Apologies if today’s blog doesn’t address as wide an audience as I might usually address. I am talking mostly to a fellow Jamaican poet, Mel Cooke, whose article a few weeks ago tried valiantly to talk about issues surrounding homophobia and LGBT advocacy in Jamaica. He raises good points in his article, but others are unfortunate, particularly the disparaging and condescending ways in which he describes a transgender man. Here, I am continuing the conversation with Mel who responded to my blog in his most recent column. You can read his column here. So if you want to stay and eavesdrop now, you can stay and eavesdrop.
I actually appreciate the tone of Mel Cooke’s recent column, if not its content. It is true – he spends a great deal of time missing my point. As one person tweeted: ‘Of all the things you wrote, he selected THAT portion to respond to?? A better im did jus low it!’
But to be fair to Mel, it seems his own missing of my point is a kind of tit for tat (perhaps subconscious) and is partly because he thinks I missed his. Dear Mel, I didn’t. And maybe that is the nature of unnecessary cass-cass – we spend a great deal of time arguing about trifling things, leaving the more substantial and urgent matters untouched at the centre of the discourse.
Mel doesn’t anticipate any further response from me. He says as much at the end of his column:
‘If they, or anyone else, want to address these points, with the editor’s permission, I will hand over the column space to them next week or whenever a reply comes. I rather doubt it will, though. This exchange is going nowhere. ‘
Mel doesn’t only write about popular Jamaican music, but seems here to embrace its aesthetics, for what is this if not the equivalent of firing two lyrical shots, sounding a fog horn and running around, hands in the air, crying, ‘Peoppplee Deaaaad!’. Or maybe I should accept it as something much more simple – the fact that Mel doesn’t want to be drawn into further cass-cass.
Dear Mel, thanks for the offer of space in the Gleaner, but I prefer my own blog. And I write this, not for the sake of cass-cass but to do two things: 1, to acknowledge more explicitly the very good points that I think you were trying to get at in your original article, but 2, to explain why it was still necessary (and urgently so!) to seemingly miss those points – to skirt the issue (as you put it), and to point out other things that you had inadvertently made central to your whole argument.
The Good Points
Your article ‘Bye Bye, Boom Bye Bye’ tries to articulate a number of things but two points are more interesting than the others.
One, you seem to suggest that dancehall isn’t the real root of Jamaican homophobia nor does it necessarily reflect the homophobia of general society. Rather – dancehall music is a reflection of the church.
Wow! That’s actually quite an interesting and productive thesis especially for those of us who would (wrongly) like to compartmentalize dancehall as ‘secular’ and church as ‘sacred’ and can’t imagine that the one can be a reflection of the other. Still, the notion of art as something that simply ‘reflects’ – that doesn’t have its own power of agency has been debunked so many times. It is naïve. The real root of Jamaican homophobia is certainly worth looking at, but to pretend that popular music doesn’t just ‘reflect’ but also powerfully reinscribes values and is therefore worthy of its own critique is a problematic notion for me.
Two, your article seems to argue that local LGBT advocacy in Jamaica does itself a great disservice and undermines itself to the extent that it seems to be directed by foreign interest groups. Bredrin, I could boom off your fist for that. It is something I have said repeatedly – that it is difficult for Jamaicans to accept lessons or instructions in Human Rights from countries who have had a long history of denying us those rights. People who have been historically barbaric towards us, cannot just turn around and call us barbarians. That is racism in one of its most sophisticated forms. You also argue (though much less explicitly) that Jamaican LGBT subjects do themselves further disservice by insisting themselves embattled – pathologically looking for fights where no fight exists, and failing to acknowledge the slow but definite gains that have been made over the past decade for instance.
