bodies unfree (2018): notes

This post includes texts and translations along with the prose portion of my sound essay bodies unfree. Please consider this document alongside your listening. You can find the sound essay on the “listen” page of this website, or by clicking here.

i. introduction: fire

Parchment: “—it is a crime to be teaching homosexuality to twelve-year-olds …

When I was, when I was twelve I used to hear that babies came in planes, so how are you teaching twelve-year-olds what a man and a man should be doing? …

Those things are not right, comrades, and we as PNP—we have to take a stand. I don’t care what a grown man and a grown man want to lock themselves in a room and do. That’s not my business. But when things are coming through the back door and entering into the curriculum of students—of twelve-year-olds—I say that is wrong!”

you try to plug your ears

but the fire burns[1] you anyway

you lock away your fears

but the fire burns you anyway

your close your eyes and squeeze

but the fire burns you anyway

you stumble to your knees

but the fire burns you anyway

 

you promise not to speak

but the fire burns you anyway

you let them think you’re weak

but the fire burns you anyway

you open up your voice

but the fire burns you anyway

you think you have a choice

but the fire burns you anyway

 

the fire burns you anyway

the fire burns you anyway

you think you have a choice

but the fire burns you anyway

 

[naa na na naa na na naa na na naa na na no

kill them with the no]

 

Reporter: Didn’t you ask your parents to bring something?

Man: My parents—I don’t have contact with them, and also they turned their back …

Reporter 2: So, the police will move you today; what will you do?

Man: We have to go back to square one, like when we were on the open land—when they came and bulldozed us, we had to be on the side of the road. People passed and insulted us, they made noise and things like that. That’s what we’re going to have to do because we can’t go back home—”

 

you show them that you’re strong

but the fire burns you anyway

you sing a water song

but the fire burns you anyway

you meet them where they are

but the fire burns you anyway

your being’s just a scar

so the fire burns you anyway

 

the fire burns you anyway

the fire burns you anyway

your being’s just a scar

so the fire burns you anyway

 

Reporter 1: Since the lifestyle is so difficult, why do you all insist on living it?

Man: Because that’s what we’re comfortable with, and we don’t feel—

Reporter 1: You’re comfortable with a same-sex relationship when you know in Jamaica that is a … you’re, you’re an outcast?

Man: Yeah, then if we weren’t comfortable with it we wouldn’t be doing it ...

 

 

ii. for the children

At the recently concluded Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Brussels, Mr. Holness was quoted as saying that the people of Jamaica are “evolving” on the issue of homosexuality. That statement has led many Jamaicans, including myself, to ask: How and when did we the people of Jamaica “evolve”?

From what I’m hearing on the ground, the PM’s theory of evolution is being challenged by many persons asking similar questions to mine - “What does Mr Holness mean by ‘evolve’, and which Jamaicans and how many are ‘evolving’?

Jamaicans in general, and the Christian community in particular, have been consistent with their views on homosexuality. Jamaican Christians hold firm to the biblical teachings on homosexuality, which deems the behaviour a sin …

And there is much more that contradicts Mr. Holness’ so-called evolution theory. With quick and easy access to information, Jamaicans are becoming increasingly aware of the steep, slippery slope of the LGBT global agenda, and recognise the safeguards entrenched in our country’s buggery law. They understand that the prerequisite and precursor for the introduction of same-sex marriage is the repeal of the buggery law, and Jamaicans have no tolerance for the idea of same-sex marriage.

Many Jamaicans are also aware that the slippery LGBT slope involves the indoctrination and resocialisation of our children largely through the LGBT-driven, Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE) curriculum now being rolled out in schools across the United States.

There are warnings being issued as well about the stealth strategies being used by LGBT groups and their sponsors to infuse CSE into all subjects - history, science, etc., as well as into anti-bullying and “human-rights” material and training. That warning is also for us here in Jamaica and the Caribbean.

I’m not sure if Mr. Holness fully recognises the dangers of his ill-informed and half-baked theory of evolution, and the impending and inherent risks to the Jamaican society now that he has eased the LGBT door open.

As a predominantly Christian nation, there is one, and only one, theory of evolution that the majority of our people subscribe to, which is: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth ... God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them ... God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number ... .’” (Genesis 1 NIV).

Mr. Holness’ flawed theory needs to be quickly and permanently debunked (Blaine 2018).

