A Love Letter to Jamaican Girls

A Love Letter to Jamaican Girls
January 5, 2017

I have been thinking about love letters lately. Do you remember the ones you used to write or receive when you were a teenager? You would write it in secret, always when you were bored or supposed to be doing something else, and would hide it until you had a chance to give it to the intended recipient.

The prose was flowery, full of rhymes, clichés of all sorts filled the pages, lots of hearts and roses and declarations of undying affection and adoration for every aspect of the person.  The receiver would hide it in a special place, to read by themselves, over and over again.

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With scraps of paper,  borrowed pens and makeshift envelopes, we felt it important to record those feelings, to release them from captivity and hope that the person who received it would know what feelings they had inspired.

Jamaican girls need a different kind of love letter right now. Not the ones with the hearts and flowers, or written for humor’s sake, but the ones that will affirm and build them up against the ugly, hateful, toxic and deeply unloving ideas being spread about them.

Letters that anoint girls with the same intention and care as if she had journeyed to a balmyard for a bath.

Letters that girls can carry in their bosoms and pockets as spiritual defense, in the tradition of our grandmothers who used to carry herbs wrapped in pieces of cloth and tied to their brassieres to ward off evil.

Letters that make them feel strong, powerful and untouchable, as if they walk among us, but are not of us.

Letters that heal, that empower them to resist, that encourage girls to see each other as her sister’s keeper, to see herself in other girls, and to protect her fiercely.




Hilda Belcher, “Run Little Chillun, Run, Fo’ de Devil’s Done Loose”, 1931, Vermont

It is truly frightening how much Jamaican society has become invested in telling girls exactly how little they are valued as persons.  Maybe this isn’t new though; something I hope to investigate more over this year.   But it’s really not an exaggeration to say that nearly everything that is being said to and about Jamaican girls in public – on social media, in the taxis, comments from random strangers, sermons from the pulpit – is anything but loving.

The favourite response is to blame girls when they are violated by men.  Sadly, even girls themselves participate to prove that they are “better”.

Right after her body is found dismembered in a gully, canefield or latrine, or the unspeakable violence against her has been made public, the unofficial campaign to re-victimize her unfolds:

What could she have done to cause this to happen?

Why was she on that road?

What was she doing with him?

She must have wanted it or she wouldn’t have gone there.

She acts too grown for her age.

She should have said something.

She or her mother is being paid so nobody should complain.

She wants too much attention.

If you listen carefully, you can hear it: the deep dislike and distrust of girls. They are bad until they prove otherwise.  In the most casual conversation among Jamaicans, it takes nothing for adults to start accusing girls of being “too much” – too fast, acting too grown-up, too curious, too impatient, too impetuous, too loud, too mouthy – too whatever we don’t like or value in someone else.  In the stories that we like to tell, girls are, by definition, temptresses, schemers, always wanting to lure men into compromising positions.

The intention, whether stated or not, is always to blame girls for the harm that comes to them, and to remind us that men’s “nature” is particularly susceptible to being unleashed by prepubescent girls.  Whether it is a group of boys in a bathroom or a 62 year old man who is reputed to be a molester of an entire family of girls, men are presumed to be powerless to resist her.


And of course, the time-honoured ammunition for this position: the Bible.  There is simply no shortage of favourite misinterpretations to be launched from pulpits, verandahs and Facebook posts to defend sexual violence against girls.

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/dd/a9/5a/dda95af42741960fe94fa125f8f78deb.jpgYoung women are also harmed by the onslaught of negative talk. Just listen to the words adults use to curse them, to make them feel ugly, small, worthless, powerless, like nothing.  Instead of teaching girls how to love themselves and develop a positive self-identity, adults are quick to find ways to control and beat them into submission: ugly uniforms, limits on their physical movement, shaming them, denying them information, feeding them with outdated and unproven ideas, imposing silence, physically beating them.  In the warped way of many adults, this formula of “bending”, “breaking” and “moulding” is what will produce meek and mild girls, girls who do what they are told and march in exactly the ways they have been directed by adults, especially men.

The negative talk that is constantly hurled at girls seeps in, and slowly eats away at how girls see themselves and what they learn to expect in terms of how they should be treated. Too many girls spend their adolescent and adult years denying or burying their experiences of violence and humiliation, just biting their tongues and biding their time.


If they are lucky, they learn how to love themselves and the children that they are responsible for.  But what is more likely is that their rage and buried hurt visits their children – through beatings, hurtful words, silence.

When adults deny girls love, we set them up for failure. We make it more likely for them to make poor choices in their personal lives because they are willing to go wherever they will find something that feels like love. When we choose to act surprised when girls demonstrate agency or act out their self-hatred, we are denying our responsibility in killing their dreams and slaughtering their self-concept.


All of this is why Jamaican girls need love letters.

They need to be told that they are beautiful, smart, courageous, talented, that they matter, that they are poised to do great things, and that they hold the future in their hands.

They need to be told that being outspoken is a good thing, that bold girls become great women, that they don’t need permission to think.  They need to be told that they are no better or worse than any other girl who is different from them. They need to be told that all girls deserve the same opportunities to shine.

What they need to hear is that it is not ok for anyone to hurt them.  They need to be told that their bodies belong to them and them alone.  They don’t have to keep any secret when men and boys do unspeakable things to them.  And they don’t have to respect any man or do what he says just because of the political party he belongs to, which business he runs, whether he carries a gun or a bible.  Our girls need to know that they are not required to respect authority when that means they have to suffer in silence.

We need to tell girls that they don’t have to be afraid. They need daily reminders that they already know how to be courageous.  That surviving the journey from home to school to church to shop and back home with their dignity intact is an act of courage and defiance.  They need to know that other women have walked this path too, have survived and are willing to stand up for them.

We have to tell girls that their dignity is theirs to own and defend, and that no one can take that from them. No girl is dispensable or worthless.

All girls, and especially those who come from under-resourced families and communities, need psychological armor to protect them from the public assault on their character, their persons and on their lives. When we surround them with love, they become invincible. They are counting on us as adults, and we need to stop disappointing them.

So, here’s to you, Jamaican Girl!

Even if:

  • You live in the roughest part of the poorest community in your parish.
  • You spend all daylight hours sitting under a tree or in somebody else’s place just to avoid your own home or your classroom
  • The pastor/deacon/church brother has taken a liking to “laying on hands” during every prayer meeting
  • You were told that you are black and ugly like sin and you believe it
  • You are the “pet” and favorite toy of your cousin/uncle/stepfather/father/grandfather/neighbor and you don’t know why
  • You believe that you are better than other girls because you are sure that what happens to them could never happen to you
  • You have to decide between skipping school and asking the taxi-driver to drop you in exchange for a feel-up and some credit
  • You do not attend a “prominent” school, your picture is not in the newspaper, and you did not pass 10 subjects
  • You believe that it is a compliment when men of all ages call to you on the street
  • You have been held down, felt up, battered and bruised over and over again because they say that you are not a virgin so it doesn’t matter
  • Your family thinks you are worthless because you were raped
  • You have been told that you need to start fending for yourself, including having sex with older men, in order to pay for light bill and lunch money.
  • Your teachers tell you that good money is being wasted to send you to school
  • You can barely read or write and don’t speak any English
  • You bleach your skin because you believe that you will be more attractive and men will pay more attention to you and help you get ahead
  • Your community is a place where girls like yourself feels trapped or fantasizes about escaping from.

