Rebooting the Past: The Flying Preacherman’s Story

Augustown

“Augustown’s elevation from village to inner-city community had to do with urban sprawl. As Jamaica settled itself into the 20th century, Kingston began to spread out from its harbour, rippling out into the dormitory parish of St. Andrew that surrounded it. The ebbless wave of the city frothed its way up towards Half Way Tree, then further up Hope Road towards Liguanea, Mona, Papine and inevitably, Augustown. To its own surprise, the village found that it was no longer five miles away from the city, but on its edge and then comfortably inside it. Kingston flooded in. Houses were connected to the water main of the NWC and to the electric grid of JPS. The residents of Augustown, new urbanites as they were, no longer tolerated the countrified designation of ‘village’. Instead they spoke of themselves as living in a Kingston community. But no sooner had the village graduated itself to ‘community’ than its middle-class neighbours made sure to distinguish themselves with the prefix ‘suburban’ and Augustown with the prefix, ‘inner-city’. Like dark magic, that phrase seemed to draw into Augustown a heaviness and a heat and a rot. Rusting zinc fences now line the streets, and ratchet knives and machine guns have appeared in the hands of young men. A scar is now on the face of the overlooking hillside.”

On the eve of the launch of Kei Miller’s new novel Augustown in the UK where it’s being published it seems appropriate to pause and consider his huge achievement. The sale of the American rights to Augustown in the USA shortly after Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize last year set off a bidding war that earned him a six-figure advance. In the wake of James’s phenomenally successful A Brief History of Seven Killings Jamaican authors are hot properties and Miller was the first beneficiary.

As you can tell from the passage quoted at the top, Miller’s prose is commandingly deft and lyrical, capable of capturing the massive shifts in Kingston’s social and physical topography in a few fluidly rendered sentences. The Augustown he describes is a fictional valley in Jamaica bearing a marked resemblance to August Town, situated just below the University of the West Indies, Mona.

In this novel, that revolves around the figure of Alexander Bedward—the flying Preacherman—Miller performs a gallant act of literary reclamation. Most of us know of Bedward as a figure of ridicule, a ‘lunatic’ who claimed he could fly. When he failed to do so he was carted off to an asylum, discrediting his Church and breaking the hearts of his followers. So we’ve been told and with our pragmatic, rational, utilitarian worldviews we shake our heads and move on.

But as historians such as Kamau Brathwaite, Veront Satchell and others have told us, there is far more to the story of Bedward. In fact his ministry was so successful, his charisma so compelling, that the Jamaica Native Free Baptist Church he founded became a mass movement, a subaltern anti-colonial awakening that demanded the immediate overthrow of the white overlords and the barriers of race, class and religion experienced under colonial rule. So alarmed were colonial governors by the Preacher’s popularity that they embarked on an active campaign to discredit him, one which has proven remarkably successful, judging by the decimation of the Bedwardite movement, Church and all, and the fact that today this extraordinary preacher is viewed as a faintly comic figure.

As anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse has tried to do with Haiti (Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle), Miller has done with August Town and Bedward, retrieving their story from the dustbin of history and providing them with a new narrative. And the story he has supplied is one that is ingenious, intricately wrought, powerful and moving enough to recuperate Bedward from his ill-deserved ignominy once and for all. In doing so he also illuminates the power of belief, its sanctity, and the ‘autoclaps’ that is bound to follow when you violate and belittle a people’s belief.

With Augustown Miller breaches the gap he himself notes at one point in the novel between “the stories that were written and stories that were spoken—stories that smelt of snow and faraway places, and stories that had the smell of their own breaths.” In his book Silencing the Past acclaimed Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses in detail how history is produced by the powerful, how certain historical facts are privileged while others are pushed into the shadows.

With this novel Miller has ruptured the silence shrouding a very important history, dragging out of the shadows the refusal of a people to submit quietly to persistent inequality and injustice, people who tried to use their faith and their belief to rise above the abjectness of their lives and fly away home to Zion.

Published in the Gleaner 6/7/17

The World Cup and its Others…

The World Cup as tweeted live taking note of the play of race, colour, nation, ethnicity, religion…and locaton.

Presenting a Storified tweetshot of reactions from those of us in the Global South as our representatives at the World Cup in Brazil surged ahead on the day that the Black Stars (Ghana) and the Super Eagles (NIG) made their presence felt–race, religion, colour, ethnicity, nationality–all came in for comment. For example, the following tweet from Jean Lowrie-Chin in Jamaica: @chinhubert saw a tweet during #GHAvsUSA: “Not sure who to back – Ancestors from Ghana but remittances from USA” ☺ #Brasil2014. Check it out…

