Nah, doh get vexed, I eh getting into what Dr. Rowley said. This is not going to be no PNM/UNC ting – I consider all the major political figures and their parties with the same indifference anyway (ok, now yuh could start to geh vex). I just want to do what I do best, piggyback off of issues to bring your attention to even deeper issues. In this instance, for me, I consider the word “jammette” (well, jammetry) the real important thing here.
For those who aren’t Trinis (and for those who are Trinis but see themselves as too “proper” to be familiar with “those kinds of words”), jammette comes from the French “diametre” which essentially meant “below the metre” or level of sexual respectability. It was a condescending term applied particularly to lower income women. Any boisterous, aggressive or assertive behaviour displayed by women – that is, any behaviour not in keeping with Eurocentric models of docility that was ascribed to “good” women – was considered indicators of the woman’s sexual “looseness” and therefore, lack of respectability.
In turn, we in the Caribbean have developed some interesting coded languages for pointing out one’s (real or perceived) sexual behaviour and background…and of course whether it’s acceptable or not….and of course, whether one should associate with that kind of person. Don’t misunderstand, I agree that in places where the public’s businesses are being conducted, such as Parliament and the courts, there should be a level of respect and dignity. But this is a society steeped in denial, shame, guilt, self-loathing because we’ve never really analysed the roots of our cultural thoughts and behaviour. In this instance, far too many overlook how the stressing on “dignified” behaviour that is implied when the word “jammette” is used, often serves as a form of muzzling.
So we throw around certain words with next to no thought about the (self) contempt we’re perpetuating. Words like “jamette”, “wajang” (remember that one, Dr Rowley?), “skettel” and I want to include here a couple others – “Warahoon,” “Biafran” are fairly good indications of how many of us in this society are anchored to racist, misogynist colonial notions of civilisation, respectability or as we say, “decency” (‘she’s a decent girl, she doh give no trouble’) and race. These racist, misogynist terms came from Eurocentric notions of the innate savagery of the customs of the “natives.” They have been coining terms like this since the 12th century – one could even go further back to ancient Greece – as a way of creating hostile “Others” against whom they could define themselves as superior.
The principal indicator of an Other’s “savagery” was their sexuality and/or their relationship to the natural world. Sex was a keen source of paranoiac anxieties by the nomadic patriarchal hunter-warrior cultures that diffused to the Greek city-states. Scholars from Gilman, Cheikh Anta Diop, Welsing, Torjessen, French, Mignolo and DeLumeau, among others, point to how superstitious anxieties and feelings of inadequacy from men in emerging Western societies were projected onto their own women as well as the peoples of the cultures of the tropical south that had a freer approach to sex, sensuality, gaiety and merriment – other apparent indicators of sexual “wantonness.”
Women and the “wildness” of nature were saddled with the burden of being responsible for this destructive force; they were said to have insatiable, sexual appetites that must be brought under firm control of rational men. Women in general, but more so slave or lower/labouring-class women, became the embodiment of the sexually predatory seductress. Even prepubescent girls apparently had seductive power over upstanding European men. We can see all this in writings from Hesiod to St Augustine, John Chrysostom, down to Dr. William Acton in the 19th century (and every Carnival through letters to the editor here in T&T). Emotions evoked through sexual interaction with women and the physical state most men were in following an intense orgasm came to be associated with vulnerability and the eventual destruction of men and all they created. In the militaristic Eurasian societies, this was unthinkable.
Such notions were intensified when race entered into the equation; in the Victorian period women, girls and people of “colour” were being examined by anthropologists, doctors, and psychiatrists, all informed by deeply racist and sexist ideas that were already circulating. These ideas they simply incorporated them into the languages of their respective disciplines and gave them a cloak of “scientific” legitimacy. The “natural” predatory nature of native and African women’s sexuality can be seen in L. O. Inniss’ “Trinidad and Trinidadians”. Here he panders to the entrenched notions of feminine seductiveness as he describes what appears to be a girl from the indigenous peoples:
“What a lovely girl! Heavens! She seems a houri from the paradise of Mahomet…I must try and find out who she is…Those Spanish Indian girls are the most fascinating creatures in the world. But what will my old man say (with his stiff English notions) to my marrying a foreigner and a Catholic. He has sent me out here to make my fortune and not to fall in love with girls, but how can a poor fellow withstand the bewitching glances of those creole girls. What do I care about their religions and superstitions (for I have found out, they have their pretty little heads full of queer notions, and believe in signs and portents of every description). But I must really find out who my charmer is, for she has kindled a devouring flame in my heart, which only a kiss from her ruby lips can assuage. How picturesque those dancers looked and how sweet and plaintive their music.” – Pg 40.
Trinidad and Tobago in the 19th century, like most other places colonised by Europeans for the purpose of extracting resources to drive European economies, was characterised by harsh social conditions and slum housing for the large labouring classes. Subhuman living conditions were in keeping with the predominant elitist European attitudes towards lower income people and racist ideas about African and Indians were commonplace if the literature at the time is any indication. The approved image of a “decent” girl was a demure Christian, thoroughly domesticated and immersed in the ways of Victorian ideas of femininity – particularly deferring to the absolute authority of her father and then husband. She was to be totally innocent about sex and had to remain quiet when in public. Shouting and loud peals of laughter were frowned upon as unbecoming of a “lady”.
