I don’t know when Joseph Knight was born or when he died. I first learned about his story while watch the BBC Documentary Series A History of Scotland. Joseph Knight’s story is also the basis for the novel Joseph Knight by Scottish author James Robertson, a novel with has been ranked as one of the 100 Best Scottish Novels.
What we know of Joseph Knight’s life has been documented for posterity in the records of his case, (“Joseph Knight, a Negro of Africa v. John Wedderburn of Ballindean“) against his master, John Wedderburn which was heard by the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1778.
Joseph Knight is said to have been taken captive as a slave from Guinea in West Africa when he was about eleven or twelve. He was brought on a slave ship to Jamaica. John Wedderburn was a Scottish plantation owner who had made a fortune in Jamaica after escaping the persecution of Jacobites after the battle of Culloden (He subsequently named his plantation Culloden). Wedderburn took a distinct liking to the young Joseph when he saw him for sale. Wedderburn bought the boy, named him after the captain of the slave ship he had been brought to Jamaica on, Joseph Knight, and kept him as a house slave. This meant that Joseph was not subjected to the back-breaking work in the sugar fields of the plantations which even Wedderburn testified later in court would have probably killed the boy. Wedderburn even had Joseph baptised, which was quite uncommon for slaves at the time, and allowed him to be taught how to read and write by the same schoolmaster who taught Wedderburn’s own children. About nine years after purchasing Joseph, in 1769, Wedderburn decided to leave Jamaica and return to the more appealing climate of his Scottish homeland; he took Joseph Knight with him. Wedderburn settled on his estate called Ballidean. But Joseph was growing up, and although allowed to quarter with Wedderburn’s house servants he was still a slave and was not paid a wage, although he was given pocket-money. Joseph asked to acquire a trade and so Wedderburn paid for him to apprentice with a barber in Dundee. During this time, it is likely that Joseph learned of the case of the fugitive slave James Somersett who had successfully appealed to the court in England to be freed from his master in 1772.
Joseph became involved with a female house servant named Annie who became pregnant. This greatly displeased Wedderburn who dismissed Annie, but allowed her to stay at Ballindean to give birth, paid the doctor’s bills and for the funeral of the baby when it subsequently died. However, Joseph continued his relationship with Annie, who had moved to Dundee, and again fathered a child with her. Joseph wanted to be able to work to support his family and demanded that Wedderburn either give him a cottage on his estate for his family or give him wages so that he could provide for them. Otherwise, he was going to leave. Wedderburn refused these demands so Joseph left. Wedderburn successfully appealed to the Justices in Perthshire to enforce his rights of property against Joseph and Joseph was arrested and returned to Wedderburn. As Maclaurin, Joseph Knight’s lawyer in the case Joseph eventually raised against Wedderburn at the Court of Session in Ediburgh, said, according to the court documents which have been written as dialogue in James Robertson’s novel:
‘It was at this point that Mr Wedderburn applied tae the Justices o the Peace o Perthshire tae prevent his taking aff in this mainner, on the grounds that he had aye treated him kindly and furnished him wi claes, bed, board and pocket money, and that in consequence o haein acquired him legitimately in Jamaica he had the richt tae detain him in perpetuity in his service for life. The justices, all, let it be said, guid freens o Mr Wedderburn’s and some wi their ain interests in the plantations, upheld his petition and the pursuer was arrested and returned tae him.’
Knight could not accept remaining as Wedderburn’s slave. He appealed to the Sheriff of Perth who decided in his favour, as he found the laws of slavery that applied in Jamaica did not apply in Scotland. Wedderburn than appealed to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland’s Supreme Civil Court at the time, arguing that Joseph Knight owed him lifetime service. The case was considered so important at the time that it was given a full panel of judges, including a central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, Lord Kames (Henry Home). Knight’s lawyers argued in his favour on several fronts including raising the fear that Wedderburn intended to send Joseph back to Jamaica, where the slavery laws would mean that Joseph could be punished for desertion. According to Maclaurin in Robertson’s novel:
The defender, Mr Wedderburn, has been at pains in aw his written submissions tae the court, tae emphasise his kindness and generosity tae the pursuer. We will leave aside, for the moment, whether these words can ever be applied tae a relationship founded upon ae man’s absolute power ower anither. But we note that he seeks frae the court no jist the richt tae the pursuer’s service in perpetuity, but also the richt tae send or cairry him back tae Jamaica if he should choose it. He insists that he has nae intention o daein that, but, as he acquired him legitimately there, he must be entitled tae return him there. Whit, though, would be the purpose o assertin that richt, were it no tae exercise it? My lords, if Mr Knight behaved in Jamaica as he has done here, that is if he claimed his freedom and acted upon that claim, he would be subjected tae the maist horrific punishments for desertion. Are we tae believe that if he were sent tae that island, it would be for his security and happiness and the guid o his soul?
The records relating to the Knight v Wedderburn case survive among Court of Session records in the NAS (reference CS235/K/2/2). They consist of five bundles of papers, including an extract of process by the Sheriff Depute of Perth (20 May 1774), an extract of process by the Lords of Council and Session (30 May 1774), and memorials for John Wedderburn and Joseph Knight (1775). Of these, the memorials are the most interesting. In their respective memorials each man presents his side of the story and legal arguments concerning the definition of perpetual servitude. Wedderburn blamed Knight’s relationship with another servant, and her subsequent pregnancy, as the cause of a falling out between master and servant and Knight’s desire to leave his service. Knight’s 40-page memorial includes an account of his life (including his baptism and marriage in Scotland), evidence – partly in French – on enslavement of Africans by their chiefs as judicial punishments, and descriptions of the miseries of slavery in the colonies.
The court found in Joseph Knight’s favour. According to judge Lord Kames:
….the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negro’s service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent: That the Negro was likewise protected under the act 1701, c.6. from being sent out of the country against his consent.’
Although in the plantations they have laid hold of the poor blacks, and made slaves of them, yet I do not think that is agreeable to humanity, not to say to our Christian religion. Is a man a slave because he is black? No. He is our brother; and he is a man, although not of our colour; he is in a land of liberty, with his wife and child, let him remain there.
Joseph Knight won his freedom from Wedderburn but we know nothing of his life after this. Was he able to find employment and support his family? What was life like for his children in Scotland being of mixed race? James Robertson, in his 2003 novel Joseph Knight, mixes fact and fiction by having John Wedderburn hire a Dundee private detective to go looking for Joseph Knight 25 years after the court case. In a 2011 interview, Robertson discusses his novel, which won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Award in 2004:
I first came across a brief mention of the story of Joseph Knight in a book about Dundee in, I think, 2000.