 

 

 

iii. distance

chichibod chichibod 

where are you

i’d ask you to come to foreign[2] but it’s

expensive for you

all the same i’d love to see you

one of these days

cause i dreamed many nights that you

showed me the way

yesterday i looked to the heavens

thinking i would’ve sighted you

since it’s not the first time

that i’ve invited you

won’t you carry me on your back

i have to ride you

because i think they’re going to end me

if i’m not beside you

 

chichibod chichibod

who am i

if i’m not anyone’s slave

but i’ve never known freedom

turn my body into a flag

turn it into policy

turn it into dry land

dogs piss over me

turn it into school fees

into salvation

make a joke of it

in the police station

it must be something in me

or something they see

either way it doesn’t really matter

who i think i am

 

chichibod chichibod

tell me the truth

if i never would’ve gone

would i ever have found you

i wonder if i ever

could’ve thought what i’ve thought

could’ve thrown away the poison

they gave me to drink

chichibod chichibod

show me the way

i don’t know where to turn

it doesn’t make sense to pray

teach me how to holler

teach me how to bawl

because a lot of space is left

until i reach dancehall

 

 

iv. chichibod

a chi chi[3] bud oh

 

some of them holler, some of them bawl/cry out

some of them holler, some of them bawl, etc.

chi chi bud oh

chi chi bud oh

a chi chi bud oh

some are blackbirds

some are mixed bloods

some are big fish[4]

and some are little fish

in the dancehall

a chi chi bud oh

 

[your life is just a picket line]

 

chi chi bud oh

chi chi bud oh

a chi chi bud oh

in the front pew

some are john crows 

some are parrots

some are potcovers

a chi chi bud oh

a chi chi bud oh

[picket line …]

 

v. things my body taught me

bodies unfree is a sound essay in five parts. In it, I place into relation the voices of Jamaican social and political actors with different stakes in the debate around same-sex desire and sexual non-normativity on the island. In juxtaposing these voices, I invite my listener into the deeper realms of meaning that lurk beneath their utterances. In this essay, it is upon sonic terrain that I offer arguments about the limits of Christian empathy, the embodied violences of nationalism, and the exigencies of queer self-making in a transnational Jamaica.

I choose to theorize through sound for several reasons. I believe narratives possess a unique power to imbricate the interpersonal and the structural, the quotidian and the spectacular. And through artistic collaboration, I’ve personally experienced the capacity of sound and movement to amplify this narrative power. Among critical race theorists in the United States, proponents of the “legal storytelling” movement “[urge] black and brown writers to recount their experiences with racism and the legal system and to apply their own unique perspectives to assess law’s master narratives” (Delgado and Stefancic 2017: 11). These theorists show us how institutions like the law help to position members of society in varying degrees of proximity to social, political, and economic power. This positioning in turn helps shape our relative perspectives on that power. For those of us who claim membership among (or are named as members of) minoritized social groups, our perspectives on power become sources of knowledge, a knowledge that I believe can often only develop from a structurally disempowered social location. I am animated, then, by the legal storytelling movement’s exhortation that we tell stories from our variously empowered and disempowered social locations. The knowledge this storytelling can reveal is embodied. It’s part of how we develop practices of self-making. And I believe it can and must be part of our movements for social change. You can learn from me, from the archive that my body has become through the many names, arguments, and ideas that have been inscribed upon it by my society and by the state. bodies unfree is a kind of sonic container for this knowledge.

Not only is a broadly sonic language more compelling for me, but I believe it more empathetically invites audiences who, like myself, can find academic prose largely alienating to encounter. The conversations I want to have about Jamaican cultures, politics, and histories are conversations I want to have with Jamaicans—people who live on and off the island, people among whom academics number but whose ranks far outnumber those of academics, professionals from many fields, people who are unemployed, people with formal institutional training and people with other forms of knowledge. Given this desire, I find most academic modes of theorizing (and the prose containers into which most academics pour their scholarly knowledge) severely limiting. It seems to me that most scholars in the academic industry imagine other academic researchers as their primary interlocutors. This being the case, the industry can privilege particular kinds of inquiry, media, and structure that center the discursive fields academics have cultivated among themselves. Sadly, these are fields that are often watered by the lives and experiences of people outside the academic industry, people who are not seen as producers of theory but rather as objects or subjects of theory. For me, this is a question of ethics. I often want to ask researchers (particularly those who use methods like ethnography and oral history): if you don’t prioritize collaborative relationships with the people you study—particularly where these people are not academic researchers—whom do you imagine will do this work of connecting non-academics with your work? Do you even think this kind of connection matters? What then is the point of research? Let me underscore here that these are questions I’m struggling with in my work. I have by no means arrived at some perch from which to hand down judgments upon other thinkers. I’m trying to connect—amidst the brutal relentlessness of doctoral study—with thinkers and listeners outside the North American academy. Again, many of these thinkers and listeners are people with whom my work is most preoccupied; for me, privileging such an audience is an ethical imperative.