Regardless of where you live, what your situation, how well you speak English:
You are precious.
You are loved.
You matter.
You are a fighter, you are capable of great things.
We believe you.
We believe in you.

We have not always spoken up in your defence when we should have, but we see you.

We know that there’s no future if you don’t make it. There are many, many of us who are fighting for you and for your survival.

Stay strong, Jamaican Girl!

I love you.


Create your own love letter!



Summer Holidays Are For Reading!

Originally submitted to Western Mirror, June 2015

Come the end of June, thousands of Jamaican children will exit the school gates, return home, pack away their school paraphernalia and begin the much-anticipated Summer Holiday.   For the months of July and August, most will probably do a combination of the following: sit or lay around in boredom, watch lots of television, travel, visit relatives, play with friends, watch more television. Few will pick up and read a book during that entire time. And by book, I don’t mean schoolbooks i.e. the textbooks left over from the previous academic year that parents purchased to fulfill the requirements established by a particular school.  Many children will turn to these, either by force or to alleviate boredom during unending summer days.

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I mean books that children pick up to read for enjoyment. Books that they choose to read, not because there’s nothing else to read, but because they want to read that book. Books written to hook children into reading. Books that cause children to make elaborate plans to acquire, trade, hoard and share with their favorite persons. Books that are detached from tests and competitions. Books for which the only reward comes from having jumped into the book to experience the delight of wading around and feeling the story as it is told, and re-emerging thirsty, breathless, bragging, wanting more. Those books.
It is during the summer months where many children recover from the scholastic approach to books that they have endured over the academic year.   They get to re-discover the pleasures and creativity involved with reading. Free from the strictures of homework and study regimen, children are able to browse, skim, read and re-read books that make them think, wonder, put themselves in someone else’s position, and activate their sense of curiosity. The more ideas and perspectives they are exposed to, the more connections they can make to the world around them, and the better they are able to question and sort out what they think about the ideas they encounter. Allowing children to choose what they read during the Summer holidays, and to read as much as they can, is good family and community practice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA For children who are not fluent or confident readers, Summer is the ideal time for them to become immersed in the worlds that books offer to them without worrying about their literacy skills. Chances are, children who have difficulty reading the textbooks won’t want to read anything else. Reading is frustrating for them. And yet, it’s the other books – the non-school ones – that they are most likely to enjoy, and from which they will derive sufficient confidence and practice, without pressure or shame. No matter what they are reading, they will be practicing what they already know, learning new words and integrating ideas that they encounter. Most important is for adults to read aloud to children. Reading aloud is a critical way of providing support and encouragement that the children need; doing so also offers a stress-free experience for children to become more familiar with language and hear the words that they will eventually read on their own.   Adults can also become better readers by doing so.

Kiwanis Club of Providence Reads (1)

So then, why are there so few resources to support Jamaican children’s access to reading material during the summer months? One answer to that question can be found in the way that reading and books are perceived as expensive tools, a form of privilege, a means to an end, and deeply connected to school-based performance.

But the bigger problem lies in the fact that public policy does not treat access to education as a year-round issue. In truth, the laser-like focus on investment in schools and training institutions, while important to the broader education project, has come at a cost to children. That is, Jamaican policymakers continue to take a lopsided approach to education which makes it unlikely that most schoolchildren go home to communities where there are books waiting for them to dive into.  In the current approach, communities and families are sidelined rather than treated as equally important partners in the work of education. Jamaican children deserve better.

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The cost of ignoring community-level needs for education is most apparent during the summer months.  Recall that the work of education is primarily relegated to schools and teachers, and funded as such.   When schools are closed in the summer and teachers are on break, there are few options for childcare, reduced options for finding meals, let alone educational needs. Many parents, especially those who are employed, are at a loss for what to do with their children. Invariably, children are left unsupervised at home for long stretches of time, thus creating the conditions for a whole new set of problems to emerge. When families and communities are left on their own to figure out individually how and whether to provide learning opportunities for their children, social inequality wins. Those families that have the material means to enhance children’s learning are able to confer a “home advantage” that is reflected in children’s academic achievement later on. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that the paucity of state-supported afterschool programs and community-based initiatives in working-class communities can undermine the changes that are desired inside the schools! The current approach to education is neither just nor sustainable.

What would make a difference in children’s access to books and reading material during the summer months, as well as year-round? Greater public investment in the myriad other institutions that working-class and impoverished families interact with – healthcare, legal system, transit, housing, religion, community government – to make sure that they support and encourage children’s educational needs.
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Improving access to books is a low-stakes way of creating learning opportunities for children growing up in impoverished and working-class environments.


Another way to address the problem of access is to amp up the visibility of public libraries and deepen their engagement with communities.   Currently, publicly funded libraries are not as accessible as they need to be, even with the existence of a mobile library service. Social and economic inequality is carved into the landscape, and still makes a difference in which, how and whether children have the chance to enter the physical building or vehicle to take a book off the shelf. Too often, libraries in Jamaica are treated as extensions of schools, a place where the bright, studious children go to enhance their education and social skills.   The children who need the support and resources available through that institution are probably not going to enter that space on their own.  They need help to get there. Better outreach and support are needed for the young people who are struggling with reading.

Unfortunately, the public libraries in Jamaica can also be exclusionary rather than inviting spaces, limiting access to the very citizens who they might otherwise want to engage. One of the purposes of a public library is to entice and encourage children to step into the world of books, and to help them develop a long-term relationship with reading.  What children or adults wear to the library is irrelevant to how and whether they will engage with the book. Indeed, attaching books and reading to respectability is exactly what the library should not do, not if it wants to pull in as many parents and families as possible.  Everyone, including children, should feel like they belong and are welcome to the library, no matter what their situation.  Whether they eventually migrate to electronic books or stick with the physical paper version, or go back and forth, children need access to the worlds of ideas and knowledge in them right now.   Finding ways to expand access to the library will do a world of good for everyone.

Adults also need to read more.  Children learn from adults about how to value and relate to books.  The idea that reading a book is relevant only for school has become rooted over many generations.  Inevitably then, some pareGRAP 028nts are just as likely as children to want to avoid books over the Summer holidays. The logic goes like this: books equal studying; ummer is not for studying, Summer is for rest and fun. Ergo, Summer is not for books.  Except, that’s exactly the logic that also turns children off reading for pleasure and discourages healthy intellectual development.  When adults present reading as taxing on the brain, as a means to a specific end, and only relevant to those who are in school, they introduce and reinforce anxieties that stifle children’s interest in reading. I can’t imagine that such attitudes are helpful to children, whether in the short and long-term.  Certainly, many adults do need to evaluate how they talk about and relate to books, especially around children. But changing mindsets also requires a shift in public policy that encourages citizens to move beyond an instrumental approach to books and reading.  Such policy might encourage every public institution, including the public libraries, to find ways to promote reading and literacy among families.

