Annie Paul | Ruling out difference
Throughout the heated discussions last week on 'untidy hair' at Hopefield Prep, I kept seeing Ras Daniel Heartman's iconic image Prince Emanuel, in which a young Rasta boy looks out of the frame at us, hair gloriously dreadlocked and untidy by Hopefield standards. Arms crossed, the boy looks down at us with a sternness that belies his years, brow furrowed, his visage unsmiling and grave.
Created about 50 years ago, the image of Prince Emanuel went viral in the 1970s, crossing borders worldwide, bootlegged and sold everywhere from Israel to Trinidad to India. Even now you can glimpse him in foreign locations looking out at us from the windscreens of taxis and buses or
T-shirts. I imagine he is frowning down at us now, rebuking Jamaica for ignoring his message and still trying to subdue blackness in the 21st century.
The poet and writer Kei Miller's latest novel Augustown pivots around an arrogant and insensitive school vice-principal who, upset at the sight of one of his students in locks, takes a pair of scissors and cuts them off. The reverberations set off by this seemingly small incident unleash a 'hataclaps' of no mean order, the violent episode underscoring the disregard suffered by poor, black Jamaicans who merely wish to lead as 'natural' a life as possible.
Although he knew full well that such events could occur in 2016, Miller decided to set the story in 1982, not wanting to risk the incredulity of readers who might believe otherwise. I hope this powerful novel, partially inspired by Kei's discovery that fellow poet Ishion Hutchinson had had his locks shorn by a schoolteacher as a child, will one day become required reading at Hopefield Prep and all schools in Jamaica and the region.
For me, the most distressing aspect of the whole hullabaloo is the rigidity with which many are insisting that school rules must be obeyed at all costs, no matter how illogical or unjust they are. Listening to those who saw nothing wrong with Hopefield Prep's exclusion of a three-year-old boy from school on grounds of the school having a rule against 'untidy' hair, you'd think Jamaica was a nation of stern puritans who uphold rules at all times in the manner of the Swiss or the Saudis. Yet you only have to drive on the roads here to realise that nuttn nuh guh so.
Perhaps it's such inflexible rules at school that are making Jamaicans break rules left, right and centre the moment they become adults?
Perhaps we need to admit that hairstyle and grooming have little to do with intellectual development and stop enforcing senseless rules that are, in fact, hampering the creativity of young minds.
Has anyone noticed how Albert Einstein wore his hair? Or the much-touted writer Malcolm Gladwell, whose mother is Jamaican? And even closer to home, would Hopefield Prep have barred John Maxwell and Alexander Bustamante from crossing their thresholds? In what way does their untidy hair reflect on the intellectual acumen of these outstanding men?
Surely, a school as highly thought of and renowned as Hopefield Prep could have found a better solution to the problem of a three-year old whose hair didn't conform to their rules. Why such a mania for conformity to begin with? What are we trying to produce? A nation of obedient mules? For example, if only we cared as much about the environment as we do about observing rules oh, except for the rule, no the law, against littering, right? We're up for enforcing rules about black hair but the anti-litter law? Fahget it! Such rules don't apply to us.
Usain Bolt is the best example of triumphant non-conformity in our midst he broke all rules and expectations yet is number one in the world. He was too tall for the 100m, he wasn't humble enough, he was too flashy and refused to stop partying. But he has brought home the prize every time.
Let's update our rules, and while we're at it try to remember that there are exceptions to every rule.
I remember 20 or 25 years ago going to a talk by then UWI drama tutor Brian Heap. I've never forgotten a point he made. "How do you decide which slave is a good slave?" he asked. Is it the one who runs away or the one who stays and obediently does all Massa's work? It's something to ponder as we continue to ram rules down our children's throats.
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email firstname.lastname@example.org.