There were gaps in the historical record – not least being a complete absence of information about what happened to Knight after he faced down his master John Wedderburn in court – but this simply meant that fiction came into its own as a means of reconstructing the past. In fact, the cast of real-life characters – Knight and Wedderburn themselves, other planters, slaves and their families, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and all the eccentric, hard-drinking judges, philosophers, poets and lawyers who made Enlightenment Edinburgh such a vibrant place – was so extraordinary that it was tempting (though not very) to tone them down a bit to make them more credible. As I gathered information, I became fascinated by the profound humanity of some of the people in the story, which was matched only by the hypocrisy of men in Edinburgh coffee houses debating what constituted a civil society while enjoying the products of slave labour thousands of miles away.
Somebody directed me to an aphorism of the Nigerian writer Ben Okri: ‘Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free themselves for future flowerings.’ This gave me the key to what I felt the book was about: Joseph Knight, or his story, came to symbolise a Scotland full of possibilities, past, present and future. I’d always been interested in how different times can speak to one another, how our understanding of ‘then’ can influence our understanding of ‘now’ and vice versa, and here was that same thing happening again.
…Despite good reviews and the reception of both the Scottish Arts Council and Saltire Society Book of the Year awards, and although many readers have told me how much they enjoyed it, of my four novels it has sold the least well. I don’t know why this is, but it makes me all the more grateful that it got the recognition it did back in 2003–04. You can never tell what books will survive their own times – many bestsellers are gone and forgotten a decade after first publication – but I like to think that someone, some day far in the future, may pick up Joseph Knight and find that it opens a door for them into the strange but perhaps not irrelevant world of Enlightenment Edinburgh and Scotland’s deep engagement with slavery and the plantations.
Slavery, freedom or perpetual servitude? – the Joseph Knight case (The National Archives of Scotland) article available online
Guardian Review (2003) of the novel Joseph Knight by James Robertson by Ali Smith available online
Extract from James Robertson’s novel Joseph Knight available online
Interview (2011) with James Robertson available online
Scotland and the Slave Trade (National Library of Scotland) article available online
Scotland and Abolition by Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte article available online
God’s President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a play that was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for its Friday Play Series to mark the 30th anniversary year of the Independence of Zimbabwe. According to the BBC Radio 4 website:
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play tells the story of the tense negotiations around the Lancaster House Conference, and the road to Zimbabwe’s Independence.
On 4th March 1980 the Shona majority in Rhodesia was decisive in electing Robert Mugabe to head the first post-independence government as Prime Minister. Six weeks later, on April 18th, Zimbabwe celebrated its first Independence Day.
On the 21st December 1979, following three months of talks, the Lancaster House Agreement finally brought independence to Rhodesia following Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965.
Margaret Thatcher’s government had invited Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith, and the leaders of the Patriotic Front, led by Joshua Nkomo (Zimbabwe African People’s Union/ZAPU)and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe African National Union/ZANU) to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House in London, to be chaired by the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington.
The purpose of the Conference was to discuss and reach agreement on the terms of an Independence Constitution, and to ensure that elections should be supervised under British authority to enable Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence and the parties to settle their differences by political means.
Each scene of the play takes place on crucial day of Zimbabwe’s history, some of these days are well-known, others are not. The play jumps back and forth in history and goes back as early as 1960 and as late as 1980, covering twenty years in the history of Zimbabwe’s independence movement. British Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msamati (best known for his role as Mr. Matekoni in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies, Detective Agency) plays Robert Mugabe.
18th November 1971, in Salisbury Prison, Rhodesia
Alex Douglas Hume, the British Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Heath and Bishop Muzorewa of the United African National Council visit Robert Mugabe and Edgar Tekere, who have been imprisoned by Ian Smith’s government. They are there to discuss the proposed constitutional settlement. The British government wants to get Tekere and Mugabe’s opinion.
Mugabe and Tekere feel that the proposal is just British capitulation to Ian Smith’s demands. Hume argues that the mechanisms are in place to lead to majority rule eventually. Bishop Muzorewa also objects to the proposal.
17th May 1979, Office of Lord Carrington, Britain
Lord Carrington reflects on Margaret Thatcher’s speech in regards to the crisis in Rhodesia. The British are considering recolonizing Rhodesia, establishing a constitution that both sides accept, then leaving. Margaret Thatcher doesn’t want to be seen as a racist by the Commonwealth and has sent a video of her speech to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda in order to assure him that she supports Black Majority Rule.
3rd September 1979, Havana, Non Aligned Movement Summit, Cuba
Zambian President Kaunda is meeting with Robert Mugabe and challenging him on his squabbles with Nkomo. Kaunda doesn’t want to see more of his people die because Mugabe is behaving in a reckless and criminal fashion. Kaunda threatens to shut all of the ZAPU bases in Zambia if Mugabe won’t accept to negotiate a peace at Lancaster House.
10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Lord Carrington observes that Nkomo has come separately from Mugabe and they are both staying at separate hotels and have different PR representatives although they are both members of Zimbabwe’s Patriotic Front. Bishop Murorewa arrives with Ian Smith; they are both members of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia delegation. Edgar Tekere arrives with Robert Mugabe.
10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Opening Plenary Session, Britain
Lord Carrington presents the proposed constitution for Rhodesia with which Britain will be prepared to grant independence. Lord Carrington expresses his anger that a cease-fire has not been called during these negotiations. Mugabe accuses Bishop Muzorewa of betraying the nationalist movement for siding with Ian Smith and defending thee rights of the White Minority.
In the bathroom, Robin Renwick, who works in the Rhodesia Department of the British Foreign Service, meets Tekere and expresses his hope that, even if official talks break down, he and Tekere can keep communicating.
Renwick asks if Tekere knew Mugabe before the liberation struggle because they seem so close. Tekere says he knew Mugabe would be their leader from the first time he spoke.
20th July 1960, Highfield Township, Salisbury, Rhodesia
Robert Mugabe has participated in demonstrations against and been chased by riot police. Tekere encourages Mugabe to speak to the crowd of demonstrators. Mugabe is hesitant because he doesn’t know what to say. Tekere tells him to just talk about his experience in the demonstration. Tekere introduces Mugabe to the crowd, explaining that he has three university degrees and has just returned from Ghana. Mugabe finally speaks. He says that Ghana was the first African state to gain independence and his expresses his admiration for that country where Africans are in control of their own affairs. While in Ghana, Mugabe realized that in Rhodesia Blacks are taught to worship the White man. Mugabe encourages the people in the crowd to stand up for their rights.
Tekere tells Mugabe that he is going to introduce him to Nkomo and invites him to join the party. Tekere tells Mugabe that he would be a great spokesperson. Mugabe states that he is a teacher in Ghana but Tekere says that now Mugabe’s job is to fight for freedom in Rhodesia.
