On the Eve Of the Battle
Right on the eve of battle, there was dissent. While the Tambourine Army, a band of fierce Jamaican feminists, were getting ready to blow the abeng and stage their Women’s Empowerment March, the British/Jamaican Blogger and activist, Emma Caroline Lewis, took to her keyboard and blogged ‘Why I won’t be Shaking A Tambourine’. Shit got real very quickly. In the contentious Social Media back and forth that ensued, lines were drawn, names were called, people were trolled and people were blocked.
I say that lines were drawn, and they were, and yet it is not easy to make sense of the complexity of sides that people took. Many who read Emma’s blog – many women in fact – felt that she had bravely expressed their own misgivings – misgivings they had either been too afraid to say or had felt without having the precise words to say them. Emma had said it for them: there was something too militant, too aggressive and ultimately something too divisive about the Tambourine Army. The Tambourine Army was not impressed by this critique. To them it was just more respectability politics – an attempt to police their tone, to muffle their rage, an unfair demand to take all that pent up hurt, that lifetime of suppressed pain, and make it all more polite, more reasonable, more acceptable for brown people’s consumption, for male consumption, for good-decent-middle-class-people-who-faint-at-the-word-bomboclawt consumption. They kissed their teeth. They called Lewis out on her supposedly unacknowledged White Privilege.
Other people tried to stand in the gap. No one did this more successfully than the novelist and environmentalist, Diana McCaulay.
McCaulay wrote an especially elegant and considered defence of Lewis, asking people to refrain from the petty name calling and the racializing of the matter. Ironically, what McCaulay does so well in her post is to carefully locate herself. McCaulay embodies one of the most fundamental lessons of Feminism – the importance of not only acknowledging our subjectivity, but acknowledging how that gives context and meaning and nuance to the things we say. Uncomfortable as it might have been, McCaulay takes the time to acknowledge the spaces of privilege she might be deemed to occupy in Jamaica – as a white woman. Emma Caroline Lewis is reluctant to do this. When one Lydia McPherson asks rhetorically on Twitter: what does her being a white woman have to do with not supporting this particular group? Emma responds, ‘I would also like to know.’ Oh dear Lydia, dear Emma – it has a lot to do! A whole, whole lot. It has as much to do with why I didn’t raise similar objections. It is because I am a man. I too hold a position of privilege which implicates me in all kinds of ways.
When The Tambourine First Shook
Amongst other things, Emma disapproves of the movement’s beginnings. It began, quite literally, with a bang – a tambourine wielded against the bald cranium of a pastor. Emma believes, quite maturely, that acts of violence are always inappropriate. Meh! I am more ambivalent. While some people argue that the abolition of slavery was truly secured by the careful and tireless arguments of abolitionists, I still celebrate the revolts, the canefields that were burnt down, the greathouses that were destroyed, the blood that was shed for freedom. And even today there are things that happen –another black body shot in the streets – that keep me awake playing and believing Bob Marley’s call to action – ‘Burning and a looting tonight! Weeping and a-wailing tonight!’ Still, when I heard about this particular pastor assaulted by a humble tambourine, it was another Jamaican classic that played in my head, Shelly Thunder’s hit song from way back in the 80s, ‘sometimes a man fi get kuff, fi get kuff, fi get kuff, sometimes a man fi get kuff!’
This particular pastor had gone to church that Sunday to try and calm the waters. His church had been thrown into an especially choppy sea – one of his other pastors had been arrested for sexually assaulting an underage girl. The church had known about this pastor’s predilections. They had done nothing. So this more senior pastor had gone to calm the congregation, but in days to come he too would be accused of raping a minor! In fact his accuser was in the congregation that very Sunday. She had felt assaulted all over again. Of all the things, that in this particular time, it was this particular pastor, this particular pastor who had put his particularly nasty penis in her particular self, had come to create calm on this particular issue! Well, out came the tambourine, and a man did get kuff! Emma’s non-violent stance is the mature one, but in my immature heart I whisper, ‘Ah good! A dat fi reach yu!’
