Kei Miller | Duppy box and obeah
On May 28, 2019, two great Jamaican men shifted off their mortal coils and went off to meet their Maker. I cannot be the only Jamaican to have thought, even if in secret, that their deaths seemed oddly – maybe even supernaturally – connected.
Edward Seaga died, as neat as death could be, on his birthday. Martin Henry, the political commentator, went into the TVJ studio soon after and spoke about the former prime minister. Upon leaving the studio – braps – Martin Henry collapsed and died.
Now if that don’t sound like duppy box to you, I don’t know what does. And if it really is a case of ‘duppy box’, then it might be a most unfortunate case of mistaken identity.
Martin Henry was his own man. That is certain. A distinguished educator and, by all accounts, an all-round good guy.
But who, in a temporary lapse of hearing, has not heard the name ‘Martin Henry’ and summoned instead in their mind the image of Mike Henry – current minister of government and former deputy leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), who, in 1999, many had expected to mount a credible leadership challenge to Seaga. After publicly criticising the One Don, Mike Henry had been stripped of his ‘deputy leader’ role and barred from holding public office in the party for a year.
When speculation mounted that Mike was about to challenge Seaga, miraculously the ban was lifted and all wounds suddenly healed.
Could Seaga have been wrong? Could he have mistakenly thought that it was his old rival, Mike, that was about to appear on TVJ and speak about his legacy? Could the duppy have flown clear from Miami straight to Jamaica, waited outside the TVJ studio, and ended up boxing the wrong M Henry? Who knows?
But all this talk about duppies and their penchants for delivering hot boxes seems to bring us close to the other discussion raging in Jamaica these days. Obeah. Much of my understanding of Jamaica’s folk culture and our African-derived spiritual practices comes from Seaga’s early and seminal work as an anthropologist. His work helps us to understand Revivalism, Kumina and even Obeah. Outside of his work as a politician, Seaga helped to legitimise a kind of spiritual expression in Jamaica that was often seen as crass, backward and even demonic.
Herro Blair has recently given a moving account of how Seaga helped to give a platform to many of the non-traditional churches in Jamaica. If we do not see this as connected to the Obeah Act, then it’s because we haven’t read the wording law.
Many people are now saying, rhetorically, that everybody knows what obeah is, but the law doesn’t seem to know. Its wording is so vague that what is potentially outlawed is not merely obeah but several expressions of black spirituality. Setting table, getting into spirit, prophesying, speaking in tongues – all of these are potentially illegal under the outdated, backward and racist Obeah Act.
The evangelical Christians who insist that the law should be kept seem not to understand that their own practices are similarly condemned under the statute.
TIME TO GROW UP
As Diana Paton helpfully points out in her column ‘The racist history of Jamaica’s Obeah Act’ in The Sunday Gleaner, June 16, 2019, it was not only obeah practitioners who were arrested and convicted under the law when it was used, but also Rastas, Revivalists, and people who operated balm yards and offered bush baths or prescribed bush medicine for healing.
Similar laws passed in the late 19th and early 20th century were all concerned with how black people congregated, how they expressed their belief in ways that might threaten the establishment. This was true of the Shakerism Prohibition Ordinance in St Vincent, the Public Meetings Ordinance in Grenada, and the Shouter Baptist Ordinance in Trinidad.
In time, the Caribbean grew up. Or at least we grew something of a backbone. We understood that a white colonial’s idea of what was ‘evil’ and ‘undignified’ had everything to do with his own fears, his own lack of knowledge and his own insecurity and we shouldn’t buy into those ideas hook, line and sinker.
The laws were repealed. It is time for us, in Jamaica, to grow up as well. Repealing the Obeah Law has nothing to do with whether you believe in obeah or not, but everything to do with correcting the racism of our past.
And besides, I don’t want Seaga duppy to box me.