In a period when racist anthropological and medical theories merged with Darwinist ideas and Victorian-era morality to “scientifically” legitimise the inferiority of non-white peoples, the dances of African and Indian women in rural Trinidad and the barracks on the outskirts of Port-of-Spain were routinely spoken of with open contempt. Here is an example taken from the diary of Fr. Armand Masse, a French Catholic priest who was the parish priest in Oropouche, south Trinidad, in the late 1880s: on the night of the 25th December, 1882 he writes:
“(W)ith my negroes the adjective ‘propre’ is the superlative of ‘beau’ and means altogether ‘beautiful.’ – What for example was not ‘propre’ was the sound of drums which I heard long after having left the church… what was still less ‘propre’ were certain reunions where they danced abominable dances. In one of these reunions there was a young girl of less than forty years in a state of complete drunkenness. This vile negro girl had for six months at least apparently stopped living in disorder and come to catechism to prepare to make her First Communion. She was dancing in a more vile manner than the others and finished by fighting.”
“Living in disorder” was the term used for common-law relationships. In peasant Europe during the Mediaeval period and among African peoples living in the West Indies, simply living together constituted marriage, but in a way that often meant the woman did not submit to a man’s authority. In any event, according to Arthur Calder-Marshall in Glory Dead:
“Marriage is not regarded in Trinidad as an essential for respectability by the poorer classes. A very large number of women live with men and bear them children outside of marriage. They are grandiloquently described as ‘paramours’ or ‘concubines,’ very seldom as ‘mistresses”
There is evidence that this may stem as much from the customs of the free Africans who settled in Trinidad after Emancipation as it was because labouring classes often openly spurned Euro-styled marriages. Either way, for the middle and upper classes, that was intolerable and an indication of the anarchy that was to come if lower-class people were allowed to live in ways of their own choosing. Fears of the “natural” violence of the working classes and revolt by African and Indian labourers – fears that were stoked because of the Haitian uprising and riots in London’s East End in the 1880s, cemented beliefs that rigid discipline must be enforced among the working classes who must be constantly monitored for signs of “backsliding”. Comb, for instance, through letters to the editor as far back as 19th century Trinidad around Carnival time, or Colonial Office letters regarding the radicalism of labour activists; the word “responsible” is code for any action that does not challenge the elitist status quo.
So if there are people who want to understand the impact of such labels as jammette, it is a good exercise to carefully examine the shaping of Trinbago’s society through Eurocentric ideas of sexual repression through religious moral teachings that had nothing to do with any god, racist accusations of “natural” violent tendencies and “irresponsible” behaviour – liberally applied to radical ideas, social agitation, as well as non-Western sexual expressions – that were applied to Africans and Indians of both sexes as a way of blunting grassroots clamouring for social equity.
Flags were changed in 1962 but ideologically not much else. The racist/sexist ideas of whiteness Selwyn Ryan, Bridget Brereton and others have examined in their works – and the obverse ideas of non-white inferiority and savagery – were pretty much soaked into the fabric of the society to this day. The activists of the February Revolution of 1970 did much to reverse this but the mere fact that words like “jammette” and “Warahoon” – a term that often was applied to the indigenous Warao First Peoples but is a derogatory term indicating primitive savagery – speak volumes about the level of ignorance and/or academic bigotry that is still transmitted from our schoolbooks, the pulpit and radio talk shows.
Europe/Euro-America has a long history of shaming their own women for their sexuality. With specific reference to African and Indian women (and men) the issue of their supposed wanton, uncontrollable sexuality rarely lurks in the background, but is taken as a given, trotted out almost immediately. Our own Afro/Indo-Saxon elites who had to suppress the cultures they came from in order to be accepted into the glittering institutions of Oxford, Cambridge internalised these ideas and used them for their own purposes. To this day whenever someone from the Beetham, Felicity, Enterprise, Penal, John-John, Mason Hall or Morvant forget their place, out comes the old yoke of looseness in one form or another.
A few years ago, around the time that Kamla Persad-Bissessar unseated Basdeo Panday to become the leader of the UNC. It looked like the emerging People’s Partnership would win the election and certain women’s organisations had a campaign to “Put a Woman in the Parliament” (presumably as Prime Minister). I wrote an article at the time calling as well for the development of what I call “women’s politics”, drawing inspiration from the powerful all-women’s groups in pre-colonised Africa such as the Sande Society and the ile ekwe titled women of the Igbos. These were women who usually controlled the crucial aspects of food production and processing. They had immense power and authority and could be firm as well as vociferous in exercising it – many of our own women came out of those traditional institutions. Even before writing that article that I had expressed a desire for more political jammettes in parliament. So, with all due respect to the women’s groups who are demanding an apology from Dr. Rowley, I hereby renew that call. As Chalkdust informed us in song, it’s people from places where one has to struggle daily to make ends meet, who experiences the horrors of dysfunctional transportation and institutions, who often understand how best to fix what’s wrong.
So let’s embrace Tante Merle and Bubulups, Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina; the level of practical knowledge they possess may very well save this place that the intellectuals we entrusted pretty much fucked over with no foreplay. Social graces they may lack, but isn’t it those social graces that got us he