These are excellent points to make and to discuss. It is all so complicated, isn’t it? Advocacy requires money; such money often comes from international groups with their own agendas. For LGBT groups this money often has to do with HIV awareness and prevention. I imagine advocacy groups have to make a general case that things are desperate and awful and that money is urgently required. Could this possibly mean that it is in the interest of LGBT groups to make the situation in Jamaica seem worse than it actually is? Of course it is possible. Money and sovereignty! Thorny issues for postcolonial countries who want to assert their independence but must repeatedly go hat-in-hand begging money from foreigners. We only need to look at the IMF and how local policy decisions are now being directed to understand this dilemma. Or better yet, while we raise questions about the money involved in LGBT advocacy, we can also raise questions about the money involved in Homophobia! For make no mistake – homophobia, like LGBT advocacy is big international business. In the same week that Kay Bailey wrote in the Gleaner criticizing the visit of Randy Berry to Jamaica she conveniently failed to mention how her own group (Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society) has often brought in speakers from foreign to energize local homophobic interest groups (for this is what they are!) and always it is this idea that when people from foreign tell us things, it somehow have more authority.
If the US is exporting sexual anarchy (as the headline of Bailey’s article suggests it is), it is also exporting homophobia to the Caribbean and to Africa. So where, in all of this, does our sovereignty and agency lie? These issues are huge.
But, But, But…
No Mel, I wasn’t skirting the issue. I was focusing on another issue which you made central. You made it central by beginning your whole argument on a particular anecdote and making all of your subsequent claims spin out from it.
Let me explain my fundamental problem by way of an analogy. Perhaps it is an analogy that will raise your hackles – but suh it guh. Now, if a white man explaining some genuine problems that affect urban black communities were to start his critique with ‘Now the problem with them niggers is….’ then we would have to halt the conversation right then and there. You get that, don’t you? It wouldn’t matter how valid his critique was, how verifiable the statistics of black crime, etc, were. The point is, he had housed that critique in language that betrayed a deep and problematic prejudice.
But that is an extreme example. The truth is, prejudices are often much more subtle, and this makes them more dangerous. In fact, prejudices are usually so subtle and normalized and validated in our everyday lives, that they are not recognized by the people who have them and who then articulate them as if they were commendable attitudes to have. This is the problem with both your columns. You tried to raise legitimate concerns about LGBT advocacy (many points that I agree with), but you housed that critique in language that is so prejudiced against certain LGBT people and their various performances of gender that one has to say, Mel, stop right there!! We have to deal with something. We have to deal with your blatant prejudice which is all the more dangerous because it seems you don’t even regard it as prejudice or as a problem.
In fact, you spend quite some time asserting the opposite. You point out how you cringed when a pastor suggested more than just a sonic link between the words ‘maggot’ and ‘faggot’; your point about the extremely effeminate man at Courts seems to be that you had no problem with his sexuality – it was simply the outrageousness of his performance that irked; your response to Afifa points to previous articles in which you have asserted your disapproval of vigilante crowds that peep into people’s bedrooms. I applaud all these things. You genuinely see yourself as a forward thinking liberal, but that means the prejudices that still linger and are apparent in your column must not register at all to you. And that, quite frankly, is frightening.
You say that much of my last blog hides behind politeness, and what the hell does it matter if I know you or I have friends who know you. I can accept that point, and I will try now to hide neither behind politeness or pretense. But you know how it is: you read something from somebody who you more or less respect, and you don’t want to believe that their thoughts could really be that shallow or that problematic. In such instances, you have to remind yourself that the person never actually set out to write something fool-fool; that they didn’t write what they wrote because they were a bad person; in fact, it is much more likely that what they wrote was an act of genuinely trying to work through an idea with as much integrity as they could. So when I read your column – I had to remind myself of these truths. Even as you denied a complete stranger of his humanity, I had to remind myself of yours and what I assume is your own integrity.
