By Carolyn Cooper
In 1948, Louise Bennett's subversive poem 'Nayga Yard' was published in Public Opinion. I don't know what or who provoked Miss Lou. Beneath the humour of her poetry, there was always a serious intention to expose the true face of Jamaican society. This is how 'Nayga Yard' blasted off:
Cock cyaan beat cock eena cock own yard
We all know dat is true
Is who-for yard Jamaica is?
Is who dah beat up who?
Fast-forward to 2012. Last week, I got a most distressing email. Here's an excerpt: "I too made my way to the Jamaica village to mark the celebration of our nation on Monday, August 6 with my daughter. My heart beating with pride, my body decked out in the national colours and my hands waving the flag, I excitedly joined the festivities. Then it was back home to Waterhouse where I live.
"This morning, I woke up feeling a sense of loss, not because 'mi menopausal effects a kick mi an mek mi feel like a drug addict weh want a fix', but because my daughter, who graduated from the UWI, went to a job interview a few months ago and was asked "is this address where you will come from to work every day?" Weh dem mean by dat? A yah so she live, so wah? So I, in my motherly wisdom, that is, trying to steer the child in the way of survival, caution her to change her address".
COLOUR AND CLASS PREJUDICE
As we celebrate that superb 1-2-3 men's 200 Olympic victory, as well as all the accomplishments of our female athletes, we cannot afford to forget that after the festivities, many of us have to go back home to Waterhouse. We have to confront the deep-rooted problems of colour and class prejudice in Jamaican society. This is how that distressed mother ended her heartbreaking email:
"If an interviewer says to a young person who is fresh out of college and has limited resources, that to have a car would help your personal development, what exactly do they mean, and if young people are not trained, where will the years of experience come from? If class and colour still takes [sic] precedence over character and hard work, should we be surprised when some of us decide 'fi tun cruff'?"
In 1948, Miss Lou was much more optimistic than this mother from Waterhouse about the prospects for black people in colonial Jamaica:
Call fi Jamaica fastes sprinters
Gal or bwoy, an den
De foremos artis, doctor, scholar -
Nayga reign again!
Miss Lou humorously admits that 'nayga' are also dominant in less desirable spheres:
Go eena prison, poor house, jail
Asylum - wha yu see?
Nayga dah reign predominant!
De place belongs to we!
Who is fooling who?
Nobody in their right mind could look at the crowd of people in the National Stadium on August 6 and not see that Jamaica is a predominantly black society. Ninety per cent of Jamaicans are black, black, black. Bleach or no bleach. So why is our national motto, 'Out of Many, One People'? Who are the 'many' and who are the 'one'? Who came up with this motto? And what was its purpose? Who is fooling who? Or 'whom', in deference to the purists.
Incidentally, 'whom' is fast dying. The English language keeps on reinventing itself and bits and pieces fall by the wayside. But some of us in Jamaica will be the very last to know. We're convinced that English grammar is divinely ordained. So a grammatical error is a sign of sin, not just a slip of the lip. For example, we assume that the use of 'whom' shows that we're very righteous. Some of us even wrongly use 'whom' for 'who' as in, "May I say whom is calling?" It just sounds so 'stush'.
Anyhow, when I was asked by a newspaper 'a farin' to write an opinion piece on Jamaica to be published on Independence Day, I decided to focus on troubling questions about identity. I suppose I could have written an obviously celebratory piece 'bigging up' our athletes and singing the glories of Jamaica in many other fields of accomplishment.
I'd actually started off with the headline, 'Jamaica - A Speck of Greatness'. I'd spoken on that topic at a TEDxIrie event held in April 2011 in Kingston. TED talks are designed to promote technology, entertainment and design. The x brand signifies a local event. The 'Irie' forum was organised by Knolly Moses, CEO of the cleverly named Panmedia, a digital agency specialising in mobile, social media, online marketing, and web development.
The forum's goal was "to show the world that Jamaica's size doesn't limit what we can contribute globally in all areas of human activity". TEDxIrie featured speakers in a range of fields: Ebony Patterson (fine art); Jacqueline Sutherland and Mark Jones (contact centre services); Kaiton Williams (information sciences); Wayne Marshall (not, Tru Tru Tru; this Marshall is an American ethnomusicologist with expertise in Caribbean popular music); I kicked off the forum, with a talk on repositioning Brand Jamaica. To see all the talks on YouTube, just Google TEDxIrie.
As I started to write that Independence piece, the national motto kept on bothering me. It was forcing me to reflect on some of the deep-rooted contradictions of our society. So I decided to focus on the spirit of resistance to imperialism and racism in Jamaican culture, another form of celebration, I would argue.
In a radio interview with Marlene Malahoo Forte last week, I was most surprised by her interpretation of the motto. 'Many' could mean people from different walks of life. It doesn't necessarily signify race. Not even her predecessor Motty Perkins, in his worse moments of Anancyism, would make such claim. We're still afraid to confront the issue of race and that's why we continue to take comfort in our deceptive national motto. One people? Just ask that woman from Waterhouse.
Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com/. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.