Psssst! Hi Sexy!

65277It sounds just like the hiss of a poisonous snake. And many women immediately sense danger when a strange man on the street calls out to them in this way. I don’t think Jamaican men even think about what they’re doing when they psssst women on the street. It’s a reflex action. A man sees an attractive women and he instinctively knows he must proposition her. That’s just the way it is. That’s our culture.

But this culture can be very oppressive for women. You want to go about your business unmolested. Instead, you are forced to listen to a whole lot of foolishness: “Hi, sexy! Hi, fatty! Wa a gwaan? Mi can come home wid yu?” No man in his right mind expects the woman to say, “Yes, baby, yu can come.” He’s just practising his lines.

Even though the man knows full well that he’s only trying a ting, he can still get quite offended and very offensive if you make the mistake of not acknowledging him. You’re in for a whole lot of abuse. All of a sudden, you become a completely undesirable demon who must be verbally attacked. Even worse, you may be physically assaulted.

For a peaceful life, it sometimes makes sense to just say ‘hi’ and keep moving. But if you do say ‘hi’ this is seen as an invitation to prolong the interaction. And if you keep moving, your refusal to stop and engage in conversation is then interpreted as an insult. So, either way, is pure abuse.

TURNING THE TABLES

Some time ago, I was on my morning walk dressed appropriately in exercise wear. I was greeted by a very ‘friendly’ man: “Morning, Miss! I like your shape this morning. Can I be your friend?” I couldn’t help it. I had to laugh. Then I said, “No sir, mi not looking no friend this morning.”

And I put it to him. How would he feel if a woman stopped him and said, “Morning, Sir! I like your shape this morning. Can I be your friend?” It was his turn to laugh. He said the woman would have too much pride to admit that she found him attractive. So then I asked him if men don’t have pride.

He said is not that men don’t have pride. But when you see certain women, you can’t help yourself. The attraction just bubbles up and you have to say something. As far as he was concerned, the woman should just know he was paying her a compliment.

thBut what if the tables are turned? While I was on my walk another morning, a man on a bicycle called out to me in passing, “Hi, sexy!” My immediate response was, “Hi, sexy!” He almost fell off his bicycle. He certainly hadn’t expected me to return the compliment, such as it was.

I suppose he felt entitled to call out to me. After all, im a man. And he probably assumed I would be pleased with his view of me as a sex object out on the road purely for his entertainment. I wasn’t exactly telling the truth when I called him ‘sexy’. I had no way of measuring his sexiness. I was simply serving him back his sour sauce. And it was most effective.

SEX EDUCATION

Michael Thelwell wrote a brilliant novel based on the movie The Harder They Come. He cleverly fleshes out the story. There’s a powerful scene in which a domestic worker comprehensively puts in his place a gardener who was trying to friend her up:

“‘Since when me and you is frien’?’ she demanded. ‘Me is you love? What I would want wid all like you? What you have dat I want? You have money? You have looks? You have colour? You have education? No! You doan have nothing in you favour. You ugly, you poor, you ignorant and you black. When you see me a street, don’t talk to me, y’hear’? She sucked her teeth, tossed her head, and started off, her proud b*tty rolling with indignation.

‘After you is nothing but a damn garden bwai,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘You think garden bwai money can get me?'” That is a very hot piece of tracing. But if the man hadn’t called out to the woman, she wouldn’t have had the chance to list what she considered to be all his limitations. Proverbial wisdom warns, “Trouble deh a bush, yu bring it a yard.” This man certainly brought down trouble on himself. All the same, his fellow gardeners felt it was their duty to help him to take revenge on the woman.

alllogHow do we change this culture of male entitlement? On a recent ‘All Angles’ programme on TVJ, I half-seriously suggested that we pass a law making it illegal for men to call out to woman on the street. And it would have to be an equal-opportunity law. Women shouldn’t be allowed to call out to men either.

This law wouldn’t work. Men and women should be able to compliment each other courteously. We have to start with the children, teaching them how to treat each other with affection and respect. Sex education isn’t just about biology. It must include emotional intelligence. Otherwise, snakes will keep crawling in the streets, hunting for prey.

Those Backward Adventists

Backward-Forward-web-695x463As a born and bred Seventh-Day Adventist, I’m thoroughly ashamed of the church of my youth. To think that in the 21st century Adventists cannot agree that women are eligible for ordination as ministers! It’s completely incomprehensible in this day and age.

