Superpower Jamaican Accent for the Super Bowl

       images-11Don’t mind the IMF.  Thanks to Volkswagen of America, Inc., we’re been reminded yet again that Jamaica is a cultural superpower.   According to Wikipedia, “A superpower is a state with a dominant position in the international system which has the ability to influence events and its own interests and project power on a worldwide scale to protect those interests”.

       Of course, the meaning of ‘power’ in that definition is, essentially, political, economic and military.   Superpowers are the big guns of the world.  The British Empire in the bad old days of in-your-face colonisation was the first ‘modern’ superpower.  Britannia ruled the waves, captured lands far and wide and now evades reparations.  After all, Britons never, never, never shall be slaves – not even to fundamental principles of natural justice.

cold-war  Eventually, all across the globe, exploited colonies demanded independence and the sun finally set on the British Empire.  The Soviet Union and the United States of America both inherited the superpower mantle and aggressively fought for supremacy in the Cold War.  These days, China, India, Brazil and the European Union are all ready to claim superpower status.

Clearly, Jamaica is not in this big league. We’re not in the ‘Group of Eight’: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia the U.K. and the United States.  We’re not in the ‘Plus Five’:  Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa.  We’re in no group.  We’re in a class by ourselves.


Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson image

Long ago, Marcus Garvey gave us the formula for our greatness:  “God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be.  Follow always that great law.  Let the sky and God be our limit and Eternity our measurement”.

Garvey also wickedly said, “The whole world is run on bluff”.  But he certainly wasn’t bluffing when he conceived the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL).  Garvey had a grand vision of what black people could achieve.  Although he was born on a small island, Garvey was not insular. His consciousness was continental.

Peter Phillips and Miss Mattie

Like Garvey, Louise Bennett celebrated the unlimited potential of the Jamaican people.  In one of her most amusing poems, “Independance” – yes, “dance” – Miss Lou creates a raucous character, Miss Mattie, who gives a most entertaining account of what independence means to her.  It’s not the song and dance of constitutional arrangements.  It’s much more primal:

Mattie seh it mean we facety

Stan up pon we dignity.

An we don’t allow nobody

Fi teck liberty wid we.


Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

An she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independant to.

Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips

Miss Lou here wittily suggests that so-called ‘ordinary’ people like Miss Mattie are way ahead of politicians in their understanding of power dynamics.  Perhaps Peter Phillips should ask Miss Mattie to come along to the IMF negotiations.  She would not be afraid of proposing her own conditionalities.

Indeed, Miss Mattie has a rather expansive view 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


Turning History Upside Down

black_britain   Miss Mattie shows up in another humorous poem by Miss Lou, “Colonization in Reverse”:

What a joyful news, Miss Mattie

Ah feel like me heart gwine burs –

Jamaica people colonizin

Englan in reverse

Taking our cultural “bag an baggage” to the stepmother country, Jamaicans turned history upside down, reversing the flow of influence.

These days, our distinctive Jamaican ‘Patwa’ is the preferred language of youth culture in England.  Last summer, in a moment of deranged grief as the embers of widespread riot died down, the British historian David Starkey lamented the success of Jamaica’s reverse colonisation of England:  “black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together, this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.”


It’s not only England that’s been colonised by Jamaican culture.  It’s the whole world, as Miss Mattie would say.  Which brings us to the VW Super Bowl ad that had 4.6 million hits by Friday morning.

Why does it feature a white man from Minnesota speaking with a stilted Jamaican accent?


a)   The man was born in Jamaica, migrated as a ‘yute’ and hasn’t been back in a very long time.  But he tries his best to sound Jamaican.

b)   The man was born in the US to Jamaican parents and has never visited Jamaica.  But he tries his best to sound Jamaican.

c)   The man was born in Minnesota, went to Jamaica on vacation, fell in love with the language and tries his best to sound Jamaican.

d)   The man was born in the U.S., has never been to Jamaica except on the Internet, fell in love with the culture and tries his best to sound Jamaican.

e)   The man is a pretty good actor who was coached by a Jamaican and tried his best to sound Jamaican.

In an excellent interview with Jamaican blogger Corve DaCosta, the star of the VW ad, Erik Nicolaisen, said, “I have been a lifelong reggae fan, and as a voice actor I have tried to put a little patois into my repertoire”.  Jamaican popular music has been a potent medium for spreading our language across the globe. As Miss Mattie confidently asserts, Jamaica is not in the Caribbean Sea; we’re in every ocean of the world.

