I know this entry is late, but…!
On occasions like the absolutely amazing display of Jamaica’s phenomenal athletic prowess in Beijing, China on Saturday, August 16 and Sunday, August 17, 2008, I am reminded of that celebrated Jamaican poet Dr. the Hon. Louise Bennett-Coverly’s poem – Colonisation in Reverse. Among others, the popular Miss Lou poem extols the virtues of a colonial subject in classic revisionist mode, renegotiating the terms of the enervating relationship established between super power and satellite state.
Miss Lou’s poem underlines the trajectory of Jamaicans who go to Britain in droves in search of ‘greener pastures’, almost as a way of reversing the traditionally lopsided terms of the colonial relationship; in the process, simultaneously imbuing themselves, at least in Miss Lou’s universe, with the power to ‘tun history upside dung’. They subvert the oppressive embrace of an ambivalent ‘motherland’ (Britain) by insisting on purposefully acting outside the proverbial box. Their efforts are epigraphed in Miss Lou’s words:
Oonoo see how life funny,
Oonoo see de turnabout,
Jamaica live fe box bread
Outa English people mout’.
There is no room for hesitation or staying in the back.
Like the Jamaican exodus in the fifties, the Beijing bound athletes know only too well that there is no joy in pointless work, often unsuitable to their dignity. They, like Jane who sits and reads romance novels all day on Aunt Fan’s couch in cool Englan’ , are much keener on standing atop the podium to receive all the accolades and glory that go with that on the world stage. Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser, Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart prefer another kind of fulfillment – winning races; setting records and standing aloft in medal ceremonies, while the rest of the world watches their dominant display.
In similar fashion to Miss Lou’s rupturing of the imposed silence(s) of subalternity through the technology of poetry, the Jamaican athletes literally ‘tun history upside dung’ in Beijing at the weekend! They not only took gold in the men’s and women’s short sprints – a first ever for us and the first in twelve years for any other country, Bolt, Fraser, Stewart and Simpson also set two separate though linked records.
Usain Bolt astonishingly trots to the tape in an astounding 9.69 seconds, notwithstanding the much criticised chest thumping. While, Kerron Stewart and Sherone Simpson both place second; in the process, rounding out the top three spots of the Women’s One Hundred Metres! ‘I Feel Like Mi Heart Gwine Burs’, indeed! What ah (h)excitement! To add insult to injury, the severely distressed Americans in their petition to have a rerun of the race and or a bronze medal are firmly dismissed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF).
Miss Lou’s ability to think, speak and act is a definite sign of hers and her country men and women’s empowerment in the face of the super power dominance of colonial Britain. Indeed, her victory, though largely intellectual is nonetheless occasioned by an important device – her consistent use of humour to overcome the paralyzing effects of (colonial) oppression.
The Jamaican athletes, on the other hand, use speed as their weapon to defeat their highly fancied rivals. The Jamaican Olympic exploits are comparable to Miss Lou’s ‘re-verse-ing’ of the oppressive discourse of Empire echoed in the actions of Miss Mattie, Jane as well as all the other un-named, though fundamentally present Jamaican characters in the poem. By shutting out the Americans from the medal podium the wily Jamaicans give new meaning to being ‘likkle but (wi) tallahwah!’ Definitely awesome!
On another note, it behooves me to add that, even as we celebrate and are, justifiably excited for the Jamaican athletes, Asafa Powell’s crushing disappointment in the same Men’s One Hundred Metres event is as painful as it is real. Like the early Jamaicans settlers in Englan’ who brave cold weather and difficult work conditions some of which often does not suit their dignity, Asafa must be content, yet again, with criticisms that he is unable to translate all that talent into meaningful hardware on the world stage.
However, lest we forget, please recall that it was because of Asafa’s exploits in the international arena of record making which have, in part, created space in our imaginations for daring to dream the impossibility of setting world records as a standard. Had it not been for Asafa’s own refusal to give in to domination we might not have fielded so many confident, young Jamaicans in their unrelenting pursuits of excellence in Beijing as well as elsewhere.
I recall, for instance, that after his first world record run many athletes at the local high school championships, some of who are now in reserve on the Olympic Team and before that the World Championships, indicated that he was their inspiration. Even now, the twinned emotions of disappointment and joy so feelingly expressed in the One Hundred Metres on Saturday continue to light the path to a new dawn. Many are asking, as a result of Powell’s exploits, however dubious, what else is required to become the absolute best athlete there is.
