Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Vintage of the 80s Winepress

The Vintage of the ‘80s Winepress

By Gwyneth Harold Davidson
This article first appeared in the 2016 edition of The Jamaica Teachers Association Magazine, The Clarion
Jamaican author Mr Marlon James is a big deal. He is the winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize – arguably the world’s most prestigious prize for a novel in English literature - and I am proud that a book written by a born yah Jamaican writer has been so recognised.

His novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, breaks ground, showing writers more ways to expand the boundaries of Jamaican English in literature. James describes his writing as beyond post colonial, a state where the dominant cultural reference is the USA and not the UK. He suggests that today’s creative writers from the Caribbean are more expressive of who they are, as opposed to who they are not. If beyond post colonialism puts the USA at the heart of the progressive Jamaican experience, I fear we may have exchanged black dawg fi monkey.

I believe James when he said, “I’d spent seven years in an all-boys school [Wolmer’s]: 2,000 adolescents in the same khaki uniforms striking hunting poses, stalking lunchrooms, classrooms, changing rooms, looking for boys who didn’t fit in.” I disagree with him when he said that he received a colonial education and that he first became informed about Caribbean history and literature at The University of the West Indies, Mona. In a few interviews, the picture that James painted of the suburban secondary school in Jamaica is one of an educational system stuck in colonialism. This view is so contrary to my experience of secondary school, thirty years after independence, and only one Kilometre away from him in the Cross Roads area of Kingston.
I am led to think that James may be reflecting the sentiment of Trinidadian author, V. S. Naipaul of an earlier age, when he said “we pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World”.

At the school that I attended, St Hugh’s High School, we had three Jamaican women who set the tone for the culture in the school: Mathematics teacher, Netball player, and Principal, Miss Marjorie Thomas; Physical Education Mistress, English Teacher and Vice Principal, Miss Margaret McIntosh; and English teacher and all round motivator, Miss Daphnie Morrison. They were unified in giving our Jamaican experience authority above any foreign cultural expression.

Let me give an example: hair is at the vanguard of culture wars, and there was no restriction on the styling of natural hair at that institution. You were expected to wear your hair in keeping with wearing a uniform (neat and clean), that was about it. I remember AC was spoken to after appearing with the letter “A” beautifully shaved and dyed magenta on the scalp of her Chinese head; and that kinky singleton plaits were in vogue at the school, while they were banned in corporate settings.
Our inter-house competitions included Culturama,which incorporated the visual and the performing arts. I won a prize for floral arranging using plants from our yard, including the much underutilized coralita, not imported flowers. We visited the National Gallery of Jamaica, and had art classes at Port Royal and in the Cross Roads market where respect was shown to the vendors who allowed us to sketch them working at their stalls. We did geography field trips to the government’s prize farming project, Spring Farm; visited the Ewarton Bauxite factory and also a sugar estate (one of our own later became a senior engineer at Jamalco); we toured the state-of-the-art Jamaica Conference Centre when it opened. These are not cosmopolitan affairs, but they gave us children a sense of dignity about fi wi owna place.

The academic teaching included mandatory History up to Grade 11, which meant you would have been exposed to Caribbean and American history as well as European History. We discussed current affairs in Form Time. I remember that NMcD  was the only one who had read the Gleaner editorial the day after Russia invaded Afghanistan. By the end of Grade 11, each girl would have been exposed to three novels by African writers, three plays by Shakespeare, three or more American novels, and of course writing by Caribbean and European writers. We were not mimicking the New World, we were learning about the world through our own lenses. Now I really wanted to know if the boys down at Heroes Circle had been, as James seems to say, locked up in a Dickensian world.

James says that he yearned for Jeanie Hastings’ pop music show. Many of us were also listening to Michael Campbell, the Dread at the Control -  both shows were on JBC Radio 1. I felt the same amount of thrill to see my friend TMcM dance Dinki Mini across the stage, as I did when Michael Jackson showed us the Moonwalk on MTV. The bus stop was where we saw our stars, Jamaica’s future models, diplomats, sports sensations and entertainers going through puberty and acne breakouts with us.

One man who went to school with James, remembers learning about South American civilizations, but James has said that his first experience of West Indian history was at the UWI. Another man who attended Kingston College (KC) said that his exposure to the history and novels of the Americas started when he read his brothers’ schoolbooks from Wolmers….Is there a late demerit here for James? He seems to have missed those classes.

The book series, The People Who Came, exposed the history of the Caribbean islands and civilizations of Central America. It was written by educator Alma Norman; African culture scholar Kamau Braithwaite; Jamaican historian Jimmy Carnegie; and librarian Patricia Patterson. It is unlikely that these writers would write acknowledging the UK as their centre.
The KC old boy said that his school infused Jamaica’s history and culture in the learning, and mentioned a memorable school trip to the historic maroon town Accompong. This is the same school that produced the musician Augustus Pablo, and his music from the 70s inspired James as he wrote his famous novel in the 2000s.