Finding creative ways to strengthen the system of distribution of books to and for children will make a tremendous difference in the lives of Jamaican children, families and communities. Doing so will require taking a much broader approach to education than currently obtains. It means spreading out the work and grap 2014 wed 30th 025getting more people to become invested in educating and advocating for children’s needs. Whether that means teachers working with bookstores to encourage summer reading, or churches get retired teachers to organize reading programs for new parents, or sports clubs do fundraisers to create a bookshelf in every shop in their community, or service clubs do book drives to support the school libraries in the community, or teachers are hired by community centers to develop educational programs, there is no limit to what ordinary citizens can do to invest in the wellbeing of all children and families. Making books available to children in working-class and impoverished communities during the Summer holidays is one small way to signal that investment. It is simply the just thing to do.

All images courtesy of Granville Reading & Art Programme, 2012-2014.  Do not copy or post images elsewhere without permission.

What a teacher decided that she could do to a 3 year old child

That’s the forearm of a 3 year-old boy.

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That’s the forearm of a 3 year-old boy who doesn’t like to go to his school in Milk River

That’s the forearm of a 3 year-old boy who doesn’t like to go to his school in Milk River where he was beaten by his teacher.

That’s the forearm of a 3 year-old boy who doesn’t like to go to his school in Milk River where he was beaten by his teacher who said she didn’t think that the belt would have cut the child.

On Thursday, April 23, the child’s parent posted this note on Facebook: “when i went to pick up my 3 year old baby from school this is what he show mi say him teacher beat him when mi go to her about it this woman a go tell mi say she didnt know say it did a go cut him…tell what a baby could have done fi this happen to him you know say this little boy always a tell mi him dont want to go to school i always a say him dont like school i didnt know say a these things a go on make the baby dont want to go school……if mi fi beat the shit out a that bitch you would hear how mi go on like mi bad…….and yes this happen in milk river…..people please share this because it need to stop help mi protect the youths”

The responses were full of outrage, expressed in characteristically violent Jamaican ways:

“Mi belly move. If a even one rass lick mi would a afi get off a dah teacher deh. one good one, weh is ider it cripple had har or it make she feel some sort a constant pain so every time she try lick another baby she rem. And if mi fi go a jail mi naan stay long and daddy will take care till mi cum back”

“Weh teacher cud ah tell me seh ah baby do that u beat him an cut him oh fada god u see an u know smh an sigh”

“I’d find somebody to hold her and beat her cut up her skin same way”

“Me nuh done wid you bitch me a beat you, me sister dem a beat you, you a get a box each from me brother dem a throw give me mother after mek she screw out you fucking head and throw it back give you.”

“she should b glad its u because me nah ask no question one bcl lick she a pick up inna a rass face….. at ma son school if him run a drop dem have fi call and explain… me no run joke wit ma son yuh madddd.”

“If it was me like tht mother god know seh prison wouldn’t mis mi when mi done with that teacher caz what mek the situation even worst is the teacher facety comment, if a did mi she tell bout she never know seh it would cut the bby!!!!! God know seh mi would just Tek something an mash up r face”

Whether the commenters advocated for or rejected giving the teacher a physical taste of her own medicine, responses actively called for the parent to report the situation to the police, principal, Ministry of Education, and Office of Children’s Advocacy, they all called for *action*.

I don’t know what the parent has done since then since he has not posted anything.  He did note that he declined to tell his mother about the situation, for fear or exacerbating her health condition.

At any rate, you can read all the responses here: https://www.facebook.com/weldon.johnson.12/posts/940135076031134?pnref=story

I feel angry about what the teacher has done to that child: she has been busy trying to break his spirit – and that of the other children, for a while now.  Honestly, if that were my child, I would have had to take several deep breaths when that teacher said what she did.  I most certainly would have wanted to wring her neck and slap her into next year, much like the commenters have expressed.

But I already know that seeking redress in all kinds of other ways would be far more effective and long-lasting.

I also know that she’s a creature of the system.

As such, empathy goes only so far: I know that this type of harm would not come to my child. He’s not in that kind of system; other types of harm, for sure, but not this.

I know that this happened to this man’s son because the schooling system in Jamaica has regularly and consistently treated the children of the working classes in dehumanizing ways. Our elders recount stories and legends of teachers who used to cane, whip, and otherwise physically maim the children who came from the less-privileged groups.

Some commenters shared their own stories:

“Teach that teacher a lesson and others because she is not going to stop it happened to me when I was in grade 1 I am in my 30s and I remember my parents is Christians so they didn’t take it up every time I remember my eye that she lick me in hurts abuse is going on in school has well teachers doing it

And yet, the current Minister of Education, Ronald Thwaites flip-flops on an issue that is already enshrined in The Child Care and Protection Act.  In November 2012, he took one stance on the situation; In February 2015 he stated that it is ok for schools – principals, not teachers – to treat children in these degrading ways.

Not surprisingly, even the parents sometimes give the teachers permission to beat the children.  It’s what they know, understand, experienced, and uncritically accept.   Doing violence to children is traditional.

I feel really sad for this parent who feels like he has such limited options in seeking justice for his child.  Clearly, educating parents about their rights and responsibilities is not part of what this – o any? – basic school in Jamaica does.

Turning to Facebook and “calling dung crowd” to bear witness to both the harm done to his child, and his hurt and righteous anger as a father who loves his child makes sense in this digital age.  His stated aim is to prevent this from happening to other children.  By his own admission, he has seen it happen at this school before:

“but i said something and i went the b4 and next teacher was beating a next kid and i said something but now its my kid

Interestingly, he’s counting on the post becoming viral and thus reaching the eyes and ears of the Ministry of Education, instead of trying to contact them directly.  He didn’t publish the name of the school, or any information that people can act on.  Nobody can directly call or visit to pressure the principal to do something.  Mind you, Milk River is small so there could only be a few basic schools there.  Notably, he was cautioned by one person to report the station, but not to do anything that would cause the teacher to lose her job:

“Take it up with the principal and make sure the incident is documented. Also make sure the incident is reported at the police station but don’t file any charges. Time is hard and you don’t want the teacher to be fired. Maybe this will be her wake up call that she should never do something like this again”

But that’s exactly what should happen – she does not need to work with any children again.

In a way though, I feel sad for the teacher who is so limited and simple-minded that she could not even see why her actions are hostile and harmful to all children and counterproductive to their education.

But what’s troubling to me is this:

1) The fact that the child told his parent that he did not want to go to school, but the parent chose not to listen. What did the child see or experience at school to lead him to feel this way?  The parent doesn’t ask. Instead, he takes for granted that he knows best, that the school is the best and safest place for the child, and brings the child to the school anyway, right into harm’s way. And the harm is physical as well as psychological:

“the sad thing about it the boy dont like go school because him say him a go get beating”

At the age of 3 years old, children should see school as fun, not as a place where they are going to be tortured with rote memorization or with a belt.  That is simply unacceptable and the Early Childhood Commission needs to step in and say something about this!

Whether we are talking about teachers mistreating children, or adults sexually violating children, the issue is the same:  many, I would argue most, working-class Jamaican parents do not listen to their children, do not respect their children’s voices, feelings and views, and often, albeit unintentionally, both affirm and contribute to the harm that their children are experiencing.  This is a legacy of plantation slavery and our colonial past, a reflection of the deep commitment to social hierarchies that we have inherited and accepted. The ugly social truth is that we only listen and pay attention to our social equals and those above us. Everyone else is dismissed, their concerns trivialized.

