1. Yesterday’s Ignorance
My paternal great-grandmothers were ignorant women – one more so than the other. They did not mean to be. They were products of their time. One of them – Aunt May was what they called her – was disappointed in the woman my father chose to marry. In fact, Aunt May was disappointed in the marital choices of all her grandsons. My father and his brothers married black women. It wasn’t that my father and his brothers weren’t black. And it wasn’t that Aunt May wasn’t black herself. At best, she was light-skinned. But she was also ambitious and she believed that the way to advance was to marry up – to marry someone of a lighter shade. A woman who had raised her two boys in Cuba until her husband took off for New York, Aunt May returned to Jamaica, a bitter and trifling woman. She was also abusive – verbally and physically. She was especially abusive to black people.
My paternal great-grandmothers were not friends. Aunt May did not like Mama Lou. Mama Lou did not like Aunt May. They made little attempt to resolve things for the sake of their children who had married. Maybe Aunt May was jealous because Mama Lou’s husband had never left her, and Mama Lou who was also black, had in fact ‘married up’. She had married far, far up. Her husband (Papa) was what we would call ‘Jamaican white’. The genes of his own blonde haired and blue eyed Norwegian father (a sailor who had never returned to Norway) had met little in the way of resistance from the fair-skinned Indian woman he had met and married in Jamaica. So this half-Norwegian/half-Indian man, by Jamaican standards was ‘white’. And he married Mama Lou. But although Mama Lou had married this almost-white man, she had more enlightened ideas about race. In school she had befriended a girl called Amy. They would be friends for life. And so when Amy married Marcus Mosiah Garvey, it ensured that Mama Lou would become a Garveyist.
Despite having an almost-white husband and mixed race children – a son so fair that they nicknamed him Massa – my great-grandmother believed in black nationalism and black pride. She instilled these values into her children. By far, she was the more progressive, the more educated, the less ignorant of my two paternal great grandmothers. And yet, even in the area of race, she was ignorant about things. Small forgivable things. She believed for instance in the idea of ‘good hair’ and ‘bad hair’. Her children had good hair. And she believed them better looking because they were mixed race. Perhaps she was so concerned about the larger issues of racial injustice that she never stopped to consider the smaller things, like the politics of hair and the politics of beauty. I don’t imagine there were as many penetrating conversations happening then about these nuances as there are now.
When I think about the ignorance of my great-grandmothers, it strikes me as a very different kind of ignorance than the kind we might encounter today in Jamaica. Theirs was an ignorance BECAUSE of lack of information. The ignorance we encounter in Jamaica today is an ignorance DESPITE a glut of information. The ignorance of my great-grandmothers was unwitting. The ignorance in Jamaica today is deliberate. The ignorance of yesterday was almost always a natural product of what had never been discussed sufficiently, what had not been interrogated. The ignorance of today is almost always a choice. The ignorance of today is almost always immoral.
2. Today’s Ignorance
If you do not live in Jamaica right now, you may not know about the drought that has parched the land, that is making asthmatic dustbowls out of our savannahs, and that has all but emptied our dams. The situation is desperate.
Of course we know that this is not only the consequence of poor water-management systems in Jamaica, but a consequence of the larger matter of climate change. It is worth noting that while the matter of climate change is one of the most urgent issues of our century, efforts to acknowledge this and to deal with this have been continually hampered by right-wing American interests – a conservative Christianity that still holds to the problematic doctrine of ‘dominion’ and who feel little impulse to take care of a planet that they will soon be leaving anyway.
Despite all the clear meteorological evidence, a friend on facebook – someone who has not only an undergraduate but also a postgraduate degree – has come up with another thesis as to the reasons for the drought in Jamaica. So proud is she of this thesis that she not only posts it to her friends, but makes it public for the entire world to see.
One school of thoughts says we should simply sigh and ignore such babbling. Indeed, there is something so unhinged about the post that we might want to give her space to deal with what might be the beginnings of a kind of psychotic breakdown. But it is this act of making such a post public, and having others endorse its message, that creates a moral obligation to respond to it. And how do we even begin to unpick the multiple layers of ignorance exposed here? What is amazing is not only her ignorance of geography, meteorology and climatology – but also her ignorance of the bible. While the bible condemns homosexuality it makes no mention of effeminacy. Hers is a distinctly secular value – a worldly ideal about how men ought to behave – and she tries to spiritualize this bias, this bigotry, by drawing it under the umbrella of biblical sanctions.
As the discussion under her post escalates she draws attention to this video below – a gay man in megamart brandishing a knife against another customer.
Now I hope everyone would condemn this act of violence – even the threat of it. But my friend also attacks the performance of gender. In doing this she exposes a gaping and magnificent blind spot. Almost every act of crime and violence in Jamaica is done while simultaneously performing gender – that is, a hyper-masculine gender. ‘Yeah. Man a bad man! Walk and live! Talk and bumboclawt dead. Don’t diss big man! Big man will cut yu up!’ etc etc etc. But this kind of masculinity is never condemned, despite all who are murdered, raped, injured, abused in the height of its performance. The Jamaica Observer puts out story after story about Homo-thugs or homosexual crimes – including rape – but would obviously never think to put the adjective ‘straight’ or ‘heterosexual’ in front of the far more overwhelming acts of crime that scorch our island even worse than the present drought. Instead, my friend would have us believe that hyper masculinity is ‘of God’.
Most disturbing on that Facebook conversation is when her pastor, a Rev Peter Garth, enters into the fray. Here now is an opportunity for the shepherd of the fold to gently and lovingly correct one of his wayward flock – to direct her back towards a path of love and away from the rabid and hateful ignorance she chooses to display. But his is not an act of leadership, but of cowardice. He chooses to affirm her thesis and to ignore all of her detractors. They are just heathens trying to steer her away from the path of righteousness.
This is not the ignorance of my great-grandmothers. My friend and her pastor display another kind of ignorance. Theirs is an ignorance DESPITE a glut of information and education, not because of a dearth of it. Theirs is an ignorance that is deliberate and chosen. Theirs is an ignorance that stands stubbornly shadowed even in the blinding light of what has been thoroughly discussed and interrogated. Theirs is an ignorance that is disturbing, dangerous and deeply immoral.