Admittedly, I’m no longer a member ‘in good and regular standing’, as they say. I go to church irregularly for weddings and funerals. As a child, I got enough church to last me for the rest of my life. I’m a post-Adventist but I do pay sceptical attention to what’s happening in the church: Let’s see what they’re up to now!

On some issues, the Adventist church is reasonably progressive. Education and health are top priorities. In many countries, it is the educational system that attracts members. At the elementary and secondary level, Adventist education is quite respectable. But, to be frank, at the tertiary level, it can be decidedly anti-intellectual. No questions asked.

Adventists confidently know ‘the truth’. And this is non-negotiable. If, as a young adult with an inquiring mind, you ask difficult questions, you get into trouble. Take, for instance, the problem of the ‘mission story’. Each Sabbath, we were told the story of someone from an ‘unenlightened’ culture who was dissatisfied with his or her religion.

That unhappy individual would explore other religions, seeking ‘the truth’. Inevitably, they would find it in the Adventist church. So I wondered aloud if Adventists shouldn’t also question their own religion and go searching for something better. That, of course, was a sacrilegious proposition. Adventists already had the truth so there was no point in looking further.

AN UNGODLY PLACE

As a graduate student at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, I was fortunate to be offered a job at a Seventh-Day Adventist college. Those days, teaching jobs were scarce, particularly in the humanities. So I was tempted. But I wondered how I would manage in an intellectually conservative culture.

images-1I was reassured when the head of department conspiratorially told me that I didn’t need to wear anything ‘special’ for the interview. She’d anticipated that I would have been carefully considering the appropriate costume for my role as a prospective teacher at an Adventist college. As it turned out, she was pleased to have a new member of staff who had not been inbred at an Adventist institution.

But it was a challenge. One of my students from deep rural Maine refused to read fiction because it was a lie. Then there were Caribbean students from New York who had a hard time adjusting to rural life. They were happy to have a teacher who understood their culture. I once took some of them into the city to see The Harder They Come.

I was summoned by the Dean of Academic Affairs and reprimanded. It didn’t matter that I had screened the same movie on campus in a course on Caribbean culture. The issue was that students had gone to an ungodly place – a movie theatre. That was four decades ago. Things must have changed.

FALLEN BY THE WAYSIDE

Gender politics is still very conservative in the Adventist church. True, women can now be ministers. But they can only be ‘commissioned’, not ‘ordained’. The distinction between commissioning and ordination is at the heart of the current debate in the church about the role of women.

It seems as if ordination requires a higher level of sanctity than mere commissioning. And women are, apparently, unable to achieve this level of holiness. Men are genetically disposed to piety, it would seem. But the evidence is disputable. I can recall whispered stories of late-night re-baptisms of ordained ministers who had fallen by the wayside.

Usually, it was a very attractive female member of the flock who magnetically drew the man of God from the path of righteousness. Of course, in some instances, the ordained minister actively put himself in the path of the attractive woman. And suffered the pleasurable consequences. Man is human and flesh is frail – especially when you have a substantial lot of it in your arms.

Seriously, though, the issue of ordaining women is not about the spiritual inferiority of women. It’s just another version of the age-old story of discrimination against women based purely on gender. But there’s a twist to the tale. North American Adventists are, in general, quite liberal about ordaining women. In fact, in 2012, church leaders in two regions voted in support of the proposal. This was seen as divisive.

Status-Quo-432x320It is Adventists in the global South who are most committed to keeping women in their place. In the Caribbean, even women believe that God does not sanction the ordination of female ministers. And young people are no less backward. A male student at a secular university quoted 1 Timothy 2:12 to make his case to me: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

The Adventist church started in the US. But the growth rate there is relatively slow. It is in the global South that the Adventist church continues to grow rapidly. So the vexing issue of the ordination of women will only be resolved when Adventists outside North America are good and ready. Until then, dedicated commissioned female ministers will simply have to submit to the status quo, whether or not it’s divinely ordained.

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:

Jamaican

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

English 

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:

Jamaican

Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

And she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independent to

English

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.

Back Pay For Slavery

The principle of reparations was established long ago in the 1833 Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies.  But there was a catch to the Act.  Not much different in essence from the original sin of catching Africans for enslavement in the Americas.  Reparations were to be made to the perpetrators of human trafficking, not to the victims.

