November 2, 2011

Jamaica: What's Halloween Got To Do With It?

Last week as I was finishing the edits on "Bawon Samedi's Halloween," a friend of mine tweeted, "What does Halloween have to do with Ja. culture?"

It was an interesting question. When I was growing up in Jamaica, Halloween would never have been celebrated in my home. My Jehovah's Witness mother did not celebrate Easter, so you can bet that Halloween wouldn't have had a chance. And the nearest that my father came to a costume was the Masonic regalia that he donned when he went to meetings with his lodge brothers.

So what was my motivation for writing a Halloween story, other than the obvious self-imposed task of writing a story with fewer than five hundred words?

The first is to change our attitudes about embracing Halloween or the period known as Dia de los Muertos, All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day or Samhain. In nearly every culture, there is some form of remembrance of the ancestors that is practiced in the liminal period between October 31 and November 2.

The question we have to ask ourselves is why didn't these celebrations, even though they are practiced in Britain, become part of the Jamaican calendar?

The first clue has to do with Jamaica's Protestant past where any kind of popish foppery, including the veneration of the saints, is strictly verboten. Protestants do not take kindly to the veneration of saints, so it was very difficult to continue any kind of subterfuge, as other New World Africans had done in Catholic Cuba, Haiti and Brazil, by sneaking African gods under the vestments of the saints and which gave rise to the many syncretic religions of the Americas.

But a far more important variable—and this is pure conjecture in my part-- has to do with the history of colonialism in Jamaica. I don't think the Home Office would have appreciated any kind of religious ceremony for the remembrance of ancestors. African religions and any associated practices, which included drumming, were banned in Jamaica.

And if any naïve expat would have tried to initiate a Day of the Dead ceremony in Jamaica, I'm sure the Home Office would have sent some underpaid undersecretary to have a talk with him, over tea, on the verandah: "Not a good idea, old chap. We don't want the darkies to start thinking about their ancestors, would we? Put us in a bit of a pickle, don't you think?"

And the British had every reason to fear Africans who remembered their ancestors. It was a Jamaican, Dutty Boukman, who along with other houngans on Bois Caiman, ignited a revolution that would lead to freedom in the Americas.

But is that the only reason why we should embrace a celebration in remembrance of our ancestors?

As much as I love "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night" by Dylan Thomas, I also realize that death is a part of life. Steve Jobs in his commencement speech at Stanford said, "Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."

In other words, death is not to be feared. We are all going to die. This fact alone should awaken our compassion and should cause us to be kinder to each other.

It should also be a time to think about the sacrifices that our ancestors made for us to be here. This is has nothing to do with morbidity, but rather it is a celebration of the preciousness of life. For it is when we forget about our ancestors and the fragility of life that we sometimes commit inhumane acts and take for granted the preciousness of the breath streaming out of our nostrils right now.

So what does "Bawon Samedi's Halloween" have to do with Jamaican culdture?

By using a psychopomp from a Yoruba based religion, I hope I have sensitized readers to the archetypal function of the lwas in order to reverse some of the effects of colonialism, which have robbed us of our common human heritage.

And this goes to the heart of larger questions that we should ask ourselves as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaica's independence: What are the traits/qualities that define us as Jamaicans and how are they expressed in our public and private behaviors? What are the affirmations and denials that have shaped us? Have these affirmations and denials helped or hurt us? Should these affirmations or denials be amplified or eliminated? How will we amplify or eliminate these affirmations and denials?

One way to bring about change in through storytelling: The stories we tell ourselves and others. But what are these stories? Do they set us free or limit our conception of ourselves?

I hope "Bawon Samedi's Halloween" will be the start of a conversation about our African and British heritages.

One Love,


1 comment:

Lynn Sweeting said...

thanks for this geoffrey, hope you had a bright blessed samhain in the company of all your beloved ancestors.