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Pearnel's slip of the lip

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

You could hear the anger in Pearnel Charles' voice last Monday on Beverley Manley's talk show. Challenged by the boldness of Mrs Edith Allwood-Anderson, president of the Nurses' Association of Jamaica, who wanted to fly past her nest and over his head to speak directly with the minister of finance and the prime minister about industrial matters, Pearnel Charles disdainfully tried to clip her wings. He told her exactly where he thought she belonged: "If you can't understand uptown language then maybe you shouldn't leave downtown."

Pearnel Charles does not appear to have mastered the language of 'uptown', especially the clever double-speak of good public relations. No matter how provoked, the minister of labour and social security simply should not 'diss' unionised workers - telling them to stay 'downtown.' Minister Charles must know that he is burdened with the responsibility of handling industrial disputes judiciously. It comes with the territory. He can't afford to let his lip slip. This is not the first time he's had to deal with lion-hearted activists. He should have long ago worked out a strategy for keeping his cool.

Charles' challenge to Mrs Allwood-Anderson to either speak the language of uptown or else stay downtown is a classic invitation to a tracing match. The spirit of the minister's insult demonstrates his command of the language of downtown. But he ought to know that verbal abuse is not the preferred strategy for negotiating with irate professionals - especially women who will give even better than they get from the average man. And that's not sexism; it's just the plain truth.


The minister's outburst exposes deep-rooted class prejudice. Lots of other 'uptown' people think just like him. But they usually wouldn't admit it on national radio. They know how to play the game without fully revealing their hand. There is always a good excuse why 'so and so' just can't fit into the club.

Class prejudice makes us fool ourselves into thinking that there are rigid lines of demarcation between 'uptown' and 'downtown'. But uptown and downtown are not just fixed geographical locations separated by Half-Way-Tree or Cross Roads, depending on your age. 'Uptown' and 'downtown' are also fluid states of mind.

Uptown people are nice-and-decent, law-abiding citizens. Downtown people hug up criminals. Uptown people pay all their utility bills - even the exorbitant rates (plus GCT) for running a super-size store. Downtown people steal electricity and water. Uptown people love soca, which is certainly not daggerin music. Downtown people love dancehall, which is definitely all about daggerin. I could go on and on, the full has never been told. 'Big respects to di Banton; yu soon come home, God willing.'

Pearnel Charles' hot-headed insult highlights one of our fundamental social prejudices in Jamaica: uptown people speak English; downtown people don't speak. They make animal sounds. My dear departed antagonist Morris Cargill used to call the mother tongue of most Jamaicans 'yahoolish'. For good reason: it rhymes with foolish. And he used to compare it with poodlese, the 'language' of his dog. In one of his infamous columns he smugly declared, "Corruption of language is no cultural heritage." Corrupt people speak corrupt languages and that's that. Or, 'a dat.'

What's wrong with downtown?

Pearnel Charles' slip of the lip raises troubling questions: if uptown language is the passport out of downtown then who is responsible for ensuring that downtown people learn this language? Why has the school system so consistently failed to teach English efficiently? Do we really want everybody in Jamaica to be able to travel up (and down) without restrictions? Do uptown people need to know downtown language in order to live 'a yard'?

Then there's this question: what's wrong with staying downtown? I think the developers of New Kingston made a grave error when they tried to kill off downtown. Just think about Kingston harbour: the seventh-largest natural harbour in the world. What have we done to capitalise on this magnificent port? Absolutely nothing. Instead, we have turned the harbour into a sewer. It could have been the centre of a grand development of residential and commercial buildings stretching from Harbour View all the way round to Hellshire.

But because we prefer to run away from social problems instead of fixing them, we didn't see the value of keeping Old Kingston alive. This is the city in which reggae music was born. It inspired Marcus Garvey. It is the home of the venerable Kingston Public Hospital, established in 1776 and still going strong. The Victoria Jubilee Hospital, built in 1887, is another monument to the resilience of downtown Kingston.

Bob Marley's poignant song, Trench Town, affirms his faith in the people of Killsome city as Peter Tosh put it so wickedly:

'Can anything good come out of Trench Town?'

That's what they say,

Say we're the underprivileged people,

So they keep us in chains

Pay, pay, pay tribute Trench Town.

Like Marley, Etana documents the frustration of ambitious inner-city youth in her righteous anthem, Wrong Address:

Try to get a job today

But when dem see di application

Dem say

If this is where you really reside

Please step outside

She asked them why

And they reply

We don't want no trouble

We don't want no trouble, no day

Cause, lady, where you come from

People die there every day

Is why I say

That's where you should stay.

Mrs Allwood-Anderson and the troublesome members of her formidable union already have jobs. But they are still branded by their wrong address. I am quite proud of these resilient women and men who know their worth and simply refuse to be intimidated. You can't inject fear into them. After all, they are the ones who have been trained to give injections. Minister Charles had better treat them with due respect. Or he will get it. Ah-oh!

Carolyn Cooper is professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Send feedback to: karokupa@gmail.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.