No doubt about it, Asafa Powell is a trendsetter, if even of a different kind. His story surpasses Track and Fields Athletics and incorporates instead the passion, struggles, expectations and nascent ambitions of the early settlers in their ‘colonisation in reverse’ memorialized in poetry by Bennett-Coverely. Powell is the first arrivant in the epic struggle of resistance to colonialism; that is, should we choose to see the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in this way. Embodied in Asafa’s pain are the seeds of self growth so urgently needed to purposefully throw off the limiting shackles of enslavement and colonialism once and for all.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has taken a decisive first step in leveling the playing field, it is now up to us to carry the baton all the way to victory. I am confident we will! Powell’s loss poignantly counterpoints Usain’s victory and underlines the twinned paradox of life in Jamrock. Damian ‘Junior Gong’ Marley reminds as a result that life here is gritty and problematic, which, in part, helps explain Miss Lou’s poetry insofar as the sentiments expressed therein become part of the push for a different take on colonial politics contemporarily.
Miss Lou’s ‘re-verse-ing’ of the terms of the colonial relationship act as a likely beginning point for discussion as well as understanding the power of Jamaica’s athletic genius and the vast potentials which reside in that largely untapped space. I am aware that Jamaican-American novelist and scholar Colin Channer has already given, through an analysis of Usain Bolt’s running style, in the New Yorker a treatise on the theme of flight in Jamaican culture and its significance to our current Olympic exploits. It is not my intent to rehash this debate, necessarily. However, what I wish to highlight is that the texture of our celebrations must never loose sight of the historical dimensions, both on and off the field of play.
By making a comparison between Miss Lou’s ‘Colonisation in Reverse’ poem as well as her own attempts in that regard; that is, through the act of writing about this process in Jamaican language, I wish to underline the extent to which Jamaican athletes are conducting a similar campaign now in Beijing. In their dominant display at the weekend, the young Jamaican athletes many of who are trained and groomed locally, have eloquently displayed their refusal to be cowed by the politics of American/ super power dominance. Their rejection of the notion of sitting still and or bringing up the rear for other more established and resource rich countries is, therefore, especially commendable. This crop of Jamaicans prefer instead to run, and from the front to boot. Theirs is not a campaign about second fiddle. In fact, it is not a campaign about fiddling at all!…Jamaica has come of age!
Gone are the days when athletes were said to pay their own way to represent Jamaica in big meets. Hopefully, gone too is the lack of an appropriate ‘local programme’ to cater to the needs of those ‘stars’ who were not fortunate enough to gain scholarships to go overseas. Through the efforts of Glen Mills, Stephen Francis and others we have produced world record holders and Olympic champions right here at home. A clear indication, if ever there was one that there are good things going on in Jamaica. Like the ‘Lightning Bolt’, the colonized subject of the Jamaican imagination is uncontainable in its ebullience and energetic in its consummate display of world class abilities. Lead by the new generation of Jamaican athletes, especially those in Beijing China, most of who are in their early to mid twenties, we appear to have a different conceptualization of time and space. Our play ground has widened and we are taking it ‘to di worl’!
Hardly surprising then is Bolt’s continued dancing even while the metal filled mouth of Shelly-Ann Fraser smiles back at us with broad abandon. There is no reticence here. The colonial dominance of the Britain and America are as much a target as anything else. There are records to be set, gold medals to win and upsets to happen. That cannot be done from a spectator position.
We will not soon forget Merlene Ottey’s many near misses at the Olympics and World Championships and the unpleasant moniker ‘Bronze Queen’ so unceremoniously hinged to her by her critics. As the ‘perennial bridesmaid’, Ottey bears the dubious distinction of being caught at the crossroads of a traditional post colonial dialectics of struggling to defy being overwhelmed by super power dominance, albeit unsuccessfully. Shelly-Ann Fraser and before her Veronica Campbell, on the other hand, are the modern day reincarnations, then, of Ms Lous’s vision of the overturning, if not outright rejection of the colonial politics of (super power) domination. Their victories, like Bolt’s and the two other Jamaican silver medalists in the Women’s One Hundred Metres in Beijing, China are emblematic in many ways of the overthrow of the might of the giant Goliath by the seeming inconsequential shepherd boy David, both of biblical renown.
Bob Marley tells of the ‘small axe[s]’ can fall a ‘big tree[s]’; in the process, reminding that where as size can be threatening, in the overall scheme of things it is really the size of one’s heart and the stomach for victory which matter more. Here, the big tree is, without question the ‘great Americans’, with their long sporting traditions often presumed by some to be of questionable excellence, which is toppled by the seeming inconsequence of small Jamaica at the weekend.
Like the Jamaican Miss Lou who is embodied in her work in many ways, specifically as colonial subject in her refusal to sit still and to be dominated by the tyrannical regime of colonial politics, our athletes are also victors in the international narrative of sporting excellence. They, like Miss Lou in her ‘re-verse-ing’ of the Standard (English) through the use of the Jamaican dialect have made us all proud to be called Jamaicans!
PS: Congratulations to Shericka Williams on winning silver in the Women’s Four Hundred Metres!