Kristen Gyles | Cultural shame or pride?
When some ‘Jamaicans’ speak, I am embarrassed. Embarrassed, because it is clear that they have absolutely no regard for our heritage and hold our culture in very low esteem. We have grown so ashamed of our own ancestry and we try everything in our power to distance ourselves psychologically and otherwise from our identity as a people.
The discussion surrounding Patois and how it should be treated, especially within schools, has been eye-opening. One thing that has stood out for me is how upset some persons get when Patois is cited as a staple part of Jamaican culture and identity. One person even went as far as to say, publicly, that “Patois is…suitable only for semi-literates”.
Whether Patois is to be treated as its own language, it is a definitive cultural emblem that many Jamaicans take pride in. After all, the common vernacular unifies us as Jamaicans while distinguishing us from the rest of the world.
As a born-and-bred Jamaican, I take pride in Patois as a piece of Jamaica that has become ingrained within my thoughts and very sense of expression. To scorn and to denigrate our Jamaican language because of its origin and affiliation with slavery is to put emotion and sentiment over reason.
At the heart of this refusal to be affiliated with Patois and other elements of our present-day culture because of their association with slavery is the missing sense of who we really are as a nation and what we have overcome.
There is no need for us to be ashamed of our enslaved ancestors, of what they ate, of what they wore, or of how they spoke. Instead, we have every reason to be proud of who they were as resilient and overcoming people who lived lives of sacrifice. I am proud of them. They are the reason behind the black that appears in our national flag.
With that said, our outlook on so many features of Jamaican culture and heritage need not be one of scorn but rather appreciation of who we are today as a people having grown out of arduous times.
THE TIGNON LAW
In the late 1700s, laws were passed in Louisiana mandating that black women, both free and enslaved, wear tignons or headwraps, as a mark of distinction between the ‘slave class’ and their ‘superiors’. The concern was that black women were doing far too much with their hair and needed to tone it down, as would be more befitting of their lowly and ignoble status. After all, they were starting to compete with the white women.
The Tignon Law being passed, black women were forced to wear these headwraps, but rebelled by decorating them with colourful and stylish ribbons and feathers and by wearing headwraps of the most exquisite designs, making a striking fashion statement. Dem tun dem han’ mek fashion.
Today, beautiful black women around the globe wear elegant headwraps – not as a sign of subservience to a white mistress but rather as a statement of unabashed pride and self-worth. These defiant enslaved women refused the broken identity the whites tried to cloak them in but rather redefined themselves as beautiful, bold, and dauntless women. We have failed to learn from their ingenious example.
The debate now brewing is whether we should do away with bandanas, given their history as being the cheap cloth slave masters would give to their slaves to wear. Some see the use of the bandana cloth today as a celebration of black oppression and would, therefore, have us discard the fabric in totality. Let us not lose sight of the fact that in adopting this view, we only give power to the enslavers. We have the power to use the bandana as a beautiful status symbol of our unique identity as an overcoming people. We will only be able to do this once we have healed psychologically from the awful ordeal meted out to our foreparents, which may reasonably take time. But, we need not relinquish our power to the enslavers by having them exercise control over us, even now in our liberation.
Similarly, in recognising that our country would not be what it is today without the existence of our Patois-speaking ancestors, we, too, may speak the language they spoke, with pride in identifying ourselves with them and noting all they went through as part of our story as a nation.
So many of us have become spokesmen and spokeswomen of the highly disturbing and problematic rhetoric used by the enslavers to keep us trapped in psychological bondage to themselves. This is why for some ‘Jamaicans’, it takes eating, dressing, and speaking like foreigners to be decent. For such persons, I suggest that they take the foreign-minded living to foreign and leave us nationals to relish our culture.
It is for the very same reason you are almost never served yam, dasheen, or green banana at any ‘upscale’ event. It just isn’t … upscale. What is ‘upscale’, though, is everything we import. This mindset is crippling. Until we learn to revere our own and recognise the value in what we have been endowed with as a country, we will never get ahead.
It is very interesting how much interest foreigners have taken in almost every element of culture and heritage we have tried to bury. We engage in ridiculous debates about Patois being for the illiterate, yet some of the most educated foreigners come flocking in their numbers trying to emulate the way we speak.
We tried foolishly for years to criminalise the growth of a plant, while the Canadians were contriving a way to benefit medicinally and monetarily from it – and have succeeded.
We chase after all types of imported foods and treat them as luxury items, while developed countries mass-produce chips out of the ‘dirty’ food we leave to spoil in the markets.
We persecuted the Rastafarians for decades because of our own cultural insecurity, now white women can’t get enough of them.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison. But, in our case, it’s more like our poison becomes sanctified and made whole once foreigners touch it, since our firm and fixed positions seem to always take a full 180-degree turn once Uncle Sam states his opinion.
We ought to determine how we write our identity as a people. Are we a falla fashin’ set of confused imitators? Or will we finally take pride in our ancestral and cultural identity and use the past to guide us into a better future?
We can run away and ignore our history totally, or we can talk about it as a piece of our journey and evolution to becoming a distinct and remarkable people.
- Kristen Gyles is an educator. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.