Black Studies Adrift in Academe

October is Black History Month. At a time when serious interest in History – as distinct from rubbish like The Da Vinci Code – is at an epochal low, one section of the community at least is committed to investigating and celebrating the story of where they came from and how they got here.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. Born 17 August 1887 Saint Ann's Bay, Jamaica

For the twenty-first year running blue-collar workers, council officials, retirees, and school children will be organising or attending exhibitions, lectures and other Black History events – last year there were more than 6,000 – up and down the country. About the only people who won’t be bothering with the whole business will be the academic specialists who trouser two-or-three-times-the-national-average salaries for generating the raw material of new or revised historical data on which popular history – the history enjoyed by ordinary people in the community – depends for its trustworthiness and vitality.

One of the outstanding figures of the Black Diaspora is Marcus Garvey. Born in St Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, in 1887, and dying in Hammersmith in 1940, he was a key pioneer – virtually the creator – of Black Consciousness, deserving a large part of the credit both for the now traditional interest of Black people of the Diaspora in their African origins and for successfully promoting the view that Black people were just as good as, if not better than White people. He was a controversial figure, anticipating Martin Luther King in his emphasis on human dignity and aspiration but also Idi Amin in his exaggerations and displays of ego, and compromised in many eyes by his conviction in an American court for mail fraud in connection with funds raised to finance a shipping line for black people. What is not controversial is that new original material relating to his patchily-documented career would be invaluable for understanding the trajectory of his career and the social and political context in which he operated. As it happens there is a great deal of valuable unpublished material in Britain’s National Archives at Kew. Some of it is perhaps a little difficult to assimilate into traditional hagiographies of Garvey. In the summer of 1914, after a period in London, he returned to Jamaica and set up his Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association. This was just a few weeks before the outbreak of the First World War, which was to end with the addition of more than 800,000 square miles of territory to the British Empire, and the earliest Garvey item in The National Archives at Kew is a letter addressed to the Colonial Secretary on behalf of his Association informing him that

Our love for, and devotion to, His Majesty and the Empire, stands unrivalled and from the depths of our hearts we pray for the coming victory of the British Soldiers now at war . . . . We sincerely pray for the success of British Arms on the battlefields of Europe and Africa, and at Sea, in crushing ‘the Common Foe’, the enemy of peace and further civilization . . . . Thrice we hail: ‘God save the King!’ Long live the King and Empire.

This is annotated by a Colonial Office official whose initials are illegible: ‘I blush to think I once suggested to Mr Marcus Garvey that he shd go to the workhouse.’ (CO 137/705/2 )

A later file shows that officialdom was by no means unwilling to take Garvey seriously. In February 1928 the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Edward Stubbs, wrote to the Colonial Office warning that Garvey, recently released from jail in the U.S., stood a good chance of being elected to the Legislative Council in Jamaica. ‘I am inclined to doubt whether there is really much harm in him. He reminds me curiously of Sun Yat Sen [founder of the Chinese Republic]’, Stubbs wrote:

he will be a terrible nuisance and the Council meetings will last much longer than they do now – which is bad enough – but that is all in the day’s work. What I am honestly afraid of – and I do not think that I am usually regarded as an alarmist – is the effect of his speeches in Council on his ignorant followers . . . . there is a real risk that, if Garvey enters the Council there will be anti-white disturbances which may be very serious.

Stubbs’s proposed solution was to extend the exclusion from the Council of persons convicted in any court in the British Empire to cover convictions in foreign courts. Stubbs’s suggestion was not especially well-received in Whitehall: one official minuted:

I cannot follow the Governor in his indiscriminate condemnation of convicts. The list of them includes Jesus Christ, Bradlaugh, Parnell and innumerable others who will be remembered when Sir Edward Stubbs is forgotten, although, no doubt, they were highly inconvenient to the Government of the day.

This minute provoked the ire of the Secretary of State himself and the offending official was obliged to recant. He did so with ill grace :

I am sorry that the S of S should have believed that I meant to show contempt for Sir Edward Stubbs . . . . I have always reckoned him in the first rank of West Indian Governors. My remark was merely intended to indicate that he is not a conspicuous historical character like Parnell or Bradlaugh.
(CO 318/391/12)

It was with some satisfaction that officials in Jamaica monitored the decline of Garvey’s movement during the 1930s. The Acting Governor reported in 1934 :

The Membership of the Kingston Division of [the Universal Negro Improvement Association] was at one time 800 but at present it is only 70. Similarly the membership of the St. Andrew Division has dropped from 950 to 35. The better class negroes have ceased to lend their support to the Association . . . . The activities and status of this Association and its President are of no importance except in the eyes of Mr. Garvey himself, who is consumed with self conceit out of all proportion to his merits.
(CO 323/1282/10)