You say that your poetry has nothing to do with my present critique but you could only have said that if you didn’t read my blog closely enough. You say that my critique of your poetry, if genuine, would have been proffered before. But come on — that logic is a bit stupid. Mel, do you how many poems I listen to and might not like? I am certainly not going to run up to each person and say, ‘Hey, I liked this, but not that.’ That would just be arrogance and self-righteousness. Still, a seemingly limited understanding of how gender works has featured in your work before, and I can’t apologize for noticing it but only saying it now, for it has never been as problematically exposed as it has been in your articles.
The problem is two-fold. First, you don’t seem to acknowledge that how we act on a day to day basis is always scripted for us. They call that ‘socialization’. Some of us, however, act off-script. We improvise and come up with alternate behaviours that might not enjoy wide social approval. This doesn’t mean that such off-script behaviours are not expressing the core truth of the person who engages in that behaviour, and neither is it necessarily true that people who perform gender in more widely-accepted ways are somehow being more truthful to themselves.
You seem to approve of gendered behaviours that do not overtly call attention to themselves, ones that appear more subtle and subdued. You validate these as normalized and even more than that, somehow essentialized. Bizarrely, you don’t recognize these as performances as well. Therefore the man who has relaxed in the couch is finally a ‘person’. Before that ‘relaxing’, when his behaviour was too extravagant for your tastes, too limp-wristed, when it consisted of too much wiggling, he was an ‘it’ or a ‘caricature’. As you pronounce in your most recent article – your prejudice far from concealed this time – ‘they should not reduce themselves to jackasses and ridiculous caricatures of human beings’. There – clear as day – you see flamboyant effeminacy as a REDUCTION of a person’s humanity. This man has not reduced himself. No. You are the one who has reduced him.
Let me try another analogy. Recently I’ve been trying to write about ‘volume’ – specifically about how black aesthetics are often dismissed from certain ideals about what poetry should sound like. To some poetry establishments, very good poetry is always quiet, subdued, non-attention-grabbing and its subtlety makes it superior. On the other hand, whatever is flamboyant, too loud, too overt is seen as inferior, trying a bit too hard, inauthentic. Loud poems are supposedly not real poems, or at least, they are lesser poems. I too show the same kind of problematic bias when I insult your love of punning, and you show the same bias when you dismiss this man’s behaviour. So then — what is a poem and what is less than a poem? What is writing, and what is less than writing? Who is a person and who is less than a person? Who decides such things?
But your problem extends much further than this. As I tried to explain in my last blog, it has to do with narrative strategy as well. The arrogance of the narrator is always this – that he believes his subjects’ stories begin with him, with the moment he first observes them. But every story is larger than the narrator who tells it.
Here – let’s play a narrative game. The man who you saw in Courts – his day did not begin at the moment that you saw him, much less his existence.
He woke up that morning and possibly had a fight with his mother, or maybe it was his lover? They may or may not have made up. He lives in Portmore, or maybe Havendale – a single room he has rented; he has only just received his first pay cheque and thinks he will buy a couch for the living room that is all but empty. He has to get a bus or a robot taxi to Courts. The taxi driver gives him attitude, or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the taxi driver is an old friend from High school and asks him, ‘Yu member Joe from First Form? Yu know seh dem murder him last week.’ Maybe Joe was the first man he ever kissed and this makes him sad.
But all of this is invention. I cannot know any of it, and quite frankly, neither can you. All we know for certain is that this man came to Courts with a world of stories and whatever you saw on his face, whatever was in his limp-wrists and his wiggling, is a culmination of all these stories that we don’t have access to. It is downright irresponsible of you to tell Jamaica with such authority what this man’s intentions and disappointments were. YOU DO NOT KNOW! I cannot explain it any better.
In your last column you eschew the cheap punning I criticized you for. But you need not have. As I said, that is my own bias there. I know it. Still, it is pleasing to see how In this column you expand your literary arsenal with new tricks, namely alliteration. You call my blog ‘vacuous, vapid, and even vicious’.
Vicious? Yes – I can see that. Mea Culpa! Apologies. But ‘vacuous and vapid’? No way, Mel! And that’s the problem with style…it too often comes at the expense of substance.