nobody told me this

It is mid-semester. The last couple of weeks of exams have weighed heavily on University students. After hearing from so many students on the verge of giving up, I write this letter.  This is an open letter to all those who are in the struggle, plan to join the struggle, and/or seek to understand the struggle for higher learning.

March 21, 2018

Dear Me,

Me?  Why is this letter addressed to me? It is addressed to me because sometimes me wants to scream. If this letter is successful, it will calm me from screaming. This letter will be my new mantra. Picture 013These will be the words that get me through this journey. These will be the words that remind me to go to bed after staying awake for 37 and 1/2 hours straight. These will be the words that remind me to at least buy a water to wash down the one meal I had for the entire day.  These will be the words that remind me that I am doing alright, even though my instructors think I’m not as smart as… she. Yes, she.  The she that seems to have all the right tools and right answers for everything.  These will be the words that remind me that I am doing my best, even when I don’t have bus fare to get to campus.  These will be the words that remind me that I do belong in University, even though I am not the same age or same class or same nationality as my classmates.  Me needs these words to remind me that exams are not set to destroy me, even though I feel destroyed. Exams are not set to break my spirit, even though they make me feel inadequate and overwhelmed.

Nobody told me that University would be so… like this.  But what I have to remember today is that today is no longer yesterday; it is no longer last week, last month, or even the first day of school.  Today is a triumph. I made it this far and I can keep going to the finish line of graduation.  If I can study, then I can pass my exams.

All I have to do is find the time to study….

I need to remember that there are only ever going to be 24 hours in each day.  I can’t change what the English have set as a standard of “productivity.”  I cannot change the fact that the Industrial Revolution created a need to synchronize time and that synchronization was fueled by the linking of time with capitalism.  I cannot change the fact that this history of capitalism is what first extended the work day beyond sun-light hours.  So, as I trod on this journey, it is not worth my energy or my time to get mad at time for running out. I cannot get mad at time for expiring.  For expiring and running out is what time does. What I can do and what I will do is manage my time and my expectations better.

Even though education has become more and more of a business, I have enrolled in University because I seek to maintain or earn a good job that will earn me good money.  Even though education sometimes seems to place administrators at the center and students on the fringes, I have enrolled in University because I seek to uplift myself and my family.  And even though I love my family and want to do good by them… And even though I respect and appreciate the money that they have spent to support my education… And even though they mean well when they push me to be the doctor-lawyer-engineer that they are now or could never be, my University experience is my own. My coursework and exam grades are earned by my ink-sweat-tears of study hours.

This letter is proof that me is not a student ID number. I am a scholar. I must remember that every long-term goal begins as a short-term plan.  In each of my classes I will earn knowledge through self-study.  I will earn marks that I am proud of.  As much as I can do so, I will make the most of my time at University by studying that which makes me happy and I will make friendships that I will have for a lifetime. I will challenge myself and I will challenge my instructors to be better because a useful education is one that makes everyone think more.

I will read these words again and again until they are my own because nobody told me this before I enrolled in University.  Now I know.

Very sincerely mine,

Me

a hundred $ stab

About an hour ago or so, I saw four officers of Jamaica’s Constabulary Force poised with weapons in hand. Three of these officers held semi-automatic rifles, while the fourth maintained his handgun in its holster.  Their police vehicles were parked and all four wore helmets and bulletproof vests. They were prepared to profile.  Evenly flanking Mona Road, the officers positioned themselves about 200 meters before the University of the West Indies’ main gate.  They were stationed there because Mona Road is the fastest way into and out of August Town, a community where gunfire is becoming more frequent and more deadly.  As traffic bottle-necked past the officers, I couldn’t help but wonder how many 100s of shots had been fired to warrant this police presence, how many 100s more will be killed before it ends, and did $100 cost another man his life.

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When a man is killed over $100 — as happened on February 8, 2018 — it makes you reflect.  It has been a reflective few weeks.

I remember a few months ago taking a taxi and when I arrived at my destination and paid my fare, the taxi man checked his pockets and apologized, saying: “Sorry, take my number, I will have to owe you $100.”  A few weeks ago I remember making a market purchase and the vendor took my money, then said “Sorry, baby,” as she rifled through her purse, “I don’t have $100 right now. If you circle back, I should.”  In each of these instances, I wondered if these service providers would have accepted my apologies if I were $100 short when payment was due.