Adam Stewart

Adam Stewart

As was to be expected, some very clever Jamaicans have produced a brilliant spoof on the VW ad.  It was Adam Stewart’s bright idea.  As CEO of Sandals Resorts International, he knows a thing or two about VWs.  The brand is in the family of companies.  The creative team at Sandals ran with Adam’s idea.  The satirical remake features a happy-go-lucky black man speaking English with a German accent. He dances off-beat and gets everybody in the nightclub to follow suit; he eats jerk chicken with sauerkraut and inspires the jerk man to do the same; he arrives to work seven minutes early and, when he is chided by his boss, cheerfully promises to return in ten minutes.

The Jamaican dub version of the VW ad slyly mocks German efficiency.  It also takes a crack at our own willingness to follow fashion. We often copy others who are copying us.  But since the inspiration for the original ad appears to be the perception that Jamaicans set standards that the whole world can imitate – whether it’s exceptional happiness or inventive language – it’s all in good fun.

The Jamaican presence at the Super Bowl wasn’t just the VW ad.  It was Beyoncé doing the dutty wine, to the invigorating beat of Sean Paul.  And to makes things even more like home, there was that nicely orchestrated power cut!  Jamaica is a superpower. Be happy about it. Yeah, mon!







Out of Many, One Problem

Miss Lou

In 1948, Louise Bennett’s subversive poem ‘Nayga Yard’ was published in Public Opinion. I don’t know what or who provoked Miss Lou. Beneath the humour of her poetry, there was always a serious intention to expose the true face of Jamaican society. This is how ‘Nayga Yard’ blasted off:

Cock cyaan beat cock eena cock own yard

We all know dat is true

Is who-for yard Jamaica is?

Is who dah beat up who?

Fast-forward to 2012. Last week, I got a most distressing email. Here’s an excerpt: “I too made my way to the Jamaica village to mark the celebration of our nation on Monday, August 6 with my daughter. My heart beating with pride, my body decked out in the national colours and my hands waving the flag, I excitedly joined the festivities. Then it was back home to Waterhouse where I live.

“This morning, I woke up feeling a sense of loss, not because ‘mi menopausal effects a kick mi an mek mi feel like a drug addict weh want a fix’, but because my daughter, who graduated from the UWI, went to a job interview a few months ago and was asked “is this address where you will come from to work every day?” Weh dem mean by dat? A yah so she live, so wah? So I, in my motherly wisdom, that is, trying to steer the child in the way of survival, caution her to change her address”.



As we celebrate the Olympic victories of our male and female athletes, we cannot afford to forget that after the festivities, we all have to go back home to Waterhouse. We have to confront the deep-rooted problems of colour and class prejudice in Jamaican society. This is how that distressed mother ended her heartbreaking email:

“If an interviewer says to a young person who is fresh out of college and has limited resources, that to have a car would help your personal development, what exactly do they mean, and if young people are not trained, where will the years of experience come from? If class and colour still takes [sic] precedence over character and hard work, should we be surprised when some of us decide ‘fi tun cruff’?”

In 1948, Miss Lou was much more optimistic than this mother from Waterhouse about the prospects for black people in colonial Jamaica:

Call fi Jamaica fastes sprinters

Gal or bwoy, an den

De foremos artis, doctor, scholar –

Nayga reign again!

Miss Lou humorously admits that ‘nayga’ are also dominant in less desirable spheres:

Go eena prison, poor house, jail

Asylum – wha yu see?

Nayga dah reign predominant!

De place belongs to we!

Who is fooling who?

Nobody in their right mind could look at the crowd of people in the National Stadium on August 6 and not see that Jamaica is a predominantly black society. Ninety per cent of Jamaicans are black, black, black. Bleach or no bleach. So why is our national motto, ‘Out of Many, One People’? Who are the ‘many’ and who are the ‘one’? Who came up with this motto? And what was its purpose? Who is fooling who? Or ‘whom’, in deference to the purists.

Incidentally, ‘whom’ is fast dying. The English language keeps on reinventing itself and bits and pieces fall by the wayside. But some of us in Jamaica will be the very last to know. We’re convinced that English grammar is divinely ordained. So a grammatical error is a sign of sin, not just a slip of the lip. For example, we assume that the use of ‘whom’ shows that we’re very righteous. Some of us even wrongly use ‘whom’ for ‘who’ as in, “May I say whom is calling?” It just sounds so ‘stush’.


