaica is a multiracial society: “Out of Many, One People.” Misrepresenting my argument, Ramcharitar tries to turn me into a spokeswoman for what he contemptuously dismisses as “garden variety US Afrocentrism.”
Living in a racially divided society that polarises “Africans” and “Indians”, Ramcharitar apparently cannot resist the urge to pick a side. And my supposedly “Afrocentric” side of the argument cannot possibly make sense. So Ramcharitar gives a garbled account of what I say. This is how he puts it: “. . . the imperative of (Afro) Jamaicans is ‘rejecting the homogenising myth of multicultural assimilation.’” But the ‘Afro’ is Ramcharitar’s issue. That’s his insertion.
My argument is not quite so simplistic. It’s not only “(Afro) Jamaicans” who need to reject the myth. It’s the collective ‘we.’ This is what I actually wrote: “The roots of our distinctive music, religion, politics, philosophy, science, literature and language are African. But the culture of African Jamaicans has been marginalized in the construction of the nation-state. Fifty years after independence, we must revise our fictive national motto, rejecting the homogenizing myth of multicultural assimilation.”
This is not “garden variety US Afrocentrism.” It’s pure Jamaican common sense. But what is wrong with Afrocentrism anyhow? Particularly in the US, where African Americans are a minority group, it is essential to affirm one’s distinctive heritage and identity. Ramcharitar does not seem to understand this need. In fact, he appears to chide the New York Times for publishing my ‘Afrocentric’ article. In his opinion, my argument “is not logic the Times ordinarily endorses.”
But an op-ed piece, by its very nature, is an expression of the opinions of a single writer. It is not an editorial reflecting the ‘party line’ of the newspaper. In fact, the ‘op’ in op-ed is not an abbreviation of ‘opinion’. It means ‘opposite’. The op-ed appears opposite the editorial page. And in many instances it is oppositional in its politics, disdaining editorial endorsement. This subtlety is, perhaps, lost on Dr. Ramcharitar.
Making yet another clumsy leap, Ramcharitar asserts that the Observer editorial and, by implication, my opinion piece both prove that “there’s no difference between ethnic fascism and cultural criticism; and racial ignorance and free speech are the same.” And this rather sorry state of affairs is, allegedly, all the fault of the University of the West Indies where “US Afrocentric nonsense thrives.”
Ramcharitar further declares that “Cultural Studies at St. Augustine is understood as an ethnic (Afrocentric) pursuit, despite the fact that elementary knowledge of the subject refutes this.” His sly use of the passive voice – “is understood” – apparently absolves him of all responsibility to disclose which academics, exactly, at St. Augustine actually practise Cultural Studies as “an ethnic (Afrocentric) pursuit.”
Widening his attack on Caribbean/Cultural Studies beyond UWI, Ramcharitar claims that in many US and Canadian universities, “Caribbean history and society have become an appendix of African American history, another theatre of slavery and black oppression, erasing all other histories.”
But writing history from an Africanist perspective need not erase Indo-Caribbean or any other history. There are multiple Caribbean histories to be written, from diverse perspectives. Despite Dr. Ramcharitar’s disdain for the University of the West Indies, the UWI Press, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, has done an excellent job of publishing a wide range of books that try to tell the whole story of Caribbean history and culture.
It is my intuition that the admittedly inflammatory Observer editorial gave Dr. Ramcharitar a good excuse to display his own brand of ethnic fascism: undermining the scholarship from UWI and elsewhere on African people in the Diaspora. The pertinent question raised by Ramcharitar’s bilious column is not, “Who is Jamaica?” It is, “Who is the real racist?”