Then I had the following encounter towards the end of February. I brought several empty water bottles to be filled at a water facility and, after he placed the bottles on to the counter, the clerk informed the cashier that I had 7 bottles. The cashier input the amount then the clerk apologized and said “It’s not 7 she have. It’s 6.” The other clerks pounced: “Yuh cyaa count!” The cashier kissed teeth, rolled eyes, and yelled at the miscounting clerk, “Ah your pay dis aggo come outta! How yuh cyaa count so!? Yuh mussi eeedyat!” The other clerks and the cashier continued in this way as the miscounting clerk could only hang his head, load the 6 filled bottles on the trolley, and wait for the word assault to stop.  He pushed the trolley toward the register and the cashier, still disgusted by the young man’s counting error, turned her attention to me and asked with a head nod, “Him can owe you $100?”  Not yet giving over any money, I looked around at the other clerks who were still hurling insults at their miscounting colleague and I answered the cashier with a question: “Can’t you just input 6 bottles instead of 7?” Her answer flew out of her mouth and slapped me in the face brazenly, “No. Ah him make the mistake. Him will pay.”  I pressed her: “But, really, you can just delete 6 and press 7. Anyone could make a mistake.”  But the cashier was firm in her response: “No. The register don’t work like that. Him can owe you $100.”  I looked at her, frustrated, and decided that there was no value to gain in fighting her or her register.  I thought about the young man and the various other vendors who “owed” me money and in an attempt at restitution, I asked her: “Can I just get a credit and not pay for a bottle next time?” The annoyed cashier yielded to my request, only after checking my ID and writing up a semi-formal I.O.U. that she said could only be honored if I brought back the flimsy receipt paper. I agreed and hoped this would calm the situation.  The insults toward the miscounting clerk had slowed, but did not come to a cease fire.

As I share this encounter, I recognize that that young clerk may never hear the end of his mistake. He may have gained an unwanted nickname and maybe he is regularly chided for counting like Macaroni drives.  (If you are unfamiliar with the viral Macaroni videos, click here for an example. But, before you LOL too much, click here to read about the daily torment “Macaroni” and his children are facing for his driving mistake.)  And, all jokes aside, the miscounting water store clerk caught a lucky break compared to France Nooks, the 25-year-old man who was stabbed to death by a taxi driver over a $100 fare on February 8, 2018.  And, in another kind of way, the tormenting co-workers and I were also lucky, if lucky is the right word. We are lucky that the miscounting clerk was not vengeful.  He certainly could have proven his counting abilities with 100 bullets or 100 stabs aimed at everyone who bruised his ego.

Every time I hear the number 100 I think of the stabbing, while my dancehall memory recalls Aidonia’s sexually problematic lyrics on “100 Stab.”  Who knew that the metaphoric violent sex that Aidonia voiced on Equiknoxx’s Sky Daggering Riddim ten years ago (2008) to much controversy, would seem almost frivolous in the face of a man stabbed over $100 in 2018?  Who knew that $100 (which is almost an hour’s pay at Jamaica’s current minimum wage rate and is roughly 75 cents USD) could incite a man to kill and would leave a man dead?

I suppose it was never about $100, though. It was about disrespect and desperation. The money, no doubt, is symbolic of a frustrated man’s need for respect in the face of unforgiving economic realities.  No man’s life should end on account of $100. But for the taxi-man with a knife or the badman with a gun, $100 and a body in a bag can purchase temporary self-worth in an unfeeling, unyielding world.  And this is the reality that many face in stressed communities throughout Jamaica and throughout the world.

August Town, the community that skirts the University of the West Indies, is under this kind of economic pressure.  August Town emerged from a year of zero murders in 2016, to a violent 2017 and an already bullet-riddled 2018.  And in the communities that flank the tourist sector of Montego Bay, the same kind of reprisal and gang violence has been desensitizing residents and destroying families for a few years now.  A Zone of Special Operations had to be enforced to quell violence and help restore order in Jamaica’s second city of MoBay.  Will August Town see the same kind of national, military response?  This morning’s show of force on Mona Road suggests that the answer is yes, and for good reason.  Children at August Town Primary School should not have to be disrupted from their lessons to shelter in place.  Students and staff at UWI should not have to study, teach, or train in fear.  August Town’s men should not have to avoid the corner bar and church sisters should not have to forgo evening worship for fear of being an unfortunate bystander in the night.

So, to the few vendors who owe me money, keep it.  Keep the money and invest it back into our communities because I know we can do better than this. And to those of us who take joy in laughing at a man’s miscount or mistake, mind you push someone to their breaking point.  A hungry man is an angry man. And a ridiculed man can become a killer. As a nation we are only as strong as our most desperately vulnerable citizens and right now, Jamaica, we all need to value life more than we value making, spending, or defending $100.

 

a new story

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Marquise de Louville by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1708)

From negro, to nigger, to black, to enslaved property — but still negro. To Other, to colored, back to black, to African-American, to nigga, to African American without a hyphen, and now still a nigger– but with a capital “B” in Black.  These shady words and terms have been used since the 18th century to identify those of us who are non-white, non-Asian, non-Hispanic, and non-indigenous in what has been since 1776, the United States of America.  To put it bluntly, to be African or a descendant of Africans has always, in the American and European colonial imaginary, meant being less than.

This kind of conscious and subconscious social conditioning is what led Marcus Garvey to speak those famous rallying words to his fellow Black people in 1938: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”  And the persistence of this kind of conscious and subconscious social conditioning throughout the African diaspora influenced the beliefs of Rastafari, led Burning Spear to create the album Marcus Garvey (1975), and led Bob Marley to “reggae-fy” (if I may use scholar-writer-poet Kwame Dawes’ term) Garvey’s pan-African worldview on the song  “Redemption Song” (1980). But, this post is not about music. This post is about a new story that is told to us through visuals.