This is how the Act opens:  “Whereas divers Persons are holden [held] in Slavery within divers of His Majesty’s Colonies, and it is just and expedient that all such Persons should be manumitted and set free, and that a reasonable Compensation should be made to the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves for the Loss which they will incur by being deprived of their Right to such Services . . . ;”  etc, etc.

Laura Facey Cooper monument

This is a classic example of the diabolical mindset of ‘wicked white people.’  Slaveholders were legally entitled to the services of their slaves and therefore had a right to ‘reasonable Compensation’ for loss of service.  The enslaved had no such rights or entitlements.  They were freed with nothing in their two long hands; just like that rather sad-looking couple trapped in a basin of water in New Kingston’s ‘Emancipation Park’.

When I talk about ‘wicked white people’ I don’t mean specific individuals who have done me personal wrong. I’m not speaking about singular acts of evil.  It’s a far bigger issue.  What concerns me is the collective crimes against humanity committed by gravalicious people who consider themselves absolutely entitled by God and nature to dominate the world.  In many instances, these self-proclaimed rulers just happen to be white.

Crocodile dance mask from the Torres Strait Islands in a current exhibition at the British Museum

In the age of colonial conquest, ‘wicked white people’ as a special interest group committed crimes of unapologetic horror.  They ravaged  other people’s bodies, souls, lands and histories; they vandalised sacred objects and then locked them away in ‘museums’ – those cemeteries of other people’s culture.  ‘Wicked white people’ invading and stealing, stealing, stealing without conscience.

I know I’m going to be accused of racism for exposing ‘wicked white people’ to public scrutiny in this way.  But that’s just another ploy of ‘wicked white people’ and their collaborators to perpetuate mental slavery.  It’s racism to talk about racist behaviour.  But actual racist behaviour is not racism.  It’s just human nature.  What an irony!

 

Justice versus expediency

So let’s say instead that ‘nice and decent’ white people agreed that it was “just and expedient” to set the enslaved free. But the yoking of justice and expedience in the Act for the Abolition of Slavery reveals the central philosophical and practical dilemma at the heart of the emancipation enterprise.

Justice seemingly puts emancipation on solid moral ground.  Expedience erodes all claims to moral authority.  It was expedient to emancipate enslaved Africans because plantation slavery had become an expensive proposition.  The substitution of beet for cane turned West Indian sugar into a rather sour deal.

After centuries of mostly verbal outrage – incessant talk, talk, talk about ‘wicked white people’ – we, the collective victims of transatlantic slavery, must finally decide to take legal action in the largest class-action suit in the history of the world.  This is a truly wonderful idea. Not the wishy-washy, everyday sense of ‘wonderful’, meaning simply ‘great’; it’s the mind-blowing, original meaning of the word: full of wonder.

Five hundred years after the rape of the body and land of the original inhabitants of this part of the world; five hundred years after the violent uprooting and enslavement of millions of Africans, we, their descendants, both native and immigrant, must lay claim to rights of reparation.

 

In the sweet by and by

For many Africans in the Diaspora, it is in religion that we find hope for reparations.  The Christian religion seems to recommend long-term investment in the celestial stock market. The concept of reparations has best been expressed in pious hymns like this:  “In the sweet by and by I’ll have a mansion so bright and so fair, won’t it be glorious when I get there in the sweet by and by?”  God will repair the breach.  God is the ultimate Human Rights Arbitrator.

Then we have those Africans who want hard cold cash in the here and now.  Think of the title song from the movie The Harder They Come:  “They tell me bout the pie up in the sky waiting for me when I die.  But between the day you born and when you die, they never seem to hear even your cry.  So as long as the sun will shine, I’m gonna get my share, what’s mine.  The harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all.”

That’s an excellent anthem for the Reparations Movement, the Garveyism of our times.  It’s the same kind of daring that made Marcus Garvey conceive the Universal Negro Improvement Association and Communities League:  a global movement of African peoples who see themselves as having a shared history and a common destiny.

And don’t think it’s a joke.  With derisive laughter cynics like to say, ‘when you get the money you can check me.’  But the Jews got compensation from the Germans; Japanese-Americans got compensation for the atrocities committed against them.   Why not Africans? I’d like to know what, exactly, our National Commission on Reparations is doing about it.

If you think that after five hundred years it’s now too late for reparations, just remember Psalm 90:4 in which David, himself a Jew, converses with the Supreme Arbitrator:  “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.”  Come to think of it, all we’re really talking about is half a day’s back pay.

