To the World from Jamaica! Patwa Power Bolts the Stables

Yes, we can…be worldbeaters! That’s the message from Jamaica’s relentlessly resilient and resourceful underclass who have proven yet again their ability to dominate global competition in the arenas where their lack of English doesn’t hold them back. This is Patwa power (patois or creole, the much reviled and disdained oral language spoken by the majority of Jamaicans) at its most potent: a lithe and flexible force–honed by adversity–flaunting its mastery of the universe of athletics.

To underscore its point Patwa hurled its most powerful lightning bolt at distant Beijing. Named Usain, this young and irrepressible son of Jamaican soil then re-inscribed forever the significance of the word Bolt. Both English-speaking and Patwa-speaking Jamaicans united in celebrating Usain Bolt’s extraordinary exploits (Gold and world records in Men’s 100m, 200m and the 4×100) and those of the nimble, determined young Jamaican team accompanying him. Over the two weeks of the 29th Olympiad they enthralled global audiences over and over again with their worldbeating skills.

Portia Simpson-Miller, considered by many patwa-speakers to be their spokesperson, nailed it when she said on radio that the achievements of Jamaican athletes at Beijing made her proud because “what people call ‘ordinary people’ have produced such extraordinary results”. Prime Minister of Jamaica briefly from 2006 to 2007 Simpson-Miller has faced enormous hostility from the English-speaking elites here who would like to continue their hegemonic rule over this small island state in the Caribbean. President of the Opposition People’s National Party she is currently being challenged for leadership by Dr. Peter Phillips, seen by many as representing the highly educated but numerically small middle class and a state of mind known as Drumblair, the equivalent in Jamaica of WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) culture or status in the United States.

Watching the athletic meet at the Olympics unfold from the vantage point of Kingston, Jamaica was an incredible experience. Raw, naked nationalism at its very best: First we rallied around Samantha Albert, Jamaica’s only entrant in the equestrienne events. Samantha is a white Englishwoman with a Jamaican mother who was born and lived here in her early years. She didn’t stand a chance of medaling, merely hoping to make it to the top 25, yet Jamaicans cheered her on, proud to see their flag in this never before contested event.

Then there was the first big race, the men’s 100 metres, in which both Bolt and Asafa Powell were gold medal contenders. Alas Powell disintegrated under the pressure; he still came in fifth but his fans were inconsolable. Bolt’s sensational streak to victory helped but by and large Jamaicans were grieving for Powell. He holds a special place in their hearts. It is as if they identify with him. Whereas in the past they used to cuss off Merlene Ottey when she only managed a bronze medal this time the public concern shown for Powell’s morale and well-being in the aftermath of his disastrous run was quite remarkable. When he finally anchored the 4×100 team to victory in fine form, thundering down the closing stretch like Nemesis herself, he had completely redeemed the favoured son spot he had never really lost.

If Jamaican success at the men’s 100m was tempered with disappointment at not pulling off a trifecta (or even a bifecta) the female athletes delivered perfection by winning gold, silver and silver at the women’s 100 metres. This was an unexpected bonanza. Till now no one had really focused on the female runners or races other than the women’s 200m where Veronica Campbell-Brown was expected to deliver gold. Now the women had successfully grabbed the spotlight and kept it on themselves winning gold or silver in most of their events. In the end, of Jamaica’s 11 medals (six of which were gold) 8 were from women as TVJ’s commentator Bruce James usefully pointed out. One of the sweetest was Melaine Walker’s virtually effortless 400m hurdles gold medal.

Shelley Ann Fraser (women’s 100m winner), the pocket rocket who shot out of the starting blocks and into our hearts wasn’t even considered a medal contender to begin with. Earlier in the year when Veronica, the defending Olympic 200m winner didn’t qualify for the Jamaican 100m team because she came fourth in the qualifying trials (this shows you how competitive athletics is in Jamaica) there were many who thought one of the unknowns who had beaten her should have stepped down in favour of Campbell-Brown out of deference to her seniority and past distinctions. Fraser was the one many thought should have been eliminated from the Jamaican team to make way for Veronica.

