Throwing Words at the Status Quo

Waldane Walker, 2019 Valedictorian, Edna Manley College
One night, an evil spirit held me down
I could not make one single sound
Jah told me, 'Son, use the word'
And now I'm as free as a bird

- Peter Tosh - Oh B@&#o k$&%t (1981)

Every culture, and every language has its expletives and some are, well, more potent than others. The standard Jamaican expletives – lets call them The Cloth Collection – are of the most potent variety and make certain people very uneasy, as they are surrounded by strong social taboos and ideas about propriety. In fact, the public use of indecent language is prohibited under section 9C of The Town and Communities Act, which states, somewhat comically, that:

Any person who shall make on any fence, wall or other building, any obscene figure, drawing, painting, or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or write or draw any indecent or obscene word, figure or representation, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language publicly can be subject to a fine not exceeding $1,500 or to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding thirty days.

It is an example of the sort of colonial, socially oppressive laws, designed at controlling and civilizing the “unruly masses,” that entered Jamaica’s law books in the years around and after Emancipation. I understand that this law, in its original form, dates from 1834 and, although there have been calls for it to be repealed, there has been no action on that to date.

Despite these taboos and prohibitions, expletives are omnipresent in Jamaican life, in ways that cut across class and circumstance. I pride myself that I can curse in six languages, Jamaican included, and that is a facility I use liberally and unapologetically when I spar with the rogue taxis and coaster buses on the Red Hills and Constant Spring roads. And I understand that tirades of expletives are regularly heard in certain government ministries and other halls of power.

Yet the Jamaican creole expletives are seen by many as the ultimately assault on propriety and they rank up there with unruly hairstyles and spaghetti strap tops in public buildings as the sort of social infractions Jamaica’s increasingly strident “moral majority” seeks to curtail, with a sense that all will be lost if their desperate containment efforts fail. I picture the legendary Dutch boy with his finger in the hole in the dike, heroically holding the threatening flood at bay.

What we have to ask, though, is what is perceived to be at stake in a society which, for arguably quite different reasons, already tethers on the brink of anarchy. And if such petty social control efforts effectively quell or fuel the fire. The responses are, at times, extreme and destructive: in 2012, a highly pregnant woman, Kayann Lamont, was shot and killed by a Police officer in Yallahs, St Thomas, during an altercation when he tried to arrest her after she let loose a string of expletives about a stolen phone – a tragic fate that would almost certainly not have befallen an Upper St Andrew denizen involved in a similar incident. For Jamaica’s efforts at social control are, invariably, targeted at the lower classes, whose supposedly inherent “unruly” conduct is regarded as a perennial threat to the established social order.

One thing is sure, most of these social rules are not based on any broad social consensus, as they really should be, but they are articulated and imposed by what is still, for all intents and purposes, a privileged minority which, hypocritically, does not always apply the same standards to itself. The contradictions of Carnival of course come to mind. At the same time, notions about respectability are also internalized by many of those it seeks to corral, and thus produces some of its most strident and missionary advocates, initiated and propagated through the channels of church and school, which only helps to consolidate the social status quo.

I am not suggesting that there should be no social rules, or standards of civility, and that there should be no public order, but that the prevailing laws and rules need to held up to critical scrutiny to ensure that they are fair, reasonable, culturally attuned and socially inclusive, and devoid of needlessly oppressive social agendas. I see no reason, for instance, why the use of expletives should be of any concern to the Law and the security forces, or why there should be such a hysterical and largely irrelevant insistence on “proper” hairstyles and dress codes, at the expense of practicality, in a tropical environment, and of well-established cultural practices, such as the wearing of locks.

