Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Carolyn Cooper | Chanting down ‘plastic surgery’ Garvey

Published:Sunday | July 2, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Last Sunday, Papine Square was transformed into a pulsating Rastafari camp. It was a grand occasion. Approximately 1,500 dreadlocks and bald-head activists answered the call of Ka'Bu Ma'at Kheru, the formidable host of IRIE FM's 'Running African' programme. She had gathered the militant forces to demand the removal of the fake bust of Marcus Garvey mounted on the campus of The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.

As I heard Prof I and the Nyahbinghi drummers chanting, "Boboman a bun dong Babylon," I wondered how, in 2017, The UWI had managed to be branded as Babylon. In the early years, when it was a college of the University of London, its name was The University College of the West Indies (UCWI). That abbreviation was shortened even further to UC. Rastafari, with typical wit, turned UC into You Blind. The College was seen as a colonial institution, blind and deaf to the needs of the black majority.

Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone and granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was the first chancellor of The UCWI. She retired in 1971. Since then, in an inevitable process of decolonisation, all chancellors have been from the Caribbean, including Guyana. But they have all been male. Perhaps, by 2071, The UWI will appoint another female chancellor and, hopefully, she will be the kind of royalty that would meet the approval of Tarrus Riley.

 

'OVERSTANDING'

 

Despite Rastafari cynicism about the blindness of The UWI, the institution has played an undeniable role in shedding light on the revolutionary social movement. In 1960, the Institute of Social and Economic Research at The UCWI published the landmark Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica, written by Roy Augier, Rex Nettleford and M.G. Smith.

The Report gave prominence to the movement, which had been much maligned by the social and political elite. The authors of The Report took very seriously the pressing concerns of Rastafari, particularly the call for repatriation. Among their recommend-ations was the urgent need to improve the living conditions of Rastafari.

Since 1960, many more studies of Rastafari have been done by academics at The UWI, some of whom, like Jahlani Niaah, Imani Tafari-Ama and Michael Barnett, are themselves Rastafari. Niaah heads the fledgling Rastafari Studies Centre at The UWI. Other scholars, like Barry Chevannes and Velma Pollard, are not Rastafari. Nevertheless, they have made long-lasting contributions to our 'overstanding' of Rastafari philosophy and livity.

 

LINGERING SUSPICION

 

It became very clear to me last Sunday that, in spite of all the work that has been done at The UWI to honour Rastafari, there's a lingering suspicion of the institution that can so easily be fanned into a raging 'fire bun'. When I was given the opportunity to speak on the programme, I tried to explain how slowly bureaucracies like The UWI move to address burning issues. I was dismissed as a traitorous defender of the enemy.

It seemed to have been conveniently forgotten that I was one of the first to publicly cry down the Garvey bust and advocate its removal in my column published on May 28, 'Taking liberties with Marcus Garvey'. But I had to concede that The UWI was waiting far too long to respond publicly to the furore over the bust. The vice-chancellor, campus principal and dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education all were maintaining what seemed to be a haughty silence.

Finally, last Sunday, a statement was made to the press. And on Friday, exactly six weeks after the unveiling of the bust, a press conference was held at the university. A new bust has been commissioned. Hopefully, it will meet the expectations of the highly critical Jamaican public.

 

AFRICAN AND DIASPORA STUDIES

 

Last Tuesday, I went to the National Gallery West in MoBay to experience the brilliant digital installation by the St Martin artist David Gumbs. It should be brought to Kingston because it deserves a wide audience, especially children.

On my way, I stopped at the St Ann Parish Library to view the majestic statue of Garvey done by Alvin Marriott. He was a master of his craft. I was surprised to learn recently that he went to do farm work in the US in 1944. It was hard to make a living as an artist in Jamaica then. Some struggling artists today will say not much has changed.

Inside the library, I had a most entertaining conversation with Angela Hay, one of the office attendants. Looking at a picture of the Garvey bust, she touched her own face and asked, "Weh Marcus Garvey broad face and him broad nose?" She concluded, "Dis a plastic surgery Marcus Garvey!"

I also visited Garvey's home, which was supposed to have been turned into a heritage site. I saw no evidence of this. As long ago as 1992, the property was declared a protected site. But successive governments appear to have done nothing much to turn talk into reality.

The tragedy of the failed Marcus Garvey bust is that it has eclipsed the occasion on which it was unveiled: the launch of an Institute of African and Diaspora Studies co-founded by The UWI and the University of Lagos, Nigeria. With typical insight, Ka'Bu Ma'at Keru has suggested that the institute be named in honour of Marcus Garvey. That would certainly be no fake tribute.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.