The sound essay is also a response to the conventional citation practices of the academic industry. Part of privileging academic interlocutors—again, the dominant orientation among most academics I’ve encountered—means invoking particular genealogies of thought in order to “legitimize” my own ideas in the minds of thinkers who claim such genealogies as an inheritance. If not to legitimize, then to render more relatable. If I positioned myself and my ideas within broader conceptual frameworks developed and refined over time by academic thinkers, I could more readily be welcomed into the realm of academic discourse. But this positioning erects a formidable barrier between the ideas I have now and a product in which I might share them with others. This citational practice smothers the flame of my intellectual and creative curiosities.

Of course, not all academic research is opaque and uninviting. My issue is wherever a single way of thinking, a single medium for expressing thought, and a single way of structuring the medium in which thought gets expressed seeks to dominate all others. Importantly, I’m not trying to alienate anyone here. I’m merely privileging a non-academic audience. Still, I think the medium of sound—and especially musical sound—can transcend the boundaries between academic and non-academic professions. In conversation with many people, I’ve gotten the sense that many of us listen to music and know exactly what we love about what we’re listening to, regardless of the fields in which we are employed. We know exactly what we love and can grow quite animated when we find ways to express that. We can grow animated, too, when musical performances provoke us to engage with other listeners and viewers around us. So, I offer bodies unfree to anyone curious enough to listen to it. Perhaps you are familiar with the concepts and contexts I explore here, or perhaps you aren’t. Either way, I hope your listening ignites conversation, and that that conversation can lead to some kind of action in your life, action that helps in some small way to make your communities more loving and more compassionate.

Among the academic theory that I’ve found particularly useful is decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo’s discussion of what he calls the “body-politics of knowledge” and the “geo-politics of knowledge.” Mignolo underscores that we all live in bodies, and that our bodies are the means through which we encounter, interpret, and engage with the world around us. Our bodies are both distinct from and similar to each other’s in important ways, and they are also always located in some physical geography and social context. Every act is performed by and through bodies in particular times and places. There is no de-contextualized, objective knowledge. And whenever and wherever we articulate knowledge, we are also articulating a particular way of being in the world; we are embodying and practicing ideas and discourses (Mignolo 2011: xxvii).

This is hardly a revolutionary idea within academic discourse, yet it has not managed to penetrate the ossified pedagogical and hiring practices that take place in academic institutions. In other words, many of us in the industry can speak and write both directly and indirectly about power, about the ways it places certain bodies in relation to other bodies, other forms of life, and other objects in space and time; but far fewer of us seem to have thought through the implications of this discourse for our practices. We haven’t seemed as invested in embodying the critiques of power that we make in our written scholarship. What would it mean for us to do this? What could it look like? And how are people both within and without the academic industry already doing this? These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night, that gnaw at the edges of my thoughts when I’m trying to read for class or for exams.

So, the kind of questions I find most urgent demand that I use my body as the starting point for research. I’m forced to approach research from this angle because I care about the impact of social norms on the wellbeing of people marked as gender and sexually non-normative in Jamaica. I care about this impact because I have personally experienced it. The way that extreme forms of corporal, psychological, social, and economic violence against same-sex desiring people were completely normalized during my childhood in Jamaica provoked palpable responses from my body. For instance, trying and failing to grasp an idealized masculinity, I spent my entire childhood pitching my voice lower than it seemed most comfortable. As a result, even today I can’t speak for very long without pushing my vocal cords rapidly toward fatigue. The fact of this distress evidences the intrusion of both state and community into my body—gender norms that help produce and reproduce the power of the Jamaican state, and that indeed were central to the formation of the postcolonial Jamaican state (Thomas 2011: 14), literally throttled me. That intrusion has left a scar that I carry with me to this day. And so, to make sense of my own histories of violence, and in an effort to make sense of those of others in my communities, I must cultivate a research practice that ignites what the anthropologist Jafari S. Allen has called “erotic subjectivity.” For Allen, erotic subjectivity is “an alternative way of knowing, which looks to one’s own lived experiences and one’s own intentions and desires that are certainly complexly made but also more ‘authentic’ than ways of knowing that are imposed or imbued by others” (Allen 2011: 97). Of course, there is no complete escape from the desires of others in our community, or from the desires of the state. But the kind of agency Allen theorizes as erotic subjectivity is the only way I can envision making a self, and I want to understand if and how others who are marked as abnormal in the ways that I am might also be practicing something similar already.