Maybe that’s what made her run like a cheetah and spring like a moko jumbie but from now on everytime anyone in the world wants to illustrate the concept of delight they should simply replay Fraser’s girlish leaps and bounds when she realized she had won Olympic gold. If the whole world fell in love with that ecstatic brace-filled smile and the spontaneous, unadulterated joy Shelley-Ann Fraser expressed on the track you can imagine how we in Jamdown felt.

What was hard to imagine even down so (admittedly from uptown down so) was how the parents of these individuals must have felt. Especially when the TV cameras took you to the homes of Shelley-Ann and Sherieka Williams and Sherone Simpson and Melaine Walker and you realized with shock how very poor these people who had produced such champions were. Most of them had watched their sons and daughters winning Olympic silver and gold on very small TV screens, in very humble living quarters, in this ghetto or that one.

Waterhouse. Slaughterhouse. Powerhouse. That’s what young Shelley-Ann from Waterhouse has reiterated for us in case we didn’t know this already from the abnormal number of successful musicians her community has produced. Virtually 80% of Jamaica’s biggest names in music have come from Waterhouse, one of the poorest ghettoes in Kingston, including the young singer I mentioned in my last blog, Terry Lynn. The area should be declared some sort of national patrimony or Talent Park with free education up to any level for all.

When asked if she herself had ever displayed any running talent Shelley Ann’s mother said that indeed she had quite a bit of experience sprinting from the police, with the goods she tried to sell as an unlicensed street vendor. She was an experienced runner she said so her daughter’s performance was not that surprising.

The Ministry of Transport hastened to announce that it was going to upgrade the roadways in all the communities whose athletes had produced Olympic gold. Why? Not so much to elevate these depressed communities as to give them an instant facelift so that when the international media arrived their impoverishment would be less apparent and less of a blight on the brand name of Jamaica! The politics of sports in Jamaica! Or just the politics of politics…

On a more amusing note page two of the Observer, the social page, suddenly underwent a population transfusion, the beige and white socialites who normally monopolize it abruptly displaced by the almost uniformly dark-skinned athletes. Sigh! If only Jamaica’s business and social elite were one hundredth as nimble and competitive as the country’s athletes! If only they too were worldbeaters!

Personally I think that the phenomenal performance of Jamaican athletes is also due to the cultural self-confidence they feel; a confidence expressed by Usain Bolt in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium when he spontaneously broke into the Nuh Linga and the Gully Creeper, the latest dance moves innovative Jamaican dancehall music has produced (actually Usain’s trademark gesture of pulling back an imaginary bow and arrow like Orion is now the latest dancehall move here).

This is not a confidence manufactured by the abjectly self-conscious, respectability-seeking, hymn-singing English-speaking middle classes but one bred out of the flamboyant, boisterous, in-your-face Patwa-speaking population. In the forty years since Jamaica’s independence it is the latter who have proved both through their athletic and musical prowess that they are ready to take on the world. The Beijing Olympics have shown that the world is more than ready for them (minus the prissy IOC head Jacques Rogge who sounds for all the world as if he had been formed in the bowels of Upper St. Andrew). To the World Ja!

Photo credits, captions
(L-R) Asafa Powell, Nesta Carter, Usain Bolt and Michael Frater of Jamaica celebrate the gold medal after the Men’s 4 x 100m Relay Final at the National Stadium on Day 14 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 22, 2008 in Beijing, China.
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images AsiaPac)

(L-R) Joint silver medalist Sherone Simpson of Jamaica, gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica and Joint silver medalist Kerron Stewart of Jamaica stand on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women’s 100m Final at the National Stadium on Day 10 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 18, 2008 in Beijing, China.
(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Author: ap

writer, editor and avid tweeter

20 thoughts on “To the World from Jamaica! Patwa Power Bolts the Stables”

  1. On point, as always. In talking about Usain’s performance at the Olympics, I coined the term the “dancehall generation” to try to get at some of the things you raise here. Absolutely right. And, what’s more, it has always been that way. That is, the generations of persons who have and continue to keep Jamaica in the global headlines have been workingclass and poor people. We – and often they – do quite a job of sanitizing their background to appear more respectable to the very folks – the upper St. Andrew types – who are more like the vampire of one of the editorial cartoons last week. They try to suck us dry by draining off and deflating our sense of self, at the same time they are made more powerful and manage to make money off us by taking on the job of containing and channelling our energies. Perhaps with this dancehall generation, we will begin to see folks actively shedding those pretentions and living out large and loud, even with all the efforts to contain them. Just this week, I was listening to an interview with Usain with some US reporter via the internet, and he was speaking in an American accent!! I laughed and shook my head; versatility, among the other talents.

