Bonfires and Other Gateway Drugs

One thing leads to another and suddenly I’m on a beach under the full moon at 9 on a weeknight, swaying around a bonfire to the sounds of Rasta youths spitting troots and the soulful melodies of Kali Grn and DReblz.

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Glowing embers and DReblz in action

I think I’ve started taking deliberate steps down a path of cultural appreciation – specifically an appreciation of Rastafarianism and its associations. Rastafari is one of those aspects of our culture that we don’t really notice until we stop and look at it. But it’s all around us, like water to a fish, and it impacts so much of our daily life – from curse words to our reaction to authority to our taste in music. Rasta gave us reggae and weed and locs. In return we gave them Bad Friday and a persistent (though waning) stigma surrounding their lifestyle.

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Hol’ a vibes

I’m not sure when this journey started, maybe the day Obie and I visited the Rastafari Exhibit at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre. But it was definitely after Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded when we discovered (Columbus-style) Kali Grn that we fell down the rabbit hole. First it was the Spring Equinox Festival then a beach bonfire under the full moon then the Bad Friday commemoration at the Civic/Cultural Centre on Good Friday.

The experiences that lie along this path have been, so far, incredible. I used to think – and perhaps it used to be true – that MoBay had little to offer in the way of cultural events. Compared to Kingston where there are reggae concerts practically on a weekly basis, and a variety literary/musical/artistic gatherings we are taking our first tiny steps. But they are definitely steps in the right direction.

Sankofa: Critiquing our Coverage of Culture

I have been remiss. Too often I forget that this is a space of growth, questions and a conscious quest for truth. It is too easy to descend into aggravated polemics without stopping to consider and critique. It’s the writer’s equivalent of chewing with your mouth open.

In pursuit of critical discussion I have stumbled across The Nassau Guardian, the oldest and largest newspaper in The Bahamas. More specifically, their Arts and Culture segment where thought-provoking essays by Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett and others are fanning new flames into discussions on race and identity.

It’s a Lifestyle section with more life than style, where the arts and culture pieces actually talk about art and culture. Dr. Bethell-Bennett delves critically into post-modern theories surrounding the manufacture of the Caribbean identity. His deconstruction of post-colonialism and its impact on Afro-Caribbean societies is not new but it’s so refreshing to hear someone wax poetic on the subject in a national newspaper.

I contrast our top two national newspapers: The Gleaner and the Jamaica Observer. The lifestyle section of both newspapers is filled mainly with light and fluffy pieces that don’t provide much food for thought. The Gleaner admittedly digs a touch deeper in its Arts and Leisure section, in that they comment on culturally relevant events. But the coverage is bare bones at best and leaves so much to be desired.

Is it merely that the first-world Bahamas with a supposedly higher percentage of tertiary-educated readers can easily devote segments of its newspaper to largely academic rhetoric? What is the interplay between economics and social commentary? Is socio-cultural criticism merely a luxury that Jamaicans cannot yet afford?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. All I know is that the discussions on race, culture and identity highlighted in The Nassau Guardian are critical to the future of Caribbean development.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, culture and origins is like a tree without roots.
–Marcus Garvey

Making a Mountain out of a Slightly Smaller Mountain

Just a while ago I sat reading An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory in Juici Patties on campus and managed to overhear two children arguing in the booth opposite.

The little girl was debating hotly for some reason or the other, trying to trace off the boy but he was having none of it, replying to her remarks in standard English and invoking the good old ‘sticks and stones’ adage.

When an adult approached to tell them to settle down now and behave the girl, frustrated, burst out with “But him jus a gwaan like some gyal!”

Fellow Jamaicans can well imagine her tone of voice when I say that she made our patois version of “girl” sound like a bad word. Like it was the most horrible thing a man or boy could ever, ever be. So of course my socio-cultural/quasi-feminist antenna popped right up. 

Gender norms aside – yes, yes masculinity is a Big Deal in Jamaica; boys must be tough (whatever that means) – the equality (or rather equity, as Kat so painstakingly continues to remind me) of our sexes is at stake. When a girl uses her gender as an insult that’s the worst kind of bigotry. She’s saying “How dare you be a girl, how dare you descend to such an undesirable state”. Never mind that that is the state she herself is in.

I suppose she could also have been saying “How dare you trespass on my gender norms; only girls are allowed to speak Standard English and not get upset when we’re insulted”. But I think this interpretation is far less likely (and still not very fair to the genders).