Children are not perceived or treated as the social equals of adults. Instead, we assume they know and understand nothing separate from what they are taught by adults.  And so, when it comes to adults’ relationship to children, it is sad and painful to watch the way that adults dismiss children: Hush up, yuh chat tummuch!  Nuh badda mi – yuh ask tummuch question! Guh siddung an tap i nize a mi head! And when they become adults, they often turn around and treat their children the same way.

If there’s anything to be learned from this situation, it is that adults in Jamaica need to show *all* children respect. We need to listen. No matter how much this father loves his son, and no matter that he provides emotional and financial support for them, the one thing that his children need more than anything is to be able to count on him for protection.  In his own quiet moments, I can’t imagine that he feels great about not having listened in the first place.  But I hope that he learns this very important lesson: he cannot protect his child from what he doesn’t know about.  The only way to know is to ask questions and listen carefully.

2) Despite the clear evidence of harm to this child, this parent and many of the commenters still believe, just like the teacher does, that beating children is ok, just not too hard, in the right places, and only the ones who deserve it.

Says the parent: “if you did know this little boy you would see whats wrong with it if you talk loud to him he cry and him twin brother stay cry to so there was no need to beat mi baby”

Really? So if he was not a sensitive child, he would deserve to be beaten?
There is actually a “need” to beat other children?

Others respond similarly: “I don support ppl putting mark on kids body like that dose not matter circumstances don hit a child like that”

“If She Even A Slap Him She Can Do It Inna Him Hand Middle!! This Hurt Me I Swear, A Teacher Did This To Me When I Was 6 And I Had A Big Dark Mark On My Hand For 5 Years”

My favorite comment was this one:

“Am not saying she have any right to beat that kindergarten child.. she is wrong, bt I think corporal punishment should b in school.. these last a days students don’t have any manners what’s to ever . Look at the rate our education level at, they r more prostitutes,lesbians,gays and don in schools than in the working world.. again am not saying she have any right to hit that baby she’s wrong”

In other words, don’t throw the system of cruelty out just because we don’t like what happened to one child that we know and like. It’s still important to beat the “bad” ones; save the good ones.

Well, the teacher felt the same way.

By her response, you understand that:
– this little boy was one of the bad ones at the moment
– she beat him because he deserved it
– her only regret is that she hit him too hard, not that she hit him at all
– next time, she will do it softer and in a place that won’t bear the marks

This is the kind of fucked-up logic that Jamaican people use to hold on to this barbaric practice of beating children.  But, at least, the commenters were being consistent in their commitment to violence. Beat the “bad” children *and* beat the teacher who beat the “good” children. The take-home message?  Violence is the answer for anything that bothers you.

There are a lot of issues in here that need to be fleshed out.

But at this point, suffice it to say that Jamaican working-class parents really need to transform the role that they play in the education system and how they relate to their children’s education.  They also need to have a strong voice in schools and promote just and ethical treatment of their children in schools.

The mis-directives from the Ministry of Education continue to create the perfect scenario for teachers to abuse children and to get away with it.

All of this makes me think that there needs to be serious examination of how Jamaican adults think about children in the first place.

Year 4 of Summer Arts Workshop

I really felt more hopeful this year. Even though some of the same obstacles were in place, I felt a bit more familiar with the terrain – the political bullshit, the posturing and petty misuse of power among the educated/jobbed/credentialed ones, the wisdom and the terror involved when things are moving slowly, the helpfulness of ordinary people, the moments of “yes! this is why we do this!” that keep us going.

Jakki and I, we got this.

Major problem — finding a suitable place for the program

The community center was not going to work for this year.
More to the point, staff – instructors, volunteers – refused to return there.  And I can’t say that I blame them.

I wasn’t there for the entire six weeks, but they had a lot of stories to share as we wrapped up last year.  They weren’t pretty.

For me, the complaints about and the subsequent removal of the furniture last year sent one helluva statement about what people think is ok to do to children simply because they are poor and their parents don’t have economic clout (center staff said the chairs and tables were removed unintentionally; GRAP did not press them to return what they didn’t want to share; instead, the children worked on the floor for 4 weeks of the program.  Yes.  I said, the floor.)

Just try to imagine that being done to children in Ironshore, or Coral Gardens, or Mango Walk. Nope.

Requests made to churches have mostly been met by lack of response over the years.

One church flatly refused to even entertain the request: children are going to dirty up the place, one church leader said. In his mind – and what he shared at length – the community’s children are uncontrollable, they are “bad”, little more than sources of blight and blemish, and should be scorned, kept away from the pristine space that is his church.

Ironically, that’s the same sentiment expressed in 2013 by the representative from the Parish Council who also oversees the community center.  When I met with him and the community group to discuss the policies concerning fair use of the center, he talked about the importance of keeping the place “sterile”.  Folks seem to be really hung up on the issue of cleaning: they don’t want to spend time cleaning the space, and when people use it, it gets dirty.  So, to achieve that sterility, children need to be kept outside and away from the very resources that are put there for them.

So here’s another example of how public space is treated like it’s the private domain of those who are in charge.  It’s the same way that many people behave around their private homes: once it is cleaned, children are put outside or told to stay away or in designated places so as not to “dirty up the place”.  Children as contaminants.  There’s a theme here.

Another church leader told me, in a tone of voice that I find it difficult to describe, that I should take my request to the church that I used to attend.  Apparently, the proposal was so preposterous that the only place that was bound to entertain it was one that would be more forgiving of me – kind of like how your mother will put up with your blemishes in a way that nobody else will? I did do as she directed though.

That pastor told me that the church was used for one week in August to hold Vacation Bible School.  To him, that singular event nullified any possibility of the program using the space for the other five.

Another told me, equally bluntly, that the community people don’t know how to behave and treat the property with respect, so they are not allowed to hold any events there.  Apparently, the group did not have a plan in place for cleaning up the garbage and debris after use.

On one hand, yes, I can understand being pissed off when people mistreat your space.

But, on the other hand, the blatant willingness to discriminate against the children and deny them access is something that requires a different response.   There is this presumption that all community people, and thus this program because it serves the community, are incompetent when it comes to managing children, and again, preventing dirt and damage.

There’s definitely something to the laissez-faire and class-specific way that children are supervised in non-school events.  Chaos ensues, and not even the organized form.  Children are ignored, then yelled at, then punished.  It’s almost as if adults don’t know how to deal with children when they are *not* in uniform.  Once they are out of uniform, the adults are afraid of them (I’ve heard people say as much even though I’m being very tentative), or don’t know how to provide the appropriate guidelines for how they need the children to behave in these settings.  I’ve certainly seen this disposition at work in previous years in this program.

So, it seems like GRAP now has to prove that we can manage the community’s children in a way that is satisfactory to those who think they are uncontrollable and hell-bent on destroying everything in their path.

Where else? Sam Sharpe Teachers College rejected the request for two years:  Already hosting a summer program they said.  No space they said.  This year’s strategy: ask someone who’s higher in the social hierarchy to ask them to help find a space.  That didn’t work either.

One of the basic schools in the community.  None were open to the idea, although one did make me write a letter posthaste, but then the letter somehow never made it to the person who would decide.  And yet, the performance around directing us to write a letter was also interesting.  I started to wonder if the contents of the letter were as important as the letter itself.   I”m learning that email is a funny thing among Jamaicans who don’t depend on it for work.   Between intermittent access to internet, and a general nonchalance about using technology, communication is really still person-to-person, very much in Granville, but also in St. James.

