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.

Gon Bops Black Tambourine PTAMAL

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.



20 thoughts on “Why I Would Have Shaken A Tambourine

  1. I get you, Kei. And like you, I very much liked Diana’s approach. I am going to post a few responses on my blog at some point, maybe, in case people missed them (but many saw the profoundly abusive comments of members of the TA, who interestingly, embraced the toxic landscape that is Facebook and hardly responded directly on my blog. I wonder why).

    I am still the same “me,” but I could do without the racism. I wonder what the response would have been if I wasn’t white? It’s such a convenient method of attack. Anyway, the vitriolic knives came out.

    Sincerely yours,
    “The Cockroach Who Should Be Squashed Underfoot.”

    PS, I will take your word for it on the tambourine. I don’t go to church but have heard them from afar in Revival churches. And yes, you could also say the political is personal. So what? I am still me. And can write what I wish on my own blog, as can you. Let all views contend.

  2. Kei, of the many things that struck me over the past days as I watched some of the exchanges about Emma’s blog, was the seeming contradiction of principals of the Tamborine Army claiming to be INCLUSIVE, and in the same breath EXCLUDING vehemently and vociferously (by race, directly or by inference; by gender–you decided to not tread a road that you sensed would be rocky simply because of that accident of gender). I can resolve contradictions in my mind in many ways–irrationality has its place–but they do make it hard to understand what people really believe.

    In passing, you could have shaken your tamborine, and in these days of technology that allows time and space shifting, posted a video or picture of it ‘as if you were there’. #Justsaying

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  4. Kei, I can’t help but focus on the issue of ‘a time to be silent and a time to speak’ and its relationship with privilege. A key part of how you crafted this essay was to acknowledge your priviledge as you stated your opinion, something that you also lauded in how Diana approach this matter. Is it that Emma’s ‘sin’ was that she didn’t do the same? Is it that the privileged have to tread more cautiously on these (and other controversial) matters, always keeping an awareness of their privilege at their forefront of their minds and ensuring that it is stated as they speak? When and how should the privileged speak?

  5. As a bystander/reader and a young woman whose skin appears white (even though I am not) with a great interest in burning down the existing colonial structures (however great and perhaps impossible that may be) I understand that in my privileged skin (just as Kei explained he is in the privileged male body) there are certain discussions/arguments that while I may have opinions on, are best left without my direct input because while I know the hardships of being a queer Caribbean woman I can’t even pretend to understand the additional trauma of existing inside marginalised skins from which there is no escape and living in a world that makes it so that you feel the need to escape your skin in the first place. If I wanted to, I could run behind the secure white walls (or in my case yellow-ish pink walls – due to my Chinese, Amerindian, Black and European background) of privilege and hide there to mask my own discomfort. I am always seeking to learn and change myself to be a better contributor to this dirty, colonial, male powered space we all share – rather than to admonish persons for their natural responses to things that are undoubtedly rooted in white male power and dominance.

    I say all this to respond to these points made above:

    1. “I am still the same ‘me,’ but I could do without the racism.”
    – I have come to understand that the racial structures of the world come from the colonizers and thus the oppressed cannot be considered racist the same way white people can be. The “sides” are not two sides of the same coin. They are not sides at all…that would suggest parallel-ness or some amount of fairness. The coin itself we refer to in that idiom and all the other riches in the dominant hands in the world were stolen from Africa along with my two black grandfathers’ ancestors.

    2. “I wonder what the response would have been if I wasn’t white? It’s such a convenient method of attack.”
    – It is unfortunate that at this moment you feel inconvenienced by being white. Being inconvenienced by skin colour is a very popular concept in the world we live in. It doesn’t feel good, does it?

    I will not admonish any actions that make me uncomfortable simply because I would not carry them out myself. I am also not prepared to politely sit at a table and ask men to “please, sir can you kindly leave our bodies alone?” – just as those of our ancestors who shed blood in rebellions and burned down courthouses did not politely write letters asking kindly to be released from their traumas.