Anyhow, when I was asked by a newspaper ‘a farin’ to write an opinion piece on Jamaica to be published on Independence Day, I decided to focus on troubling questions about identity. I suppose I could have written an obviously celebratory piece ‘bigging up’ our athletes and singing the glories of Jamaica in many other fields of accomplishment.

I’d actually started off with the headline, ‘Jamaica – A Speck of Greatness’. I’d spoken on that topic at a TEDxIrie event held in April 2011 in Kingston. TED talks are designed to promote technology, entertainment and design. The x brand signifies a local event. The ‘Irie’ forum was organised by Knolly Moses, CEO of the cleverly named Panmedia, a digital agency specialising in mobile, social media, online marketing, and web development.

The forum’s goal was “to show the world that Jamaica’s size doesn’t limit what we can contribute globally in all areas of human activity”. TEDxIrie featured speakers in a range of fields: Ebony Patterson (fine art); Jacqueline Sutherland and Mark Jones (contact centre services); Kaiton Williams (information sciences); Wayne Marshall (not, Tru Tru Tru; this Marshall is an American ethnomusicologist with expertise in Caribbean popular music); I kicked off the forum, with a talk on repositioning Brand Jamaica.

As I started to write that Independence piece, the national motto kept on bothering me. It was forcing me to reflect on some of the deep-rooted contradictions of our society. So I decided to focus on the spirit of resistance to imperialism and racism in Jamaican culture, another form of celebration, I would argue: who-is-jamaica.html

Marlene Malahoo Forte

In a recent radio interview with Marlene Malahoo Forte, I was most surprised by her interpretation of the motto. ‘Many’ could mean people from different walks of life. It doesn’t necessarily signify race. Not even her predecessor Motty Perkins, in his worse moments of Anancyism, would make such claim. We’re still afraid to confront the issue of race and that’s why we continue to take comfort in our deceptive national motto. One people? Just ask that mother from Waterhouse.

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:


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


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:


Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

And she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independent to


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.

Voting In English

Errol Miller

Professor Errol Miller, chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), made an alarming statement in his broadcast to the nation last Wednesday. Speaking to election-day workers, the goodly professor issued guidelines that included the following: “Use Standard English in addressing each elector. English is the official language of the country and election day is an official event and occasion.”

Who authorised Errol Miller to make this discriminatory pronouncement? Surely, there is no law that legislates the language of elections! Professor Miller’s ill-considered declaration appears to be nothing more (or less) than class prejudice – a vulgar attempt to impose standards of correctness arbitrarily.

Under pressure, Professor Miller came up with an intriguing argument in defence of the guideline: “What we have found in reviewing practice is that some people resented being addressed in the dialect to start off with because someone just looks at them and addresses them in the dialect and another person comes and they address them in English, they resented that, they charged people with speaking down to them, so we just said, ‘Give everybody the same treatment and we have done that in every election since’.”

Polling tent, Portmore

Since electors can enter the polling station only one at a time, I don’t how they would know who is being addressed in English and who in ‘dialect’. Electors could only know for sure how he/she is addressed.   Admittedly, in some instances, open air polling stations do, in fact, compromise the principle of privacy.  All the same, if resentment at being addressed in ‘dialect’ was the real reason for the guideline, this is what the professor should have said: “Use Standard English in addressing each elector. Don’t judge an individual’s competence in English based on how he/she looks.”

But, of course, that is not the whole story. When the professor goes on to say that English is the official language and election day an official event, he is actually affirming the absolute authority of English as the sole language of official communication. He does not allow any space for the official use of ‘dialect’. The mother tongue of the vast majority of Jamaicans has no place in the public sphere.

Living in the past

Quite frankly, I think Errol Miller is living in the past. There was a time when many Jamaicans were quite ashamed of speaking ‘dialect’. They had been taught that English was the exclusive language of upward social mobility and ‘dialect’ a sign of congenital inferiority. That’s the legacy of colonialism: mental slavery.

Louise Bennett

But, over time, attitudes have slowly changed. As a society, we have become more comfortable with accepting our own culture, including the language – not ‘dialect’ – that we have collectively created. Louise Bennett, Jamaica’s premier language activist, has helped us to acknowledge the value and power of our distinctive Jamaican language.

