Bullying in the adolescent and pre-pubescent years is not solely an American phenomenon. In fact, in 2012 Jamaica saw a rash of childhood suicides that were purportedly the result of bullying. Sadly, there was a time in my life when I was a part of the problem.
The year is 2013; Krystal is currently an intelligent, socially active, and very accomplished recently minted graduate from the University of the West Indies with a BSc in International Relations and currently pursuing a Masters in Natural Resource Management. Moreover, she is a beautiful woman who has been featured in promotional material for some of Jamaica’s leading companies including a few billboards, has been in a reggae music video aired on MTV U, and has won the prestigious Public Speaking Championship at the 2011 World Universities Debating Championships. She is also a bit of a world traveller having been to the Phillipines, South Africa, Botswana to name a few and is now a host of her own radio show on Jamaica’s premier radio station and the host of her own tv show called “Nyammings” (basically a Jamaican version of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations). In short Krystal is a mover and shaker and undoubtedly an emerging leader on the Jamaican cultural and political landscapes.
1998, Krystal and I are both 4th graders at Ascot Primary School in Portmore, Jamaica. She is a shy, brilliant and precocious girl. I am bold and similarly precocious, this precociousness paired with what looking back was a high level of social intelligence unfortunately made me into a 9-year-old prick that had way too much social influence. At the time my generation is probably the first set of school-aged kids to start using the Internet regularly (well the ones who were able to afford such amenities at home). As a result we were exposed to many things that our young minds were not ready for. Pair this with the ubiquity of cable in Jamaica’s urban areas, the pervasive hyper-sexualized dancehall culture and curiosity, there was bound to be an intrusion of conversations of a sexual nature into our classroom. If I remember the story correctly, Krystal and I had a mutual attraction (maybe fondness is a more appropriate word for 9 year olds) for each other, she wrote me a “love letter” as we pre FB/twitter teenyboppers did at the time, and it contained some rather “prurient” suggestions. Somehow it got infiltrated by our teacher who reprimanded her an even called a parents’ meeting. This changed everything between us.
At the time, I was “popular” (whatever that means), I was the school’s spelling bee champion, president of the nascent Builders club (offshoot of Kiwanis), played sports etc, and was pretty fortunate from a socioeconomic standpoint. In addition I guess I could also be described as a teacher’s pet. Looking back I think I was well liked by both teachers and my peers. Sadly, I guess this made me arrogant and pre-occupied with status and image. I perceived this “scandal” as a threat to my image and status. I responded by deciding to make Krystal into a social pariah, I teased her, framed her as a “skettel” (a Jamaican colloquial term analogous to slut), and worse, I got many of our peers to follow suit. I carried this on relentlessly for the rest of the school year and into the next one. I can only imagine what a harrowing experience this was for her (I’m just glad social media was not around at that time). Ultimately she transferred schools.
I do think our teacher could have handled the situation better, the response in hindsight was an overreaction, a talk with the students involved could have the intended effects of showing us that such conversations were “big people argument” (convos 9 year olds shouldn’t be having) without involving parents and advocating a punitive approach; maybe teacher sensitization en masse is a starting point. This doesn’t absolve me of my blame, I WAS WRONG for bullying Krystal. I’m glad Krystal didn’t become one of the unfortunate cases where bullying negatively impacts a person’s life.
About a year and a half later we ran into each other when we were eleven and I had changed then thanks to the efforts of my mother who realized that I had transmogrified into a selfish and self-centered little troll in my time away from home, I guess my two infant brothers played a role in softening me up as well. We struck up a brief friendship, but I think she moved to another part of the island and I immigrated to Florida and we lost each other’s numbers before I could get the chance to apologize. This bothered me for years-I guess Malcolm X’s remorse of negatively impacting Laura’s life weighed on me - The autobiography of Malcolm X was my favorite book at the time. I always thought back to how I made another human being’s life a living hell. In the years after I’ve made it my duty to befriend people who were a bit ostracized in both my school and professional settings.
