Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What Are We Saying?

Many words and phrases are thrown around with little apparent thought regarding their origins, their proper context, their meaning, or their effect. We have the now infamous utterances of a former Commonwealth Secretary-General/Foreign Minister to contend with. But so-called ordinary people have to shoulder some blame too. Let me start with me. I am sometimes careless in my choice of words; getting out from under the utterances can demand more energy than I spent in the original construction. But I try to learn lessons and not repeat mistakes, yet, to err is human.

Take me again, this time as 'victim'. When I read a reference to me on another Barbadian blog as "uppity, educated, newcomer" I was shocked on several levels.

First, a "newcomer" seemed to have no place or contribution that was welcome. (Remember, this is a country where people claim they are not xenophobic.) One does not need to go far to see what that is and where it can lead. Many of us have relatives who have become 'newcomers' in other countries. Is this how we would want to see them treated? I leave that question open, and also let it rest with those who are from these shores and find what they believe to be succour by staying abroad. The existence or spread of such ideas means your time must be coming soon to be targeted, as night follows day.

Second, "educated" now seemed to be a slur. In a country that prides itself on a super-elevated level of literacy that seemed to verge on lunacy. The incident was a few weeks before the disclosure of this year's Barbados Scholarships and Exhibitions. But clearly many years after Errol Barrow had set Barbados on a wonderful course with universal primary and secondary education. I was almost stung to tears, because I remembered very vividly the words uttered by PM David Thompson, at Combermere School Speech Day, March 26, 2008; proudly addressing students of his alma mater, as their country's new prime minister, he said:

"I am speaking about the second Educational Revolution in Barbados. As you now, the first Educational Revolution has brought this country universal primary and secondary education and access to free tertiary education. We plan to have a graduate in every Barbadian household by 2020."

Does the PM know that some (I think it should be none) believe that educated people are not to be heralded? Is his ear to the ground? The newspapers better keep the identity of the 11-plus and Scholarship successes under close guard. Admittedly, this could be one person's view and we could dismiss it. But is it? I know better, because I have seen and heard how people view those who have been educated and make invidious remarks about their level of education.

Then I really had to hold my breath. The word "uppity" needed some very careful thought, especially as I did not know anything about the person who wrote it. Imagine hearing it coming across the air as it was yelled in the distance.

Sure, we have the plain definition (Merriam-Webster) of 'uppity': 'putting on or marked by airs of superiority'. We have a problem whenever there are persons who are in some way not equal--few of us are, so this is perennial and perhaps intractable. But for one person to refer to another as 'uppity' means what? One has been made to feel inferior? One's sense of an inferior position is accentuated? Is it about finding blame for being somehow lower than another person? There are more options.

In common parlance (taking the Urban Dictionary, for instance), we have the word meaning 'Taking liberties or assuming airs beyond one's place in a social hierarchy. Assuming equality with someone higher up the social ladder.' I believe that those latter meanings are the ones familiar to black people, as actual phrases heard, or phrases known of apocryphally.
I have only ever seen or heard 'uppity' used in the context of white people denigrating the achievements or actions of black people (I'm sure that's not isolated, though): "Look at that 'uppity' n*****. Does he know where he is?" Let's just leave it at Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

So, when this word is expressed in Barbados, what does that say? I am hazarding some guesses, but I am a bit afraid to go where I think they may lead.

Epithets are always hurtful. In that context, I am going to also consider what Jamaicans are really saying when talking about "darking up" a person--meaning to make them feel bad and lowly.

But, we are dangerously careless with words. So, it's worth recalling the Jamaican proverb: "T'row a stone inna hog pen. Who'eva squeal is 'im it lick."


Sargeant said...

Awwww stop complaining….it is an anonymous blog and people will react when faced with someone whom they consider extremely opinionated (not that there is anything wrong with that) especially when those opinions don’t conform to their way of thinking. You’re lucky that you didn’t venture too much into the political arena or people would be looking for skeletons in your closet, they will be insulting you, your antecedents, your spouse and your descendants. That’s why some of us will stay anonymous. I have been accused of being a “Bajan white”as well as blogging under other personalities because some of my comments were in line with others who reside in the same area.

Anyway you said that you were conducting an “experiment” why are you acting surprised now that you’ve discovered that guinea pigs have teeth

Dennis Jones said...

Thanks for the comment. Last first. I actually wrote "I found myself in an involuntary experiment over the past few weeks.", so I did not know what kind of 'animals' I would be facing.

The sense of protecting areas for discussion is interesting, and I think it cannot help resolve issues, because everything becomes proprietary and personal far too quickly. Also, I don't take the view that differences of views open the door for people to just fling insults. If someone has a point, make it.