So, for me, sociologist Mimi Sheller compellingly articulates part of what this all adds up to when she writes that our “bodies, sexualities, and sexual orientations remain the most contested yet crucial terrains for the elaboration of freedom” (Sheller 2012: 9). Since my body is the site of trauma, of violence that is both a means and an effect of postcolonial state formation, then repair must also begin with my body. Igniting my own erotic subjectivity is a form of what Sheller calls “erotic agency.” I created bodies unfree partly in response to the challenge that I read in her questions: “What does it mean to lay claim to one’s own body? And how is this connected to state practices of citizenship, (il)legality, and the problem of agency and autonomy within hegemonic processes?” (Sheller 2012: 43). In this sound essay, I try to lay claim to my own body, to write myself musically into cultural and political histories from which I and others like me are largely absent. Creative work like this is a kind of scholarly marronage, in the sense in which Neil Roberts theorizes it. For Roberts, marronage is “a multidimensional, constant act of flight” (Roberts 2015: 9). In pursuing this kind of work, I’m moving between the dynamic and unstable poles of academic and non-academic, of legible and illegible. I’m embodying an alternate way of knowing, a fugitivity that may not promise stability but that offers fleeting moments of freedom.

The rest of this document is an attempt to peel back a layer or two of the sonic materials that enclose the core meanings in bodies unfree. Here, I contextualize both the references that are specific to Jamaican traditional and popular musics, and the spoken recordings that appear in the introduction.

At the opening of the introduction, “fire,” then-Member of Parliament for Southeastern St. Elizabeth Richard Parchment declares it criminal to “teach” young people homosexuality. Parchment was a member of the People’s National Party, one of two political parties in Jamaica, and he was giving these remarks at a party forum. Earlier in the day, he had attended a massive outdoor rally in Halfway Tree, Kingston. The rally was organized by a coalition of church groups calling themselves Jamaica CAUSE (Churches Action Uniting Society for Emancipation), and it was convened so that Jamaicans could “take a stance against what has been described as the push by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community to victimize those who speak out against its agenda” (RJR News 2014). By its very name, CAUSE takes emancipation as its ostensible objective; the coalition thus expresses resistance to same-sex desire through a language of freedom: “Our emancipation means standing up for strong families, our emancipations means standing against the homosexuality agenda, emancipation for us means standing up against the repealing of the buggery law.” Indeed, Helene Coley Nicholson of the Jamaica CAUSE secretariat is quoted as saying, “we really want to reorganize society to say that all sexual expression is free and to punish those who say otherwise.” So, for CAUSE, part of being free means being able to punish those who disagree with your conception of freedom. And CAUSE’s conception of freedom is based on highly specific and singular definitions of “family,” “sexual expression,” and “us.”

Parchment was also responding to the ongoing controversy surrounding the human rights lobby group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), which had recently distributed a sex education manual in six privately-run children’s homes. This manual, distributed without the approval or even the knowledge of the Ministry of Youth and Culture or the Child Development Agency, contained references to anal sex. Numerous stakeholders, politicians, public figures, and civilians were in an uproar. Many who voiced their opposition to this manual performed a deft rhetorical maneuver: they said the issue here was not so much the anal sex as it was the “inappropriateness” of this material for the young wards in these children’s homes. In “fire,” we hear Parchment execute this two-step, too. I call it a two-step because of course Mr. Parchment cares what two grown men might choose to lock themselves into a room and do. Why else would it matter so much that children are allegedly being made to learn about “it”? He cares about “it” and he doesn’t want young people to know about “it” because he thinks that if he prevents them from knowing about “it” then this will prevent them from doing “it.” Finishing off his two-step, he can be heralded as an advocate for children rather than condemned as a hateful bigot.

