It’s been a harrowing year for the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA) what with a scandal breaking in May about a male art lecturer facing numerous complaints and allegations of sexual abuse by his students. Having ignored or side-lined earlier complaints this latest outcry forced management to send the lecturer on leave pending investigations.
As the term was about to start in August the Board of the College sent its Principal Nicholeen DeGrass-Johnson on leave until investigations into the sexual harassment allegations and other complaints could be completed. It’s now almost December and there has been no further word on these matters leaving the college and its students in limbo about the future of both Principal and lecturer.
Somehow, despite the prolonged negative publicity and seeming bad blood between the Board and the College, EMVCPA pulled itself together and organized a rousing graduation ceremony for its latest batch of graduands. The ceremony was held on November 16 and their star acting student Waldane Walker, the valedictorian, made a rousing and emotional speech dedicated to his grandmother, Nettie Rowe, “my biggest fan” who Waldane intimated had been violently deprived of her life in 2017 at the age of 88.
“Those who live, live off the dead” said Walker, quoting one of his favourite theatre practitioners, Antonin Artaud. Also invoking EMCVPA’s most well-known graduate, artist Ebony Patterson, Walker repeated the advice she had given the graduating class of 2015: to step forth and turn the world upside down with their art. “We will not accept that we exist simply to be the cliched cultural item in your entertainment package,” he declared taking aim at the establishment and its ways of coopting artists into its nefarious agendas. The self-proclaimed creole actor then recalled the trials and tribulations he had overcome to get to this stage. Majoring in Drama and minoring in Dance, Walker recounted his experiences trying to balance both:
I remember running from the School of Drama to the School of Dance, having to explain to lecturers why I was arriving late; enduring floor burns, torn muscles and many evenings of double booked rehearsals. This was a hidden curriculum in strategy, negotiation and willing myself to succeed while maximizing my aptitude.
Congratulating his fellow graduands Walker invoked the school’s beleaguered principal Nicholeen DeGrasse-Johnson, describing her as a woman of “virtue, grace and poise.” In closing Walker urged his fellow students “to big up your bloodclaat selves”, a choice vernacular exhortation to congratulate themselves for the obstacle course they had survived to acquire degrees routinely scoffed at by a Philistine public.
It took a couple of days before members of the public noticed the Valedictorian’s speech and social media started to react to Waldane’s use of a so-called “bad word” —bloodclaat — in wrapping up his oration. The valedictorian might as well have been the proverbial bull in a china shop. By Monday November 18th Walker found himself on the cover of the Jamaica Star, the Gleaner’s down market tabloid, and once again EMCVPA found its name being trashed in Jamaica’s vocal public sphere. “Where To Get A Degree In Indecency” was the title of one letter to the editor of the Gleaner.
Iran has nothing on Jamaica in producing the most prim and provincial Ayatollahs determined to slap down and censor non-conformists as and when they appear. And Walker having excelled in his programme of study despite the challenges he detailed in his speech, was too intelligent to urge his fellow students to conform to what an earlier, much celebrated, serial cusser—Peter Tosh— had dubbed the ‘shitstem’ way back in the 1970s. If there is any doubt that the shitstem has persisted and is alive and well in 21st century Jamaica you only have to look at news headlines in the days immediately before and after the graduation ceremony.
A seven-year old addressed parliament begging government to protect children from criminality and violence. A ten-year old girl recounted her harrowing sexual abuse at the hands of her own grandfather in whose care she was left after losing her parents at the age of 3. This is an all too common story and far more deserving of the time and energy of the prigs, prudes and puritans who rushed to censure and silence Waldane Walker. A week after his provocative Valedictorian speech the headlines in the main newspaper read Murder Threat Under Probe – Teacher May Face Sanctions After Vowing To Kill Child.
So rest your moral high horses self-appointed Jamaican ayatollahs and don’t force another bright, audacious young mind to migrate. Be warned that if such intolerant forces win the battle for the moral horizon, narrowly defined, we will lose the one modernist tradition worth preserving—the freedom of artists, writers, poets and film-makers –the creative class in short–to push moral and legal boundaries in an effort to provoke discussion or simply draw attention to social problems.
Would you rather live in an expletive-free Jamaica designed by the constricted and restrictive minds of the Ayatollah brigade or one spawned by the fresh, lively imaginations of our brightest and best? There is indeed a time and place for everything and young Waldane Walker exploited his valedictory moment to tell it like it is. Let’s congratulate, not castigate, him.