Louis, me and that Yambelt Discussion

For the last couple days my memories of Louis Lindsay have taken over my head.   I have been unable to forget our conversations and some of them refuse to give me space so much so that I have no choice but to write this.  Thursday was Louis’ funeral, I cried some and laughed some and thought a lot about who I was when I was his student.  I really liked myself then, I wasn’t particularly young at the time, I think I was at the right age to appreciate the conversations.  I think I was also searching for a lesson perhaps a teacher, perhaps the teacher did appear but I was not altogether ready.  One thing I know though, Louis’ brilliance was not lost on me, I knew who he was and I knew  that for him teaching was a mission.

One day I was walking from the library to the Department of Government.  I was on the walkway when I saw Louis, it was one of those rare occasions when you got to meet him outside of his office.  I think it was about the time when UWI Mona was celebrating  Founders Day.  I think Edward Baugh was being honoured and  the late Prof. Barry Chevannes had read a tribute to Baugh, paying tribute to his legacy and the UWI Mona which gave birth to a student like Baugh.  So I had visions of the Mona moon and poui trees in my head as I walked across the campus and most have been quite inspired when I met Louis.  He asked me how I was and I said in my usual fashion ‘not too bad’, he stopped and asked my what happen to me and I said nothing, I am good.  So he said “so why when a asked you, how yuh do yuh say not too bad.”  I was somewhat taken aback by the follow up question and where the argument was going.   That day Louis was at his best and there followed a detailed treatise,  a ‘taking a part’  of my answer, an ontological analysis of ‘me not too bad’.  What he described as ‘a typical working class response.’   he expounded on the philosophical peculiarities of the  Jamaican working class, their beliefs and practices, for example he observed that they never tell you they are good, because to say you are good has so much implications.  He spoke about their fear of being disappointed and their unwillingness   to appear boastful and perhaps also he said it came from being on plantations where your every emotion and mood were so heavily  policed that you had to hide the truth of your  feelings.

In one of our classes Louis had described us as the intellectual elite.  I remember my flat refusal of the new class status or description.  I told him then that it was not okay to me that my mother and father and myself were not in the same social class.  Louis’s politics was one of identity and location and so we were always being challenged about our class assumptions, our political socialization and our personal identities.  I remember my statement was something like “Maas Rupie, Miss U and myself are from the same class, the people who farmed  and sold yam and potato to send me to school  must benefit from any upward social mobility that I experience as a result of the status I hold, if not I refuse to describe myself as anything else than a child of the working class”.  My heart boiled at the notion that any class identity would separate me from my parents.  I was deeply affected by that idea, somehow I felt sad and dejected at the thought that my education was somehow removing me from the truth of my upbringing.  I decided then and there that I would resist any attempt to reassign my class identity.   But Louis’ thesis was deliberate, he knew that like so many others, I might be tempted to stray from my roots and betray the working class people who sacrificed to send me to school.

When we met that day on the walkway between the Library and the Department of Government, Louis was remembering my commitment to stay true to my working class roots.  But I have no doubt that he was thinking that he needed to help me to think through both the  good  and the bad  of claiming working class status.   That in my commitment to stay  true to my origins I needed to understand somewhat more critically the situation of the working class and in particular the rural poor.  I remember his introduction of the concept ‘learned helplessness’ and our discussion then turned to how the intellectual elite by way of the political class, have undermined and continue to undermine the liberation project.  What I remember most strikingly was how he remembered my parents name and how he remembered to include my brothers who were farm workers in New York and Florida in the analysis.   So when he spoke about ‘Maas Rupie and Miss U’ I knew then that he had spent time processing how he would engage me  and that this conversation was not a chance one, the encounter might be a good ‘buck up’ as he eventually said, but the conversation was a carefully engineered one.   The lesson for me that day, was that perhaps the working class made themselves too vulnerable, through religion, through too much trust in the value of an English education, too willing to accept the community boy or girl who went off to university, but in fact had been transformed into the good ‘Afro Saxon.’

Louis had already welcomed me to that community of ‘yam belt’ people, our other connection being that we were both from ‘Moravian free villages’, him Bohemia, myself Kilmarnock.  Born to families tied to the land, a commitment to hard work and the saving grace of God.  As I reflect on this lesson, I cannot help but marvel at the ways I learnt as a student of Louis Lindsay, just how profound the lessons were, but that he knew how to engage in transformative conversations, I think despite his cynicism about the institutional arrangements we were trying to beat into some sort of recognizable order, he believed that if we could just figure it out, if we just refused to be blinded by the fear that we were not good enough, that we did not have our own answers we would succeed.

So Louis how am I?  I am good and I am getting better.  I am owning the legacy, I understand its shortcomings and I also know that I must challenge parts of the identity us working class people have taken on to ourselves.  I am trying hard not be a ‘good Afro Saxon’ because, Louis I am a girl from Kilmarnock, the yam belt, Moravian Free Village, Miss U and Mass Rupie second to last pickney.

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