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Claiming Garvey and Rastafari

Published:Sunday | August 15, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

"Intelligence rules the world, ignorance carries the burden." That's one of my favourite quotes from the phenomenal archive of Marcus Garvey's visionary mind. Some of us are still bearing the burdens of ignorance. We refuse to rule our own world intelligently.

Last week's column, 'Reading and Writhing', provoked the usual gut reaction from readers whose English comprehension skills are rather poor. My sister, Donnette, did warn me. She suggested that I highlight 'both' and 'and' in this sentence: 'The Ministry of Education must now ensure that every single child is given the opportunity to talk and write in both English and Jamaican.'

I purposely disregarded my sister's advice, breezily asking her, "Den dem coulda fool enough fi tink seh mi no want di pikni dem learn English?" After all, I do teach English for a living. As it turns out, yes, dem fool enough. Some people seem to feel that the brain is like a coconut. If you full it up with one language, there's no room left for others. So teaching literacy in Jamaican must mean that students won't be able to learn English.

Then there's the short-sighted claim that the Jamaican language has 'geographical limitations,' according to Ms Robertson in a very 'speaky-spoky' letter to the editor. 'Nothing no go so'. Languages travel with their speakers. And there's no place on Earth where you won't find a Jamaican. Our mother tongue is a global language, just like reggae music. Ask the Japanese converts to Jamaican culture who don't even know English. But they speak Jamaican.

'Stop draw Jamaica small'

Another reader authoritatively declared that 'English is the most widely spoken language.' No. It's Mandarin Chinese. Wikipedia lists Jamaican Creole in the group of languages with one to 10 million native speakers, giving a 2001 estimate of 3.2 million.

That outdated figure obviously doesn't take into account the Jamaican diaspora and second language learners of Jamaican from other cultures. I estimate five million speakers, putting Jamaican in the same category as Hebrew, Danish, Norwegian, Swahili, Slovak, Gikuyu and Mongolian.

So there's no need for us to 'small up' ourselves and our mother tongue. Louise Bennett, Jamaica's premier cultural activist, tried her best to liberate us from the prison of self-doubt. Miss Mattie, one of the many outspoken characters created by Miss Lou, humorously declares:

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all.

Moresomever we must tell map

We don't like we position -

Please kindly teck we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean.

I'll never be able to convince some people that Jamaican is a valuable language. I take consolation in another Marcus Garvey quotation: "God and nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be. Follow always that great law. Let the sky and God be our limit and Eternity our measurement." This could easily be translated into Jamaican. But I don't want to stress those people who have such a hard time reading and writhing!

This week, we celebrate the 123rd anniversary of the birth of the Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey. On August 17, Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey hosts an open house and cultural fair dubbed, 'Harambee.' That Swahili word means 'all pull together.'

Liberty Hall also launches the Marcus Garvey lecture today at 4 p.m. Professor Verene Shepherd will speak on 'Marcus Garvey and the Education of People of African Descent in a Post-Colonial Society'. The venue is the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica auditorium at 36 Trafalgar Road. It's a pity that the event has gone uptown; but I gather that there are good technical reasons for not using Liberty Hall. The quality of sound recording in the open-sided great hall is not ideal.

Rastafari Studies Conference

Marcus Garvey would certainly endorse another major cultural event this week: the inaugural Rastafari Studies conference hosted by the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. The theme is 'Negotiating the African Presence: Rastafari Livity and Scholarship'.

The conference is the brainchild of Dr Jahlani Niaah, who considered it imperative to commemorate the publication in 1960 of the far-reaching Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica. Co-authored by social anthropologist M.G. Smith, historian Roy Augier, and cultural critic Rex Nettleford, the high-level report, published by the then University College of the West Indies, confirmed the central role of academics as public intellectuals engaging with the pressing issues of the day.

Revolutionary Marcus Garvey had long advocated a daring conception of God that is celebrated by Rastafari: "If the white man has the idea of a white God, let him worship his God as he desires. If the yellow man's God is of his race, let him worship his God as he sees fit. We, as Negroes, have found a new ideal. Whilst our God has no colour, yet it is human to see everything through one's own spectacles, and since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we have only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles.

"The God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, let Him exist for the race that believes in the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. We Negroes believe in the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, the One God of all ages. That is the God in whom we believe, but we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia."

Liberated from mental slavery, Garvey was able to envision an all-embracing plurality of gods. Refusing to bear the psychological burdens of the white man's greedy god, Garvey created out of his own genius an ideology of emancipation that Rastafari affirms. As a nation, are we prepared to claim Garvey and Rastafari?

Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a public intellectual specialising in cultural enterprise management. She is founder and director of the Global Reggae Studies Centre, a private- sector initiative. Send feedback to or