In several of her poems, Miss Lou does explore the anxiety about language that still afflicts some of us. In ‘No Lickle Twang’, a mother laments the fact that her son who spent all of six months in the United States has come back home without an accent:

“Bwoy, yuh no shame? Is so yuh come?

After yuh tan so long!

Not even lickle language, bwoy?

Not even lickle twang?”


The young man’s failings are measured against his sister’s remarkable success:

“An yuh sister what work ongle

One week wid Merican

She talk so nice now dat we have

De jooce fi understan.”

Miss Lou makes fun of the mother who doesn’t seem to mind the fact that she has a hard time understanding her daughter. All that matters is that the daughter ‘talk so nice’. Language is no longer a means of communication. It becomes a decoration that the speaker can brandish like jewellery.

Victory over Baby Bruce

Election day workers, Kingston

When I went to vote on Thursday, I made it my business to speak in Jamaican. And my election worker readily responded in the same language, completely ignoring Professor Miller’s guideline. The chairman of the ECJ seems to have assumed that no elector would ever come to the polling station wanting to speak a language other than English. He’s wrong.

Furthermore, the pernicious guideline is based on the assumption that all Jamaicans are competent in English. But this is not so. Professor Miller’s insistence on the use of English clearly discriminates against speakers of Jamaican. What the guideline should have said, if any thing, is ‘respond to electors in the language they use’. End of story. That’s common sense. Any intelligent election-day worker would know that. He/she doesn’t need an officious guideline.

Portia Simpson Miller

Professor Miller’s stubborn defence of his guideline betrays the same kind of arrogance at the core of the demeaning G2K ads that portrayed Portia Simpson Miller as a bumbling idiot. What G2K did not take into account is the fact that Sista P is a powerful symbol of what working-class people can achieve with determination and ‘whole heap’ of hard work. Every attack on Portia Simpson Miller was taken personally by working-class people who constitute the majority of voters.

And, as Sista P demonstrated so coolly in the ‘disappointing’ debate with Andrew Holness, she can, most certainly, hold her own where and when it matters. The debate was ‘anti-climactic’ only for those foolish people who expected Sista P to fall flat on her face. She beat Holness in the debate, and this was a clear sign of things to come. Despite all the mockery, Sista P led her party to a resounding victory over Baby Bruce.

Andrew Holness in defeat

Andrew Holness was just not ready for prime time. The main plank of his campaign was that he is young. But is that enough? He was supposed to be the fresh new face of the JLP. Baby Bruce tried to position himself “on the extreme periphery” of the Dudus-Manatt imbroglio. Nobody was fooled. Working-class Jamaicans may not be fully competent in English. But they can certainly spot a ‘samfie’ man in any language.

Drawing Sister P’s Tongue

Don’t draw my tongue! And don’t trouble this girl! Because I don’t fraid a no man, no gyal, nowhere!” Translated into English, Portia Simpson Miller’s infamous declaration sounds rather tame: “Don’t provoke me! And don’t antagonise me! Because I’m not afraid of any man or any woman anywhere!’

That’s the power of the Jamaican language. It gets you in the gut. And in the head! On top of that, body language amplifies the meaning of words. So Sister P repeatedly beats her chest, vigorously waves her right hand emphatically shakes her head from side to side. She pulls out all the stops. After all, she’s at a People’s National Party (PNP) political rally, not an election debate.

Incidentally, the English expression ‘pulling out all the stops’ comes from the language of the pipe organ. As a former organist at the North Street Seventh-day Adventist Church, I do know a thing or two about this musical instrument. Pipe organs have stops that control the flow of air through the pipes. Pulling out the stops literally pumps up the volume.

Nana Yaa Asantewa

Sister P effectively uses her organ of speech to show her supporters (and detractors) that she’s a militant woman in the tradition of Nanny of the Maroons and a whole host of African warrior women like Queen Nzinga of Angola and Nana Yaa Asentewaa of Ghana. Nzinga led a relentless war against Portuguese slave traders in the 17th century.

Much later, Yaa Asentewaa rose up as commander of the Ashanti army in the famous battle against British colonialism in 1900, known as the War of the Golden Stool. The covetous British predators held up the Ashanti people at gunpoint, demanding that they hand over the golden stool, the symbol of the sovereignty of the nation. The Ashanti refused, and war ensued. Yaa Asentewaa defeated the British, reclaiming independence for her people.