10th September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Bishop Muzorewa is meeting with Lord Carrington on his own. Carrington emphasizes that if there is no settlement the British will not lift sanctions against Rhodesia. Carrington tells Bishop Muzorewa that his party needs to accept that White Privilege will come to an end in Rhodesia.
10th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, Britain
The land of White farmers will be protected for 10 years in the proposed constitution. Mugabe says that this war is mostly about land and is angry about idea that Blacks will have to compensate Whites for the land they stole. Lord Carrington wants Mugabe to sign off on the constitution. Carrington informs Mugabe that he will only negotiate with Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith because they accept the proposed constitution. He tells Mugabe and Tekere that their attendance at the conference is no longer required and that they should keep in mind that Britain will be lifting sanctions on Rhodesia so they will facing a war with an economically revitalized country.
Mugabe is fed up with trying to negotiate with Carrington and decides to go over his head.
15th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who Mugabe has contacted, confronts Lord Carrington about his decision to expel Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo from the conference and accuses him of treating Mugabe like a child and being too close to Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith. Lord Carrington states that he thinks Mugabe is an unreasonable monster. Ramphal informs Lord Carrington that there are rumors that he had a separate meeting with Bishop Muzorewa, making it clear to him that he would get Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo to leave the negotiating table. Bishop Muzorewa discussed this meeting in a letter which has been leaked to African newspapers.
Ramphal says he can get Mugabe back to the table. Lord Carrington accuses Ramphal of being too close to the Africans. Ramphal explains that there are things he can get Nkomo and Mugabe to agree to that Lord Carrington can’t.
15th October 1979, a Hotel in Central London, Britain
Ramphal, Mugabe and Tekere are meeting. Mugabe is furious that in the proposed constitution Blacks will have to buy land from Whites at market price. Ramphal says that he spoke with President Jimmy Carter and America will contribute to the land resettlement fund to buy the land so it will not have to come from the new Zimbabwean government’s budget.
18th October 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Tekere and Mugabe show up with a signed copy of the constitution, much to Lord Carrington’s surprise.
Now, the transition to democracy can be discussed. Lord Carrington says that Britain will return to Rhodesia for two or three months to monitor new elections.
Mugabe flips out and demands that their be a new Chair instead of Lord Carrington. He then storms off.
Robin Renwick tries to speak with Tekere before he goes off to follow Mugabe.
25th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Bishop Muzorewa is meeting again with Lord Carrington. Lord Carrington asks Bishop Muzorewa to stand down as Rhodesian Prime Minister during the transition period because if he stays in power it looks like he is getting an unfair advantage. As he was only elected six months earlier, Bishop Muzorewa is not happy with this proposal. Lord Carrington assures the Bishop that British intelligence says that he is sure to win the election again and that Mugabe won’t be able to get his campaign together in only a few months so Muzorewa should not worry.
7th November 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Lord Carrington is meeting with Robin Renwick. Lord Soames will be appointed as the New Governor of Rhodesia during the transitional period, although he knows nothing about Rhodesia.
14th November 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain
Lord Carrington is happy that Bishop Muzorewa has agreed to step down as Prime Minister of Rhodesia. He reflects on the fact that in 1974, Ian Smith released Mugabe and his comrades from prison, only because the South African government asked him to. But then these former prisoners started getting killed. It looks like they were only released so that Ian Smith could take them out.
18th November 1974, Cambazumo/a Service Station, Salisbury, Rhodesia
Edgar Tekere picks up Mugabe in a car, Bob Marley music is playing on the radio. They are heading for the mountains at the border with Mozambique where they will walk to safety. They are fleeing assassination attempts by Ian Smith’s mercenaries. They have learned that Ian Smith’s mercenaries have sneaked into Patriotic Front camps and slaughtered men, women and children.
6th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain
President Kaunda is meeting with Mugabe. He assures him that the Patriotic Front should not fear attacks by Ian Smith’s mercenaries as there will be a Commonwealth Monitoring Group stationed in Zimbabwe to ensure that the cease-fire is maintained.
14th December 1979, Press Conference , Hotel in Central London, Britain
Mugabe holds a Press Conference criticizing the negotiations and demanding that the international community become involved in order to protect the Zimbabwean people from the Rhodesian Security Forces.
14th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain
Lord Carrington is angry about Mugabe’s Press Conference. Mugabe demands that Patriotic Front (ZAPU and ZANU) militias be permitted to have a central assembly point in Rhodesia so they are not vulnerable to attack at the country’s borders. He will only sign the Lancaster Agreement if his is allowed.
21st December 1979, Lancaster House, Britain
Members of the Patriotic Front delegation, the Zimbabwe Rhodesia delegation and the British delegation sign the Lancaster House agreement. Despite this, Mugabe expresses that he feels wronged and cheated.
20th February 1980, Election Rally, Harare, Zimbabwe
Mugabe and Tekere return to Zimbabwe after five years in exile. Lord Soames has been threatening to kick them out of the elections but if that happens, they have declared that they will consider the forces of the Patriotic Front absolved from maintaining the Lancaster Agreement, particularly the ceasefire.
4th March 1980, Harare, Zimbabwe
Nkomo’s Part, ZAPU has won 20 seats. Bishop Muzorewa’s party has won only 3 seats. Mugabe’s ZANU has won 57 seats. Although he has won, Mugabe says that the fight has only just begun.
18th April 1980, Zimbabwe House, Harare, Zimbabwe
Bob Marley has been invited to perform for Zimbabwe’s first Independence Day. Mugabe is so excited to meet him. He explains that Patriotic Front soldiers sung Marley’s songs while they fought the resistance struggle. Marley will be performing the song he wrote in support of Zimbabwe’s freedom struggle, Zimbabwe.
Bob Marley expresses concern with what he sees going on in Harare. He says that he doesn’t just want to perform for “Uptown people” and doesn’t want to see ordinary people being beaten by police just because they want to come and see him perform but were not invited. Mugabe agrees to organize a free concert for the masses on the next day.
Bob Marley quotes from the song Zimbabwe “Soon we will see who is the real revolutionary”.
Carrington, Renwick asks if they got the right man, relates that there have been reports of atrocities in the north, Carrington says that it’s Africa so a strong leader is needed, not sure
I’m not sure if you can consider this play “entertaining” in the traditional sense; however, for those of us who are interested in how politics actually works, it is a great play and incredibly informative. Dramatically speaking, there are many interesting moments which could be considered even poignant if you are knowledgable about Zimbabwe’s post-independence history. For example, the fack that Edgar Tekere was so close to Mugabe, that he actually was the one to encourage Mugabe to become a leader in his party, is ironic given their current rivalry. Bob Marley quoting from his song Zimbabwe by saying “soon we will see who is the real revolutionary” is very striking, as it has become quite clear that, although a Black Nationalist, Mugabe has seemed particularly inconsiderate about the lives of poor Zimbabweans and the fact that he at first only organized Marley’s concert for the political elite and their guests foreshadows this. Rasta Ngwenya describes Bob Marley’s first concert in Harare as follows:
In fact, the first official words uttered in Zimbabwe, following the raising of the new flag, were: “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.”
