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Cooking up a storm in the 'Intellectual Ghetto'

Published:Sunday | April 22, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Carolyn Cooper

Carolyn Cooper, Contributor

Last Wednesday, CVM TV aired an intriguing documentary on the life of Wilmot Perkins. The sinister title of the programme promised high drama: Unmasking 'Motty'. Presumably, Motty had been masquerading all along as everything but himself. The TV programme was, apparently, designed to blow the dead man's cover.

I did see a new side of Motty. He was very much a self-made man. The most memorable mental picture from the documentary is the room full of tools for the many trades Motty mastered. According to his widow, Elaine, Motty had a passion for shaping his world with his own hands. He built several houses from scratch, a challenge that would stump his less clever detractors.

As it turns out, all of us who agreed to be interviewed for the documentary unmasked ourselves to some degree. Our view of Motty was defined by our own angle of approach. D.K. Duncan was deadly. He pulled no punches. By contrast, P.J. Patterson was rather restrained. Much attacked by Motty, P.J. was, nevertheless, quite gracious in his final judgement of the man.

I thought I'd behaved myself. All the same, I ended up in trouble with Mrs Perkins. In response to a question from the presenter, Andrew Canon, about why the University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI), was constantly attacked by Motty, I offered this opinion:

"Well, I saw Motty as a man who didn't get a chance to get the formal education that he wanted. And I felt that having dropped out of, ahm, the seminary, and didn't, you know he didn't get the opportunity to go back to university, he 'carried a little feelings' against university-educated people. He used to 'throw word' on the University of the West Indies - the intellectual ghetto. And, you know, you don't want to say is because he didn't come to UWI; but he sounded like a lot of it was just 'bad-mind an grudgeful'."

Elaine Perkins was not amused. Staunchly defending her husband's contempt for the intellectual ghetto, this is what she had to say: "Well, if it produced her, it is indeed a ghetto. He's not wrong. You know, why doesn't she go and, you know, do some good work for her country? She should do something worthwhile with herself. Go and cook!"

Miss Hottas

And there I was thinking I was already cooking! My students in the intellectual ghetto like to call me 'Miss Hottas'. I tell them I can't leave all the hotness to them. I have to keep 'lickle fi miself'. So I just laughed when I heard Elaine Perkins trying to relegate me to the kitchen in a most classist and unfeminist way.

But so many people have commented on what they saw as her deliberate rudeness, I felt obliged to become aggrieved. I didn't want to disappoint my defenders who were winding me up. But before getting all hot and bothered, I thought I should ask Mrs Perkins exactly what she meant by cooking. Perhaps, she simply wanted me to have a nice diversion from intellectual work.

I called CVM TV and asked the producer of the show, Garfield Burford, to put me in touch with Mrs Perkins. She told him she didn't want to talk to me. And I could write anything I felt like about her. Living with Motty must have its rewards. You learn how not to give a damn.

So here's how I deconstructed Mrs Perkins' off-the-cuff remark. The 'ghetto' bit didn't bother me. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'ghetto' is an abbreviation of the Italian word 'borghetto', meaning 'the quarter in a city, chiefly in Italy, to which the Jews were restricted'. True, the word implies discrimination. But people who are culturally isolated often turn disadvantage into opportunity. They are forced to become self-reliant and very creative.

Last Thursday, as I watched Kevin MacDonald's magical documentary on Bob Marley, I kept thinking of just how many talented people have emerged from Trench Town! That ghetto has certainly been a centre of intellectual ferment. If the University of the West Indies could find a way to recharge and transmit the creative energies of Trench Town in its heyday, we'd definitely be cooking.

Flying past my nest

Elaine Perkins appears to have unmasked herself by sending me off to the kitchen. Throughout the documentary, she tried to present a pretty image of Motty as a defender of poor people. He was a heroic figure who wanted to see the underprivileged rise up to claim their rightful place in a truly democratic Jamaica. And Mrs Perkins' seemed to share her husband's love of the oppressed.

But her dismissive 'go and cook' comment could reasonably be interpreted as a sign of vexation that I had flown past my nest. My branch of work clearly ought to be domestic service. Even so, are helpers not entitled to pass judgement on Motty? And how could I be bright enough to think I'm qualified to be a professor? Only at a ghetto university.

For the sake of my supporters, I must defend myself against Mrs Perkins' charge that I'm good for nothing but cooking. By the way, I'm a pretty good cook. The problem I have with cooking is that the fruits of one's labour are so quickly consumed. You cook for half a day and it's all over in a few minutes.

I know I've done 'something worthwhile' with myself for the three decades I've taught literature and popular culture at the University of the West Indies. Just last week, at the last class for the semester on 'Reggae Poetry', I asked students what they had really learnt in the course. One of them said, "I'll never look at reggae the same way." Another said, "I didn't know it was that deep." That's good enough for me. I'll just keep on cooking.

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