As they expressed their opposition to the full social and political integration of same-sex desiring people, both Parchment and the organizers of the CAUSE rally conjured the specter of an “LGBT agenda.” Recall that the CAUSE rally was billed as a stand against the “victimization” to which proponents of the “LGBT agenda” were subjecting good Christian freedom-loving Jamaicans. This specter hovers over almost all the public discourse against gender and sexual non-normativity in Jamaica. We hear this in “for the children,” part two of bodies unfree. This April, children’s “advocate” Betty Ann Blaine penned the op-ed from which the text of “for the children” is taken. In it, she conjures an “LGBT agenda” that is global and not just limited to Jamaica. This agenda involves “the indoctrination and resocialisation of our children,” echoing the fears Parchment stoked at the opening of “fire.” Blaine had also spoken at the 2014 CAUSE rally. She was quoted as asserting that “these folks are not interested in people like me … it’s the children they are after. The battle is about your child. Let us declare again that Jamaica belongs to Jesus.” Like many similarly oriented public figures, Blaine often collapses collectives of same-sex desiring and gender non-conforming Jamaicans and their allies with state- and non-profit-led crusades for “human rights” or “LGBTQ rights” that emanate from the Global North. I agree with Blaine that Jamaicans should be wary of the imposition of U.S. ways of knowing and being; but Blaine is not able to see the ways Northern states like the U.S. are influencing her own perspectives. The most vociferous opposition to same-sex desiring and gender non-conforming people in Jamaica today often parrots the talking points of fundamentalist Christian right-wing U.S. individuals, collectives, and institutions. By improvising a “mash-up” of both Jamaican and U.S. national anthems beneath a performance of Blaine’s article, I invite listeners to consider the transnational entanglements that Blaine’s words signal—even as she expresses herself through thoroughly nationalist language. But the saddest part of Blaine’s article for me is that she refuses to imagine that Jamaican children can and do experience same-sex desire. They are taking immense risks to come out to school guidance counselors who then quote scripture at them. They are growing into a sense of the confinement the state is imposing upon their bodies.

In part three, “distance,” I wrestle with marronage as the “multidimensional, constant act of flight” that Roberts describes it to be. According to Roberts, distance is the first pillar of marronage, and this is all the character in this song can see when he looks into the sky. In “distance,” I’ve made of Chichibod a kind of mythological figure who comes to the character in a dream and promises to show the character “the way.” Awake, the character pleads with Chichibod for guidance on how to “ala” and “baal”—how to cry out—since he will need this skill on his path toward the dancehall. Again, the body is central to the definition and performance of national belonging here. I was also inspired in this song by Sheller’s assertion that “some histories can only be written from another place” (Sheller 2012: 243).

Part four, “chichibod,” is a fairly faithful rendition of the Jamaican folk song “Chi Chi Bud Oh.” This song, like many traditional songs that have come to constitute an embodied archive of Jamaica’s history, performs a kind of doublespeak. On the surface, the song is a standard call-and-response mento song in which a leader improvises descriptions of different birds and a group of singers responds consistently with the same phrase “som a dem a hala, som a baal.” But different kinds of birds can also stand in for different kinds of people, and this was certainly one way in which Afro-Jamaicans used this song. In my version, I’ve simply changed the lyrics to include my own cast of characters. I also superimposed a musical line that’s completely unrelated to the music of “chichibod” but central to the larger project: “your life is just a picket line.”

 

Works Cited

Allen, Jafari S. 2011. ¡Venceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Blaine, Betty Ann. 2018. “Holness’ flawed theory of evolution.” Jamaica Gleaner, 29 April 2018. http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/commentary/20180429/betty-ann-blaine-holness-flawed-theory-evolution

Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic. 2017. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3rd ed. New York: New York University Press.

Mignolo, Walter D. 2011. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

RJR News. 2014. “Thousands attend Jamaica Cause rally.” RJR News, 30 June 2014. http://www.rjrnewsonline.com/local/thousands-attend-jamaica-cause-rally

Roberts, Neil. 2015. Freedom as Marronage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sheller, Mimi. 2012. Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Thomas, Deborah A. 2011. Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

 

 

[1] In Jamaica, “faiya bon” (literally, “fire burn”) is a common expression that articulates a strong and often moral condemnation of an individual, a practice, an institution, or the like. It is a call to burn a particular target of collective outrage, e.g. the police or the political establishment. Or often, homosexuals.

[2] Many Jamaicans use the word “farin” as a noun, referring to the United States.

[3] In Patwa, “chi chi” refers to a wood-eating termite and is also a derogatory term for gay men.

[4] In Patwa “fish” is a derogatory term for gay men.

 

David ChavannesComment