The Wolmarian mentioned earlier suggested that the feeling of neo-colonialism at the school at that time could have been because the teachers would have been women who neither looked like, nor spoke like, people in the homes and communities of many of the students. That experience would indeed be an additional layer of alienation for some students, and supports arguments that there should be more male teachers in boys’ schools, and so on.
Over at Calabar, a past student said that the background of the teachers there harmonized with the proud black man ethos of the school’s founding institution, the Jamaica Baptist Union. A female friend says that her teaching stint at Calabar in 1973 was where she first saw the novel by Jamaican YA author Vic Reid, Young Warriors, which is about children resisting an unjust government; she says that she was frightened and thrilled all at once.

I retract my position, a bit, as it may be true to say that Jamaica’s latter-day writers are just catching up with the narrative of beyond the post colonial. The migrant workers, sportsmen and musicians had gone beyond long before.  Stories about the earlier waves of Jamaicans in the USA in the 1920s and 1930s were written down by Claude McKay, and Marcus Garvey, and they shaped our movement.
Sports administrator Mortimer Geddes, Olympian Herb McKinley, and others, used the Jamaican secondary school system to nurture a generation of athletes who built the Jamaica brand name in the USA starting with the first school team to run in the Penn Relay Carnival in America in 1964. The study of street dances by Jamaican dance professionals, such as Miko Blanco, L’Antoinette Stines and Orville Hall who disassembled them, and then rebuilt them and for commercial use has helped to make many of our moves a part of the repertoire of pop stars from Harry Belafonte to Beyonce and Rihanna.  Our celebrity crossover creatives like Marlon James, Buju Banton, Shaggy and Sean Paul, all educated in Jamaica, express  aspirations of beyond neo colonialism. They are the vintage of the winepress of a 1980s schooling in Jamaica.

So where is the radicle that roots the idea that schooling in the 1980s saw the UK as the dominating reference point? It can be more strongly argued that we are now overwhelmed by USA culture. We are long overdue a Naipaul for the beyond post colonial era.

It cannot be ignored, though, that James, and many other Jamaicans, feel that our education system short changed them in various ways. That is their true and deep sadness. There needs to be greater listening to students to reach those who will feel alienated in our culture. There are still areas of acceptance that our society needs to address, and the Jamaica Teachers Association can lead the way to make justice and truth be a part of Jamaican society, forever.

Our St Hugh’s lady leaders did not speak loudly, and they held discussions over tea; but talking through difficult subjects in an atmosphere of love helps us to do the brave and important work of thinking.


Sunday, 1 May 2016

Read Across Jose Marti Tech High, May 2016

May is Child Month in Jamaica, and the Jamaica Writers Society (JaWS) is promoting books by Caribbean authors by scheduling and promoting the reading of Caribbean books in schools. 

I will be displaying books by Caribbean authors and and also reading at the Jose Marti Technical High School on Wednesday, May 11. 

Please help me to choose a Caribbean poet in English to read to the children on the day.

Friday, 12 February 2016

The Influence of Habit and Associations - On Listening to the book Twelve Years A Slave


Librivox Recording of Twelve Years A Slave
"I don't want to survive, I want to live.” ― Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave

This is a slave narrative and I listened to it on LibriVox narrated by Rob Board. The quality of the recording was very good and, for me, the narrator's British accent did not detract from his skill as an evocative reader.

I would agree with the comment that although this is a narrative, the book "reads" like a novel. Northup includes not only detailed descriptions about what happened to him and the general lifestyle of places where he lived before and after bondage, but he also provides his reflections on the internal thoughts and feelings of the persons around him. 

One often quoted passage from the book that shows his capacity to reflect on the motivations of the people around him is: "It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears that the rod is for the slave's back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years."

My reading caused me to think that Northup seems to be more naturally inclined to be immersed in the emotions of the enslaved and free women who were around him, in contrast to the many men who actually influenced the course of his life.
One example is the enslaved woman Eliza whose harrowing experience is detailed. Eliza was removed from being the recognised "wife" of her owner, sold into miserable slavery by his debtors and then having her beloved children removed from her protection. Northup describes her rapid decline from being a regal woman with a "natural intelligence" that was "broke with the burden of maternal sorrow," before she died of heartbreak.

Patsey, who he met on the plantation was "a joyous creature, a laughing, light-hearted girl" even though she constantly endured severe abuse from her owner and his jealous wife in addition to carrying her burden of hard manual labour. When Northup was removed from bondage Patsey was genuinely happy for him, even as she lamented her own situation. “Oh! Platt, you’re goin to be free – you’re goin’ way off yonder where we’ll neber see ye any more. You’ve saved me a good many whipping Platt; I’m glad you’re goin’ to be free – but oh! De Lord, de Lord! What’ll become of me”.