  2. Thanks for that Long B, ‘dancehall generation’ captures it all…isn’t it funny how the ultimate argument against Patwa by its naysayers is that it won’t be understood anywhere else hence its speakers are going to be marginalized by globalization etc etc when in reality it is the english-speakers who don’t seem to have much mobility outside Ja?

  3. What is interesting to me about this issue is how race plays a role in it. There was such a presumptuous air of Euro-centrism in the IOC head’s criticism of Bolt’s celebration. What next, will cricket officials tell Caribbean audiences we shouldn’t engage in Calypso cricket anymore?Oddly it is the same Eurocentrism that informs the criticisms by Jamaicans of the Drumblair mindset you mention, who think we need to throw off the shackle of “patois.”Meanwhile where-ever Europeans have a distinct language and tradition they tend to be separatists seeking to uplift that distinct language and those traditions. Case in point is the South Ossetians who speak a language related to Farsi. Or the Basque community in Spain & France. Only we believe our culture is automatically inferior to white people’s and thereby always feel the need to apologize. Mental slavery is alive and well.

  4. Oh absolutely DD, actually Rogge sounded uncannily like the Upper St. Andrew heads who normally say the same kinds of things about the dancehall massive and crew. what was interesting was that they all rallied around Usain and against Rogge this time!But you’re right behind it all is race and class too…the whole discourse of the ‘butu dem’…

  5. Diatribalist – I don’t think we need fear any such responses in the context of cricket; we’ve been there, made our mark, and pissed off whoever longtime. IOC man just frighten, and as these european staid types are wont to do, impose their idea of normalcy and order onto everybody else, including the newcomers from Eastern Europe. He’ll get over it, as will they.Just a thought – it just seems like many of us don’t readily make clear distinctions between Eurocentrism and nationalism. Its all about who gets to tell the story. I don’t want to pick on St. Andrew, cause the same problematic attitudes hold in Mandeville and MoBay wherever the browns gather together. From the perspective of those who defend patois as the language of humour and gossip, and English as a language worthy of official status, they often play a numbers game – who came first (Europeans) and what (they imagine) others outside Jamaica think and understand. The very idea of Jamaica is steeped in European conquest, no, attempts to civilize us, and for that, we have gladly said yes (out of many one people, remember?), and have used the language, so try to turn our back on that now. My mother has been practically speaking in tongues since Saturday, but she stopped long enough to tell me that she wished Usain’s mother didn’t speak in patois to one interviewer, and that it was outrageous for his father to be passing off his yam theory as “fact”. In her words, some things mus’ stay a yard; don’t carry dem out into the world and make up look bad. Yet, a bigger defender of Jamaica than she you can’t find.

  6. Longbench:I can understand your mother’s concern, but I think it is born of a fear of appearing provincial to the world at large. As the ultimate cosmopolitan New Yorker, I haven’t felt that fear in a long time. As such I will gladly buss out some patwa and proclaim the benefits of yellow yam fi all who will listen — cause everywhere else is back-a-bush in the minds of NYers (except maybe Paris and London).

  7. Yes, I hear that same fear of appearing provincial echoed in much of the debate about patwa here at home. Except, many are channelling that fear in ways that lead them to reject patwa altogether; the line of thinking is that if it can’t “work” for us on the outside, then what’s the use of valuing and cultivating this part of our national identity at home? The national is provincial; borders keep out and they keep in. I think we forget that sometimes. I’ll finish that thought later…

  8. LB’s right, when i first put up this post i got an instant reaction from a st lucian friend teaching at Duke U saying “Please…Patwa reviled and disdained? That was yesteryear, Annie.” i had to inform her that Ja isn’t St. Lucia or diaspora, over here its still tragically a very live debate. just look at the fuss over the Patois Bible recently…

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