When I was in Brazil a month ago the young man who had picked me up from the airport, along with four other writers, expressed pleasure and relief that I would be spending my upcoming sabbatical in Jamaica. He had been listening in on the conversation we were having in the back of the van. He turned around and said to me in a pitying sort of way, ‘You sound like you’ve been in Scotland too long. Your accent isn’t Jamaican any more. It will be good for you to go back and reconnect.’
I decided not to take him on. I’ve long accepted that my accent is one that many people, for some reason, just can’t make sense of. At least in Scotland everyone knows it has not been tinged by Scottish – not in the slightest. And in Jamaica most everyone knows and understands it as simply an ‘uptown’ accent. But other people around the world who are only used to a basilectal Jamaican register, are a little lost. ‘You don’t sound like the Jamaicans we know,’ they might say quite off-handedly, but sometimes I feel that in such a little sentence, I’ve been effectively robbed of my entire country.
Middle-class Jamaicans are constantly denationalized and disinherited from their place of birth– their authenticity as true Caribbean or Jamaican people called into question. If yu not a sufferer, if yu neva guh school widout shoes – then yu cyaa REALLY be from ‘Yaad’. Some middle-class Jamaicans buy into this fallacy by trying too hard to establish themselves as Jamaicans not because their birth certificates say so, but by invoking a lineage of working-class or deep rural ancestors, or else by insisting on the inwardly humble aspects of their outwardly privileged lives.
‘Yes, we lived in Beverly Hills, but my parents grew up in country. Yes man! And things were very hard there. We guh back all the time to Mocho to visit Granny who only eat bread and drink milo-tea for her supper.’ Or ‘Yes, I went to Prep school, but we had to take the bus. No man, it wasn’t always easy at all.’ And in answer to the question, ‘Where in Jamaica are you from?’ even if I have occasionally opted out of the specificity of ‘Hope Pastures’ and gone instead for the more misleading ‘somewhere near StandPipe’ or ‘somewhere near Papine’.
By contrast other middle class Jamaicans are just a little too pleased by the confusion that their accents cause. Without the slightest hint of irony they will use their thickest middle-class Jamaican accent and assert, ‘Yes I know, I don’t sound Jamaican at all, at all. Mummy made sure that we spoke properly in the house. Yes mi dear, she wouldn’t allow us any of that boogooyaga talk. No sah! I don’t even know how to talk like that. I’m hardly Jamaican.’
While such Jamaicans might accept that there are huge variations in British accents (Yorkshire, Cockney, Scots, Black-British, cut-glass London) or in American accents (Texan, Californian, Boston, New York, Mid-Western), they seem unable to accept that variations exist in Jamaican accents as well, and that theirs is very much a ‘yaad’ sound. They believe that there is only one way to sound as if you’re REALLY from Jamaica, and that it ‘speaks’ better of their pedigree if they don’t sound like that.
Though I like to insist that my accent is thoroughly Jamaican, some Jamaicans will not back me up on this point. Last year I went to Brixton to get my dreads touched up. I went into a hair salon where Sharon – a woman with a bleached face and a gold tooth looked up from her magazine when I walked in. I tried to establish my Jamaican credentials immediately.
‘Yeah man, evening. Oonoo do dreadlocks here?’ I asked.
‘Yeah man!’ Sharon beamed, and Instantly I liked her. ‘A we have di ting set up. Siddung man, siddung!’
I sat down.
Sharon busied herself getting the appropriate combs and oil and then she started on my hair. She asked me, ‘So weh yu come from?’
This was a blow. I thought I had established this.
‘Jamaica,’ I said flatly.
‘Oh,’ she said, managing to sound a little surprised. She was silent for a while, her hands working in my head. It took her an entire minute and the tightening of two dreadlocks before her eyes brightened. ‘OH! Yu come from Uptown though!?’ She exclaimed.
Yu just cyaa fool some people! But at least she had now placed me and seemed willing to accept that both myself and my accent could in fact be Jamaican. In fact, she generously insisted later (though I wasn’t convinced) that it wasn’t that I didn’t sound Jamaican, but rather that all people who came into Brixton tried so hard to sound Jamaican that you could never be sure.
It is true though about this hyper-assertion of Jamaican identity in certain parts of the UK. In fact, when the gospel artist, Donnie McClurkin, came to England he seemed to understand this phenomenon and so proved himself the consummate touring artiste by tailoring his show for such an audience – Jamaicans living outside of Jamaica, as well as many wannabe-Jamaicans. Thus, part of his set begins with one of the most convoluted and yet logical sentences I have ever heard:
‘Well, we gonna sing us some Jamaican songs….’
The crowd goes wild.
‘…but if we sing ‘em, you gotta get up outa them seats and dance like you’re REALLY from Jamaica…’
As soon as McClurkin says this it seems to occur to him that Jamaican-ness within the UK might be more difficult to define. What does it mean to be ‘really from Jamaica’? So he adds in some allowances.
‘…or that your parents were from Jamaica. Or your parent’s parents were from Jamaica…’
But now he probably realizes how convoluted all of this is becoming, the almost impossible feat of performance he is asking. How exactly do you dance as if your parent’s parents are from Jamaica!!? So Donnie McClurkiin seems to take it all back when he concludes,
‘But I want you to be true to who you are!’
And that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? To be true to who we are. After all, I’m not Jamaican because of the way I sound, or because of the way I dance, or because I occasionally point to scandalous things with my lips, or because I like to tinkle ice around and around in my glass. We are, all of us, the things we are because of the mere accidents of our births. So why spend all the unnecessary effort performing what hardly needs to be performed. Why not simply stay true?