Twenty minutes later, Bob and The Wailers started their set. As soon as the first notes rang out, pandemonium broke loose in the enormous crowd gathered by the entrance to the sports stadium: the gates shook and began to break apart as the crush increased, the citizens of Harare, both excited and angry at being excluded from seeing these inspirational musicians.
As clouds of teargas drifted almost immediately into the stadium itself, the audience on the pitch fell on their feet in an attempt to protect themselves. The group members tasted their first whiffs of the gas and left the stage. “All of a sudden,” said Judy Mowatt, “you smell this thing taking over your whole body, going in your throat until you want to choke, burning your eyes. I looked at Rita (Marley) and Marcia and they were feeling the same thing.”
“I feel my eyes and nose,” remembered Family Man, “and think, from when I was born, I have to come all the way to Africa to experience teargas.”
Bob, however seemed to have moved to a transcendent state. His eyes were shut, and for a while the gas didn’t seem to have an effect at all. Then he opened his eyes and left the stage.
Backstage, the group had taken refuge in a truck. Outside they could see small children fainting and women collapsing. It looked like death personified to Mowatt, who briefly wondered whether they had been brought to Zimbabwe to meet their ends.
She persuaded someone to drive her and the other I-Threes back to the hotel, only to discover on the television that the show had resumed. After about half an hour Bob and the Wailers had gone back on stage. They ended their set with Zimbabwe, a song Bob had worked on during his pilgrimage to Ethiopia late in 1978, and which became arguably his most important single composition.
Bob was just coming offstage as Mowatt and her fellow women singers returned to the stadium. “Hah,” he looked at them with a half-grin, “now I know who the real revolutionaries are.”
It was decided that the group would play another concert the following day, to give the ordinary people of Zimbabwe an opportunity to see Bob Marley.
Over 100 000 people-an audience that was almost entirely black- watched this show by Bob Marley and The Wailers. The group performed for an hour and a half, the musicians fired up to a point of ecstasy. But Bob, who uncharacteristically hadn’t bothered to turn up for the sound check, was strangely lacklustre in his performance; a mood of disillusionment had set in around him following the tear-gassing the previous day.
After the day’s performance, the Bob Marley team was invited to spend the evening at the home of Tekere. This was not the most relaxed of social occasions.
As the henchmen strutted around with their Kalashnikovs, Mills was informed by Tekere that he wanted Bob to stay in Zimbabwe and tour the country. “Bob told me to say he wasn’t going to, but the guy didn’t want to hear me.”
While Bob remained in the house, Rob Partridge and Phil Cooper sat out in the garden. “I could hear,” said Cooper, head of international affairs, “Tekere saying to Bob, ‘I want this man Cooper. He’s been going around putting your image everywhere. He’s trying to portray you as a bigger man than our President.’ I could hear all this.
“Then Bob came out and said to us, in hushed, perfect Queen’s English; ‘I think it’s a good idea for you to leave’.”
“Partridge and I went and packed, and took the first international flight out, which was to Nairobi. About five months later Tekere was arrested and put in jail; he had been involved in the murder of some white settler.
I was particularly fascinated to learn about the roles played by Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda and Indo-Guyanese politician and former Foreign Minister of Guyana, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who is played by the writer of the play Kwame Kwei-Armah.
About Kwame Kwei-Armah
Kwame Kwei-Armah is a British playwright, actor, and singer. He is the First Black Briton to have a play staged on London’s West End when his play Elmina’s Kitchen was staged in Garrick’s Theatre in 2005. He was born Ian Roberts in London. His parents are immigrants from Grenada. He changed his name to Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 20s after he traced his family’s roots to Ghana.
Zimbabwe’s History: Key Dates (BBC News article available online)
Zimbabwe at 30 Audio Slideshow (BBC News article available online)
Joshua Nkomo’s Obituary (BBC News article available online)
Viewpoint: Kaunda on Mugabe (BBC News article available online)
House of Stone at 30 by Farai Sevenzo (BBC News article available online)
Lucian Msamati Cut His Teeth Doing Political Theatre in Zimbabwe. Now He Has a Lead Role in Alexander McCall Smith’s Rose-Tinted Vision of Africa by Aida Edemariam (Guardian article available online)
Interview (1980) with Lord Carrington by Time Magazine (Time article available online)
Interview (2000) with Lord Carrington by David Frost (BBC News transcript available online)
When Bob Marley Caused a Riot in Africa by Rasta Ngwenya (article available online)
Video of Bob Marley performing Zimbabwe, with lyrics available
Profile of Kwame Kwei-Armah (article available online)
Interview (2008) with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online
Interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online
Film: The Harder They Come (1972)
Director: Perry Henzell
Starring: Jimmy Cliff
The Harder They Come, directed by White Jamaican Perry Henzell, is the first film made by Jamaicans for Jamaicans. Up until this film was made, Jamaica had been a popular film location because of its beautiful beaches and lush tropical forests, however, much like the country’s tourism industry, the films did not depict the harsh realities of Jamaican life. The Harder They Come is a grim portrait of a brazen criminal you just wants to be famous.
Ivanhoe Martin, played by Black Jamaican reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, arrives in Kingston from the countryside after his grandmother’s death. He has brought along several possessions, including a mango for his mother but all are stolen and he arrives at his mother’s shack with nothing but the little money remaining from the sale of his grandmother’s house. His mother, who is devastated by the news that her mother has died and she wasn’t able to attend the funeral, tells Ivan that he must return to the countryside because if he stays in the city he’ll just become a criminal. He also informs him that he can’t stay with her. He leaves her shack but as he is walking out the door she asks if he has brought a mango and he tells her that the mangos didn’t grow well in the countryside that season.
Ivan tries to find work but he has no skills and there is no shortage of labour in the city. But he persists. He gets work from “The Preacher”, who his mother has refered him to. He also develops an interest in Elsa, who he sees singing in the church choir. She is the ward of the Preacher. Ivan joins the choir just to get close to Elsa. At one point in the film, we see images of choir-singing at a revival juxtaposed to images of Elsa and Ivan naked on the beach. Elsa is seduced by Ivan and eventually leaves her home with the preacher to live with him. But she soon realizes that Ivan isn’t at all serious and seems to expect her to find work to support them while he goes and tries to become famous by making a record. Ivan pursues record producer Hilton, who agrees to record Ivan’s song “The Harder They Come”.