The other thing I learned early: don’t ever leave a voicemail message, just keep calling.  Nobody leaves them either.  They also expect you to notice and return “missed calls”.

Fairfield Theatre – ideal setting but too far for the children to get to everyday, especially the younger ones.  Perfect for weekend and occasional programs as well as for a field trip though.

Granville All-Age School.  We were really reluctant about this option for obvious reasons:  if the whole point of doing the summer program is to create new learning spaces in the community, then going to the school reinforces what people already think: only schools should be doing education.   That’s exactly the message that GRAP doesn’t want to send.

But, that’s where the program ended up, after messy and muddled negotiations – calls that were never made, letters never delivered, keys not available, contracts not prepared – that caused the program to be delayed by two days.

To be honest, the condition of the space was in a word, horrible.  In some ways, it was worse than the community center.  We were assigned to what felt like a storage shed  that was dirty, filled with old and decrepit furniture, had a leaking roof and was infested with wasps.

This was the auditorium, the principal said.  The teachers don’t want their classrooms to be used, the principal said.

We did transform the shed into a learning space, but couldn’t keep the water out.  No amount of cleaning, mopping and dressing up the space could hide the cracked floors, termite-eaten desks, broken windows, water stains on the walls.  Then there were the broken toilets and pipes. The staff tried to ignore all of it.  I think they did a valiant job.  Parents noticed the squalid conditions too.  And they commented.  What they saw told them a lot.  The place that is made available to the program says something about the value being placed on the program by others. I agree.

And so, parents, donors, passersby decided that the school was having a summer program.  Not so.  But spending energy to counter that impression wasn’t a priority.  Who knows what could come of that unintended association?  So we let it slide.

I do hope there is an upside to the summer program being held at the school.  It certainly brought a new kind of visibility to the conditions under which the community’s children are being educated.  So maybe one of those groups will return to fix up the place and make it habitable for children?  Not just prettifying by painting and cleaning up the yard.  Replacing the roof, windows and doors, making the place seem like something for human beings, makes more sense.   It also raised the question of why the school has not been providing a summer learning experience for children, and whether it wants to consider doing so.  The entire community benefits in a way that only produces good feelings all around.

We will see how these issues unfold in the months to come.

In the meantime, we are thinking that we are at the end of the road, where spaces in the community are concerned.  The idea that we have to beg people to open up spaces to educate children is a little surreal, but that’s what it has been.   it’s now time to build a learning centre!

All we need to begin:  two shipping containers and a piece of land.   The money will come.

All studies are equal….

All studies are equal…

…but some are more equal than others.  At least, this is what the Jamaican public is being asked to believe.  The recent decision of Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites to table the report of a preliminary study of inmates in Jamaica, as well as defend his actions raises critical questions about the way that information is used to inform social policy.

Whenever I read articles in Jamaican newspapers about this or that study and its egregious claims about controversial issues – education, women’s sexuality and crime are often the foci – I admit that usually choose not to respond.  I tell myself that the effort that it will take to do so just seems to give more credibility to whatever was said, even as I worry about the damage that such misinformation is likely to do to a society that is increasingly self-referential and where asking questions is treated as an invitation for a put-down rather than respectful engagement.

This time, however, not only did the newspapers scream “Non-traditional high schools breeding criminals, police say” (Jamaica Observer) and “Prison Schools – Gov’t Study Says Poor-Performing Institutions Produce Most Inmates” (Jamaica Gleaner).  Minister Thwaites chose to throw the full weight of his authority and office behind the claims made by the study by presenting it to the House of Parliament as if it were legitimate, reliable and credible knowledge.  This cannot be happening, I thought.  But it was.

The study in question was conducted by the Research, Planning and Legal Services Branch of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.  The members of the research team have not been publicized.  The study consisted of administering questionnaires via 5-minute interviews with 851 men and 43 women who are currently incarcerated in Jamaica’s prisons.  The interviews focused on the inmates’ education, family and criminal history.  At best, that’s exactly what this study is: exploratory, useful only for generating questions and identifying areas that need to be investigated in a more thorough way.  The rush on the part of the legislators to turn a single, poorly designed, preliminary study into public policy is both hasty and uninformed.  I am wondering if the standard for the quality of usable information is so low that anything that presents itself as “research” and with quantitative figures – tables, percentages, standard of error – meets the bar.  Otherwise, what could make this study so different and compelling that Ministers Thwaites and Bunting, both legislators and policymakers, are actively defending the findings of the study as if it offered fool-proof and incontrovertible evidence about a direct and causal connection between criminality and which schools one attends in Jamaica?  That no such relationship emerged from, or was indicated in the data presented in the report seems beside the point.  That the report itself also acknowledges serious limitations of the information gathered also seems to be irrelevant to their cause.

Among other things, the study set out to produce a list of schools that inmates attended prior to being incarcerated. And that it did. Now what?  What the study did not and cannot offer, based on its limited design and non-existent analytic framework, is how one variable (school attended) is related to the other (involvement in criminal activity and subsequent incarceration).  And yet, this is exactly the analytic chasm that legislators, pundits and the public have leapt into, echoing reckless claims about schools being “breeding grounds” for criminality, and indicting the teachers, administrators and students who are associated with those schools, all in search of the quick fix.  So, I am left to wonder: is research only useful to policymakers when the findings confirm what we already [want to] believe? Is this really the way that we want to approach making policy about youth, or any other group?

Let me take a step back.  If research is to be taken as the cornerstone of public policy regarding schools and communities, and I certainly champion such approach, then legislators and citizens need to ensure that the best possible quality of data is being used to inform the decision-making.  But it must be good research, solid evidence that was gathered with the intention of producing the best knowledge possible.  By research, I mean the systematic process whereby one identifies an issue, develops a question that can be answered, devises a method for gathering information that can be used to answer the question, identifies patterns in the data, and comes up with a variety of credible explanations for those patterns. To have good quality data – whether in the form of numbers or words – the research must be designed in a way that ensures that the information that you receive is unbiased and free from “noise” i.e. interesting bits but unrelated to the question you are asking. Especially important to research is the collective process of creating knowledge.  For the work to be credible and reliable – and this is what distinguishes ‘good’ research from ‘bad’ research – it must seek to provide unbiased explanations of the data, rather than use the data to support pre-existing assumptions.  The work being undertaken must also recognize, and be evaluated on, its limitations.  To the extent that the limitations of the research are so significant that the data cannot be used to answer any question, or the data is so specific to the study that it is meaningless beyond the instance in which it was done, there is nothing to do with all that work except throw it away and start over.

Far from what the Gleaner editorial (January 26, 2014) disparages as “peevish whingeing”, there are many legitimate questions to be raised about both the prison study and the way in which the information is being put to use. The conditions under which the study was conducted violate basic ethical guidelines of research.  Yes, there are guidelines that experienced researchers do follow if they want the data they collected to be treated with any seriousness.  Participation was not really voluntary; the report claims that the inmates gave oral consent, but there’s no way to verify that.  The fact of having police interviewing prisoners in lock-up means that the prisoners actually have very little choice about whether they can participate; the possibility of retaliation is real.  The report notes that all information is self-reported and that there was no verification of information given by the inmates.  If the data is to be treated as reliable and valid, it must be verifiable.  The researchers did not take this critical step.  There is no way to know how accurate any of the information is. As such, the veracity of the information is suspect.

