Dipping into our Untold Stories

I could go on and on the full has never been told…” Buju Banton

Story is the art of reshaping the world into your own image.  Literature was as much a part of the colonial project as the sword and gun and film remains the greatest tool in America’s arsenal for world dominion. It’s how the American dream is packaged and sold, and we all eagerly drink up the Kool Aid that they are the earth’s saviours, especially when the aliens finally arrive. Last weekend, as I watched Louis Marriott’s historic drama Bedward, it struck me that Jamaica remains a nation pregnant with untold stories.

Bedward (Alwyn Scott) is gripped by doubt

Bedward (Alwyn Scott) is gripped by doubt and turns to Parto Roman (Winston Bell) for guidance. Photo by Clinton Hutton

Jamaican history is replete with fascinating stories, of which the tale of Bedward is one. The play, first staged in 1960, was remounted at the Karl Hendrickson Auditorium at Jamaica College, Old Hope Road. Directed this time around by Yvonne Brewster,  Bedward explores the rise and fall of one of our most famous preachers. For some of us Alexander Bedward is merely a man in a folk song who was either busily dipping people in a healing stream to “cure bad feeling” or protecting his chickens from the “sly mongoose”. For others of us, he is  an even more shadowy image as we are unaware of the impact he had as a forerunner to what we now call Brand Jamaica.

Having stirred thousands to his faith Alexander Bedward is one of our great Native Baptists. His road to greatness and allegedly madness highlights the inseparable roles of religion and rebellion in Jamaica’s history. As Bedward, viscerally brought to life by Alwyn Scott declared, he looked beyond the spiritual needs of his congregation to the needs of all poor black Jamaicans. His call went much farther afield attracting people from Costa Rica, the United States and other countries. The play is not the full story and left me wanting to know much more, however it is an important step toward bringing images such as Bedward out of the dark, even if it was for a very short run.

Unfortunately, in Jamaica we have done very little to encourage those industries that are about our gaining a better understanding of ourselves. As Bedward highlights, our playwrights have often taken up the challenge, but as they struggle with little funding for the arts, commercial interests and the absence of adequate spaces to stage productions, that battle seems to be getting increasingly uphill. The result is that it is much easier for us to create an easy laugh than try to tell deep meaningful stories. Nonetheless, some continue to try and even amidst the laughter we often get a view of ourselves even if it is a somewhat twisted and often caricatured one.

Yet film has long surpassed theatre as the greatest form of storytelling. Yet, 40 years after Jamaica’s first film, the industry remains embryonic (especially if you do not include the music video segment). Our major television station long ago discovered that it was much cheaper to peddle American TV shows than invest in local ones. Local fare is therefore now almost totally relegated to talk or reality tv, both of which are much cheaper to make than dramas and they often have great mass appeal especially when the combine the double wallop of potential greatness and people making complete fools of themselves. Fortunately, our film producers seem to finally be realizing that if they await the policy makers putting in place the right measures to stimulate growth they will be singing a Bob Marley tune for a long time.

A part of the challenge with film has been the intense focus on an urban reality from The Harder They Come through Third World Cop and Dancehall Queen or the more recent Better Mus Come and Ghett’a Life there has been an intense focus on guns, ghettos and gangstas in Jamaican film. Very few works have veered from these themes, the colossally bad Glory to Gloriana being one of them.

So it is in music that many of our stories can be found. Up to the 1990s, Dancehall could have aptly been described as the people’s history.  It isn’t accidental that Buju  Banton named his second album Voice of Jamaica. Our DJs have in many ways given voice to ordinary activities that would otherwise have got lost. While no where in my history books (not that I paid keen attention to them, other than to prop up my head for better sleeping in class) was there a tale of hurricane Charlie, Beenie Man’s nimble rhyme  “modelling a gwaan” with “51 storm” serves as a record. When Hurricane Gilbert hit, by the next morning there were several songs chronicling the force of the gale winds, and Lloyd Lovingdeer’s witty ‘Wild Gilbert’, which came out a little later, outlasted them all. But as a greater commercial imperative takes over the music, it has begun to increasingly mirror the definition foisted (a genre dedicated to the glorification sex and guns), dancehall has been giving up that role and instead we just buss a wine!

A part of the problem has been that we have not generally encouraged writing, whether in relation to novels or in any of the forms listed above. Fortunately, circa 2000 a new breed of writers have emerged and while I have no scientific proof of the role that the Calabash International Literary Festival has played in this, the festival has clearly helped to foster writing in particular and celebrating the word in general.

In this our 50th year it is important that we ensure that our his/her/story is recorded from our point of view. We must find ways to tell more of our stories, whether through film, theatre, books or song. Its important that we tell the stories about the great people as well as ordinary Jamaicans, real or imagined. Too much of our history remains shrouded in mystery too many of our people grow up ignorant of who they are and where they have come from. Lets do as Burning Spear said and recall some great men [and women]. Let’s dip our people in the churning streams of where they have come from so we can learn from our mistakes, celebrate our victories and yes even earn from our creativity.