Sanitising Jamaican culture

Published: Sunday | December 22, 2013 Comments 0

Carolyn Cooper

The day after Tessanne silenced her competitors on 'The Voice', I got a very loud email from my friend Sonia King, author of the wicked little book, Jacket ... or Full Suit?: Paternity Testing From a Jamaican Perspective. Sonia, a medical technologist by profession, headed the Paternity Testing Laboratory at the University Hospital of the West Indies for more than three decades. On retirement, she decided to write up some of her most memorable cases, without calling any names, of course. The result is a thought-provoking book that is seriously entertaining.

In the very first chapter, 'Whose Jacket?', Mrs King tells the sad, but also very funny, story of how she got the title of the book. It came from a man who had done a paternity test to prove to his doubting wife that his 'outside' child was really his. She had had a child before they married but her husband had not been able to impregnate her. So she had long wondered about his fertility. They lived in England and she couldn't understand how he suddenly became fertile after a holiday in Jamaica.

Mrs King relates the story of giving the man and his wife the test results: "I explained that each child inherited exactly 50 per cent of his or her genetic material from each parent. So although we did not test the mother (because she refused), our test system was still reliable in determining paternity. The biological father must give a match at each genetic point examined. The mother would have provided the other marker observed at each point. A man who did not match at even one point would be excluded as the father, even if all other genetic points showed a match. There must be a match at every single point.

"I then proceeded to point out the different genetic points on my worksheet and there were many 'no match' areas. All of a sudden, I became aware that the silence had become deafening. Before this stage, there had been a lot of animated chatter.

"Needless to say, this man was devastated, as he had spent quite a lot of money over the years caring for 'his' child. The child had attended prep school (not primary) and all his financial needs had been taken care of. As I turned to look at the couple, the husband remarked, 'Miss King, dat a no jacket! Dat a full suit!'"


So here's the email Sonia circulated, with all the 'errors' of passionate, informal communication:

"Thanks for the early christmas present Tessanne.

Jamaica pon top again!! Remember our athletes, and dont forget little Jodi Ann who walked away with the Scripps Howard spelling bee

HWT erupted last night like the olympics.

SOO nuh matta how the Bajans, Trinis etc try to disrespect and humiliate us ... Dem cyaan mash dung di Jamaican spirit. So mek dem gweh.

Sorry folks I just had to get that out [in a Jamaican way]."

Incidentally, just like Tessanne's victory, 'Jacket ... Or Full Suit?' is a great Christmas present. Then I was amused to get a follow-up voicemail message from Sonia: "I sanitised what I sent to you to send to The Gleaner because I know they probably wouldn't have printed what I sent to you." The Gleaner did publish the 'sanitised' version last Thursday. It's written in pure English. And the disparaging reference to the 'Bajans, Trinis, etc' was cleaned up:

"I would like to say thanks for the early Christmas present, Tessanne. Jamaica is on top again. Half-Way Tree erupted Tuesday night when you won, just like it did during the Olympics. So for all those countries [regional and otherwise] that try to disrespect and humiliate us, it's time they learnt that they will never destroy the Jamaican spirit. Thanks again, Tessanne."


Which version better expresses how we all spontaneously feel about Tessanne's magnificent performance? Don't forget that childhood memory gem:

Speak the truth and speak it ever

Cost it what it will

He who hides the wrong he does

Does the wrong thing still.

We can speak the truth. We have nothing to hide. We don't have to be ashamed to admit that the Jamaican version speaks to us in a special way. It's our heart language. The wrong thing we keep on doing is denying who we are.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Tessanne's performance throughout the entire contest was the way she expressed herself so naturally, honouring her Jamaican identity. She turned the homely English expression 'bread and butter' into household words, demonstrating in her winning way how music has satisfied her basic material needs.

And when you hear Tessanne sing, you know that music is much more than bread and butter. It feeds the soul. Non-Jamaicans can't get enough of our nourishing heart culture. Adam Levine, Tessanne's coach, asked her to repeat 'bread and butter'. It was music to his ears.

In her rush to sanitise our heart language, my friend, Sonia, seems to have forgotten that The Gleaner has come a long way in acknowledging our Jamaican language as the bread and butter that nurtures our collective identity. Our language distinguishes us as a nation. It crosses barriers of race, class and gender. Just look at all the comments about Tessanne's accomplishment on Facebook. They're mostly in Jamaican. Nuff chaka-chaka spelling. But still.

We have to stop seeing our language as an insanitary, corrupt, bad, broken version of a nice, clean, orderly language. We just have to claim it. And valuing our own language doesn't mean we won't take to heart the need to learn other languages, especially English and, these days, Mandarin. As one of my mischievous friends said of Tessanne's victory, "Di Chiney people dem a tek over everything." We need to learn the new language of globalisation so that when we go to China to beg we'll be sure of exactly what we're getting. No jackets or full suits.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at Email feedback to and

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