The study’s design reinforces the existing male-centered view of prisons and crime in public discourse and little does help us to understanding how and why young women end up in jail. Information about the total number of men and women in the prisons is not disclosed. The design does not adjust for the fact that the majority of the prison facilities in Jamaica is built to, and, house men.  As such, a simple random sample cannot produce enough information on women inmates that would make the study’s findings representative or meaningful.  And so, when the vast majority of the prisoners in the study are men (19 men to every 1 woman), and the data is lumped together to find an ‘average’ prisoner, it’s a no-brainer what the result would be.  The study essentially treats women inmates as if they don’t exist and don’t matter, making them invisible in the study as well as the subsequent report and its recommendations.  This is particularly problematic given the growing number of women and girls who are getting caught up in correctional system (the Armadale tragedy brought this into full view), and the hotly debated issue around housing youth in the adult prisons.

It does not seem as if much research went into the making of the study. Only one unpublished working paper (dated 2001!) was cited, when a basic google search would have shown that the paper was later published in 2003.  There’s also no data in the report to compare the education or family profiles of the inmates to the general population.  For a report that is purportedly intended to influence policy, the researchers don’t seem to think it relevant to provide context for understanding what they found.  Even if the focus is only on men, how is the “typical” inmate similar to or different from men of the same age who are not imprisoned?  If the majority of children born in Jamaica since 1838 (Emancipation) are born to or raised in mother-headed families, what do we make of the study’s claim that boys raised in such families are more likely to end up in prison? Given that most of the inmates interviewed either dropped out or were pushed out of school, it would certainly have been useful for the researchers to note whether there are existing studies that link either of these factors to young men’s (and even women’s) subsequent involvement in criminal behavior. Instead, readers are left to fill in the gaps with their own ideas about what is or is not true.  And that’s exactly what is happening.

Other basic issues which are relevant to the interpretation of the findings but were not mentioned in the report or the subsequent media analyses:  First, the kinds of criminal activity that are actively policed (and labeled as ‘crime’) is not randomly distributed throughout Jamaican society.  Second, the criminal justice system in Jamaica is not exactly one that is either fair or immune to manipulation; who ends up in prison is not simply a result of what they did, but also of their inability to beat the system through high-cost legal representation and other methods. Third, legal and policy changes directly affect the make-up of the prison population i.e. who ends up in prison and what they are charged for. Fourth, to my knowledge, the majority of Jamaican youth who have any secondary education would have attended a ‘non-traditional’ or upgraded school anyway. Fifth, access to schooling in Jamaica is not randomly distributed.  Jamaican youth do not get to choose what schools they attend; they go where they are placed, and, since placement is based on academic achievement, and academic achievement is related to socio-economic status, this means that children from impoverished and working class communities are more likely to go to school with each other than with non-poor children.  From existing research, we know that premature ending of secondary education is directly related to socio-economic factors that exist outside the school, and produce various dispositions and experiences within school settings.  Sociological research also shows that schools tend to reproduce existing social arrangements in the society.  In Jamaica, this is no different: most children from poor and working-class backgrounds do not have adequate resources to support their education at home, tend to go to poorly resourced schools that operate more like holding pens, from which they are channeled into dead-end jobs and under-employment etc. etc.  If Minister Thwaites is aware of this, he does not indicate as much.  Instead, individual schools are being targeted for what is essentially a structural problem in the entire educational system.  Curiously, he did not present any other studies to Parliament that show the factors that lead to a healthy school environment and to positive outcomes for students, regardless of socio-economic background.  What does all this mean? It is impossible to deduce anything about the relationship between schools and criminality from this single, preliminary study.  All we have are more questions, and few answers.

The researchers seem unaware of the various caveats that need to be made when presenting a study that purports to “explaining the educational background of prison inmates” and “describe the characteristic features of the typical inmate” [sic].  While they are convinced that what is little more than descriptive statistics can be used to inform policy in education and prison systems, in fact, the study has explained nothing.  Such an omission could be forgiven if this was a project completed by high school students or even college students taking their first research methods course. This oversight is unforgivable however, when coming from a statutory body, given the complexity of the issues involved.

To my mind, these oversights reflect the biases built into the study itself.  The study was designed and authored by the Jamaica Constabulary Force, a body which has a direct investment in the outcomes of the study.  That the Jamaican police are having a difficult time in curtailing criminal behavior concerning guns, drugs, money laundering and gangs is not news.  From the news reports, we know that the problem is especially acute in the heavily populated areas of Kingston, St. Catherine and St. Thomas, as well as rapidly urbanizing towns in Clarendon and St. James.  These are also spaces of incredible economic and social inequality, and where poverty has spawned a host of social problems, involving people of all ages, especially youth.  Instead of speaking to the larger structural issues that affect the types of criminal activities that ensue, the JCF uses the study to take direct aim at the national government’s attempts to expand secondary education for poor and working-class children, and declares it, a failure at best, and contributing to the involvement of youth in criminal activities. Indeed, the report claims: “it is widely felt that a significant contributing factor to the high involvement of youths in criminal activities in Jamaica is the worrying state of the country’s educational system.” (p. 5).  There is no indication of who feels this way, why they would feel this way, or whether there is any evidence to support this claim.  Here, I suspect that this is the opinion of the JCF being passed off as a fact.

On this matter, the report is certainly clear: the study was designed on the premise that schools mattered, and so the researchers set out to identify which schools the inmates attended.  They wanted to show that there is a causal connection between school and history of involvement in criminal behavior.  The data was gathered in a way that merely affirmed what the researchers already believed: that some schools ‘harbored’ or ‘breeded’ criminals more than others. From this perspective, which schools showed up on the list was almost not as important as the production of the list itself.  No one has said it better than Commissioner Ellington:”We wanted to provide some evidence of a correlation between issues in the school community and the risk factor for individuals going into criminal activity,” (Gleaner, “Thwaites’ Presentation Of Prison Report Doesn’t Paint Complete Picture – Commish”).  Set aside the truism that correlation is not the same as causation.  Such a startling and bare-faced admission leads me to wonder whether Commissioner Ellington understands how damning his statement was. In effect, he revealed that the study is guided by a fundamentally unethical research practice of collecting and reporting data in such a way that it proves what you already believe to be true.  Or, perhaps neither Commissioner Ellington nor the legislators care about whether they are using ‘good’ research or not.  As long as it’s called research, and the information says what they want it to say, no more questions need be asked.

Equally problematic is that many voices – some with more sway than others – have been raised in support of the public disclosure of the problematic report, claiming that no harm was intended to the schools and that disclosure is a necessary part of addressing the problem.  Airing the dirty laundry is a good thing, they say. But intention has little to do with effect. The implication of such vociferous support is that it doesn’t matter how the information was collected or why: if there is evidence that there is something particular about the schools themselves that actively enhance and even produce criminality among youth, then action should be taken.  Except, the study didn’t provide any evidence of such. Further, what action and to what end? If there is a school-to-prison pipeline, and there probably is one, how exactly does public shaming of the individual schools (and those associated with them) as well as directing specific and limited resources towards those specific schools address the problem?  That there is no definitive information about direction of association does not seem to make any difference.  The police and legislators believe that the school is at fault; the public is certainly encouraged to believe so. I suspect that the principals and students of those schools might see things a little differently.  That the study does not provide any answers should have dissuaded Minister Thwaites from embracing the study so quickly and uncritically, until corroborating evidence had been gathered to make their case.  That would have been the prudent, responsible and informed course of action to take.