There is a Chinese Jamaican character in the film who works closely with Hilton producing records. This character reminded me that one of the leading record producers in Jamaica in the 1960s was Leslie Kong, who was the first Jamaican producer to get international hits. He started his career as a record producer after meeting Jimmy Cliff, who was singing a song outside of Kong’s family’s record shop/restaurant/ice cream parlour in the hopes that Kong would record him. This inspired Kong to launch his own record label, Beverly’s. He recorded Cliff’s song “Dearest Beverly”, thus also launching Cliff’s musical career. Kong recorded with the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Desmond Dekker. He died young of a heart attack in 1971, allegedly due to a “curse” cast on him by Bunny Livingston of The Wailers because of a dispute over the release of the album, The Best of the Wailers. Kong died about a week after the album was released.
Hilton tells Ivan that he will distribute the recording and get it played by DJs but Ivan must sign over his rights and he will only receive $20 for the recording. Ivan refuses as he believes that he deserves much more money. Ivan tries to get his song played by DJs at clubs and at the radio stations but all refuse as they have agreements with Hilton only to play recordings he gives them. Disheartened, Ivan agrees to sign away his rights and only receive $20 just so that he can get his record played but Hilton takes revenge but telling DJs not to play it too much because he thinks Ivan is a trouble maker.
Ivan gets into the ganga (marijuana) trade with the help of his friend Pedro as there isn’t other work for him to do. But Ivan soon realizes that people like him and Pedro are just low-level dealers and are not making the real money. But at one point, to avoid getting caught by the police, Ivan kills a police officer. During this scene, we see a flashback to an earlier scene in the film when Ivan gets whipped for having slashed the face of a man who stole his bike. We realize that Ivan is afraid of receiving more corporal punishment so he kills the police officer. Ivan goes into hiding but he is ratted on by his friend Jose Smith. Ivan is able to escape from the police who are after him, killing most of them. Ivan then goes on a spree through the city, robbing people, stealing cars, and at one point demanding that a photographer take pictures of him at gun point. He wants to send one of the pictures to the local newspaper to be published. He seems proud that he has achieved fame because of his ability to avoid getting caught by the police. Hilton starts getting Ivan’s record played now that he’s a famous criminal and it becomes a hit.
The police decide to force the local people living in the slum who are surviving off the ganga trade to give Ivan up. They stop the ganga trade so no one is able to make any money. People in the slum begin to suffer, including Pedro’s son, Rupert, who Elsa has grown close to. Elsa decides to turn Ivan in so that the trade can start-up again.
Ivan is supposed to escape to Cuba by boat but he is unable to swim out to the boat in time and is left on the beach. He decides to go down in a blaze of glory in a shoot-out with the police.
The Impact of The Harder They Come
The Harder They Come inspired a novel of the same name by Michael Thelwell. The novel follows Ivan but develops the plot further; including giving the reader a portrait of what Ivan’s life was like back in the countryside before he came to the city.
The film brought reggae music to an international audience and although the film was not well-distributed, its soundtrack was, paving the way for the success of Jamaican musicians like Bob Marley. The film is referenced in the legendary British Punk band The Clash’s song The Guns of Brixton, a song with has obvious reggae influences. From the song:
You see, he feels like Ivan
Born under the Brixton sun
His game is called survivin’
At the end of the harder they come
I didn’t really like the character of Ivan at all. He frankly has no admirable qualities, other than blind determination. But this didn’t stop me from enjoying the film. The “realness” of the film is what captured my attention, as well as all the small moments that make up a portrait of slum life in Jamaica. From Ivan’s mother asking, so sadly, if he brought a mango for her from the countryside, to an elderly drunk laughing at Ivan when he sees him running the streets with a gun and only his underwear on, you can tell that this is a film meant to resonate with people in Jamaica. Its gaze isn’t from outsiders looking in but for insiders finally having a chance to see themselves on-screen. One of the most brilliant moments of the film is at the end, during Ivan’s final shoot-out with the police on the beach, we shift from seeing the shoot-out to seeing an audience of Jamaican movie-watchers laughing with excitement at the image of Ivan on-screen confronting the police. We had seen a similar audience, equally as excited, watching a shoot-out in a spagetti(Italian-made films copying the style of American Westerns) starring Franco Nero earlier in the film. It is as if Henzell is trying to say “We have our one anti-heroes, our own outlaws to watch, admire, and be entertained by. We don’t need to consume the stories of others. We have our own stories.” That said, is this really an image these people should be looking up to? As Julianne Burton observes:
The action of the final scene reverts to the massacred sob and the cheering crowds at the Rialto. Jose’s contemptuous dictum that the hero can’t die until the last reel rings in Ivan’s ears an he faces his own posse. Amidst the indistinguishable shouts of the audience, one cry—“Ivan”—stands out because it was absent from the original scene. Whether it is an indication of Ivan’s mythification of his own death in order to face it, or a cry from the masses of his downtrodden countrymen/women who (either, at that moment or long after his death) hail him an a hero, is not a crucial distinction. In both cases his is revealed to be a hollow heroism.
The Harder They Come by Michael Dare (article available online)
The Harder They Come: Cultural colonialism and the American dream by Julianne Burton (essay available online)
Interview (2001) with Peter Henzell available online
The Harder They Come Musical Website
Last week, I had the chance to listen to Don Letts’ BBC Radio 4’s Documentary about the life and work of Peter Tosh.
Here’s the description:
Peter Tosh found international fame alongside Bob Marley as a member of The Wailers. As a solo artist he released several landmark reggae albums and even recorded with the Rolling Stones. But he was more than just a successful pop star: he was a revolutionary and a hero to many of Jamaica’s poor. He spent his life as a strident campaigner for civil rights and for the legalisation of marijuana. He was more militant and political than his former band mate and his uncompromising arrogance often landed him in serious trouble. For that reason, as this documentary reveals, his life could be as brutal as the way it ended. Grammy award winning film-maker Don Letts explores his career.
The documentary opens with excerpts from interviews with people who knew Peter Tosh:
Peter Tosh was the Malcolm X to Bob Marley’s Martin Luther King. One was the arouser and one was the healer. But Peter was much more on the side of militancy. (Roger Steffens, Reggae Historian)
His songs have been recorded by Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Brown, Ben Harper, Chrissie Hynes from the Pretenders, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Sinnead O’Connor. (Wayne Jobson, DJ and producer)
Peter was adored as a revolutionary in Jamaica. He was so charismatic and he was saying very much what the people thought. (Vivien Goldman, Journalist)
Don Letts’ opens the documentary with the following statement:
Peter Tosh was not your average rockstar and as a person you probably won’t even like him. He could be arrogant, unpleasant and intimidating. But for me he was also a completely awe-inspiring performer, a revolutionary who stood up for the equal rights of the Jamaican poor and Black people all over the world. They always call Bob Marley the Reggae Rebel but Peter Tosh was far more militant and political than Bob ever was. His uncompromising attitude often caused controversy and landed him in serious trouble and as you will hear his life could sometimes be as brutal as the way it ended.
