Despite the cliché of our strong black women, despite our majority female headed households, despite reggae song after reggae song in celebration of ‘Mama’, despite a woman Prime Minister, patriarchy (that old, unflappable institution) is alive and well in Jamaica. It is as true here as it is elsewhere: we are run by the proverbial Old Boys’ Club. And that Club is an especially real thing in a country whose high schools tend to be segregated on the lines of sex/gender. If you want to see real concentration of power on this island, you can do no better than looking to the Old Boys of Wolmers, of Georges, of KC, and maybe even of Calabar. (Sorry, I couldn’t help that.)
In all seriousness, it’s rather incredible to me that so many Jamaicans are dismissive of recent and fair objections being levied at one of our oldest high schools – Kingston College – whose Old Boys have decided, despite recent progressive policies, to revert to an older and regressive policy and host an all-male annual dinner. Like Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, only men are welcome to sit at their table.
Some people insist it is just a harmless little reunion. Others have asked, would we equally object to an Old Girls dinner? Such earnest logic is the kind of stupidity that sees BET (Black Entertainment Television) as racist in the absence of an equivalent WET, and those who raise such objections need a refresher course on power and power construct. But that is too much to get into here. Others have moaned – but how can KC possibly help the situation? They are, after all, an all boy school. Now stop, stop, stop!! Let me be absolutely clear: if this were indeed a dinner ONLY for KC Old Boys then I don’t see how anyone could object and I would be the first to withdraw my own critique. However such a defense is a bold-faced lie. It is simply is not the case. The all-male rule was first ‘relaxed’ when the then Prime-Minister Michael Manley insisted on attending the dinner with his then wife Beverley.
But Manley himself had not attended KC. To my knowledge (someone please correct me if I am wrong) he is a Jamaica College (JC) Old Boy. Still, no rule had to be relaxed in order to have him attend. The fact is – I too, having attended another competing All-Boys school of Wolmers can also be issued an invitation to the dinner without contravening a single rule. So too can a man from Georges, and maybe even from Calabar! In fact any man whatsoever can be invited to the KC Old Boys dinner so long as he is indeed, a man. What is of fundamental importance is not that one must belong to the KC family; rather, one must have in one’s own belonging, a penis. The objections being raised are not to a harmless little reunion dinner but to what it is a powerful symbol of a much broader system of patriarchy and unchecked sexism.
Such forces seem to be on the recent rise. Over the last few weeks Jamaica has made a concerted effort to assert its patriarchy and sexism in the most unapologetic and offensive ways. For starters, there was Senator AJ Nicholson’s casual and irresponsible remark in the Senate House. Our esteemed legislators were debating the Flexi-work bill and the senator on the floor (Marlene Malahoo-Forte) raised concerns about women leaving work late at night and being possible victims of rape, Nicholson thought it appropriate to heckle the room with a comment worthy of a teenage boy, something to the effect of ‘So what you want? Flexi-rape?’ It was as if he thought he was in the safe confines of a KC Old Boys dinner rather than in the respectable senate where pesky women were around to hear the jibe, to be offended and to hold him and all of us to a higher standard. The reports are that Senator Marlene Malahoo-Forte just stood there, her mouth open, absolutely stunned by the crudeness of it all. The demand came for Nicholson to withdraw his statement but Nicholson was having none of it. It was just a joke, he asserted again and again. What wrong? You can’t take a little joke?
The begrudging withdrawal only came when the Leader of the Senate – a man – all but demanded it, and perhaps it had to be this particular Leader of the Senate who with his sight disability is probably more attuned to the casual ways in which the Old Boys say stupid, disrespectful and discriminatory things.
Mounting pressure from society at large caused Senator Nicholson to make a more public apology, and yet it was one of the most unapologetic apologies one could muster. Basically, the senator was sorry that we all lacked a sense of humour; he was sorry that we didn’t all realize it was actually ok to joke about rape; he was probably especially sorry that women did not have their own penises (well…not usually) for such appendages would surely grant them a greater disposition towards humour, thicker skins over all, and most importantly, the possibility of being invited to the annual KC Old Boys Dinner. Now who wouldn’t want that!?
Despite his public apology Nicholson has gone on to privately write threatening emails to Senator Malahoo-Forte. He has told her, amongst other things, that “the big pay back is coming. Mark my word!” Funny how in this context, the ‘big pay back’ sounds like some kind of phallic threat. Good for the opposition senator in making that email exchange public.
Men don’t seem to react well when our collective power comes under threat, when women seem to forget their rightful places at kitchen sinks, or under our heels, or at the very least far, far away from our Old Boys dinners and our Old Boys clubs. In today’s Sunday Gleaner, Professor Carolyn Cooper makes satirical commentary on the said KC dinner, playing on the innuendo of them having made a ‘sexual preference’. Quite literally, they have. They would prefer (and in fact they insist on) members of the male sex attending their dinner. But – if we must talk de truth and shame de devil – it wasn’t satire done particularly well. Satire should always work on two levels – a play between explicit meanings and implied meanings; innuendos and puns working their subversive message through the subtext and not in the actual text. But there are whole sections of Cooper’s column that have only one meaning instead of two – and that are explicitly (rather than implicitly) about sexuality. And though I know her politics are much more complicated than that, it kinda grieves my heart to see sexuality being used – even if jokingly – as a way to send coded insult to the Old Boys who really do deserve insulting. It reinscribes the idea of homosexuality as something worthy of public shame and ridicule. Perhaps in this, Cooper’s irresponsible joking is not wildly different from AJ Nicholson’s flexi-rape joke. Both represent humour at the expense of vulnerable people.
Still and all, it seems that the Jamaican twitosphere has gone into sheer spasms of rage – men in particular have taken their 140 characters to publicly wish all kinds of evil would fall on the distinguished head of Cooper.
It’s as if several KC Old Boys and their sympathisers are now channeling their own inner AJ Nicholsons – he who when his blatant sexism was called out responded first by bafflement (What’s the harm done!? It was just a little joke? It doesn’t threaten anyone!) and then, as if looking around to make sure no one else was listening, by seething, chilling, coded threat.