Northup even observed, with sensibility, the estate owner's wife Mrs Epps. Even as he detailed her jealous malice, he wrote, "In other situations – in a different society from that which exists on the shores of Bayou Boeuf, she would have been pronounced an elegant and fascinating woman. An ill wind it was that blew her into the arms of Epps."

More than any other theme in the book, I am reminded that society's suffer when its population is not developed. Lack of innovation holds a society back from natural advancement. Northup's education and life experiences before he was enslaved, enriched his slave society, gave him whatever advancement he could achieve, and also saved his life.

These skills included: playing the violin well; transporting logs down a river using a cart and a raft; carpentry in building and in making an angled axe handle; his ingenuity in creating a fish pot; and of course that he was literate.

A society that does not develop its people, I think, is at greater risk of becoming dismantled and assimilated by stronger societies. It has been documented that in the English speaking Americas, the ratio of enslaved to free citizen was sometimes 10:1. Based on descriptions by Northup, the enslaved far outnumbered the free white people; the entrenched system that underused human potential crippled that very fertile and pleasant area.

The Southern states of the USA, during the centuries of plantation slavery, put themselves at a clear disadvantage, in part, because their enslaved people were not educated, and their free citizens devoted their time and effort to maintaining the debasing system of slavery.

Despite generating great wealth and comforts for the overlords, could it be successfully argued that these societies led the USA in the advancement of their civilization in philosophy, science or art?
It was not the South where the teeming masses from Europe headed when their own societies had not provided opportunity for advancement.
The effect of inducting children in maintaining the slave society was shown in Northup's description of the attitude of the estate owner's young son towards an elderly enslaved man.

"Epps' oldest son is an intelligent lad of ten or twelve years of age, it is pitiable, sometimes, to see him chastising, the venerable Uncle Abraham." This behaviour reinforces the system of wasting away the spirit and talent of vibrant, but enslaved people.
The economic system that supported slavery produced inter generational "habits and associations" that went beyond commerce and were infiltrated a growing country. These thoughts caused me to recall other books that offer descriptions on the theme of habit and associations, and how they helped or hurt societies.

Going back to the upbringing of the son of estate owner Epps, this is in direct opposition to what is retold in the book of Daniel in the Bible, where a Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, insisted that talented enslaved boys, like Daniel and his friends, were given the very best education, because he saw where they could help to develop his society.

Using the King James version, just for nostalgia, Daniel 1 verse 4 says the leader asked for, "Children in whom was no blemish, but well favoured, and skilful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science, and such as had ability in them to stand in the king's palace, and whom they might teach the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans."

Of course, the visible difference that race presents in the slave systems as practiced in the Americas, may not have been a factor between the Babylonians and their vassals.

Within her enormous world of domestic life, Jane Austen would have agreed that the influences on the young son of the slave owner and his mother who was spiteful in her treatment of an enslaved rival would have become a part of his character.
In Mansfield Park she said, "Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power which no subsequent connections can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement [...] if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived."

Dickens whose writing puts him both in the camp of voice of the oppressed and also of being a racist in December 1943 had his book A Christmas Carol published. In one scene the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals his emaciated and hideous children Ignorance and Want with a discussion that evokes the importance of society to see to the welfare of underprivileged children. Ten years later in 1953, Northup's words seem harsh where he describes the enslaved Mary but jar in harmony with that of Dickens. "Brought up in the ignorance of a brute, she possessed but little more of a brute's intelligence." This is another literary observation about the nurturing and education of children and of people whatever their abilities and situations.

James Gatz, before he became Jay Gatzby in F Scott Fitzgerald's book  The Great Gatzby learned that he did not have the habit and associations that were needed to put him into contact with a higher social status, so he invented them and then cultivated them until it drew him to the woman that he loved. He also loved her because of her association with money and the powerful men that possession of her represented. "It exited him, too, that many men had already loved Daisy - It increased her value in his eyes."
Twelve Years A Slave reminds us of the dangers of stagnation and neglect of populations of people. Societies that do not provide opportunities will not advance, but will lose their most talented and most ambitious citizens to ignorance or to some form of migration.
The book ends on a positive note when Northup is restored to his freedom and reunited with his family. When it was published, the book was popular and it supported a general discussion on the evils of slavery, but unfortunately, the discussion did not result in dismantling of the slave system by peace, but it was ten years later through armed strife in the American Civil War.

The effects of the entrenched slave system are still being felt today across regions where enslavement for economics was practiced, and still too much human potential is still not being realised. 
I think that this book is a good addition to a Young Adult reading list.
The Influence of Habit and Associations - other books
  1. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen - Lifestyle restricts outcomes
  2. A Short Account of The History of the History of Mathematics - W W Rouse Ball