As Bob Marley archivist Roger Steffens states:
He made a guitar out of wire and a sardine can and taught himself to play by watching an older man who actually had a guitar.
According to Jamaican-American Wayne Johnson, producer of the documentary Red X, about Peter Tosh:
I think with him growing up in Jamaica during the colonial days in the 50s and so it was you know as Peter said you never saw a Black school teacher, or a Black preacher or a Black bank manager or anything like it was all English people who came down and took the big jobs and therefore you know eventually you would want to rebel against this especially with the church where he was forced to go to church two, three times a week and every day he was singing “O Lord wash me and I’ll be as white as snow.” You can’t oppress anybody worse than that you know and so Peter said it was almost like apartheid in those days.
In a 1983 BBC Interview, Peter Tosh explains:
I was the first one in the group who played music. I used to play my guitar. I used to play the keyboards. I taught Bob to play guitar and I taught Bunny to play guitar because it was a part of making your music perfect see. And in those times is like we had a good voice but we wasn’t creating music that music that much it was just singing people song and singing people son and the people been telling us that we sound good why don’t go to the studio so we got together once and we did some recording recorded the first one which was Simmer Down and the people loved it. It sold well.
As Vivien Goldman explains:
I don’t think I’ve ever had as many arguments with anybody in my life as I did with Peter Tosh.I remember once I was interviewing him, he was like “Women are inferior to men!” I was like “Why is that?” you know “Oh look at the docks , if you go down to the docks a woman can’t pick up a heavy bag and carry it the same way a man can.” And there was you know there was quite embedded in Rasta certain things for women their period was regarded to be unclean but he was really into it “Oh!!!!” you know “ Are you having your period? Should you be in the room with me know?” I was like excuse me, I’m here as a working professional matey.
The Guardian’s Review of Arise Black Man The Peter Tosh Story by Elisabeth Mahoney
Roger Steffens’ Reggae Archives Website
Vivien Goldman’s Blog
The many voices of Rastafarian women : sexual subordination in the midst of liberation by O. Lake (essay available online)
The first chapter of the book is entitled Cinnamon Hill, after the home Cash had in Jamaica. I didn’t know that Johnny Cash lived in Jamaica at any time in his life. In 1982, Cash and his family experienced a traumatic home invasion. Yet, Cash decided to keep his Jamaican home.
Johnny Cash bought the house from his friend, businessman John Rollins, in the mid-seventies. Cinnamon Hill was built in 1747. It was originally owned by the Barretts of Wimpole Street, the family of 19th Century poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The house had survived the 1831 slave revolt that had destroyed many of the other great houses on the island. This same slave revolt is credited with having brought to the attention of the British public the horrors of slavery, helping to lead to its abolition.
Cash writes about Cinnamon Hill:
The past is palpably present in and around Cinnamon Hill, the reminders of other times and other generations everywhere, some obvious, some not. For more than a century this was a sugar plantation worked by thousands of slaves who lived in clusters of shacks all over the property. All that remains of those people now, the metal hinges from their doors and nails from their walls, lies hidden in the undergrowth on the hillsides or in the soil just below the manicured sod of the golf course that loops around my house. I doubt that the vacationers playing those beautiful links have any idea, any concept, of the kind of life that once teemed where they walk—though perhaps some do, you never know. (page 34)
Johnny describes living with ghosts, who he and his family considered harmless. The family’s real experience of terror was when their home was invaded by three young men, who took 11 year old John Carter hostage, holding a gun to his head. Cash cooperated with the thieves who he realized were not cold-blooded killers but rather poor desperate addicts (Johnny could recognize this because of his own experiences with addiction). The thieves even early on got water for Cash’s cook who thought she was having a heart attack and after locking up Johnny’s family and guests in the cellar, the thieves gave them some of their turkey dinner because they did not want to completely ruin Christmas for them.
In the aftermath of the invasion, the Jamaican prime minister, Edward Seaga, got involved and had members of the Jamaican Defense Force dispatched to guard Johnny’s home. There was fear that if such a public figure decided to leave Jamaica because of its crime it might affect the entire tourist industry. The thieves were soon caught and all of them ended up dying while in custody. Johnny was troubled by these deaths. He writes:
How do I feel about it? What’s my emotional response to the fact (or at least the distinct possibility) that the desperate junkie boys who threatened and traumatized my family and might easily have killed us all (perhaps never intending any such thing) were executed for their act—or murdered, or shot down like dogs, have it how you will?
I’m out of answers. My only certainties are that I grieve for desperate young men and the societies that produce and suffer so many of them, and I felt that I knew those boys. We had a kinship, they and I: I knew how they thought, I knew how they needed. They were like me. (page 41)
This is the Johnny Cash who recorded an album at the notorious Folsom Prison. He could sympathize with criminals because of his own background of desperate poverty picking cotton in Arkansas and his battles with addiction. Johnny decided to stay in Jamaica; he just hired a private security firm to guard his house. In conclusion, he writes:
Today I can look back and see that some good came from it all. When I take my walks and golf-cart rides down to the sea, I’m often stopped by local people who greet me warmly—“Respects, Mr. Cash, respects”—and I can’t count how many times I’ve heard gratitude for my decision to stay in Jamaica. And since the robbery I’ve been more involved in Jamaican life in various ways that have been very good for me. Today I feel truly at home in this beautiful country, and I love and admire its proud and kindly people. (page 43)
The Jamaican Prime Minister at the time of Cash’s death, P. J. Patterson, sent a representative to Cash’s funeral.
d’bi young is a Jamaican Canadian poet, playwright, and actor. Raised in the working class district of Whitfield, Jamaica, she is the daughter of Jamaican dub poet Anita Stewart, who gave birth to d’bi young when she was only 15. In her teens, d’bi young studied at the Jamaica School of Drama. In 1993, she immigrated to Canada, studied at McGill University in Montreal, where she got involved in the local spoken word scene. She settled in Toronto, Ontario in 2001. d’bi young self identifies as queer and has had some of her plays presented at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which is dedicated to the promotion of queer artistic expression. Now in her early thirties and a mother of two, d’bi young is an internationally recognized performance artist. She defines herself first and foremost as a storyteller.
d’bi young, who was named Debbie Young at birth, doesn’t like to use capitals for her own name and the titles of her plays, citing the influence of fellow Jamaican Canadian poet and director ahdri zhina mandiela.
