Time to dislodge the mental slavery in Jamaica

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Time to dislodge the mental slavery in Jamaica

Michael Barnett

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

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The recent Supreme Court ruling in the matter of Dale and Sherine Virgo highlights, in my opinion, just how rife mental slavery is in our beloved island today, well into the 21st century. This is an indication of just how much of an indelible stain hundreds of years of colonialism and slavery has left on our collective psyches.

We may have been physically emancipated, but it is quite clear that we are not yet mentally emancipated. “Backra Massa” may have gone, but the legacy remains alive and well in our major institutions.

In our schools (primary and secondary) there is continuous and systematic discrimination against African-oriented hairstyles, such as bantu knots/nubian bumps, corn rows, Afro puffs, and, of course, locks, whereas more Eurocentric hairstyles tend not be governed by such strict guidelines. Even in terms of black Jamaicans wearing their hair in an Afro there are significant constraints, such as not letting the hair being taller than an inch when it is combed out. A psychological and sociological analysis of this indicates that many black Jamaicans have not fully embraced their natural African-textured hair, and in extreme cases actually find hair presented in various Afro-centric hairstyles offensive.

As I had mentioned in a previous commentary, one of the quotes made by our first National Hero Marcus Garvey was, “Do not remove the kinks from your hair; remove them from your brain.” Here Garvey was saying, instead of our almost obsessive preoccupation with attempting to de-Africanise our hair by straightening it or retexturising it with chemical relaxers, a hot comb, or otherwise, we should spend more time and energy freeing our minds from the shackles of mental slavery.

With the recent outcry against the Supreme Court ruling in the Kensington Primary School and Virgo case I have spent some time looking at and analysing the recent written submission of our Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte and the written ruling of the Supreme Court. In the case of the written submission from Malahoo Forte, paragraph 48 reads: “It is also submitted that the rule/policy was reasonable in that it was not arbitrary. It was targeted at hairstyles that were found to be the source of bad hygiene and disorder in classes, which ultimately reduced the effectiveness of the teaching and learning experience.

“In addition, there is evidence that other methods had been tried to address the problem, but without any long-term success. It is submitted that having regard to the fact that the acquisition of an education is a primary societal concern, then the interference with any right — in an effort to ensure that there is a maximisation of the opportunity to acquire an education — must be regarded as a minimal interference and demonstrably justified in a democratic society that places a high premium on the acquisition of a quality education.”

In other words, the attorney general is saying that, in the case of certain hairstyles, in this particular case dreadlocks — for which the politically correct term is now “natural African locks” — it is inherently a source of bad hygiene, thus creating a climate of disorder in the classroom, which has the knock-on effect of reducing the effectiveness of the teaching and learning experience. Now if this position does not reek of a colonial attitude, then I don't know what does.

She goes further by saying because the acquisition of an education is a primary societal concern, any intervention/interference of anybody's rights is justified in the effort for the acquisition of a quality education. To me this line of reasoning clearly indicates a fundamental prejudice against dreadlocks, which are seen to be a source of bad hygiene, by our attorney general, and I find this to be problematic, especially as somebody who wears and has worn natural African locks for a number of years.

Now, let us turn our attention to the written particulars of the recent Supreme Court ruling, the authors of which are Justice Evan Brown, Justice Nicole Simmons and Justice Sonia Bertram Linton. Under the heading 'Right to equality before the law' (paragraph 93) reads: “I turn now to consider the claim that the policy of the 1st defendant in the prohibition of the wearing of locks or locked hair, breached ZV's constitutional right to equality before the law. She is seeking a remedy in the form of a declaration that the practice of the defendants in prohibiting her attendance at school for the reason that she wears dreadlocks contravenes her right to equality before the law. “

Paragraph 94 reads: “There is no dispute that the school established this policy, not as a way to maintain discipline and order in the school, but as a preventative measure in the case of an outbreak of 'lice' and 'junjo'. It is clear from the evidence that the school had sanctioned this policy on the basis of its own experiences with unhygienic students in the past.”

Now, it is clear from this that the Kensington Primary School had invoked a policy against the wearing of dreadlocks because they saw dreadlocks as potentially a major contributor to the spread of 'lice' and 'junjo'. My question to everyone is: Is there scientific proof that dreadlocks are more likely to attract lice and junjo than other hairstyles? In 2020, well into a new millennium, I would like to think that we can be more critical and discerning about this assumption. In the Supreme Court document, I note that none of the judges critically address this assumption. It is simply accepted as the justification for the school policy without any due criticism.

Let us now look at paragraph 122 of the ruling. It reads: “In the 2nd claimant's circumstances, she was being told she would be excluded not because of her behaviour but because of her hairstyle. Further, the school, through its then principal, indicated that her locks are prohibited as there is a possibility that the hairstyle would lead to a 'lice' or 'junjo' infestation. It is my view that hygiene does fall within the purview of [Ali] as a legitimate aim.”

Again, we see a decidedly uncritical attitude towards the notion that the wearing of dreadlocks increases the chances of a lice infestation taking place in the school, within the body of the written ruling. It should come as no surprise that this perspective that dreadlocks can be associated with poor hygiene, lice, junjo, “forty leg”, and any other hair infestation that one can think of, are an affront and extremely offensive to anybody who wears locks, whether one is Rastafarian or not.

For the record, my position on this matter is clear and unambiguous: I find this pervasive attitude towards dreadlocks not only emblematic of a colonial-minded attitude, but also prejudicial, discriminatory, and racist. In this new millennium, I think that we, as a nation, collectively need to adopt a more critical and discerning attitude towards a hairstyle that is now known globally as a symbol of African identity, thanks in large part to Jamaica.

The irony is not lost on me, and I'm sure not on a large amount of the populace of Jamaica, that a hairstyle that has been popularised internationally by our tiny nation, that can be linked to reggae music and Rastafari, that has boosted Jamaica's tourism industry, is still today derided in our schools (primary and secondary), in our hospitals, in some churches, by some members of the judiciary, and the list goes on.

In the particular case of grooming policies that are invoked almost independently by our various schools, I am appealing to the Government, especially the Ministry of Education, to step in and implement a universal policy that will allow a reasonable extent of freedom of expression for schoolchildren, which should not be just religiously based, but also culturally based, and which puts an end to the consistent maligning of African-oriented hairstyles. This, after all, is the 21st century and the world is watching. We have been internationally considered to be a progressive nation in the past, with internal reflection and soul-searching I believe that we can become a model to the world of progressiveness once again.

I am also appealing to school principals, court judges, and the wider Jamaican community to be more discerning when making certain judgements, and not be so quick to malign our African culture, whether it be in the form of hairstyles, language (patois), or religion (pocomania, kumina, myal, obeah). We live in a country that has a majority black/African-descent population, and we should not try to run away from that reality. Let us not continue to see our African heritage as a badge of shame; let us, instead, embrace it.

Presently in Jamaica, European heritage is embraced, East-Indian heritage is embraced, Chinese heritage is embraced; let us also embrace African heritage with the same amount of vigour. We will never be whole as a people and, as a nation, until we start to do so.

As we move forward in an effort to improve our beloved island and make it a conducive place to nurture families and raise our children, let us seek to dislodge the colonial remnants of our society in all its forms, whether it be within our institutions or in terms of the colonial monuments that some us are very attached to. I submit that this is holding us back, whether we see it or not.

Michael Barnett is a sociology lecturer in critical race theory at The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and a board member of the National Council on Reparation. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or barnett37@hotmail.com.


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