    When a man has a woman in his grasp, perhaps after grabbing her, striking her down, and making her bleed first, then attacks the thing she has been shamed about from birth just for having one between her legs – the thing she is told that if she lets a man get at, she is bound to burn in the pits of hell for failing to keep safe. How do you instruct this woman on how politely to respond? As a believer in spiritual connection, I understand that just as Caribbean peoples with African ancestry can feel noises in our blood from our ancestors’ pain, women can feel the traumas we experience in the form of sexual abuse and violence not just because we are empathetic human beings, but by virtue of the fact that walking in this world as a woman, a greater deal of us have experienced some sort of sex based abuse or violence. Change benefiting women – especially black women – is going to take some noise and some loud badwords and some man really need fi get bloodclaat kuff.

  6. As with any group of advocates, permission by the masses is not needed. Inserting one’s self into a matter that you don’t agree with is asking for a spotlight to be shined on you. You either endorse something or not. Does it mean you have to take it to the next level and blog or go on social media about it? NO. It does not. Sometimes the best is to say nothing at all. Which should have been the case here.

    Just like any movement there are going to be differences and different approaches….This does not mean that they do not share the same common goal. The argument always comes down to one feeling that their approach is correct, while the other may see it as doing more harm than good. It does not in any way make one approach better over that of another, as long as it does not involve harm of people or personal property.

    As for naming names of sexual abusers or other criminals. This should never be done without a conviction by the courts and/or proof that the person did the crime. The wording “suspected” is often used in reporting for a reason.

    The reason for our reply in all of this is that this was brought to our attention, and is certainly not in any way to chose any side of the back and fourth that has occurred.

    Our concern and stand on this is that we support the increase awareness of what abuse/victimization cycles are, so that women and children can step beyond the veil of shame and secrecy and into the light of recovery and happiness.

    We also encourage the use of conflict resolution in dealing with others as a means of working past issues that people/communities face to lessen acts of violence.

    The actions of others do not define who we are, nor our just cause. Our actions do.

    • I understand tambourine army frustration..This system can’t be counted on to convict these high class rapists..Can’t even get an investigation because it is what it is.. People from the dirt trying to reach up to people of the air

    • “As for naming names of sexual abusers or other criminals. This should never be done without a conviction by the courts and/or proof that the person did the crime. The wording “suspected” is often used in reporting for a reason.”

      This is an obtuse and callous stance in a country with low conviction rate. Comments like this show *clearly* why the Tambourine Army is vital. Is di same argument deh woulda tell wi ancestors: wait patiently for Backra Massa parliament fi tell wi slavery wrong so wi musn’t bun down dem property.

      “As a class, you and I and our friends who comprise the elite are incredibly blind. We refuse to see what we do not want to see. That is why we have not brought about the changes which our society must undergo or be written off. We have no option really; if we do not move, we shall be moved. The masses whose name we take in vain are not amused; they do not enjoy their punishment and poverty. We say thoughtlessly that politics is a game of numbers. So it is. The masses own the nation because they have the numbers. And when they move they will do it knowing that God loves them or He would not have made so many of them.” – Chinua Achebe

  7. In my posts on Facebook I have commented that slavery was abolished because of a revolution. I too am uncomfortable with confrontation. As an Attorney by profession my default position has always been to uphold the law no matter the consequences. Now in my heart I am faced with a dilemma. The time has come when we must each wrestle with our demons. We must not remain silent, we must not to fit in by maintaining the status quo it may therefore mean that noise has to be made. To each his own.

  8. Excellent writing and reflection (as is consistent with your style, Kei Miller). I must note though that my intention was never to temper anyone.
    I believe that advocacy within the context of the law, ought of necessity to be done with passion and without apology.
    There is such a thing as “pastoral sensitivity” in relation to those wronged and those who have committed wrong; to those who are sick and those who are well; to those who are in prison and those not in prison.
    The response which was to my “Letter of the Day” – Church, (and) abuse victims all need healing. I believe that consistent with human rights, anytime is the right time to promote respect and tolerance for all perspectives. Among my observations, I noted, “In the midst of pain and outrage, disappointment and depression, betrayal and abuse, may we use this situation to create a more accountable, compassionate, truthful and just Church and nation.”

  9. A riot is the voice of the unheard.(KIngJr). Good article. I do not think for one moment people are afraid of the revolts and riots. I think what many are cautioning the Tamarind Army against is the publishing of names with conviction rom the courts.

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