It’s been pointed out to me that I like to seek out these points of debate, these underdog causes to champion, that I deliberately read too much into things. Everyone needs something to complain about I guess. When it’s not the lack of strong female leads in movies, it’s our lack of awareness of gender-based power struggles. 

The situation I described is a common one. Everybody’s heard a variation and you’ve probably even agreed that yes, this man really is behaving too much like a girl. Whatever that means. Our ideas of what men and women should and shouldn’t do are inextricably bound up in our social navigation, we don’t even notice them. But they are archaic at best and irreversibly damaging at worst.

The most important point of discussion is how do we fix them? How do we rid women and girls and men and boys of the notion that one gender is intrinsically superior to the other and, to take this a step further, how do we eliminate the notion that behaviour is gender-limited? 

The subtlety of socialization precludes mere academic intervention. Members of a society are taught how to behave by the society itself, not by books or Powerpoint presentations. We learn from our parents and other adults, from our friends. But how do we effect a change across these expansive  institutions of socialization?

In a recent post, Petchary quoted Marian Wright Edelman who said “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.

Maybe that’s all we need. More fleas.

Notes on an Educated Black Girl

educated black girl means you have risen above the odds and fought your way out of the hardships that must have defined your life.

educated black girl means you are still somehow, indefinably, less than the other educated girls.

educated black girl means you have to throw off the shackles of your history and culture and language in order to be respected for who you are and not where you come from. (brown girls who speak patois are cute; where they come from, they are taught to demand respect).

educated black girl means when you bruk out it’s shameful. (a few shades lighter would have made it soca).

educated black girl means you have to play a part: long hair, straight hair, cute clothes, keep quiet – everyone loves a woman who knows her place. you are branded a rebel for embracing the texture of your roots and voice. can’t you see you’re making everyone uncomfortable?

educated black girl means knowing that to some people you will either be educated or a black girl.

But never both.

On a related note, International Women’s Day happened last Saturday but we should be celebrating women and talking about (not to mention fighting for) women’s rights every damn day of the year. Educating our girls is important, just like making sure both genders are properly represented in parliament.

The sheltered ones are not yet born

I love having heated conversations about what’s wrong with our country. It’s honestly one of my favourite pastimes. And there’s no end of things to discuss: the Jamaican dollar on the decline, unemployment on the rise, homophobia, violence, the health sector, the education sector. . . the list goes on and on.

Which is why, just the other day, after having a celebratory “You finished your degree! (And I’m only halfway through mine)” dinner with some of my close friends – minus the bitterness – it was perfectly normal to delve into a conversation on why our country is going nowhere fast. This particular discussion, courtesy of the Minister of Education Rev. Ronald Thwaites, was about his passionate declaration that condoms should never be distributed in schools. And then we continued to be outraged that the president of the Jamaica Parent-Teachers Association wants to kick pregnant girls out of high school.

(The illicit affair between church and state is another thing we like to complain about).

We talked and talked about how backwardly this country is being led, and about how much our leaders need to open their eyes to what’s really going on. We talked about the sexism so deeply ingrained in our society that a public figure sees no problem condemning girls in a situation that is physiologically impossible for them to get into alone.

We talked like we knew what we were talking about, like we were defending the Jamaican people against the evils of their leaders, like we understood how people in this country thought and acted.

First. World. Problems.

More like how we thought they acted.

The past week I spent on a rural community experience in St. Mary has made me realize that we know very little about the way Jamaicans think and feel. What we see as rational thought based on international ideals has absolutely no bearing for the mother of three in rural St. Mary who goes to church every Sunday and wants her children to be holy paragons of virtue. Our concessions to the nature of society would probably be viewed as concessions to evil. “Condom inna school? You ah tell de pickney dem fi have sex!”

I thought those ideas were expressed by a minority that could be brought to see reason, when in fact they are expressed by a majority whose beliefs are their reasons. We are by and large a conventional society; most Jamaicans don’t like new things or ideas. The government, then, is not leading us against out will. Rather, we are the wayward goat dragging our owners along the wrong path.

The Bible had sheep. We have goats.

The few and many who live in cosmopolitan areas like Kingston or Montego Bay get so much more exposure, but we are so much more sheltered. We really have no clue about what’s going on in our country, about how the average man thinks, about what he believes and how he acts. And until we can tap in to that well of understanding, this country is never going to get anywhere.