Yet Garvey undoubtedly made a valid point when, following serious rioting in Jamaica in 1938, he wrote to the Colonial Office :

Jamaica has been referred to by me as an Island Poor House and as a fact this is true but for the small percentage of very prosperous people who have used the Island for their own interest. Jamaica is a country of social inhumanity where the class that is above shows absolutely no interest in the class below.
(CO 137/827/1)

This is arguably as true today as it was seventy years ago : but none of the files in The National Archives cited above are mentioned in the 530-page biography of Garvey by Colin Grant recently published by Jonathan Cape under the title Negro with a Hat: the Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and his Dream of Mother Africa.

The earliest evocation in fiction of the ‘social inhumanity’ of colonial Jamaica – in fact, the earliest Jamaican novel – might be supposed to be a matter of some interest, though one will look in vain for any mention of it in surveys of West Indian literature. Montgomery; or, The West-Indian Adventurer was published anonymously in three volumes in Kingston in 1812-1813. It is a fairly banal account of love and courtship, and only the second volume is set in Jamaica, where the protagonist is briefly employed as a book-keeper on a plantation, and quarrels with his employer about the ill-treatment of the black slaves. There are one or two attempts to reproduce the Jamaican patois in print and references to the sexual immorality of white overseers, but though the author identified himself as ‘a Gentleman Resident in the West Indies’, Montgomery cannot be said to be especially revealing or quotable : it is however much earlier in date than most fiction set in the British colonies, so it is a little strange that it is not better known. There is a copy in the British Library.

In a cruelly unequal society such as colonial-era Jamaica, fiction may perhaps be seen as belonging essentially to the culture of the elite : language and especially colonial patois, belongs to everyone. Or does it? From the mid-1930s onwards there was a popular music-hall act in Jamaica featuring Edward ‘Bim’ Lewis and Aston ‘Bam’ Winter – Bim and Bam. Bim Lewis’s son Justin, a successful London businessman, was surprised to learn recently that the phrase ‘Bim and Bam’ appears in Routledge’s New Partridge Dictionary of Slang as Trinidadian slang, circa 1987, for ‘inseparable friends’ : it would have been understood as meaning ‘inseparable friends’ at least as far back as the 1950s in Jamaica, and it was only in Jamaica that the real Bim and Bam were cult heroes. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang cites as its source Lise Winer’s Dictionary of the English / Creole of Trinidad & Tobago of 2003 – a work which is also given as the authority for the word ‘wood’ being a Trinidadian term for penis, circa 1950, when in fact it seems to have been established all over the West Indies at a much earlier period. Of the six experts on regional slang who are listed as contributors to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang, the one responsible for ‘Bim and Bam’ and ‘wood’ being identified as recent Trinidadian terms is Richard Allsopp, founder of the Caribbean Lexicography Project, former Reader at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados, and author of The Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, published by Oxford University Press in 1996. The latter work is notable for omitting numerous words that were listed in a small glossary published a couple of years earlier, Ray Chen’s The Jamaica Dictionary, including baat (boiled rice), jing bang (noun: a noisy group; adjective: disorganized), mampi (fat woman), stregge, (tart or low woman) trash out, (well-dressed or partying) and warra warra, (bothersome). All these words seem to be of everyday use in Jamaica. Vocabulary has a habit of going out of fashion, but in some cases extends its geographical range : in a hundred years’ time Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage might be taken as indicating that these words were never current, or a later edition may feature them as Trinidadian circa 2060. Either way one can’t quite see why some of the poorest communities in the Western Hemisphere are providing public funds to subsidize a lexicography project that misrepresents how ordinary men and women speak. Incidentally, the word stregge seems suspiciously like the Italian word strega, meaning a witch. One would like to know how an Italian word – not Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, French or Scots – established itself in Jamaican slang: but of course lexicographical problems of this sort are greatly simplified if lexicographers agree to pretend such words don’t exist.

The catalogue of both the British Library and The National Archives is on the Internet; sixth formers can obtain temporary admission to the British Library if furnished with a letter of recommendation, and secondary school children merely have to carry proof of identity to gain entrance to The National Archives. Research into the vocabulary of the West Indies involves no formalities at all. There is already a large element of do-it-yourself history in Black History Month but perhaps it needs to go further : history will have to be entirely do-it-yourself history if the recognized experts can’t be bothered to do it properly themselves.