Home

To fully understand the present moment, some say we must understand the past that has given birth to it. So this week, I pause my regular commentary on topical matters in Jamaica, to look briefly at our history.

drums1

In about 1740, across the Caribbean, the drums were banned. Of course this wasn’t so much a banning of drumming as it was a banning of blackness. People had been taken out of Africa. Now it was time to take Africa out of them. Drums not only represented a continent and a vibrant culture; it was a living language loud enough to speak across plantations and in whose syncopated vocabulary, revolts could be plotted. Importantly, the white planters did not understand the language of drums and so these drums had to be banned.

The logic presented was what we might expect from that period of time. It was steeped in racism. Buckra says in essence: black people ought not to speak in the primitive language of drums. They ought to speak in the civilized language of English, or French, or Spanish, or the language of violins and pianos. You might say that this was buckra’s first lesson in how to be a ‘good nigger’. Take away their nigger language; make them feel contempt for it.

Even after emancipation the drums were not, themselves, completely emancipated. Subsequent laws across the Caribbean continued to ensure that whatever was associated with Africa, especially such things that might encourage black people to congregate in spaces away from white eyes or white control, spaces in which  blackness might go unchecked — such things and such spaces would continue to exist on the wrong side of the law. They would continue to be banned and deemed evil.

In St Vincent in 1912, the Shaker Prohibition Ordinance was introduced. Trinidad followed  5 years later with their own Shouter Prohibition Ordinance. Earl Lovelace writes about this heart-breaking period in what I consider his best novel, The Wine of Astonishment.

spiritbapt

In the novel, Bee, a spiritual Baptist leader,  goes to see the newly elected MP, Ivan Morton, (a local boy who has made good) to complain about the unjust Ordinance. But the meeting goes badly. Bee recounts it to his wife:

‘[He] tell me he not against the principle of the freedom of worship but what worrying him is that I, we should still be in the dark ages in these modern times when we could settle down and be civilize…And Mr Civilize sit down there in the whiteman house on the whiteman chair with the whiteman tie and cuff-links and wristwatch on telling me: “We can’t change our colour, Dorcas, but we can change our attitude. We can’t be white, but we can act white.” And all I want is to worship my God in my way.’

The laws that discriminated against the Spiritual or Shouter Baptists gave extraordinary powers to the police. Blackness had to be stamped out with a heavy foot; it had to be squeezed out with a heavy hand:

spiritbapt2

“It shall be lawful for any party of members of the Constabulary Force… without a warrant to enter at any time of the day or night any house, estate land, or place in or on which such commissioned or non-commissioned officer may have good ground to believe or suspect that a Shouters’ meeting is being held or where he may have good ground to believe or suspect that any person or persons is or are being kept for the purpose of initiation into the ceremonies of the Shouters.”

 

It took all of four decades of campaigning for these laws to be recognized for their inherent racism and to finally be repealed. But it was still four decades too late. For here is the problem with unjust laws: the longer they stay in the books, the more their principles get wired into the blood of a country, and for generations to come, we believe in the injustice that they promote. On some deep level across the Caribbean, we still believe that African religions are backward. We still believe that even though we’re not white – not all of us – we can at least act white. Just note the ridiculous pride so many middle class Jamaicans take in saying, ‘We speak English so well! Even better than the English.’

While the law was repealed in St Vincent and also in Trinidad where there is now a public holiday to celebrate the repeal, similar laws have never been repealed in Jamaica. Yes — Jamaica does indeed have its own similarly racist law that demonizes and discriminates against black religion. Ours is the 1898 Obeah Laws. The work that Dr Diana Paton has been doing on this topic is instructive and worth a read.

 

 

Even the language of the Obeah Laws connect it uncomfortably to the time of plantation slavery. For it is written – anyone found guilty of the practice of obeah “shall be liable to imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding 12 months, and in addition thereto, or in lieu thereof, to whipping.” Yes, my friends, in 2014 it is still in Jamaica’s law books that people who practice African-derived religions shall be whipped! Once again, the drums shall be silenced. How better to keep the former slaves in check than with the threat of a good lashing.

whip

The Obeah Laws pretend to discriminate against things we might agree really ought to be policed – like the use/misuse of poisons. But such criminal actions are already covered under other laws. So let us be honest. The Obeah Laws were introduced to discriminate against the congregation of black people outside of white eyes; it discriminates against a particular culture, what was seen as an overt and dangerous expression of Africanness. Indeed, a woman of a Zion Revival Church or a woman from a Pentecostal Church on indeed any tie-head ‘mother’ woman can just as easily be prosecuted under the Obeah Laws as an actual Obeah man or woman. The law forbids any kind of possession by supernatural forces.

It is undeniable that the colonial project has been a thoroughly successful one across the Caribbean. The success is evident in the reactions some of our overly churched people still have towards the practice of drumming. Many of us still fear the evil, backward, demonic and uncivilized spirits that might lurk in the barrel of those drums. Alas, we do not need colonial laws to police our blackness. We police ourselves. We keep our blackness in check. We are like Ivan Morton from Lovelace’s novel. We are the ones that buckra would trust to take good care of the plantation even while he is gone. We will not start any revolutions. No massa (we seem to say every day) we are the good niggers.

The success of colonialism is sadly evident in the reactions many of us have had to a proposal Senator Mark Golding made in December 2012 – at long, long, long last – to repeal our blatantly racist Obeah Laws. Jamaicans have thrown a proper fit. Many are insisting that the Obeah Laws be kept in place. It does not occur to us that we do not need to support Obeah or practice it or believe in it, or to make it ‘normal’ for us to respect the rights and religious freedom of those who wish to practice it or any other African-derived religion. We seem to like throwing fits whenever it is suggested that we review and correct our colonial inheritance. We seem to have a thing for holding on to the most problematic and discriminatory ordinances of that era. We seem to get a kick out of whipping ourselves all over again. I guess, we really are the good niggers. We have been so brutally damaged by unjust laws kept in the books for so long that they are now wired into the blood of our country, and for generations to come, we believe in the deep and terrible injustices that such laws promote.

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “The Banning of the Drums; or ‘How to be a Good Nigger in Jamaica’

  1. You are really getting to the heart of the problems in Jamaica and wider diaspora with this piece Kei, the legacies of colonial rule and culture, which are embedded as you say ‘in the blood’. I’d love you to write a piece on the visual legacies that haunt todays popular culture (if you haven’t done so already)! Particularly ‘hair’ and perhaps Michele Obama’s reluctance to sport a more natural style.

  2. Pingback: Archaic Laws Continue Jamaica’s History of Injustice · Global Voices

  3. Pingback: classicistranieri.com / Archaic Laws Continue Jamaica’s History of Injustice

  4. They banned our Kilts and Bagpipes. As to the Caribbean. Standing in Phase Two’s Pan Yard and learning the history while drinking a Stag; Priceless!
    Boris as FS they are still taking the piss. Just with a lot less relevance or power. This is a globe, actions are cyclical.,empires rise and fall, the remnant remain. I share a name with a legendary Maroon who passed last year, walk good Col Frank. The Drums still beat deep in the heart. As long as we have poets, authors singers and alcohol, our people live, IF we talk. Robbie Burns, Meets Maya Angelou and the baton is passed to those that can see,.makes sense a Jamaican picked it up, “Run Wid It!”
    I am honoured to call you friend.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s