So Germany is the only European team that has a white guy who scores
Ok, who am I supporting here? #HONvsECU (@tejucole, any advice?)
@kamilashamsie Um, definitely the small poor country with brown people.
Helpful. “@tejucole: @kamilashamsie Um, definitely the small poor country with brown people.”
karachiahab
@kamilashamsie @tejucole But they are both small poor countries with brown people. No? Very helpful indeed 🙂 #HONvsECU
Costly error by #ECU leads to Costly goal for #HON. Nice.
There can no longer be any doubt: the U.S. is one of the top nine American teams in this tournament.
So basically postcolonial nations have spent every minute since independnce dedicating themselves to proving every colonial stereotype right
It is delightful that the national honor of so very Catholic France continues to be in the hands of its predominantly Muslim football team
MESSI TIME!!! C’MON THE ARGIES, A STRIKE ON I-RAN!! @CIA
germany/netherlands ain’t winning no world cup in south america…so save unnuh breath…
I am Ghanaian. I am Ghanaian. I am Ghanaian.
GOAL! Has someone accounted for the Obeah Man?? http://t.co/1WxgwV622Q
GOAL! Has someone accounted for the Obeah Man?? pic.twitter.com/1WxgwV622Q
Oh my God, this is happening. Come on you Black Stars!
Black Stars broke my heart in 2010, not going to celebrate until the end. *watching with one eye*
You have nowhere to hurry, Ghana.
where is ogun in particular today? where is ogun?
C’mon Global South!!! you can do it! #GhanavsGermany
There are no atheists in the 85th minute.
It is immense that #GHA believes that they can and actually do go toe to toe with Europe’s deadliest team
What a thoroughly entertaining game.
This German niggas bleeding ALL over the field. Soccer so violent. #WorldCup2014
Great fight Ghana a so we do it! #AfricanStandUp
Can we play extra time on this one? A perfect half of football and fantastic entertainment from both sides.
these commentators “Germany did not bring their A game”. enough!
OK Ghana I was just kidding. I love you. But I can’t promise about Samuel Kuffour. Not when he says “pahnahty”.
GER vs. GHA was pretty much an episode of Game of Thrones. Valar Morghulis.
One of the best games of #WorldCup2014 so far on the longest day of the yr. Great display esp by #Ghana.
Watched Ger vs Gha in a bar in Fort Greene. Jokes for days. “That was an awesome head kick.”
My mum just saw her tenant that is owing her money on super sport in Brazil
It’s funny (completely unfunny) how much space Hajrovic is getting on the right flank. Acres. He could start a farm out there.
If you get an email from a Nigerian friend claiming he’s lost all his cash in Rio, don’t delete it as spam. It might just be true
#NIG clearly looking for a specific target area in #BIH defence. http://t.co/ko5SVGGY78
#NIG clearly looking for a specific target area in #BIH defence. pic.twitter.com/ko5SVGGY78
So, so harsh for Bosnia
Nigeria's Emmanuel Emenike fires in a shot on goal during the match between #NGR and #BIH. - AP #glnrWorldCup http://t.co/m87zaTnAzv
Nigeria’s Emmanuel Emenike fires in a shot on goal during the match between #NGR and #BIH. – AP #glnrWorldCup pic.twitter.com/m87zaTnAzv
Yow Nigeria nuh concede no goals yet!!!
Naija! Naija! Naija! Naija! Naija!
Wake up call. It will not be strange if Goodluck Jonathan wins in a free and fair election 2015. Twitter is not = Nigeria.

Atheism in Babylon: Questioning Christianity’s right to rule in Jamaica

Jamaicans trying to come to grips with atheism on a TV show, Religious HardTalk

The irrepressible Ian Boyne, host of Religious Hardtalk
Religious Hardtalk
One of the stalwarts of the Jamaican public sphere is Ian Boyne, columnist, speech writer, pastor and host of TV programmes Profile and Religious Hardtalk. Last week he produced an exceptionally good episode of the latter looking at the subjects of Atheism and Secularism in religion-obsessed Jamaica (9/18/2012). It must be said that Boyne himself is a superb example of Christian practice at its best. He’s not afraid, as you can see from watching the video (linked below), to engage openly with views that depart drastically from his own. In the process he allowed time and space for a dissenting view rarely heard in Jamaica.

 

The two young people he had on were very articulate and gave a spirited critique of the kind of Christianity espoused in Jamaica and its insidious seepage into all areas of national life. One of them, @Chatimout or Javed Jaghai, has even gone so far as to start a group called Jamaicans for Secular Humanism for those like himself who want a space to articulate their doubts about the dangers of the all-enveloping, unquestioning forms of religiousity adopted by many Jamaicans. In fact its quite heretical in Jamaica to express the view that God might not exist or that there is something problematic about the de facto embrace of Christianity as a state religion.

 

I know a young man who as a child at St. Peters and Paul, a prominent Jamaican prep school,  innocently announced in class that he didn’t believe in ‘god’. He was then subjected to disbelieving, disapproving scrutiny all day by other teachers who would pop into the classroom to have the ‘godless’ boy, who was all of 8 years old, pointed out to them. I was reminded of this story when I noticed with amusement the caption under Javed Jaghai’s image stating baldly “DOES NOT BELIEVE IN GOD.” In fact so narrow and hidebound are Jamaicans in their practice of Christianity that this episode of Religious Hardtalk was not repeated at the normally scheduled time because the powers-that-be were afraid that schoolchildren might be exposed to such apostasy!

 

Fortunately the TV station has made it available online. I highly recommend it, in fact its a must see for anyone trying to understand Jamaican culture:

Atheism and Secularism