In one of my lectures they talk about the community development approach, and how when you’re trying to effect change the needs of an organization must first be subverted to the needs of the community. She is not going to jump all over your family planning clinic until you fix the roads in her housing scheme. It’s a reasonable system, and completely appropriate for our society. But the government is not doing that. Instead, the leaders and the led are often pulling in completely opposite directions at the same time, getting us exactly nowhere.

At the end of the day there’s only one question to ask: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes*?


*Translated from Latin as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” or as I meant it “Who will lead the leaders?”

You know weh Sammy plant im cahn?

Our culture has been relegated to knick-knack status: a decorative memento.

Is it only natural, this shelving of our songs and stories like old photographs? Something to be dusted semi-regularly and forgotten? Handed down until its significance is lost, and all that remains is the chipped enamel shell of our history?

And on the day after, everyone got fat from eating all the cake.

Barbados is a fun-sized island. Somehow they have managed to cram it full of all the things you think you need to live, visit and do business. It’s like a tiny Starburst that just explodes into flavour in your mouth. It has everything.

Can you tell I’ve been out driving again?

I love the smooth, almost invisible, transitions between country and town here: the way the cane fields roll right on to become gas stations. I love the way they play around with nature and technology: the solar-powered bus stops, the tastefully decorated roundabouts, the way country roads only have street lights on one side so that you actually get to see the stars.

I love the way Broad Street lights up at night, not discriminating between tree and building. Everywhere gets Christmas lights. I love the intimate feel of the capital, Bridgetown. I wish Kingston would take notes.

I love the way the beach comes right up to the road (I should point out here that this is something Jamaica does too), and I love that Oistin has so much pride in its Fish Festival that it hangs larger-than-life outlines of smiling fishes above their main street.

I even love the way their tourist area (St. Lawrence Gap) reminds me of the Hip Strip in Montego Bay.

Let’s face it: I’m smitten.

image not mine.

The greatest show on earth

The internationally acclaimed Sumfest happened last weekend, right here in lil ol’ Mobay. We had Trey ladies-keep-your-panties-on Songz and Damian sexiest-rasta-alive Marley headlining the two international nights, though I hear Shabba Ranks stole the show on Friday night. Not that I’m entirely certain who Shabba Ranks is. . .

Reggae Sumfest has origins way back before I was a twinkle in my mother’s eye when it started out as Reggae Sunsplash, an annual festival of Jamaican music that everyone in my parents’ generation likes to bring up as their version of “back when music was actually good”. But my point is that Sumfest has been around for a while, and judging by the consistently insane crowds it draws, it will probably be around for a while longer. Which is a good thing, because I have never been to Sumfest.

It’s kind of sad, really. It happens almost literally in my backyard every year, and every year it comes, I wave, and it passes on its merry, memorable way. It’s a quintessential Jamaican, nay, Montegonian experience that I have yet to acquire. That is a travesty. At first I was too young to go to Sumfest and then as I grew older, I grew less interested in the artistes that were actually showing up. I mean, you wouldn’t catch me dead at Dancehall Night (no offense, but there’s no way I’m paying almost $8000 just to bend over and back it up). And there was this whole phase where I swore off concerts unless a rock band was involved. I’m serious; I joined the Facebook group to prove it.

So Sumfest continues to be marketed as the greatest show on earth, with that iconic symbol of a dancing Rasta (that may or may not be Robert Nesta) pushing its brand beyond local borders. It’s one in a long list of things that keep Jamaica being the leading Caribbean destination (sorry, other touristy islands) and keep Montego Bay being one seriously awesome second city. So what if I haven’t been to Sumfest once in the twenty years I’ve been alive? Maybe I’ll go the year they finally get Fall Out Boy as headliners.


Pageants, Jamaica 50 and farrin-mindedness

So I went to the Miss Universe Jamaica 2012 coronation on Saturday night. I don’t normally attend these kinds of events, because that’s not my kind of crowd, and I couldn’t care less about beauty queens, but one of my friends was in the running and I do care about supporting the people I’m friends with.

The Miss Universe Jamaica 2012 pageant kicked off to a late start, despite apologies and promises every fifteen minutes that the show would soon be under way. Eventually the meagre handful of patrons in attendance realized the promoters had been waiting on Miss Universe herself – Leila Lopes – to make an entrance and the event started some minutes to nine o’clock with a rather-nice-but-not-their-best dance from The Company Dance Theatre (big up Tony Wilson). And then came the swimwear section.

