Love's Gonna Get Cha

Last week as I was revising the final edits on the post for Malachi’s dub-u-mentary, I was struck my Oku’s remarks, “Dub poetry is the voice of the people. The world look to Jamaica for positive uplifting music. We have been a voice for oppressed people all over the world."

These are not idle words. Throughout the Americas where the grand ideas of justice and freedom have been visited upon us, Jamaica has always played a central role in defining these concepts. The founding of the Haiti began with collaboration of Haitian leaders and a Jamaican Maroon, Boukman. The writer, John Maxwell, has surmised that the name, “Boukman” may be descriptive, “Bookman,” rather than being his actual name.

And why not? Jamaicans are a People of the Book and just like their counterparts in Judaism and Islam, they are just as contentious. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Put two Jamaican in a room and you will have three (tree?) different opinion and they will fight you to defend all three.” Fun and joke aside, as we used to say in primary school, the statement is very revealing. 

For beyond the obvious commentary on the warrior spirit in Jamaicans which in the Yoruba tradition would be called Shango (Xango in Brazil), there is a recognition of the value placed on thinking and the idea of freedom. Sometimes, however, these ideals when narrowly pursued (and especially when a text is involved) can lead to dogmatism, bigotry, and intolerance that masquerade as justice. These readings usually stress the “original intent” of a text and a literal interpretation of the document.

But everything don’ always go so. For even in Islam and Judaism, there are alternative ways of reading the sacred texts that stress connotation rather than denotation: Sufism in Islam and Kabbalah in Judaism.

Kabbalah, in particular, advocates that the idea of justice is but one of the Sephiroth, on the Tree of Life, a conceptual framework for understanding “the ten attributes that God (who is referred to as the Ain Soph Aur, "limitless light") created through which he can project himself to the universe and man.” Justice, one of the attributes, must be tempered with mercy as should all the other principles if harmony and balance are to be achieved.

Judaism and Islam created methods of thinking about principles that inform human life, and the degree of similarity to which these ideas appeared across cultures led the psychologist Carl Jung to call these basic impulses, “archetypes of the unconscious.” In literate cultures, as in the case of Judaism and Islam, the literature that grew out of these societies wrestled with the meaning of freedom and justice in the differing situations to which these ideas were to be applied. In Judaism, alongside the strictly denotative readings of the Tanakh, appeared the more connotative readings such as the Midrash

For when a culture has had a long time to think about the definitions of the principles that guide their actions, the result is found in philosophy, religion and literature. For example, the Book of Job confronts the ideas of evil, divine justice, and freedom with Job caught in the middle. The Song of Songs tries to reconcile divinity and humanity within the concept of love, and is still a source of controversy within all the traditions. Sooner or later, love’s gonna get cha.

Love is the big idea in our lives, and it seems that once a culture acquires a certain amount of leisure, it considers the idea of love on a personal level. For example, Toni Morrison has been wrestling with freedom and justice, but more importantly she has been writing about love for most of her career. In Beloved, she asks the question, what happens when love has to choose between two untenable options? Or in Paradise, what happens when love is threatened and feels the need to defend itself? Morrison has used her novels as a means of analyzing an idea, in this case love, through the artifices of character and plot to arrive at a response that is satisfying both emotionally and intellectually. 

Novels clothe ideas in human terms (“Word become flesh”?) and give new definitions to debates that would have arrived at the same conclusions if rationalistic syllogisms were employed. Novels change the tenor of debates by changing the definitions. For any idea pursued to an abstraction becomes a god, and any god that is divorced from human life becomes the Other. Then again, human life that is not guided by principles, devolves into existence, a form of life which according to Thomas Hobbes: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Novels are the interface between ideas and emotions. Our definitions of love, freedom and justice are always changing because life and consciousness are always evolving. In the Yoruba tradition this is the realm of Eshu/Anancy. Eshu, similar to Hermes in the Greek tradition (as Joseph Campbell reminds us), disrupts human affairs. Some have interpreted Echu/Anancy’s actions as the maliciousness of the universe. But Eshu/Anancy’s actions have at their base a comic impulse and merely asks those who have become settled on a certain belief to reconsider. Eshu/Anancy is the embodiment of the idea that life will always be changing and every time we think equilibrium has been achieved, change is right around the corner.

In the Caribbean where it seems Eshu/Anancy (Papa Legba in Haiti) has taken up permanent residency, we have been thinking about justice, and freedom and evil for a very long time. In fact, most of our plays, poems, and novels are meditations on these ideas within the experience of slavery and colonialism. But what happens when you’re suddenly free of societal constraints and you’ve got money to burn? You get a novel like Colin Channer’s Waiting in Vain. The characters are young upwardly mobile black men and women who are so free that they don’t know what to do with themselves and sabotage their relationships with commitments to their careers. Channer's novel may be cautionary tale, and in this respect it was also groundbreaking. Waiting in Vain didn’t rely on the old clichés of colonialism or slavery to frame the action. 

Channer confronted the big idea of love, plopped his characters in the major metropolises, and watched them flounder with their ideas about love, choice and freedom. Edwidge Danticat in The Dew Breaker tackles the idea of love and justice in a familial setting. Justice is a lofty idea, but what happens when the killer is your father? Junot Diaz in Drown examines the ideas of love and loyalty in a family through the eyes of a precocious youngster. But what’s the meaning of love when you come from a dysfunctional family?

These are some interesting ideas that are bouncing around the Caribbean archipelago. And this doesn’t even take into account the work of Nalo Hopkinson or Tobias Buckell who are preoccupied with the ideas of progress and the future—both revolutionary in their own right. Because let’s face it, the application of the ideas of Progress and the Future (globalization is an outgrowth of these concepts) has never been kind to us. These writers are changing the definitions of love, justice, and freedom. In doing so, they are changing everything that we’ve known and said about literature. The next few years are going to be very interesting.

Papa Legba/Eshu/Anancy would be proud.


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