Thu | Sep 21, 2023

Carolyn Cooper | Master Nigel Clarke’s power trip

Published:Sunday | April 2, 2023 | 8:38 AM

Member of Parliament Nigel Clarke simply could not bring himself to apologise for his off-colour description of Mark Golding, leader of the Opposition, as ‘Massa’. It’s a matter of power. Master Clarke appears to think that he’s above admitting he is wrong in this instance. In Parliament last Tuesday, he asserted that all he meant by ‘Massa’ Mark was power, not race.

The Association for Psychological Science website identifies six elements of an effective apology:

“Expression of regret

Explanation of what went wrong

Acknowledgment of responsibility

Declaration of repentance

Offer of repair

Request for forgiveness”

Clarke did express regret. But, unsurprisingly, it was not for his remark: “I regret that some persons may have viewed my remarks as racially motivated. To, again, be clear, that was never my intention.” Clarke’s regret is certainly not repentance. It’s essentially a throw-word intended to reprimand those persons who, he asserts, have deliberately misinterpreted his innocent words. Clarke declared, “Objections have been raised to my use of the word ‘Massa’ which have largely relied upon a misleading imputation of motive and intent.” That ‘big’ word, ‘imputation’, simply means ‘claim’.


Clarke’s bogus regret definitely did not lead to an explanation of what went wrong. Instead, he insisted that he was absolutely right: “To apologise, however, Madam Speaker, would be to legitimise what simply is not true. The truth is that ‘Massa’, in its modern usage, is applied non-racially. ‘Massa’ Mark as I used it, was not about race. ‘Massa’ Mark as I used it, was not about colour. ‘Massa’ is always about an attitude and style regarding power. And that is how I used the term to describe what I saw as disrespectful attitude and language.”

It is simply not true that, these days, ‘Massa’ is “always” used non-racially. Just ask Member of Parliament Everald Warmington! Even as Clarke was twisting and turning this way and that to justify his error of judgement, Warmington was inaccurately insisting that ‘Massa’ was an appropriate label for Mark Golding because he’s a “descendant of a slave master”. Contrary to Clarke’s assertion, ‘Massa’ is still used in an explicitly racial way, particularly when combined with ‘backra’. And, most certainly, when applied to a white Jamaican!

Like a schoolboy debater, Clarke desperately struggled to marshall arguments in defence of an obviously indefensible moot: “Be it resolved that in Jamaica today the word ‘Massa’ always refers to power, not race.” But, in this case, it was Clarke, himself, who conceived the silly proposition. Even some die-hard members of his party must be embarrassed by all of his wriggling to justify his peculiar definition of ‘Massa’. The most ridiculous explanation was this:

“In fact, Madam Speaker, according to the Jamaica Patois Dictionary, the primary definition of ‘Big Massa’ is ‘God Almighty’, which is an unquestionable reference to God’s power, not to any race or colour. Similarly, the lyrics of a popular modern Jamaican gospel song includes (sic) the line, ‘Massa God a God’. Now, are Jamaican Christians being racist by their use of the word ‘Massa’ in this song?” Absolutely not! Clarke answers his own absurd question. The naming of God as ‘Massa’ is, unquestionably, not a reference to “any race or colour”. The essence of racism is discrimination based on race. ‘Massa God’ is raceless, above and beyond racism.


It seems as if Clarke believes that he’s entitled to make up his own meaning for words, particularly ‘Massa’. He repeated the supposed clarification, “as I used it”. And added, “that is how I used the term”. But Clarke cannot unilaterally declare what words mean. Languages only make sense in a community of speakers who share an understanding of meaning. If you ask the man or woman in the street what ‘Massa’ means, I bet you anything he or she would not agree with Clarke’s convenient definition.

Peter Espeut gave an excellent summary of Nigel Clarke’s verbal contortions in his column, “What about ‘Massa Nigel’”?, published last Friday: “Massa Nigel is a bright fellow, but he lacks emotional intelligence. Even if in his brilliant mind he can make the subtle distinction between ‘Massa’ as a disembodied perceived disposition to power, and the ‘Massas’ in slavery days who exerted brutal power, he is naïve if he thinks the rest of us don’t see a direct correlation. At least he should apologise for his naïveté.”

I suppose Nigel Clarke is familiar with the Jamaican proverb, “Cock mout kill cock.” It’s a warning that, if you’re not careful, your own words can become a weapon to be used against you. Clarke gave this elaborate explanation of his use of the term ‘Massa’: “My remark was mean (sic) meant to draw attention in a light-hearted way to a trend by the Opposition leader to explicitly denigrate others with his choice of words without him realising the need to account for those words. It is that unaccountable display of power that I describe as ‘Massa.’”

Clarke provocatively chose the word ‘Massa’ to explicitly denigrate Mark Golding. It was no “light-hearted” matter. And his refusal to apologise is indisputable evidence that he does not realise “the need to account for” his own words. Indeed, Clarke’s “unaccountable display of power” seems to confirm that he has assumed the role of ‘Massa’. It appears as if Master Clarke has turned himself into a roast breadfruit: public servant outside and Backra Massa inside. What a delicious irony!

n Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English language and literature and a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and