One implication of shifting the locus of police attention to schools is this: when specific schools are labeled as the centers of, or at least conduits for, criminal behavior – “breeding ground” is the pejorative language used in recent discussions – it is only a matter of time before police are given greater control of and authority within schools.  Given the public record of police conduct and interaction with youth, especially young men from non-wealthy backgrounds, we should all be worried about this.  And yet, studies like this one, flawed as it is, operate as the perfect justification for a whole range of “interventions” that the Ministry of Education and Justice did not feel they had a mandate to take before.  The rushed response to “intervene” – the militarized metaphor does not escape me – is both telling and wanting.

That is, the same low value placed on students from working-class and impoverished backgrounds that make their educational experiences less than productive in the first place is merely being reconfirmed. Basic resources like social workers and conflict resolution programs are only being brought into the picture as a way to isolate and treat the ‘bad’ students (proto-criminals?) on the list of ‘bad’ schools.  All schools, and the students who attend them, are mostly left at the mercy of structural conditions that create the problems in the first place.

However, the reception of the study tells me that it’s not only the specific schools and the individual students that need ‘intervention’.  Legislators and policymakers need to learn how to properly assess and interpret the information that is being fed to them.  That may be difficult for many of them to accept, but the consequences of not doing so may be more than our citizens can continue to bear. Social policy can only be as strong as the evidence that supports it.  At this moment, the basis for policy seems to be emotion, prejudice and raw opinion, with a poorly designed study or two thrown into the mix to support particular agendas and points of view.  Maybe this is how public policy is usually made in Jamaica.  I hope not.  However, if the current reality of youth’s lives and experiences in schools and communities is any indication, this approach is a recipe for disaster and cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged.  

Year 3 of Summer Arts Workshop

July 8, 2013


It’s amazing what a picture can do, what hope it can inspire, and what questions it can provoke.

Let me tell you what you are seeing:

** This is the first day of the third year of Summer Arts Workshop, a summer program held in Granville, St. James.
** We are at the Granville Community Centre (later renamed Granville Restorative Justice Centre), located on the border of Granville and Pitfour.
** There are 70-odd children in this room; they signed up when we only had capacity for 45-50 people; Jakki Strong-Rhoden, the coordinator, could not turn them away.
** There are six interns from the National Youth Service’s Summer Programme; two instructors who are students at Sam Sharpe Teachers College; a handful of volunteers
** We are doing introductions, just before we launch into the song “If I had a hammer”

July 21, 2013

What you cannot see:
* The excitement in the faces of the interns as we met at the Youth Information Centre on Humber Avenue, and the range of emotions that they experienced: awe, bemusement, confusion, annoyance, joy, contemplation as they worked with the participants over six weeks and saw the challenges that the program itself faced to merely exist.
* The patience of the instructors mapping out lesson plans, learning new techniques, talking and sitting with participants to keep them from fighting, cheering on the staff when spirits were low
* The sweat washing the body of the father of one of the interns as he pushed his wheelchair-bound son up the rocky path to get to the center, everyday, on time, in the hot sun.
* The frustration as Jakki and/or I repeatedly try to convey to the center’s staff our need to be able to inhabit the space in a way that fosters a sense of safety for the children and respect for the process of learning. “No” to yelling at, insulting and mistreating the children; “Yes” to modeling for the children how we want them to behave and relate to each other;  “Yes” to being able to use the bathroom inside; “No” to chasing the children out of the center facilities
* The worrying about finding enough money to feed the children each day
* The generosity in the gifts from parents, community members, visiting writers and storytellers who came to affirm the importance of the program
* The righteous anger at the disrespect meted out to the program each day by the center’s staff who treated the participants and staff as if they were trespassing on private property
* The disappointment as a child lapses into a violent tirade that we had worked so hard to prevent
* The exhaustion on the part of the Ministry of Youth administrator who packed all the interns into her car and brought them to the center every morning and picked them up every evening.
*The stoicism and wry looks as program staff navigated around the obstacles while providing a rich learning experience for the participants
* The curiosity, gratitude and appreciation on the faces of the parents who came to see their children’s work
*The love, the love, the love that moved every person to come every day, despite many reasons why they could have stayed home: a less than desirable location, transportation issues, children with lots of emotional needs and not enough time to address them, difficult work environment.

August 16, 2013
55 children completed the program; that is, they attended at least 75 percent of the time.
The staff is exhausted.
The children don’t want the program to end.
The parents wanted to know if this happens every year, and why it can’t happen throughout the year.

SAW 2013 happened because we cared enough to make it happen.

Let’s see where our energies take us in the next year.

Silencing Women

On Saturday, September 1, 2012, a young woman, Kayann Lamont was shot and killed by a police officer, Corporal Dwayne Smart. Her unborn child is also dead and her sister injured and hospitalised.

Why did this happen?

It all started with her expressing her frustration about being robbed earlier that day.  She used “indecent language” or “bad words”.  The police attempted to arrest her for this, she resisted and he shot her in the head – twice.  Read the Observer’s accounts here and here.  The Gleaner did a story on the police officer; the Star focused on the family.

Women Protesting the Killing of 27 year-old Kayann Lamont in Yallahs, St. Thomas. Picture courtesy of Jamaica Gleaner (Sept. 3, 2012)

TVJ  news also covered the story.  One viewer shared the coverage:
“the 3rd sister an eye witness was on TVJnews n told the story,according to her; her sister was not speaking to the policeman but he overheard her telling someone ’bout dem BC” while he was righting a ticket,he came to her n told her he was going to arrest her 4 D indecent language, he proceeded to do so n she resisted a strugggle ensue n he fell, people started laughing; they both got up off d ground, he then kicked her foot n she fell he shot her twice in the head the other sister told him”u cant shoot mi sista fi nutten’ he shot her too,the third sister which is the witness came up to him said the same thing and he pointed the gun in her direction san she ran behind a fat woman she said…thats wat TVJ reported.”

Since the story broke, the conversation has shifted with each new report.

First, there was the search for intentions and explanations.

Next in focus was on the seemingly apparent contradiction between the policeman’s religious belief and his behaviour, complete with the insinuation that “demons” must have taken over his head!

In the absence of any legitimate argument that would have shifted the blame from the police to the deceased (i.e. there was no “shots were fired; police returned fire”  scenario), there has been some scurrying by government officials to appear to hold their own accountable: this press release from the Ministry of National Security and staeas well as the Police Commissioner’s statement regarding the responsibility of senior police officers in terms of preventing and reporting “excessive use of force”.

Now that he has been arrested and charged with murder – note, of KayAnn not of her unborn child – new accounts of the deadly shooting incident feature someone who is less than level-headed, and who refused to back down, even pointing his gun at one of his colleagues.