I’m working with 13 people whose ages range from 19 to 60 and basically I teach them how to write dub solo shows using these principles that I’m developing right now, and been developing for the last 3 years, called ORPLUSI princlpes of storytelling. Which are orality, rhythm, personal is political, political is personal, language, urgency, sacredness and integrity. [These are] guiding principles towards the creative process. That’s the most exciting thing for me because I’m at Guelph as well doing my Masters developing theory around oral storytelling and traditions that come out of the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora.
d’bi.young’s style of poetry is best described as dub poetry. Dup poetry developed out of the artistic renaissance in the Jamaica of the 1970s. The term was first used to describe Jamaican disc jockeys who would sing or spout their own lyrics over “the dub versions” -instrumental remixes on the B-Sides-of reggae records. It is deeply influenced by the intonations and speech patterns of Jamaican Creole (Patwa). The dub poetry movement in Jamaica is exemplified by the work of Jamaican dub poet Oku Onuora, born Orlando Wong. Dub poetry is essentially an oral form of performance, however, it became acceptable for it to be written as well. In 1974, Onuora, who was used to performing his poems in front of crowds as opposed to writing them down, was doing time in a Jamaican prison for armed robberies (crimes he said he committed in order to finance community projects for youth in Kingston’s ghettos). His poetry and plays began to be disseminated from prison in written form. In 1979, Onuora defined dub poetry as:…a poet that has a build-in reggae rhythm -hence when the poem is read with out an reggae rhythm (so to speak) backing […] one can distinctly hear the reggae rhythm coming out of the poem.” Emerging out of the context of Black activism and Jamaican independence, Dub poetry is also a form of poetry that is to be used a tool of political activism. Dub poetry spread throughout the Jamaican diaspora, to Britain, producing celebrated poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, and to Canada, most notably Toronto, producing such poets as Lillian Allen.
d’bi young’s work is suffused with her Jamaican heritage and African sensibility. Her performances are woman-centred and focus on the lives of Black women as they survive the traumas of magic, migration, sexual violence, childbirth, motherhood, death and rebirth. d’bi.young’s artistic influences included her mother, dub poet Anita Stewart aka Anilia Soyinka, who was a member of the pioneer dub poetry collective Poets in Unity and Mikey Smith, a famous Jamaican poet on whose life d’bi young has developed a play.
Her accomplishments as an actor:
At 13, d’bi.young was cast as Odale in a production of Kamau Braithwaite’s Odale’s Choice, an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone. In 2001, d’bi.young performed in South African playwright Zakes Mda’s play And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses. d’bi young performed in the 2005 production of Trey Anthony’s ‘Da Kink in My Hair, a play that follows the lives of the hairstylists and patrons of a Caribbean Hair Salon in downtown Toronto (The play has since been developed into a TV Series on Global, in which young appeared as a spoken word artist). In ‘Da Kink, young powerfully portrays a young incest survivor. young was nominated in 2003 for two Gemini Awards for Best Individual Performance in a Comedy Series and Viewers Choice Award for Favorite Comedian for her performance as the teenaged Crystal in Lord Have Mercy!, Canada’s first Caribbean-Canadian TV sitcom. young, who helped to develop Crystal’s character, described her as follows:
Crystal has hair under her arm-pits, none on her head. She wears gender neutral clothing, and she also wears tight-up, tight-up mini…whatever. She speaks English and Jamaica’s national language fluently. She goes in and out…she’s a dub-poet. She’s extremely intelligent, selfish, and self-absorbed. She thinks she knows everything and is searching desperately for her grandmother to love her. She’s searching for herself within in the context of the church. Her granny is old-school and she’s new school. They’re actually not very different. They’re both strong-headed women.
Her accomplishments as a playwright:
d’bi young, in collaboration with fellow Black Caribbean Canadian poet Naila Belvett, co-wrote and performed in Yagayah, a two-woman play following the childhood friendship of two Jamaican girls who are separated when one immigrates to Canada. This play was published in Djanet Sears’ Testifyin’: Contemporary African Canadian Drama II. d’bi young often writes plays for solo performances. She has developed what she calls “biomyth-monodrama”. According to d’bi young, bio-myth is “a form of creation where the artist uses biographical information as a starting point and then applies poetic license to broaden or deepen it.” ‘Monodrama’ combines d’bi young’s roots in dub poetry and theatre. d’bi young has written a one-woman play entitled blood.claat, the first in the Sankofa trilogy following three generations of Jamaican women. Dramaturged and Directed by Ethiopian Canadian Weyni Mengesha, d’bi.young’s long-time collaborator and friend, the play has been performed across Canada and internationally. In blood.claat, young performs over 8 different characters. blood.claat has been published by Playwrights’ Canada Press. In 2006, the play won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards. She was artist in residence at the Soulpepper Theatre Academy. young’s most recent work is a play called She, which explores a young woman’s obsession with a pop icon, and is inspired by young’s interest in Rihanna and how her life is portrayed in the media. young often holds talk-back sessions at the end of her performances. According to young:
I’ve learned that I can’t present controversial subject matter and expect my audience to go home and be okay. There has to be a process where we can dialogue about the work. A storyteller is there first and foremost for the transformation of the community, and they must be responsible to the people who will allow them to be on stage.
Her accomplishments as a poet:
In 2003, young was voted “Best dup poet and storytelling actor” by Toronto’s NOW Magazine. She won CBC’s Poetry Face-Off 2004 Poetry Slam competition for the City of Toronto. young has produced several CDs of dub poetry. Her debut, “When the Love is Not Enough”, came out in 2000. Her second album xperimentin dub was a live jam album made in collaboration with musicians Beau Dixon and Gregory Roy’s dub trinity. Her subsequent albums include xperimentin dub Havana cuba and dubbin.revolushun: blood demo. She has collaborated with Cuba’s Paso Firme reggae band, Cuban hip hop producer Pablo Herrera, and exiled African American activist Assata Shakur. She has also appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.
d’bi.young on storytelling:
I really do believe that we’re all storytellers. I mean not everybody could do it professionally but I think that we all have a responsibility to acknowledge that we’re storytelling in whatever it is that we choose to do. The minute we acknowledge that then we can make choices around how we actually communicate with people.
d’bi.young on dub poetry:
dub is rooted in oral storytelling tradishuns that enslaved afrikan peoples brought to the Americas. the main elements of dub are 1. language 2. political content (simply meaning ‘of the people’) 3. musicality 4. orality. when I write for theatre, these are the elements that make up my foundation, therefore my work is rooted in issues that concern the many communities that I belong to as a womban, as an afrikan, a mother, as an artist, as a queer-identified person, as a working person, an able-bodied person, etc. engaging the audience is essential in communicating the story with them so it permeates the head and eventually rests in the heart, music and rhythm and humour and honesty are good for that. the elements that I use to engage the audience as a dub poet are the same elements I use to engage the audience as a playwright.
