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.