‘Tun down di ting’

In the 2007 election campaign, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) attempted to draw Portia Simpson Miller’s tongue by provocatively distorting her battle cry. Her fierce words became the mouthpiece, so to speak, of the JLP advertising campaign. I suppose it was easier to knock down Portia Simpson Miller than to prop up Bruce Golding.

Sister P’s image was digitally ‘enhanced’ to make the then prime minister look as if she was stark staring mad. The commercial worked beautifully. Even hard-core PNP supporters were duped by the dishonest JLP advertisement which appealed to rank class prejudice. Portia Simpson Miller’s fearless use of the Jamaican language and her fiery disposition turned her into a virago. She was obviously disqualified to be prime minister since she could not represent Jamaica with dignity on the world stage.

Portia Simpson Miller at the ILO, Geneva

I’m surprised that the PNP did not counter that fraudulent depiction of Portia Simpson Miller with compelling images of her commanding presence at global meetings, such as those of the International Labour Organisation, and other transnational forums at which she often receives standing ovations for her stirring speeches.

Just before the 2007 election, I had an amusing conversation at the Papine Market with a middle-class woman who introduced herself as a long-standing member of the PNP. She confessed that she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Sister P. She feared that Mrs Simpson Miller would ‘throw her frock tail over her head’.

I laughingly pointed out the fact that Sister P’s elegantly tailored suits could not go over her head. But, of course, this conflicted woman was speaking metaphorically. In the middle of the Dudus-Manatt debacle, she rather sheepishly made another confession. She was so ashamed that she hadn’t voted for Sister P.

In 2011, the JLP has again resorted to drawing Sister P’s tongue. G2K is desperately trying to revive that discredited commercial. Portia Simpson Miller’s powerful words are misinterpreted as evidence that she needs ‘anger management’. A mocking female chastises her: “No sah! Self-control, Sister P. Tun down di ting, yu behaviour too loud.” Too loud in comparison to what? I suppose the 13 pretty ladies surrounding Andrew Holness.

Voting for the dead

Cynics like to say that most politicians are dead from the neck up. And, in Jamaica, duppies have a way of rising from the grave and voting in elections. But voting for the dead is not only about corrupt politicians and corrupted voting lists. I always vote in honour of my disenfranchised ancestors who never ever got the chance to have a say in who should ‘run tings’ in this country.

The spirit of emancipation: Isaac Mendes Belisario’s hand-colored lithograph “Queen Maam” (1837-38)

For more than three centuries, enslaved Jamaicans could not vote. In 1834 when slavery was abolished, black people became entitled to vote – in theory. In practice, it wasn’t that easy. The right to vote was tied to property ownership. If you couldn’t afford to vote, you had no voice. You definitely had to ‘tun down di ting’.

These days we take the right to vote for granted. So much so that some of us can’t even bother to exercise  that right. We assume that if we don’t vote, we can’t be held responsible for the mess politicians usually make. But non-voters actually end up electing candidates by default. By doing nothing, they choose to vote for whoever wins. It’s as simple as that.

Furthermore, the precious right to vote is a great social leveller. As Louise Bennett put it so pointedly in her poem, Revelation:

Everybody got a vote, an

Every vote gwine swell de score;

Missa Issa, Missa Hanna

An de man wat sweep de store.

This week, as Jamaicans of all social classes go to the polls to elect a prime minister, we are faced with a choice between a self-confident woman and a self-satisfied man. And there’s a world of difference between the two. But don’t draw my tongue.

Beckles caught in the slips

Chris Gayle

Sir Hilary Beckles’ statement of regret at comparing Chris Gayle to ‘Dudus’ is, quite frankly, an apology for an apology. No typing error here:  the meaning of these two apologies is not at all identical in this context.  The first apology is a weak excuse for the second.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives four contradictory definitions of ‘apology’:

1.       The pleading off from a charge or imputation; defence or vindication from accusation or aspersion

2.       Justification, explanation, or excuse

3.       A frank acknowledgement, by way of reparation, of offence given, or an explanation that offence was not intended, with expression of regret for any given or taken

4.       A poor substitute

   The history of the word ‘apology’ reveals how meaning changes over time.  It also illustrates the way in which English, the world’s most greedy patois, devours words from other languages, sometimes mangling their meaning.  As Louise Bennett puts it so mischievously in Aunty Roachy Seh, ‘dem shoulda call English Language corruption of Norman French an Latin an all dem tarra language what dem seh dat English is derived from.’

