So last night I read in Brighton with Linton Kwesi Johnson –a man almost as humble as he is legendary. The first time I had a book launch in London, a kind of sad event to which barely a dozen people showed up, Linton was one of the few who bothered. He had come, (he told me after as he introduced himself) to show support because he had heard good things about me. Afterwards he and his partner even took me out to dinner and I thought to myself – here is a kind of graciousness and generosity I must always endeavour to have.
I’ve heard Linton read before – a few times in fact – and last night it was very much a familiar script which he followed. About this he is not unaware. He even joked at the beginning of his performance that he was glad he hadn’t read in Brighton for so many years because what he was going to read would be the same; the intervening years then gave the Brighton crowd a chance to forget the material. And later on, when accused by an audience member of indeed reading the same old, same old, he explained quite simply that he didn’t have anything to say these days in the form of a poem. And coming from a man who could potentially sell thousands of copies of a new collection, even if it was his compiled grocery list of the past year, this decision to not write new material just for the sake of writing it speaks of a great integrity.
Linton’s poems are then rooted in the past, and the interventions he makes between the poems stage a sort of history lesson. He bears witness to the 70s, the 80s and the 90s, telling us what it meant to belong to his generation, to be black and growing up in Britain.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the first question posed to Linton after his reading would try to connect the past to the present. Colin Grant asked about the recent riots, and those in the early 80s, and what Linton made of them. I was strangely satisfied that Linton’s response was unsatisfactory – that he hesitated, said a few things that were slightly contradictory, and then didn’t say much. He finally admitted that one of the things he was suspicious of, was the rush of people to say so many things at once, some of those things quite stupid. In the uproar, he did not feel particularly moved to add his voice. I had felt exactly the same.
But maybe at long last, almost two months after the fact, I can begin to explain one of my hesitations about the whole thing. It had to do with Starkey and people’s reactions to him and what he said.
Starkey made a few statements which were undoubtedly ‘problematic’ – to use that well-worn adjective recently favoured by academics when they can’t be bothered to articulate what their specific ‘problem’ is. Starkey suggested that a big part of the ruckus and riots was rooted in language – that it had something to do with ‘this…this… Jamaican patois’ (he almost spat out these words) that had somehow intruded on England. Yes. It was shameful, and especially of him – a historian, carefully ignoring the fact that there are many more places where the English and the English language really had intruded, violently and uninvited, and all kinds of evil was wrought upon unsuspecting peoples and cultures because of that, and that ‘this…this… Jamaican patois’ had actually been formed as a direct result of *that*‘intrusion’ and therefore its eventual arrival on British soil (very much invited because Britain needed to rebuild itself after the war) was something more like a child returning to the breast of its mother. So ‘intrusion’ my ass! But all of that is too much to get into right now.
Starkey was careful to point out however that his problem was not with black people but with what he saw as black culture. His grasp of this was embarrassingly limited. He could not conceive of a multiplicity of ‘black cultures’ or of middle-class or upper-class cultures that could be indigenously black, or of a poor working class black culture that did not involve gangs or guns or violence. So he was lashing out against his strange single idea of ‘black culture’ whether it was practiced and lived by black people or by white people. In contrast, he had special praise for those black people (and maybe I would be one of them?) who could speak in such a way that if you closed your eyes you might even believe they were white.
As you well know by now – all hell broke loose after that. For those who chose to be polite, they simply called him a bit of a racist. For those who chose to be rather less polite, they called him a stupid little asshole and proposed that he should (imagining, I guess, that he was that well endowed) go fuck himself.
And here is what I found interesting – that because of the backlash, the outrage, the shock and the protests, Jamaicans were forced to take a position against Starkey. They were forced to call him a racist and to demand an apology, if not from him, at least from the BBC.
Astonishing! The outright hypocrisy!
You only need to read the commentary in a Jamaican newspaper, or sit on any verandah in Kingston on a Sunday afternoon, to quickly appreciate just how much contempt many Jamaicans (black Jamaicans, white Jamaicans, and everything in between) have for their own language –- OUR own language. Many of us talk about ‘patois’ with the same sneer, the same curled lips as David Starkey did. And though Jamaicans are not always conscious of themselves making a racial pronouncement when they say of someone ‘Lawd, him talk good eeh!’ or ‘He speaks so well!’ what is at the heart of these values is the idea of what sounds white.
The outrage which Starkey provoked, forced many Jamaicans into a position where we simply *had* to become hypocrites; we had to lash out against a stance and a position which we usually take!
In the midst of all of this, a smaller controversy was brewing in Britain which again highlighted the very same contradictions. A black boy was forced to go home from a school in London because of his hairstyle. He had cornrows and the school told him they would not condone gangster culture. Again, there was outrage. And the high court rightly judged the school’s actions as being racist.
I wholeheartedly agree with the judgement, but when this boy’s parent’s went on to say that his hairstyle was important to him as a reflection of his Jamaican culture, I wonder that they didn’t bother to point out that that very same Jamaican culture would never permit this boy to go to school with cornrows! Yu crazy! Dem woulda sen him rass home quick time and tell him fi guh comb him hair. ‘Weh yu a guh wid dat? Where yu really tink dis is?’ That is what we would have said in Jamaica.
See – I have no problem accepting that in many areas Britain is blindly racist and must be called out on it. Starkey for instance didn’t see himself as being racist, nor did many Britons. They saw him as being reasonable – saying something hard to hear, but which was ultimately reasonable! It can be frustraiting to realize that in many instances Jamaica is just as blindly racist but we are not equally called out on these. We too believe that we are being reasonable. Jamaicans especially can hide behind blackness and will not see ourselves as making racial judgements. No. We see ourselves as striving for good manners, and decency, and decorum, rather than ‘striving fi white’. In too many ways, we are a nation waiting on approval from the David Starkeys of this world, hoping to speak so well, to act so well, that were they to close their eyes they might think we were from somewhere else, and perhaps even looked like someone else.
And again, I think of Linton – a man almost as humble as he is legendary. Linton moved to England when he was only 11 years old. This country is his in a way that it will never really be mine. Until 3 years ago, I had always lived in Jamaica, and that I spend so much money each year going back (sometimes three times a year) means it is the country I feel I most belong to. Linton was brave enough to look at British culture and to call it out on certain things. Some of us must be brave enough to do the same for Jamaica.