“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” ~ Marcus Garvey.
I was a young teenager when Rastafarianism began to come out of the corners and into the light of day. It was mostly (if I remember correctly) due to Bob Marley, who not only embraced the ‘dreadlocks’, but the religion too. There was a time when the group was so despised and marginalized in Jamaican society, that the act of wearing locks was one of defiance, a sign that you were definitely not one of the mainstream.
Gradually we began to learn about the religion, the bible-based Afro-centric religion which followed strict dietary rules (no meat, no fish, no scavengers, it was a purely plant-based diet). They took the Nazarite vow against alcohol, let their hair grow, and mostly lived simple lives. Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, a descendent of the throne of David, became central in their religion. Marcus Garvey had exhorted “Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned. He shall be the Redeemer.”
In high school, the effects of Rastafarianism were heard in the language. In the seventies the school leadership were struggling with the concepts of Black Power and afros, a student with dreadlocks would have been a bridge too far. But they could not control the language. It began with the way they honored the self – ‘I’ instead of me; ‘I and I’ to honor self and God (Jah), ‘I-man’. Classmates were soon sprinkling the ‘I’ liberally through their conversation. They might not be so quick to follow the ‘I-tal’ diet (as described above, without salt, perhaps adapted from vital), but anyone can borrow language.
There were many more language changes to come. The word ‘back’ represented no progress; forward replaced it. Negative sounding parts of words were changed into positives or were replaced with the word ‘I’ such as ‘Idren’ instead of Brethren (bredrin, in Jamaican patois); ‘Inity’ instead of ‘unity’. And of course the universal statement of positivity – ‘Irie!’ – all is well.
Whether Rastas led the way, or it is a natural part of the Jamaican spirit to love playing with words, the Jamaican language is ever evolving, and contributing to conversations world-wide. It can be hard to keep up with it if you live abroad, and sometimes it is in song lyrics that you hear the latest twist. But it has added to the value of the Jamaican brand, and given Jamaicans another reason to feel proud of having been descended from the proud mix on that small but beautiful island. Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ is one such phrase, another is ‘Wicked!’ (exclaimed at something extremely clever or excellent).
There are stories told about why the Jamaican spirit is so rebellious, so arrogant, so full of self-pride (well-justified, they would say). One theory is that when there were uprisings on slave plantations around the ‘New world’, the leaders would be deported to Jamaica, thus giving rise to generations of rebels (‘Rebel Music’, another Marley song). But it certainly ensured that Jamaicans would flourish wherever they went, full of ideas, innovations, solutions to problems. ‘Yardie’ is a term given to Jamaicans abroad – arising from the common habit of calling home ‘Yard’ – so if a Jamaican is going home to Jamaica, they go to Yard. I don’t know what the rest of the West Indian immigrants say, but the term became synonymous with Jamaicans.
This week a friend described returning to Jamaica and feeling welcomed the minute she touched down. Even the immigration officers were welcoming. And an African American friend commented that they never felt that way when returning to the USA. This week we lost a powerful voice, Toni Morrison, who said that “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate”. That is a damning indictment on a country who grabbed land from and committed genocide on the original residents, and has since become a land of the descendants of immigrants or slaves.
There is much to reflect on this week. Senseless acts of horror and violence; ICE rounding up almost 700 working men and women, disrupting families; leadership which fails every test every day. How do we turn this around? What can we, as members of the One Love family, turn this around?
I have been thinking about that beautiful way of making every word positive. Even a word like ‘appreciate’ contains the sound of ‘hate’ at the end, so it is turned into ‘appreshe-love’. And it seems to be a word for today. We need to appreshe-love one another, to enquire with curiosity and interest about the struggles of our brothers and sisters around the world, or even next door. Many Jamaicans, on arrival in the US, bought into the racist stereotypes about African-Americans, not asking how different was it to have been systematically discriminated against and oppressed up to and including the present day.
There are reminders everywhere of how fragile life is. We must appreshe-love each other while we are still alive, for tomorrow is promised to no-one. This weekend, as family gather to celebrate the life of a young man who above all let his family know how much he appreciated them, I am giving thanks.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!