I am also in love with the greater symbolism of the tambourine. In a Jamaican church where women are so often asked to be silent, or to defer to the leadership of men, the tambourine is their way to make noise. In my own church, where women were expressly forbidden from speaking in church, old Sister Gilzene always brought her tambourine. Ours was not a clap-hand church, but Sister Gilzene brought her tambourine and she clapped her hands and she shook her instrument. She could not speak, but she could be loud. The tambourine allowed her to be loud. The noise of the tambourine was never an elegant sound; it was not refined; it was not classically beautiful – and yet it was the noise of women who were otherwise silent.
The Time of the Tambourine
It is this lack of elegance, this lack of refinement that disturbs Emma. She is put off by the aggressive language of the tambourine warriors, how they have shut people out, ‘using curse words on Facebook [and] telling religious people that they have no right to comment’. Here she is highlighting, in particular, what could seem like the unfair and unwarranted venom directed towards Father Sean Major-Campbell – an Anglican priest who for his 25 years of ministry has confounded any simplistic idea of what a Jamaican pastor should be and do and say. He has rejected the mould. He has insisted on building alliances with sex workers, with LGBT people, in fact with almost any disenfranchised group that the typical Jamaican church would rather ignore or shun. He is a man who has insisted on empathy and compassion. He has insisted on the need for self-reflexive and critical discussions within the church and with people who have been hurt by the church. His platform is a progressive one, his spirit – a beautiful thing. And yet, I have every sympathy for the ‘aggressively feminist’ voices which have told him in as many words, that in this particular moment, to kindly bugger off.
The Bible says this:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
There will be a time for what Father Sean Major-Campbell loves to insist on – self-reflexive and critical discussions, but there must also be a time for rage. Yes, rage too must have its space, its own room, its own time. There is a time to burn down the canefields, to topple the greathouse, a time to burn and loot, and time to shake the tambourine and make an unseemly noise. And none of these things might seem polite or palatable, but they deserve their own time and place. This is the heart of the matter. In insisting on a critical discourse too early, the good Anglican priest with the wonderful heart was effectively insisting that the debate happen in such a way that might accommodate him. Like Emma, he too was temporarily blind to his position of privilege and how he too was implicated in this particular moment. In this particular moment he has become just another man, a Jamaican man, and a man of the clergy at that, bullying his way into a discussion which neither needed him nor had a space reserved for him. On Emma’s blog, Natalie Bennett questions the politics of her intervention; Emma insists her blog is not ‘political’ but ‘personal’. This seems a profoundly strange rebuttal when 2nd wave and radical feminisms had always gathered under that particular slogan: The personal IS political. Emma’s position as a white woman uncomfortable with the rabble and riotous noise of black women is profoundly political; Sean Major-Campbell’s insistence as a clergy man on tempering the protests of women who were raped by clergy men is profoundly political.
That other time will come – the time for a quieter and more considered reflection, for a supposedly deeper and more critical discourse when many others will be invited to the table. But maybe that time is not now, and maybe it takes an inordinate amount of humility to understand and accept that – those moments, those ‘times’ when despite our most sincere feelings, the best thing we might have to offer to a movement is our silence – not our grumbling, not our tantrums at being excluded, not our blogs, not our whining Facebook posts or tweets – simply our silence.
I have not agreed with every utterance from the Tambourine Warriors. I find myself willing to extend empathy to some who they would rather burn at the stakes – the Hampton Principal for example. The binaries they sometimes insist on seem overly strict to me – ‘you either hold to this particular position, or you’re not with us!’ Still, I haven’t felt the need to voice any of these objections. This is not a critical/academic discourse. This is rage. Let it be. Let it do what only it can do. Let it offend and disrupt and dismantle what only it can. If I had been in Jamaica I would have marched and shaken a tambourine in solidarity.
To everything there is a season – a time for the silence of men, and a time for the tambourines of women.