Her Honour’s Better Judgement

I must tell the other side of the story of my trials and triumphs in the court of Her Honour.  On matters of the law, her judgement proved impeccable.  This, I readily concede, ought to be the primary consideration in assessing the quality of a magistrate’s rulings.  Language and dress aside!

I ended up in court because I refused to pay for defective goods. I took the advice of my lawyer friends who assured me that it was not essential to be represented by counsel in civil cases.   More to the point, taking up my case would not be a good use of their time since the disputed sum was relatively small.

So I represented myself. Long ago, I’d planned to become a lawyer.  In the 1970’s, I taught literature at a small private college in rural Massachusetts. This was a Seventh-Day Adventist institution and with my long-held ‘radical’ views, it was not an entirely comfortable situation.         Many of the students came from the Caribbean via New York City.  Others lived in relatively unsophisticated communities in New England.  I will never forget the straight-laced young man from upstate Maine who refused to take a fiction course because, as he put it, fiction was all lies.  I was quite happy to encourage him to consider a truthful alternative.

All the same, I was lucky to be teaching at all.  Those days, as now, the job market in academia was very bad.  My classmates at the University of Toronto where I was doing my Ph.D. were envious of my job, which I snapped up even before I’d finished writing the dissertation.

But after almost five years of restriction in a fundamentalist Christian culture, I knew I had to ‘bruck out.’  I took some students in a course on Caribbean literature on a field trip to Boston to see The Harder They Come and was duly reprimanded by the Academic Dean.  Those days, good Adventists didn’t go to the movies.

Practising law without a license

So I decided to go to law school. I was accepted by my first choice, Georgetown.  Soon after, I found out about a job at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  I got it and decided to come home instead of abandoning literature for law.

I’ve occasionally regretted that decision, but not for long.  And, I suppose, law is in my blood.  My brother, Kingsley, and my sister, Donnette, are both lawyers.  And as Donnette mischievously likes to say, I’m always practising law without a license.

So here was my big moment to prove my skills as a bogus lawyer in the Resident Magistrate’s court!  The facts of the case were quite straightforward, unlike the dodgy operator with whom I was contending.  Believe it or not, the plaintiff conceded that the windows he’d supplied, as well as the installation, were both substandard.  And he agreed to refund my deposit.  But he would do so only if I allowed him to remove the faulty windows within a month or so.  Otherwise, I would have to pay for them!

Since he had spent almost five months on a job that should have been completed in about three weeks, I considered his proposal completely wicked and refused to accept it.  I needed time to decide on alternative windows and then to have them manufactured.  Refusing to bow to reason, the unconscionable man proceeded to sue me for breach of contract.

Arrogant ruling class

The case was first ‘mentioned’ and then after several false starts was finally heard.  Since I speak English, Her Honour had no problem communicating with me.  Because I wasn’t a ‘real-real’ lawyer, she patiently walked me through procedural matters.  For this I was most grateful.

And Her Honour did have a sense of humour.  When the plaintiff’s lawyer tried to smuggle into evidence documents that had not been properly filed, I immediately objected.  The judge laughed and remarked that I had quickly learnt from observing the operations of the court.  In an earlier case that morning, she had refused to accept dubious documents.

Since I had not managed to file my own documents, I offered to accept the plaintiff’s if his lawyer would return the favour.  We came to an amicable agreement.  I was able to enter into evidence pictures of the defective windows, pointing out the fact that some of them could not be fully closed.

The plaintiff mulishly insisted that the images were fraudulent.  The windows were actually open and I was pretending that they were supposedly closed.  Her Honour grandly cut to the chase.  She moved the court to my house so that she could examine the windows!

Leahcim Semaj

My chief witness and photographer of the windows, Dr. Leahcim Semaj, was amazed that the plaintiff would embarrass himself by allowing the court to be relocated when he knew full well that the photos were accurate.  It must have been the desperation of a drowning man; or the complete arrogance of the Jamaican ruling class.

We later returned to court to hear Her Honour’s judgement.  It was faultless – and not because she ruled in my favour.   In a 4-page document, she carefully delineated the legal principles that guided her decision:  “The duty to provide goods reasonably fit for the purpose is a strict one; it is no defence that all care was taken.” Furthermore, “a contract which is rescinded by agreement is completely discharged and cannot be revived.”

All the same, Her Honour’s failings on matters of language and dress remain a troubling issue.  But her judgemental posture is not unique.  It appears to be the norm in Jamaica’s elitist legal system.  And that’s a disturbing indictment of our fundamentally unjust society.