September 20, 2006

Ooh, Jamaica

Geoffrey Philp's NegrilA few years ago, I was invited to St. Thomas to give a reading from Benjamin, my son and I had the pleasure of being driven around the island by a young lady--we'll call her Doris to save her and me from slander and su-su. Doris was one of the drivers for the conference, so when she picked me up, she only knew that my name was Geoffrey Philp and that I would be by the American Airlines ticket counter, etc.

After I got into the car, we began talking, and Doris asked me, "So, where are you from?” I said, "Jamaica", and she said, "Ooh, Jamaica?" I didn't fully understand the tone at first, but as the weekend progressed, I would soon learn the different meanings associated with the phrase, "Ooh, Jamaica".

As Doris and I continued to talk, she told me that her ex-boyfriend was from Jamaica, and one of the reasons they had broken up was because of his big island attitude. I was perplexed because I know that Jamaicans love to big up themselves and I, too, am in favor of bigness. In Doris’ mind, however, her boyfriend's big island attitude carried a certain arrogance--a charge that is often leveled at many Jamaicans. Doris didn't like that he loved to big up himself, and that was only one of the problems in their relationship. So when she said, "Ooh, Jamaica,” she suspected that I, too, would be guilty of bigness.

Doris took me to the hotel where I learned that a Jamaican dancehall posse would be performing that night. I went to the nightclub expecting to see my fellow yardies. I was disappointed. I soon discovered that there wasn't a single Jamaican in the band. Apparently, the one Jamaican who had started the band had left, and the rest of the band, rather than breaking up--they knew they had a good thing going-- kept up the illusion that they were the real thing,--live and direct from Trench Town, Jamaica. I would later learn, that they were many Jah-fake-ans (and perhaps all over the world) making a good living-- selling Jamaican culture and people were lapping it up.

As I made my way through the club that night, I heard the words, "Ooh, Jamaica,” every time I told anyone where I was from, but the meaning had now changed to a tone of respect. It seemed as if anyone from Jamaica demanded respect. Jamaicans had given the world Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and Buju Banton. We knew the real thing. We grew up with the real thing. They were only getting fake or diluted versions and sometimes they knew it. So when a real, live Jamaican was around, all they could say was, "Ooh Jamaica,” with a touch of envy.

I gave the reading and later that day there had been some delay in the payment of my services--a disagreement that Doris overheard. Later in the car, she said to me. "Mr. Philp, I know you are an English professor and all of that, but don’t be afraid to go Jamaican on them for your money!" Luckily, I didn't have to "Go Jamaican on them,” as Doris had suggested because it seems as if their fear of me, "Going Jamaican on them" had gotten the better of them and by the next morning my check was handed to me at the hotel: "Screw face know a who fe frighten,” as Bob Marley said. I got my check. But it also confirmed something that Jamaicans are also viewed as warriors and we are looked upon with not only respect and admiration, but also with a little fear.

So what does all of this mean? Well, we are in the arena of perceptions. Perceptions can either limit us or open new possibilities. We can use perceptions, and we can have perceptions used against us.

But that, too, in the end is irrelevant. For what really matters is how we see ourselves or as Micky Dread of JahLove Musik used to say to me, "The I haffi know oneself.” For we cannot control what other people think about us. That is a losing, almost adolescent, game.

Jamaicans are a complex people— something that our fiction has not yet managed to capture. The popular stereotypes from Sean Paul, “From you look inna me eye gal I see she you want me/ When you gonna give it up to me,” and also "Stepping razors,” as Peter Tosh claims are only fractions of the complete picture. As a friend of mine once said, "Put two Jamaicans in a room, and you'll have three different opinions". She was very stush.

The question that we should be asking ourselves is, "How can we better know ourselves? What are the methods, the means by which we can better know ourselves? I've chosen books, literature, and art. It's an old fashioned idea, but I believe art holds “a mirror up to Nature.”

But what do we see? Shadowy versions of ourselves at best. Jamaicans are dreadlocked, weed smoking, have “tree job” and still “lazy Lima beans.” The rest of the Caribbean doesn’t fare too well either. Many people in Miami, the gateway to the Caribbean, can’t tell the difference between a Jamaican, Trinidadian, Barbadian and Guyanese accent. And what about Nevis?

Whenever films like Marked for Death or Pirates of the Caribbean are released there is a lot of furor about the portrayal of Jamaica or the Caribbean. But what happens in the downtime? Despite Christopher Hitchens’ diatribes against Mother Teresa, I agree with her sentiment when she was asked to join a march against war, she said she would join if they would have a march for peace.

A similar question can be asked today. Instead of protesting against negative images of Jamaica and the Caribbean, what are we doing now to promote well-rounded images of Jamaica and the Caribbean? And I don’t mean the girls from Yardflex.


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Anonymous said...

Yarrrr! Happy belated Pirates Day ye scurvy matey!

Geoffrey Philp said...

As they say on talk radio, back at ya!

Stephen A. Bess said...

I really like this post and the whole idea of perception. I don't understand how anyone with just average intelligence can make blanket statements about a group. I was laughing to myself as I read this because there was a time when I thought that same way about Jamaicans and the Caribbean. I've met different people from all over the Caribbean by just living here in DC. I can now tell the difference from someone from Trinidad and Jamaica. There is a difference. I feel sorry for the "Jah-fake-ans" because either they are not satisfied with who they are or they're just idiots. :)I'll tell ya, the older I get the less I understand. I pray for understanding often just to keep up with this crazy world. Well, here's to a diverse and complex people within a people.

By the way, I checked out the link from Yardflex and those girls are well rounded. :)



neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

I HAVE to say something here as the child waits for me to babysit her...

Jamaicans were good to me, kind to me, some of my best friends are Jamaicans.

I have BIG gratitude for Jamaica. In Jamaica I learnt that it's okay to try to earn a living through one's creative efforts.

When I tell people here I lived in Jamaica, their eyes open wiiiide in shock. I tell them that like any other place, there are good things as well as bad. I tell them the good stuff.

I ain't never too like Kingston much though, I prefer Portland and St. Elizabeth. And St. Ann. And St. Mary. Oh, alright, everywhere except Kingston.

If you ever meet a man name Freddy Borough, give him my mucho love. He's the first person to truly encourage me to go all out with my writing.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Stephen,
I, too, am infavor of bigness and roundedness

Geoffrey Philp said...

Guyana Gyal, if I buk up Freddy Borough, I will pass it on.

1 Love,

eemanee said...

just passing through. great read as usual!
and yes, Jamaicans are arrogant ;)

Geoffrey Philp said...

That's why they love InI

Mad Bull said...

I hope you weren't knocking the YardFlex girls.... they are some of my favourite peeps. ;-)
Interesting post.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Mad Bull, peeps is right!
Give thanks!

neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

Oh, and please tell him [Freddy] I read the Anais Nin journal he gave me, the one about art, and I LOVED it. He told me that one day I would appreciate it, and I do. I still dip into it.