Edward Seaga's tears of the soul


Sunday, May 05, 2013

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"What soap is for the body,

Tears are for the soul"

— Jewish proverb

I have heard it said in some quarters that former Prime Minister Edward Seaga's public washing of his soul two Saturdays ago at the official funeral of folk culture icon Dr Olive Lewin at the UWI chapel was an "act" put on for the gallery of mourners.

His acting skills, some say, were perfected over 45 years as a leading parliamentarian, and as a serious student of Jamaican folk culture, particularly revival music Zion and Pocomania, in the years following 1953.

Happily, those holding such a myopic and jaundiced view of the elder statesman are in the minority and are rapidly losing currency among the civilised.

Mr Seaga's 'breakdown' has obviously stirred doubts in the hearts of some of his ardent detractors about his sincerity, if not true worth. But, as I see it, sympathy is in order for this iconic figure whose latest tears masked a complex and deep array of historical memories of past hurts and disappointments, and, possibly, powerlessness in the face of his own mortality.

Truth be told, there is nothing strange about the Edward Seaga we know shedding tears in public.

Many will recall that he cried openly in 2001 as Opposition Leader and member of parliament for West Kingston when retired senior superintendent of police Reneto Adams led a televised offensive in the Tivoli Gardens section of his constituency that resulted in the deaths of several constituents under what proved to be very controversial circumstances.

He cried again three years later, on July 18, 2004, at the very moving funeral of The Most Honourable Hugh Lawson Shearer, Jamaica Labour Party stalwart and trade unionist par excellence, who had served as prime minister of Jamaica for the period 1967-1971.

This time around, however, at 83 years of age, Mr Seaga's tears flowed symbolically at the end of a long period when several persons whom he has known personally throughout his life and who have helped considerably to give form and purpose to contemporary Jamaica have crossed the River Jordan, leaving him alone as a still challenging and stimulating social engineer to speak on his own terms.

Among such people are a group of creative artists who have helped to interpret Jamaica to itself and have caught the imagination of the Jamaican people across class and generational barriers.

Rex Nettleford, the artistic director and dancer; Mallica 'Kapo' Reynolds, the intuitive painter and sculptor; Louise Bennett-Coverley, the poet and folklorist; Albert Huie, the master painter; and Bob Marley, the folk poet, readily come to mind.

Olive Lewin was perhaps the last of his fellow travellers in the cultural development of this country to depart this life -- which is why, as a society, we ought to pay very close attention to his recent lamentation over her casket.

For beside his own personal loyalties to Dr Lewin, who was a major informant for his national effort as prime minister to give pride of place to Jamaica's folk culture on the nation's turf, the former culture minister deliberately took the line he did in his tribute. It was an acknowledgement of the collective force of the Jamaican people and a tribute to his and the folk musicologist's genius at distilling it into an impressive body of works on our folk culture which, he hopes, will be remembered long after the exploits of many a politician, the fortunes of entrepreneurs, and the treaties of academics are forgotten.

This is what led him to say, amidst the tears in the chapel: "I wish I could feel it in my heart that she was fully recognised in her own life. She goes to her grave only partly covered in the glory she deserves."

But the denial of 'glory' of which he spoke aptly refers to himself as well as to the unsung heroine whose passing at age 87 he mourned. And this, to a large extent, is because we persist with a vengeance in this society in ignoring the artistic output of the likes of Olive Lewin and Kapo, for example, and wallow in denying their vision the legitimacy to direct the future of the society.

With this in mind, I have to say that Seaga is justified in expressing muted concern -- after years of solid work treating with the opposing sources from which the symbology of our folk culture exacts form -- that he will leave this planet still bearing witness to the perpetuation of the old myths about the worthlessness of the achievements of the mass of the population, even when those achievements are used in other parts of the world for what is allowed to grow and flourish into accepted legitimacy.

Seaga in tears understands the meaning and consequences of this for our patrimony in the 21st century, and the future direction of the society; and his eulogy at the funeral of Kapo in 1989 brings me around to appreciating his legitimacy and sincerity in speaking about the treasures of our creative imagination.

"We place so little value on the creations of our own folk society, recognising their worth and talent only after someone else tells us that they are good," he said in his eulogy. He went even further to say that there exist a "huge gap" between the beliefs, behaviours and values of the folk society and the rest of society.

"The gap between these two societies," he said, "creates two Jamaicas" -- the same view expressed by sociologist Philip Curtain who had described post-emancipation Jamaica in the same way. He went further 24 years ago to say: "It is the traditions of our folk society from which have been created the most vibrant and artistic force in Jamaica."

Yet, a great deal of Mr Seaga's problem today has to do with trying to unravel the many contradictions he has had to engage throughout his lifetime of service to Jamaica.

It remains a paradox, for example, that he should have been accused of ignoring the mass of the population through his structural adjustment policies of the 1980s and the appointment of persons to high places because they looked a certain way, quite different to the types who indulged revivalism, jumped "poco", sang and danced folk songs, and subscribed to the Rastafarian creed.

He, too, in other words, is a victim of the "two Jamaicas" malady. We use whichever phalanx suits our purpose. We revere the folk when it suits us to parade to the global community as devout artists and cultural anthropologists by leaning heavily on their treasured creativity and innovations as a source of energy and cultural certitude. But for more "official" or "serious" efforts at national development and advancement on the global stage, we relegate those same treasures to positions of inferiority.

In this scenario, self-reassurance is often mistaken for insolence on the part of the mass of the population who must confront a society determined to debilitate and marginalise them, irrespective of their proven talents and achievements.

Dr Olive Lewin's death and Edward Seaga's public tears at her funeral have focused once again attention on the problem of identity and culture in Jamaica. A resolution of this problem still seems far away.

Is it any wonder 2013 finds Mr Seaga shedding tears of the soul?

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga (seated front centre) is a picture of grief at the funeral service of Dr Olive Lewin on April 27 at the University Chapel. Flanking him are his wife Carla and Opposition Leader Andrew Holness, while behind them is Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips. (PHOTOS: KARL MCLARTY)

A photo of Dr Olive Lewin mounted in the University Chapel at her funeral service two Saturdays ago.




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