d’bi.young on Da Kink in My Hair:
During ‘Da Kink, we were reminded by older women in the community that the wheel was not being re-invented …there was a herstory long pre-dating ‘Da Kink of black woman theatre. Because of the racism and because of the systemic discrimination and alienation in choosing what kind of herstory is preserved and presented, it seemed like we were re-inventing the wheel with ‘Da Kink. But in fact we were just building on a tradition that was already there.
d’bi.young on her play benu:
…benu is the second of a trilogy that began with blood.claat. It looks at the daughter born at the end of the show-she’s grown up, and it starts with her having a baby of her own. I’m trying to look at three generations of women because I’m obsessed with lineage and passing on the bloodline-and what happens with each generation. It’s about death and rebirth, physically and metaphorically. The benu is the predessor of the phoenix bird, its Egyptian ancestor.
d’bi.young on what Canadian Theatre can learn from Ghanaian artists:
one of the adinkra symbols from Ghana is called sankofa, which translates to ‘return and get it’ or ‘learn from the past’. for us as Canadian theatre makers, to move into the future we must learn from the past. there are some dialogues we need to have about canada’s past that we are unwilling to have. but if we don’t have them how can we hope to do different, do better for our children’s future and the seven generashuns to come?
I was lucky to be able to attend a performance of d’bi.young’s play blood.claat when it was staged at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in early 2010. (See The Woyingi Blogger’s Play Review of blood.claat) I attended the play with Somali-Canadian poet and playwright Habiba Ali. At the end of the performance, d’bi.young hosted a talk-back with the audience. d’bi.young’s vibrancy as well as her commitment to theatre as a form of personal exploration and healing, I found truly inspiring, and her influence has led to my own creative exploration of my identity as a Black Canadian of mixed heritage. d’bi.young’s work reminds me that our lives are stories which we are constantly telling to ourselves, our families, and our friends. d’bi.young’s work has helped me to better understand the complexities of the experiences of Jamaican Canadian women, who, as a driving force in the artistic, activist, and academic institutions of Black Canada, have played a pivotal role in the development of my identity as a Black Canadian woman.
d’bi young’s website
anitAFRIKA dub theatre’s website
Literature Alive Profile of d’bi young available online
blood.claat, a play by d’bi young available to order from Playwrights’ Canada Press
Interview (2010) with The Montreal Mirror available online
Interview (2010) with Capital Xtra available online
Interview (2009) with AfroToronto.com available online
Textualizing Dub Poetry: A Literature Review of Jamaican English from Jamaica to Toronto, an academic essay by Katherine McLeod available online
Yesterday, I went to see d’bi.young in blood claat: a one oomaan story at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. d’bi.young wrote and performs every role in the play, which is directed by Weyni Mengesha. The play follows 15 year old Mudgu Sankofa who lives in a poor neighbourhood in Kingston, Jamaica.
All the characters in the play are portrayed by d’bi.young herself. These characters range from the precocious Mudgu, her strict grandmother, her mother in Canada, her Rasta dope-dealing boyfriend Johnny, her Jesus-praising aunt, her sexually abusive uncle, a stammering bus conducter, and the legendary Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons! To say that d’bi.young is an amazing and brillant performer is an understatement.
The play opens with a barebreasted d’bi.young portraying Queen Nanny, the former Ashanti princess who was enslaved by the British and sent to Jamaica where she soon escaped her masters and became leader of the Windward Maroons of the Blue Mountains in the 1730s. Mudgu’s mother claims that her family is descended from Queen Nanny and therefore has a strong bloodline, strong enough to overcome any hardship.
Several images of blood interplay throughout the story, from Mudgu’s menstrual blood which stains her sheets as she sleeps, to the bloodshed resulting from gunshot wounds and machete attacks, to the blood connecting us to our ancestors, to the blood of Jesus Christ that was shed to cleanse Mankind of all sin.
I have grown up knowing that blood claat is a term of disrespect in Jamaican Patois but d’bi.young attempts to reclaim it in this piece. Mudgu’s mother explains that blood claat stands for blood cloth which is the cloth women use to absorb their menstural blood. She explains that women who practiced obeah, a Jamaican variation on the traditional religions of West Africans, would use their menstrual blood and their blood cloths in their magic in order to protect themselves or those they loved.
The play was written by d’ bi.young and is part of a planned trilogy that will follow Mudgu and her family to Canada and back to Jamaica over several decades. She writes:
blood claat is the first story in the sankofa trilogy which charts the journey of three generations of afrikan-jamaican-becoming-afrikan-canadian womben: mudgu sankofa, her daughter sekesu sankofa, and sekesu’s daughter oya sankofa. the second play benu is about a new mother’s journey through the fire of childbirth and mother-lessness. and the third word! sound! pawah! is about familial reconciliation, forgiveness, and a mythologized revolution of dubpoetry in jamaica.
It is clear that elements of the play are autobiographical. d’bi.young herself was born in Whitfield Town in Kingston, Jamaica, where the play is set. She writes:
i am a biomyth-monodramatist. biomyth-monodrama (as i pratice it) is theatrical solo-performance work, written and acted by the same person, inspired by parts of the creator’s biographical experience using poetry, music, myth, magic, monologue and dialogue (primarily with the audience) to weave the story together.
It is clear that interaction with her audience is important. During the play, characters interact with the audience, most notably when Mudgu gets on her bus at which point d’bi.young walks through the rows of seated audience members, speaking to them as if they were passengers on the bus.
d’bi.young held a ‘talk back’ session after the play which gave the audience a chance to discuss the play with her. During this discussion, d’bi.young said that she did not think about how others would receive her work while writing it. This is apparent in her incorporation of Jamaican history and culture into her play. As many non-Jamaicans are not familiar with Jamaican history, languages, and culture, there is a lot that could be lost on them. d’bi.young is right to not let this stop her exploring what she wants to explore. Although she does explain who Queen Nanny is and what the meaning of blood claat is, there are many cultural references that are not explained for the audience but those who are familiar with Jamaican history and Afrocentric motifs will immediately recognize them.
For example, Mudgu’s last name is Sankofa. Sankofa is an word of Akan origin (an ethnic group from present day Ghana). The word Sankofa relates to the concept of taking what is good from the past and using it in the present. In Afrocentric circles, this relates to the need for peoples of African descent to learn the history, cultures, and spiritual traditions of our ancestors in order to enrich our lives in the present. Also in the play, Queen Nanny often uses the word Kromanti. Kromanti is a ritual language derived from Twi (a language spoken in present day Ghana) that was used by the Maroons of the Blue Mountains and their descendants, particularly in Moore Town, during ceremonies in order to communicate with ancestors. It is still spoken by some elderly Jamaicans today.
d’bi.young is currently on a world tour with blood claat. I encourage you to see the play if it comes to a theatre near you. You can see her tour dates on her website.
Review of the play in the Ottawa XPress (2009)
Review of the play in The Financial Post (2006)