Now, I can understand why creepy old men would create pageants that force girls to parade around in skimpy bikinis and nothing else but heels and a smile, but I will never understand why the young ladies do it. It’s the ultimate objectification of their bodies. Never mind the emphasis on intellect the pageant creators try to place on the event, using tactics like the question and answer session to make it look like they’re really interested in their minds, as well. Not when you’ve got an award for best body (that didn’t even go to the right person, for heaven’s sake).

But I digress.

The arena never really filled with spectators and the crowd looked scanty for the entire night, not to mention being incredibly unenthusiastic. Dancehall bigshots like Left Side (aka Dr. Evil) and Chino (aka Yendi’s babyfather) had a hard time getting more than some tepid foot-tapping.

The evening gown section was next, which had the girls strutting their stuff in floor length creations by top notch local designers. I couldn’t for the life of me understand or appreciate Amanda Mitchell’s endless Z-snaps with the hem of her blue-green layered gown. Especially when she started to show panties. The only way I can excuse that sort of behaviour is if she was under the influence.

The announcement of the top ten eleven contestants followed evening gowns. That’s right: a top eleven. Why? Kosvogiannis claims that the judges planned it that way, but with a break in between announcing lucky names to deliberate even more it seems more like they called someone by accident and had to cover up. It’s also telling of the level of interest people have in this sort of thing that patrons began leaving when they realized their favourite wasn’t in the Top 11.

Questions and answers were your typical blend of hilarity and confusion. What was she thinking, prevailed more often than, She was spot on with that one. Danisha Scott in particular stood out for asking the judge to repeat the simplest questions, and then bumbling through them anyway.

In case you’re wondering why I’m singling these poor girls out, it’s to point out that they both made it into the top five, despite deserving to drop out. I’m not just saying this out of bitterness that the girl I supported didn’t even make it to Top 5 – because God knows I’m bitter – but that’s not the only point here.

Take a look at the Top 5 contestants:

Look at their hair type and skin colour. Yes, I’m calling you out, elephant in the room.

Why is it that when it comes to beauty pageants or anything “major” or international, we feel like the best we have to offer the world are light-skinned, straight hair, stick-thin beauties when the majority of Jamaican women are dark-skinned with kinky hair and at least a little overweight? Who then is she representing?

Why is it that for our 50th anniversary of independence as a nation built up out of many, we select a girl who has lived in the States for so many years she doesn’t even sound like a yardie any more? Who exactly is she speaking on behalf of?

Kosvogiannis said that Zaky embodied what the competition was about.

“We are marking new territory for Miss Universe in Jamaica. We have a wonderful queen and I know she will do very well. We look forward to raising the bar even more next year,”

Source: Gleaner article.

I’d say that’s just about right. If Zaky embodies what the competition is about, then I’m even more convinced that this whole thing was about maintaining the position of the straight-haired, light-skinned girl at the top of our socioeconomic pyramid.

Feel free to point out that Danisha’s a black girl, but (at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist) she is the exception that proves the rule. She is the token black girl, offered to us as if to say ‘See, we’re not racist – there’s a black girl in the Top 5!’ She didn’t even make Top 3.

I have friends who are so mixed you can’t even tell they’re Jamaican until they open their mouths, so I love brownings just as much as Buju Banton, but I love the black girls too. And where a pageant is concerned – especially a pageant that professes to be all about the intellect – it shouldn’t matter how long whose hair is or how many times they entered the competition, what matters is how well they answer their questions. For me, Sherece Cowan should have won that night. The girl answered her questions so well mi grudge har fi do better than mi fren, and in my opinion they did her a deep disservice by placing her third.

Here in Jamaica, we are guilty of this foreign-minded mentality that has us thinking that anything black nuh good and foreign (usually the US) is the only place things of value can come from. Fifty years after Nanny and Sam Sharpe and Michael and Alexander fought for our independence, we are still in this rut of an ideology. It is a crying shame. If even now, fifty years after we claimed our independence from the ruling world powers, we are still shackled to their mainstream culture then when will we truly emancipate ourselves from this mental slavery?

If we continue this way then Buju caa stop cry fi all black ooman.