The English ‘apology’ comes from the Greek ‘apologia.’ Originally, an apology was an act of self-justification.  That’s the second meaning of the word given in the OED:  a defensive speech.  By the 18th century, a new meaning of the word evolved: the OED’s third definition.

Crude statement

Dudus under escort

Instead of immediately accepting that he’d erred in making the unfortunate comparison between Gayle and ‘Dudus,’ Sir Hilary first tried to suggest that it was a matter of ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘misrepresentation.’  Those of us who were angered by his crude statement were suffering from a failure to understand.  It’s not that we understood and took offense.  We were not smart enough to read beneath the surface of his statement and fathom its hidden depth of innocent meaning.

When that ploy failed, Sir Hilary attempted another stroke.  He took a crack at an apology. But the ball edged the bat and he got caught in the slips. The knight’s apology is not one that commoners would readily accept.  It doesn’t have quite the right degree of humility.

Sir Hilary’s statement of regret appears to be a classic ‘apologia’ masquerading as an ‘apology.’ It’s a rather elaborate justification of what he said and what he thinks we all misunderstood.  Here’s a quote that’s posted on the website of the Barbados Nation:

“I am satisfied that the parts of my lecture which have caused public concern have been misrepresented and misunderstood and deductions made which were not obvious to me or intended.

“I am now aware of the anguish these deductions have caused in Jamaica and, in particular, an offending reference, which was not intended in any way to be comparative to anyone. I truly regret this.

“My assessment of leadership as expressed in public images was not intended to produce any negative effect or harm to any cricketer, especially to Mr Chris Gayle, who I consider to be an outstanding West Indies cricketer.

“I offer this statement of regret in all sincerity.”

The surprising clause, “I am satisfied,” has no business in a genuine apology.  What can Sir Hilary’s use of the word ‘satisfied’ possibly mean in this context?  ‘I’ve had enough?’  ‘I’m pleased?’  ‘I acknowledge the fact that I’ve made one hell of a mistake?’

Sir Hilary’s fundamentally unapologetic apologia reproduces the fiction of misrepresentation, misunderstanding and (baseless) deduction.  It is the deductions that have caused anguish, not the substance of his own remarks!  And if likening Chris Gayle to ‘Dudus’ ‘was not intended in any way to be comparative to anyone’, what was the point?  Was it a slip of the lip?  And, if so, what does this Freudian slip reveal?

Arrogant cricket board

C.L.R. James’ vintage cultural studies text, Beyond a Boundary, published in 1963, gives a brilliant account of the history of West Indies cricket. I’m sure Sir Hilary knows this book intimately.  James devotes an entire chapter to the Panamanian-Jamaican batsman, George Headley, who isn’t even mentioned in the professor’s grand genealogy of the fall of West Indies cricket from the Father of the Nation, Sir Frank Worrell, to the degenerate Don, Chris ‘Dudus’ Gayle.

True, the magisterial Headley wasn’t a captain.  But he certainly led by example.  James reverentially describes the master in the Latinate terms of his Queen’s Royal College education: ‘nascitur non fit’ – born not made.  He elaborates:  ‘this West Indian narrowly escapes being the greatest batsman I have ever seen.  Pride of place in my list goes to Bradman, but George is not far behind.’

I don’t think it’s a simple case of anti-Jamaica prejudice that makes Sir Hilary finger Gayle as the bad man of West Indies cricket. It’s much more complex.  As a member of the West Indies Cricket Board, Sir Hilary appears to have internalised the arrogance of rulers who desperately try to keep the ruled under control.  And Gayle will have none of that.  So he must be a don in the worst possible sense of that word.

In the early years of Spanish conquest of the Americas, the title ‘don’ unapologetically belonged to the aristocracy, somewhat like a knighthood.  These days, a don is, supposedly, a social outcast, though in the case of ‘Dudus’ so much political capital was expended to prevent him from being cast out!

Sir Hilary

Sir Hilary’s error of judgement is not only the deliberate comparison of Gayle with ‘Dudus’.  It is also his failure to recognise that uprooting don-manship in West Indian cricket may just mean wresting power from the aristocratic dons of the West Indies Cricket Board and putting it securely in the hands of enterprising players.  Cricket is no longer a gentleman’s game.  It’s big business, as Chris Gayle knows all too well.