Visually, Eddie Murphy’s 1988 film Coming to America offered a critical new image for America’s African descendants to visualize during the long, arduous process of freeing oneself from the mental slavery that has for centuries limited how Africa has been understood or imagined. So, yes, I am arguing that Coming to America was critical in helping Black America confront its (mis)understanding of Africa while also allowing Black America to imagine a new story about Africa.

Re-imagining Africa through Zamunda, the fictional nation ruled by James Earl Jones’ kingly character in Coming to America, gave Black people in the diaspora a different story out of Africa. Of course, this fictional kingdom was not perfect by any means, but it did disrupt prior imaginings of the continent through its depictions of an Africa that was not hungry, was not diseased, was not poor, and was not war-torn.  In the African Kingdom of Zamunda, Africans were healthy, fertile, and rich with gold and cash.  

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From the movie Coming to America (source hark.com) 

These images helped to contrast the dominant images offered in cartoons, literature, magazines, and the news media. Take for example the visual power of a fictional Africa that the mind constructs when reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series (written between 1912-1965). This image has lingered into the present day. Consider the visual impact of Jane Goodall’s Africa, the continent where she worked tirelessly to study and save chimpanzees remains today, as many continue to think of Africa as a land of animals more than people.  And one has to recognize the power printed in the pages of the National Geographic Magazine, where since 1888 photographers have captured and constructed Africa for so many thousands of households throughout the Americas and the world.

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“L’Officiel Paris” covershoot, Beyonce in ‘blackface’ (2011)

Through images, a particular view of an animal-Africa, backwards-Africa, primitive-African-Africa has been created. Zebras, acacia trees, lions, loin cloths, dark skin and bare breasts. Distended bellies, warlords, possessed dictators, malaria, ebola, and brutal female circumcision.  And for the descendants of Africa, the image of the African in America is equally stereotyped and limited. Senseless gun violence and drug-dealing in the ghetto.  Angry baby-mamas and high school drop-outs.  Hidden historical figures in America’s space program and America’s White House.  Tyler Perry’s brand of American blackness.  Oprah as America’s mammy.  Orenthal J. Simpson as O.J. Simpson.  Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Charleena Lyles as Black threats to white America. And Beyoncé as Beyoncé.   If we think about it, this was American popular culture’s representation of Blackness prior to the release of Black Panther on February 15, 2018.  But what is Africa to Black America now?

With Black Panther what it means to be Black or African is shifting from and being redefined by the diversity of the film’s lead actors: Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther/ T’Challa), Danai Gurira (Okoye, the General), Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia), Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger), Winston Duke (M’Baku), and Letitia Wright (Shuri).  This cast that hails from the U.S., Kenya/Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana, and plays characters with deep, reflective interiority to complement their physical strength, represents a new story of Afro-futurism.

Black Panther offers a new story about how we have held on to Africa as a past, rather than as a future.  Just read the image below of Killmonger looking at African artifacts in the British Museum. Isn’t this how Africa has remained — locked up, conditioned, and curated by Europeans–  for so many of us living outside of Africa? killmonger museum.png

Mid-twentieth century American Civil Rights and equal rights protests and legislation, and 1970s dashikis and afro hair-dos did only part of the job of re-writing how the West understood or imagined Africa or what it means to be Black people.  I was a little kid when I saw Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America on television. But even as a young girl, the visual affect of that movie helped to widened my imaginative scope with vivid images of a rich, contemporary African kingdom.

Two weeks ago I saw Black Panther in Jamaica, in Kingston, in Liguanea. It was the Sunday of opening weekend and there were patrons ranging from babies to seniors. Some movie-goers wore clothing inspired by Afrobeat music videos, while others dressed in full black.  There was an infectious excitement in the theater and, as the movie got underway, it did not disappoint.  With Black Panther being released in the digital and global age of communication, this time of increased access to the continent, and Instagram, it would be utterly backwards for American popular culture to ever again put forth a primitive, implosive imagining of Africa. A new story has begun.

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For additional reading on the film consider these articles:

  • Kenyan journalist Patrick Gathara’s very recent piece in the Washington Post where he rejects the optimism that has been assigned to the film in favor of discussing the neocolonialism at play in the film and he points out that the film upholds tribal visions of Africa and white American/European pillaging of the dark continent. You can read more here.
  • Public intellectual Jelani Cobb’s piece in the New Yorker, where he demystifies how “Africa” has always been a fictional continent-community as “Africa” was imagined by and for the European colonial pursuit. You can read Cobb’s words about history and the carving-up of Africa here.
  • There is much discourse examining the role of women in Wakanda.  These gendered articles have the greatest internet presence. Read the Vox piece on the comic book’s gendered history here, the Elle piece on women’s voices and power here, or read the Essence piece here on the uncommon presence of so many black leading women in a superhero film.