Like most modern families these days, mine too has a mailing list. We are spread out so far across the globe, from Jamaica to New Zealand, that email is the easiest way to stay in touch.
A round of emails passed around this list the other day; members of the family were sending congratulations to my uncle, and deservedly so, for the role he had played in making sure the recently concluded elections in Jamaica were fair and free. I come from a family who have had it drilled into them the extraordinary privilege that it is to serve one’s country, and we mostly share an unwavering commitment to Jamaica. So we’ve been quite proud of my Uncle Errol who has served as Chairman of the island’s electoral commission for many years now.
I too was on the brink of sending him a small note of congrats; I even composed it, but then thought better. At times, there is too much of the clown in me. Sometimes I just too jokify – to use a strange Jamaican word – and I not always sure everyone will get the joke. My note of congrats would have read: ‘Yeah man! Big up to di big man, Uncle Errol. We all apprecilove di rerk weh yu put in! Large up yuself, mi dupes!’
My dear Uncle who really did do a splendid job, and always has (being the undisputed over-achiever of the family), made one unfortunate comment leading up to the elections. He said that all electoral officers should speak ONLY in English. Because it was an ‘official’ event, he went on, they should speak in an ‘official’ language. It was a statement that reeked of a certain kind of old school colonial classism.
Now to be fair, he did try to excuse the statement by explaining that he had received complaints on previous occasions by persons who felt that they were being spoken down to when election officers addressed them in Jamaican patois. In other words, it was these officers who had been classist! He was instructing them to desist from such practices and to treat everyone equally. Hmmmm. I’m not so convinced. I truly wonder if my uncle is being open enough to just consider the possibility of an unwittingly held elitism that could be underpinning and informing this notion of ‘official’ languages for ‘official’ occasions. And about this, we could talk until the cows come home. Still, I think it is both sad and utterly ironic, that in our most democratic moment, some Jamaicans were not allowed to speak in their most demotic language.
So my thanks in Jamaican patois was meant to be sincere, but also a bit of a joke, and probably he wouldn’t have had a problem with it, since such an offering would not have been ‘official’ and so could always be composed in an ‘unofficial’ language.
My family is a strange one when it comes to issues surrounding language. An aunt here in the UK seems never to believe that I am actually a writer. Well, not officially. If I am one, then she believes I must write for an extremely small demographic. (Well — I guess that much isn’t untrue.) But still her suspicion stings, and her confusion that I should have a job at a big, big university. She too has had an official title recently. A year or so ago she was ‘Mayoress’ of the borough of Mitcham, in London. She even had an official chain, though she didn’t keep it at the house. She showed me pictures. And so this aunt not only speaks in the perfect official language of English, she has also perfected the accent. You can’t tell she is from Jamaica – the sister of our Chairman of the electoral commission. To be fair, she has lived in the uk a very long time. And she is always surprised that I travel around the world reading from my books, or that they have been translated from the unofficial language of ‘Jamaican’ into the official languages of Polish or Russian or French. She keeps on asking me, ‘Are these the books that were written in…. in…. Jamaican!?’ When I tell her ‘yes’ she simply raises her eyebrows, utterly unconvinced, and says ‘Oh.’ I love my aunt dearly, but her easy dismissal of what I do can become wearying in its own way.
Yesterday I tuned in and watched the swearing in ceremony for Portia Simpson-Miller. No relation, I should point out, though her husband is Errald (not Errol), which often causes confusion. But anyway – the Swearing-in Ceremony of the Prime Minister – events don’t get more official than that. And so I was pleased that the event included a song from Shaggy, and a selection from the Glenmuir High School choir, and that these were largely in Jamaican patois.
But it was when the pastor offered an official prayer for the new Prime Minister that I thought to myself — you know, there really are many official and unofficial languages in Jamaica. For the man started off in a wonderfully trembling voice, ‘Holmighty Gaawwwwwwddddd!’ which I guess must be Twang for ‘Almighty God’. Twang, it seems, is an official enough language for the occasion of the swearing in, but I wonder if it would have been official enough for the elections. I wonder if my uncle would have allowed the electoral officers to speak it?