There has been heated debate about the origins and significance of Jamaica’s creole expletives, and their references to the female body and menstruation. The most common argument is that they are demeaning of women – and perhaps they do reflect the undeniable misogynistic tendencies in Jamaican culture and the strong taboos that surround female sexuality and bodily functions – but there are also other ways to look at them. One is to ask whether these references are, in fact, necessarily demeaning, and to question why they are regarded that way, and whether these perceptions can be turned on their heads to challenge those perceptions (to borrow Ebony G. Patterson’s admonition in her keynote address at the 2015 Edna Manley College graduation). Carolyn Cooper, in a 2013 Gleaner column entitled Divine Jamaican Bad Words, argued a similar case, that the Jamaica’s creole expletives should be regarded as a provocative celebration of the female fertility, rooted in African religions and cultural traditions.

The defiant, spiritual power of Jamaica’s “cloth” words was celebrated in song by the great Peter Tosh, who fully grasped their poetic, socially subversive, and indeed revolutionary potential. And they are, for all sorts of reasons, including this very same defiance, a common occurrence in contemporary dance hall music, with endless controversies, calls for parental guidance ratings, fines, and Police interventions resulting.

But more importantly, we need to remember that Jamaican culture has captured the global imagination exactly because of its powerful, inspiring challenge of the status quo – a rebellious spirit which has become sadly jaded and attenuated in recent decades and for which there is insufficient tolerance and appreciation in Jamaica itself. For the local status quo is not amenable to any real, substantive threats to its ever more entrenched privileged position, which is now fueled and supported by the socially aspirational culture that has overtaken Jamaican society. If Jamaica’s rebel culture is accommodated in that context, it is merely in a cosmetic, co-opted and disempowered manner.

And this takes me to what provoked this impromptu blog post: the 2019 valedictory speech by the Edna Manley College graduate Waldane Walker, who is an actor, which has been the source of intense debate and controversy because he ended his presentation with the words: “Big up unno b#@&&%$t selves.” I was not present at the function (I admittedly avoid public functions in Jamaica because of the routine insistence on endless, ponderous and pointless protocols that turns such events into hostage situations – another exponent of this oppressive “propriety syndrome” I am alluding to). Like many in Jamaica, I first saw the video clip with the final words, which had gone viral on social media before the function was even concluded. It was immediately clear that there would be controversy but it was also clear that Waldane Walker had the support of most, if not all of his fellow graduates, who spontaneously rose from their chairs to applaud and cheer him. It was obvious that he had in fact spoken for them, as a valedictory speech is supposed to do.

Context is everything when it comes to such matters, as is intent. I subsequently listened to the entire video-recorded speech and read the script, both of which were also published online, and I realized that the valedictory speech Waldane Walker had presented was of historic import, and not just because of its provocative and dramatic ending. And it is worth noting here that the Edna Manley College graduation ceremony is not a conventional one, but is presented as a production. Creative expression and license have to be expected and accommodated in such a context, with due consideration for freedom of speech.

Waldane Walker’s speech was moving and engaging, and astutely presented. It spoke about his personal journey, including the tragic death of his grandmother, and the journeys he had shared with his fellow students, who encounter at times prohibitive challenges while pursuing their tertiary education. That was important in and of itself, but the most significant part of the speech was, at least to me, the moment when he provided a pointed challenge to the socially and cultural status quo, which he metaphorically presented as a “box.” He said:

They speak of us triflingly, casting their euphemism, ‘isms’ and schisms, squeezing us together into a tiny space, demanding that we run in one direction in a place meant to emancipate us, or to accept the opportunities that only, as mi granny say, “pass through yuh high teeth” leaving us empty and shallow as they envisioned.

They expect us to sit at their table awaiting the scraps from the pot that our ancestors made, filled and fortified. No! The graduating class of 2019 will not sit and drink with you as you puppet us while you frolic.

No, we will not dance with you as you disregard our creative and artistic processes. No, we will not adhere to the judgement that everyone must, everyone will, and everyone can learn in the same way because no, we are not a programmable member of your box. No, we will not accept that we exist simply to be the cliched cultural item in your entertainment package.

And we will not perform as you stare us in the face pretentiously grinning in hypocrisy whilst “politricking” with our institution. No. We will not do that.

