The Gleaner published this article on 7 April 2013.
Now, I speak as a political asylee living in America. I am the one who was scarred in my face because my hips had walked too widely at the age of 13. At the age of 16, my body quivered and I spoke in tongues, and months later I testified at a convention, “Lord, I will follow wherever You lead! Hallelujah!” I followed some doctrine for some time as I had promised.
But as love for the same gender rose in me, I wanted to scream this new testimony from church pulpits, to say, “Today, I am feeling something powerful. It is the love given from above, praise God.” However, I couldn’t speak.
Silence made me realise I must restrict my speech, train my thoughts, and even my walking, make them more ‘masculine’, ensure they don’t offend others. But who would teach me without laughing at my need to practise the man-up ways? It was hard to do at first, but over time I developed the ability to prevent my hands from rising in front of me like a question sign and my hips learned how to not swing wider than my shoulders’ width.
I am the one who was kicked out of the home in which I grew up all my life. And in my first rented house, I woke from a dream. Thinking I was still dreaming, I saw my curtains on fire. Gunmen had hurled torches through my window. I ran outside. Bullets flew beside me. I screamed. Neighbours shifted curtains and peeked.
I am the one who was singled out in a bus for smiling with a memory. “A who yuh a look pon, b-man?” How uncomfortable it had felt knowing I couldn’t respond, “I was just thinking about something, Sorry if my eyes were looking at you.”
My voice was too ‘proper’ to convince the passenger judges of my innocence. If I had tried to add a tough register to my tone to make it ‘manlier’, they would have discerned right through my unskilfulness at sounding like a rude boy who could defend himself.
Yes, I am the same one who was chased in Half-Way Tree with knives and derogatory names coming behind me. That same one who was scandalised by family and left Hanover; wrecked by loneliness, depression, and poverty and left St Ann; suffered a damaged finger and was humiliated by a work colleague and left St James; burned out of St Catherine.
I had to leave Jamaica. I wanted to know how widely freedom could expand and caress me. I wanted to have the options to dance in gay jubilees beside policemen, if needs be. I also knew I couldn’t remain silent in America. I must speak about Jamaica – but how?
I began attending events sharing why others should worry about Jamaica. The crowded sunny streets that mobilised mob justice against gays. The moonlit lanes that took the pride of teenage girls. The Holy Ghost church rostrums that reified teachings that AIDS is God’s vengeance against sexual immorality. The classrooms with giggles that mocked girls whose family lacked the money to fix a worn-down shoe heel, and boys whose voices were too high-pitched to roar on soccer pitches. The swagger-walking men with a ratchet knife flipping in their hand as trendy fashion.
The women who pushed big breasts against my chest, expecting me to erect a miracle so they could have an erotic testimony. The boys and girls who could spell ‘Jeezas’ but not ‘Jerusalem’, who could hurl “b-man” like rocks at big men and “sadomite” at adult women from comfort spaces beside daddies and mommies protesting, “No nastiness ’round we!” The 35-year-old country village woman who could carry a pregnancy proudly for a 13-year-old boy without the law intervening, and the 50-year-old city man who had a respected reputation for filling up teenage wombs.
With years of speaking out, critiquing, hollering, cursing, reconciling, but healing, I should be celebrating now that I am forgetting what my fear had felt like.
DANGER OF FORGETFULNESS
I worry, though. Forgetfulness makes people lose their ability to identify with the life of others who pattern their history. They will still fight, but they might lose the activist passion of prior years. I promised myself I will always try to remember the bad. But I now appreciate that I can recall and love the beautiful memories that had taken second status to the sorrowful ones for so long. I had forgotten those things that made me love Jamaica.
Why do I look forward to Americans asking me, “Where are you from?” Why do I feel at home, even though away from my first home, when I hear our voices speaking in Brooklyn supermarkets, or see bodies wearing the black-green-gold colours of our flag in a Queen’s train, or feel a hand touch my shoulder at a Manhattan event only to say, “Yuh dress like one a we. Lawd a mercy! Heh-heh-hey! Are you from Yard?”
Feeling situated in a safer physical space in America and living farther away from painful memories, I am able to reflect on Jamaica and Jamaicans. On the things that united and loved us. Our rich inquisitive culture. Our Patois semantics. Our loving and feisty body languages. Our comedic country life versus the dramatic city life. Our PNP and JLP politrics theatrics. Our privilege of knowing the name/s of every great-grandmama with herbal bushes beneath their pillows, and of the coming-to-no-good children down dat deh yard deh, and the good-brain ones who reap most community smiles.
Our care in showing up at hospitals with grater cake and cornmeal pudding, but not only for family. Our tendency to pack cemeteries to weep, to hold an experienced weeper from tumbling inside another grave, and to ‘rockstone’ the casket out of love, but not only for family.
Disseminating information of Jamaican pride alongside its horrors is what journalists and activists should deploy in their roles. Increasingly, it concerns me whenever I visit places to speak that audiences expect only doom-and-gloom stories about Jamaica.
“The violence there! How bad is it?
“Will I get killed there?”
“No disrespect, but I will never go to your country. Sorry!”
“They can keep their beaches and all-inclusive hotels to themselves!”
“Aren’t you glad you escaped?”
After hearing these comments, I question what damage I, journalists, and other human rights activists have done in representing the Jamaican story. How might we represent it to ensure that it certainly brings attention to horrific human-rights abuses without cultivating a global impression that Jamaica is an island of savages? Activists and journalists should remain concerned about whether our roles to liberate Jamaica might be inadvertently liberating global stereotypes about Jamaicans.
Negative information about Jamaica that is not balanced would tarnish the reputation of every freedom-loving Jamaican whenever he or she steps outside Jamaica. Of course, we must speak brutal truths so that the world understands that Jamaica is another country where maggots have peeled dead heads in manholes and that the reputation of our white sandy beaches is polluted with stories of bleeding bones. But where are the stories of our love?
If skewed activism by journalists and human rights activists are to continue on a wide scale without being informed by our stories of love, freedom-loving Jamaicans would be placed into uncomfortable positions when beneath the international gaze. I can imagine our people trying to dissociate themselves from criminalising stereotypes, saying things to convince their foreign friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, “I am different from them back home.”
Any activist outcome that results in the ‘I’s feeling further from the ‘thems’ would fragment Jamaican culture and create a people mired in shame that alienates them from a proud cultural history. There are many victimised Jamaicans who are already forced to see themselves as ‘I’ and their victimisers as ‘them’. Human rights activists should ensure that their work continues to reveal, but not cultivate, new polarisations between ‘I’s and ‘thems’.
The stories of love and regular life that bind Jamaicans to Jamaica must accompany the activist human-rights narratives that aid Jamaica. Most Jamaicans will agree that there is far more to Jamaica and Jamaicans than human rights abuses, just as there is far more to America and Americans than the cultivation of international war crimes.
Dadland Maye is a PhD English literature student at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York, a writer, and human rights activist.