Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Brian-Paul Welsh | Taming black animals

Published:Monday | September 12, 2016 | 9:00 AM
Brian-Paul Welsh

There is a chronic and systemic antagonism towards African identity that has persisted in Jamaica from inception into the present. It originates in the racist myth of African cultural inferiority that was first used to justify the capture and enslavement of African people, and later to ground an ideology of propriety for those whose personhood had previously been divested.

How black bodies should look, or sound, and with what they should be adorned, has long been a point of resistance on this rock, and recent rumblings both here and abroad signal a heightened global sensitivity to the politics of African identity in this new world order.

One has to remember that not long ago in this country, as well as in most of your favourite others, people of African descent were regarded in law and custom in a manner not dissimilar to livestock. Various devices were invented to yoke the spirit of the people and bring it into conformity with the ideals imposed by their captors. These operate in the physical and psychological planes even to this day, despite the proclamation of Emancipation and the declaration of Independence.

Many among us in Jamaica still slavishly maintain standards of language and deportment by aping foreign customs and parroting our adopted mother's tongue. It is believed that civilisation requires suppression of base rebellious instincts and submission to the rules as handed down on high: Skin shall bear no marks, nor ears bored, nor lips loose, nor hair unkempt, for the maintenance of order and discipline of mind and body.

So we shape the African tongue to accommodate The Queen's English, and tie up African curls so they don't escape. We mock and shame our African tongue back into its cage if it ever jumps out, and if our African curls are stubborn and resist control, we burn them flat with chemicals.

To be respectable, we cover black legs with stockings, and disguise black arms in long sleeves, squirming in heat and discomfort trying to maintain respectability, bleaching from the inside out.

It might seem strange to consider that such ideas can still exist and, in fact, flourish in the land that birthed Garvey and Marley, but we keep seeing episodes revealing the thinking associated with the system of rules originally designed to tame our ancestors.

We hear sporadic horror stories regarding the enforcement of rules about hair or dress or language, and we know them to be out of place with modern realities, but still we are urged to remain submissive to these standards for the sake of maintaining civil society.

There is still a strong reverence for these rules (as well as the rule makers), especially where it concerns matters of so-called decency. In that respect, many still cling to the cultural ideals of a faraway land in a faraway time, and this is often revealed by their deeds, as well as their utterances.

 

ENJOYABLE EXCHANGE

 

Recently, I took interest in a recording of a particularly enjoyable exchange between the late and usually great Wilmot 'Motty' Perkins and outspoken attorney-at-law Bert Samuels in which Motty tried his best to convince Bert that colonialism had an unnecessary stigma attached to it in this country and that it "wasn't all that bad of a ting" since it brought us technology and culture that provided opportunity for cultural advancement.

Samuels took great exception to Motty's essential position that the civilisation of African people came at the expense of their freedom, and the two jousted over history and politics, while I contemplated the resonance of Motty's rhetoric in the present day where hem lines and hair texture are still of importance in postcolonial societies, including many in Africa.

Every once in a while, someone stumbles across some of the residual toxins in our culture after centuries of miseducation and raises an alarm, momentarily arousing the rebellious spirit inside some of us, and we kick up a rumpus inside the newspapers and on radio call-in programmes until the next scandal; but the unfair and discriminatory practices usually persist inside the system until the next unfortunate soul has to seek justice on the nightly news.

There was a time when there would be wails in the hot sun if there was resistance to the imposition of some of these unwanted ideals, but, fortunately, nowadays, we have the freedom not only to bawl out in The Sunday Gleaner, but we can also dismiss any of these stupid rules at any time, shrewdly resisting their taming.

- Brian-Paul Welsh is a writer and public affairs commentator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and brianpaul.welsh@gmail.com, or tweet @islandcynic.