Also introduced into the story is the notion that police officers are stressed and mistreated too, hence their sometimes too-violent responses to civilians.   One article even suggested that most police are suffering from mental disorders which go untreated. The Ministry of National  Security has now given the green light for psychological testing of police officers to occur.

Now, while many are rightfully decrying the inhumanity of killing a pregnant woman and her unborn child (one body per bullet), the [typical yet] unnecessary show of force from police, and the problem of the very existence of a law that criminalises speech, something else crystallized for me as soon as I heard the story.

In my mind, this tragedy didn’t unfold as it did because of the mere expression of “badwud” and the overzealous action of a police officer who was dutifully enforcing the law.  I don’t even have to ask: nuff wud – gud, bad an ugly – didda chip outta Yallahs dah day deh; this is Jamaica, after all.  And the men are usually the loudest and most consistent practitioners of such. So the question is – why her?

I believe that this tragedy occurred because a woman was speaking out of turn, a man in a position of authority told her to stop, she refused and he did what he could to put her in her place.  When he was publicly ridiculed because of by his own stupidity, he decided to take it out on her, and punish her sister too.

In response to Javed Jaghai’s status update on FB: “This has to be some kinda twisted joke. Tell me I’m reading this story in The Onion. Fi baduod?!! Fi raas an bombo? Nuo sa!”

I responded:
“You know what i think happened (just because I’ve seen or been part of this kind of mix-up far too many times). The pregnant woman was cussin’ – and I know how we cuss when we feel wronged. She bun all ki’na fyah pon di teef, i’m modda, di wutlis police wheh shudda did si an prevent her from being robbed. An shi deh talk loud loud.

Police deh roun, look an si ah who deh cus, and said, “a pregnant woman should not be cursing; she is setting a bad example for her child”. What kind of mother is she going to be? So he says to her that “she should not be cursing” (not, it’s against the law to curse).And she says “suh what ef mi waa cuss badwud? look ummuch people deh cuss badwud an yuh n’aa badda dem? Mi can seh anyting mi w’aa seh, afta anno yuh did affi deal wid xyz….” And him get bringle an seh “but ah who dis umman a cum tell mi bout seh shi n’aa tap chat. shi nuh know who mi?” And we know how it all ends.What is or is not law enters the story after the fact. This is a great opportunity to attack the utter injustice of such a law, but that bastard was all about controlling her, and she wasn’t having it. He used his gun because he had one. If he’d had a truncheon he would have bludgeoned her to death; if he didn’t have anything, he would have given har wan rass bax an kick out har what’s it not.”

Kayann Lamont was silenced because she was committing an even greater sin than cursing.  As a pregnant woman, she was not aware that she had been given a special responsibility to represent herself as being above reproach.  Belly umman, or pregnant women are seen as “real women” in Jamaica in a way that non-pregnant women are not.  Carrying a belly is a sign of one’s fecundity and heterosexuality.  It is a sign that one is worthy of being with a man, and that a man has chosen to be with her.  Pregnancy is a major achievement that moves both men and women up a few notches on the gender scale (and of course, she’s supposed to have more than one, because as I have heard often, wan pikni anno pikni).

Being angry AND cursing in public was doubly unbecoming of her because she is a mother.   Remember, this is the country where there are signs barring women from entry into public buildings if they are wearing sleeveless tops, and where the newspaper provides coverage of preachers complaining about the attire that women wear to church.  Don’t forget the ongoing hissy fits that are regularly thrown about dancehall couture, bashment funerals, and the spectacle created by women’s unruly bodies and behaviour therein.

This is not the first Jamaican woman to be silenced for cussin’ badwud.

In fact, it is worth taking a little step backward  to recognise that this tragic moment is historically charged.   The history of the antipathy towards “badwud” has particular resonance for working-class Afro-Jamaican women.

”In this man world you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun!”  In 1983, Paule Marshall used her column in the New York Times to recount her memories of growing up as a girl in Brooklyn New York.  In particular, she talks about how the informal segregation of Barbadian immigrant women into household spaces like the kitchen also allowed her to learn how they used words to talk back and to resist the invisibility and oppressive conditions that they encountered. It is how they claimed a sense of self that was fully autonomous in a setting that conferred only un-freedom.

Black working-class women in Jamaica, particularly the non-religious ones, often flout elite rules of public conduct.  There’s a small but substantive body of work that documents how verbal abuse figures into the gender performances of black women in public: whether enslaved women living under plantation slavery (Diana Paton‘s work on language and violence and Marlon James‘ novel The Book of Night Women come to mind) or black and brown women in post-emancipation Jamaica (e.g. Louise Bennett’s Cuss-Cuss and South Parade Peddler, Gina Ulysse‘s Downtown Ladies and Winnifred Brown-Glaude‘s work on women selling on the streets of Kingston).  Such women (as distinct from ladies) include the “madda lacy”, the women who walk with a certain swagger and whose active tongues evoke fear in others – “mi nuh w’aa shi cuss mi atall” –  and who can lay out a few lengths of cloth (a polite euphemism for Jamaican patwa epithets – blood claat, bumbo claat, raas claat, pussy claat, or any combination thereof) to artfully suffocate any opponents.   Women with “light tongues” are forces to be contended with in Jamaica.  They know it.  The ones who fear them or try to contain them also know it.   Portia Simpson Miller was roundly chastised for saying “don’t draw mi tongue”, a phrase that is typically issued as a warning by “those” women to provocateurs, lest the storm of words and lengths of cloth unfurl.   To use this phrase was to remind listeners that she did know how to chrace, testament to her working-class background and a hint that she possessed a vocabulary that she should have been trying to hide.  No ‘respectable’ woman chraces, because chracing happens in patwa, and, well, that certainly isn’t the language of  respectable women either.   Men of all statuses curse and tell others, including women, about dem claat – that is to be expected and even applauded.  Women doing that, not so  much.

The ethos of female respectability in Jamaica says that Kayann should not have been “behaving that way” in public or “talking like that” in public.  It seems as if this policeman felt that if no one was going to be brave enough to tell her that she was contaminating the airwaves at Yallahs, he certainly had the duty and authority – social, moral and legal – as a lawman, to do something about her behaviour.

So here it is – she has contaminated her child’s moral future; she has shamed motherhood, declared herself free enough to speak her mind and told all of Yallahs what kind of woman she really was, what kind of mother she would be.  Who knows? Her child – whose sex was not known – might enter the world chippin’ a few claats itself!  And he was a god-fearing Christian who should not have to listen to people “talking like that”.   Jamaicans lack discipline, we are often told, and here was a clear example of indiscipline.  And by a pregnant women.  Indiscipline knows no bounds, apparently.  Discipline her – put her in bounds, in her place.

What was worse, he fell while he was dragging her away.  So, she cussed him, and I’m sure others got in on the situation, and when he was further humiliated in his attempt to humiliate her, he shot her.  Then he shot her sister who, instead of cowering to the man with the gun, reacted in defense of her sister, now lying dead on the ground.

The masculine calculus operating at the moment gave him little choice.  This gun was how he would rescue his position within Jamaican patriarchy.  He, after all, is a police officer, a lawman.  No other man is higher than him.  Women are supposed to defer to him, listen to him.  He had a gun.  Didn’t she notice? He had never been more powerful than he was in that moment.  It was her mouth against his might, and finally, his gun.  The ultimate silencer.