Much of what I write about on this Perspectives blog, and perhaps all of it in some way, is about art and power, about the capacity of art to challenge power but also its role as an accomplice and client of that same power — with both existing in an uneasy and perennially unresolved tension. But I nonetheless believe that artists — visual, performing and literary — have the capacity to serve as the conscience of their generation, to disrupt comfortable assumptions and to question and challenge the status quo. And that they can do so without compromise and even as a matter of duty when the circumstances call for it. And now, given the utterly troubled world we live in, in which the status quo has failed all of us, is one such moment where places like Jamaica need to recover and own their rebellious cultural voice. And Waldane Walker’s speech did just that.

The use of one expletive at the end does not change that. In fact, I should not use the word expletive here, because he used it in a positive and clearly cathartic manner, channeling the subversive, spiritual power Peter Tosh alluded to. From that perspective, the use of this “power word,” while unscripted, was entirely in keeping with the logic and the spirit of his speech, and, at least in my view, entirely appropriate in its context.

That it has become such a controversy does however not surprise me. The metaphorical stone he threw certainly hit the glass house of the establishment. Graduation ceremonies are, furthermore, heavily conventionalized civic rituals where graduates are supposed to signal that they have become “proper” and deserving citizens and Waldane Walker broke that code. But he did so for a good and legitimate cause.

I was on TVJ All Angles yesterday, to discuss the issue, and the host Dionne Jackson-Miller made a valid point: that the end of the speech failed to take into consideration the people from all walks of life were there to support the graduates in their proud moment, the parents, the grandparents and other family members who may have been offended and embarrassed at the manner in which this solemn moment was disrupted. That I can see, but I would rather hear that from them, instead of others making assumptions about their responses, and, if they were indeed offended, I can only hope that they will come to see the value and importance of the speech.

And no, I am not suggesting that graduation ceremonies or the professional and educational interactions at the Edna Manley College should, from now on, be peppered with expletives. It is simply ludicrous to suggest that any of this must inevitably happen as a result of this speech. And I certainly don’t see what happened at the 2019 Edna Manley College ceremony replicating itself in, say, a Law or Business School graduation ceremony. I would not have supported Waldane Walker at all if his use of the word was targeted at any individual or collectivity, in a way which could be construed as abusive or disrespectful. But that is not what he did, as there was no disrespectful intent. On the contrary, he concluded his speech with a powerful and empowering charge to his fellow graduates, to which the spontaneous addition of the debated word only added further potency.

Waldane Walker does not owe anybody an apology (even though he has, without retracting his words, graciously apologized to those who may have been offended). In fact, we — meaning Jamaican society, the status quo — are the ones who owe him an apology. Or rather, we owe him several ones. For the brutal murder of his grandmother, in a society where even the elderly are not safe from such violence and violations, and the severe trauma this has inflicted on him and his family – the sort of trauma that has been visited on far too many in Jamaica. For the struggles that he, and many others like him, encountered to obtain the sort of tertiary education that his intellect, talents and cultural politics so richly deserve. For the challenges creatives like him still encounter, more than a century and a half after Emancipation, and more than half a century since Independence, to be granted space and legitimacy for their own cultural voices, unless this is mediated by more secure social status than he has, or by accommodations he is not prepared to make. And finally, for the manner in which a powerful, timely and indeed brilliant valedictorian speech was sensationalized and torn down by focusing, reductively, on its last words only, and without considering the context in which they were uttered.

And if we all want to see positive social change, our obviously deep and passionate reserves of moral indignation need to be more productively redirected to the real and fundamental improprieties in Jamaican society: the rampant corruption and abuse of power and position, the deeply entrenched socio-economic inequalities, the continued existence of outdated and needlessly oppressive laws, the intolerance of otherness, and the disregard for human life and rights, just to mention a few.

But I also know that Waldane Walker has a great future ahead of him, as he has already claimed his own voice and space, and most memorably so, resulting in spirited discussions about the issues at hand across the width and breadth of Jamaica. Now, more than ever, the arts need to challenge the status quo, and he and others like him must be allowed to challenge and rewrite the narrative. I congratulate him for his courage and I am confident that he will continue to rise to the occasion. More power to him, and his fellow graduates!

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