With the advent of Myspace, I got that chance to apologize. During my last year of high school in 2006-2007, my mind ran on her and I searched for her on Myspace and found a girl who looked like what I thought Krystal would look like and I crafted what must have been a solid essay filled with apologies for the way I treated her. I didn’t expect a response. But she did, and thankfully she was very forgiving and gracious. Since then we’ve been friends (before her superstar days), we talk pretty frequently and keep abreast of each other’s achievements. In fact she just started a blog, which I’m sure will be an award winner at the next Jamaican Blog Awards (the first post was a well written, witty and insightful post on female sexuality and healthy sexual relationships, obviously that “love letter” was just a foreshadowing of things to come, did I say precocious?). One of her more recent “Head on” radio show segments which airs on Mondays at 8:00pm tackled the notion of the Jamaican parliament reserving spots for women as a way of increasing female representation in government and policy and decision making. She is quite the feminist and women’s rights activist!
My behavior could also have very well been the result of how I was socialized. In the Caribbean and Jamaica especially, there is a high premium on machismo. From a young age we are taught “boys don’t cry” and “man a man”. When it comes on to infidelity and promiscuity there is a double standard that is a mainstay of Jamaican culture. I must confess that as enlightened and progressive as I may think I am, I am guilty of perpetuating this double standard. If I were in a relationship and engaged in infidelity; would I want to be –maybe even expected to be-- forgiven? Yes. If the situation was flipped, I honestly at this moment in time don’t know how I’d deal with being cheated on. If I’m being honest I couldn’t deal with it, so I’d think it would be best for me and the philandering significant other to part ways. Such a mentality is a direct consequence of the integral role that patriarchy, and centrality of the ideals of male virility and female chastity that dictate Jamaican social behavior among the sexes. My behavior as a child was an immature reflection of this.
As a Jamaican man I was basically socialized and taught to look down on anything that isn’t “manly” and to almost over-assert my masculinity. For evidence of this this look no further than one of our beloved cultural treasures, dancehall music. If you look at dancehall lyrics for much of its history, male dominance inside and outside of the bedroom is glorified; much of the lyrics can be described as misogynistic even or sexually exploitative at best. Male virility and promiscuity is celebrated: “man fi have nuff gyal in a bungle”. As I came of age, the most popular deejay of this brand of dancehall was none other than Adidjah Palmer more commonly known as Vybz Kartel. All one has to do is take a cursory listen of his discography and this is readily evident. Kartel as he is affectionately called is a living, breathing (and incarcerated) paradox. He is a symbol of Jamaica’s moral decay, but love him or hate him, the man is also a feminist icon and activist. Kartel has been an integral part of the sexual liberalization and empowerment of women that has gathered significant momentum in the 2000’s. I can say with certainty that women are also giving bun (cheating) rampantly and embracing themselves as sexual beings as much as Jamaican males. The 1990’s dancehall culture was one that glorified homophobia and gave voice to the plight of those in the garrison and offered social commentary on Jamaica’s myriad of social problems including crime and poverty. The 2000’s was a period centered around material excess (flossing) and sexual liberalization and empowerment of women; maybe this decade will be about tolerance and equality of the sexes.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by quite a few women that “you are the typical Jamaican man”, and it is always delivered with a hint of amazement as I’ve lived outside of Jamaica for almost half my life. Some things are just inveterate habits. As I’m writing this post I’ll be going to see Chronixx (the rising Jamaican reggae superstar) in concert here in Copenhagen 24 hours from now. One song I’m not looking forward to him performing is “Access Granted” which I consider a “gyal clown classic” and needless to say dislike it for its premise that love and dedication is tantamount to submission. A gyal clown in Jamaican vernacular is a more colorful way of classifying a man who is a uxorious fool bound to be cuckolded. Healthy relationships are rooted in dedication and effort on the part of both individuals, sharing of relationship burdens and mutualism.
I'll be 24 in three months and I'm still evolving as a man and maturing politically, philosophically and morally and consider myself a progressive person who wholeheartedly believes in the equality of the sexes; but you’ll still find me at a party in Kingston jamming to the latest dancehall “gyal tune”. I just hope that I’ll impart a balanced attitude to my son that makes sure he is a man’s man but able to empathize with and care for his peers and not repeat my actions.