Leighton Jackson | The sexiness of dancehall - ‘This is a university where all ideas must contend’
The recent brouhaha surrounding the Faculty of Law at the Mona campus of The University of the West Indies (UWI) as it relates to the views and cultural expression of the students through their official organisation, the Mona Student Law Society, raises very profound issues and also very common reminders, not just for the Jamaican society and for the university, comprising its academic and administrative faculty and students, but the world at large.
It was the same week when the dean of Howard University Law School gave a public lecture in the faculty regarding implicit biases and the discrimination and disadvantages that African-American women face in the legal profession in the United States. Professor Sha-shana Critchton gave a lecture to students regarding integration of culture in our legal training. I have myself spent a lifetime interrogating the way in which the values of my people – and in fact, my doctoral thesis was devoted to exploring the manner in which Caribbean family forms, as an example of a cultural expression – can be acknowledged and incorporated into our day-to-day jurisprudence – ‘The challenge for validity and authenticity’ was part of the title.
My sabbatical research is actually being spent in New York doing a comparative analysis of the experience of African-Americans as a cultural minority in aspects of the justice system, in comparison to the experience of the underclass in Jamaica.
As the sitting dean of the faculty, and also because the issues raised are of dear concern to me, I feel compelled to comment publicly. Due to space limitations, there are only three points that I wish to make, although a thesis could be written on this subject.
On being made aware of the issue, I immediately contacted the Student Law Society to find out the details of the controversy. Having discovered what is at issue, I pledged full and complete support to the students. I also reached out to the vice-chancellor and other members of the university administration, as well as to the acting dean of the faculty, to indicate my views on the matter.
First, the legal framework. The students, as citizens of this country, have an absolute constitutional right to freedom of speech, opinion and views as long as it does not violate any national law or any written, duly promulgated rule of The UWI. I have not discerned anything in the students’ activities that can in any way be construed as violating either, even using the most vivid imagination. Indeed, any attempt to suppress their right to express their views on their own culture is an outrageous violation of the Charter of Rights. Moreover, as dean of a faculty of the university, I have absolutely no right to interfere in the affairs of a student organisation. Quite the contrary, it is my responsibility to the students to give them my full support in their endeavours and to offer my guidance to enable them to achieve the greatest success. That’s the leadership role of the dean.
Second, I applaud the students to have come up with this remarkable theme. It is not only very currently topical, given the many instances where leading exponent of the dancehall cultural expression have come into conflict with the legal system, a system that the students are studying. What makes it profound for me is the imaginative way in which my students have juxtaposed the dancehall culture with the legal profession and with the ordinary way of life. These are the three poses that were sought to be represented in the pageant and I am left speechless in the intellectual depth of their thinking, glowing examples of them thinking outside the box. This is precisely what a UNIVERSITY is all about. This is what EDUCATION is all about. That my students are able, through this enterprise and OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM, to internalise and articulate such profound weighty, intensely insightful, philosophical expressions gives me a tremendous sense of pride. This my 40th anniversary since I began teaching in the Faculty of Law at Cave Hill in Barbados, and this makes me feel my efforts are not wasted.
In this context, the images that featured the female students in a parody of the dancehall culture through scanty dress and sexy poses were awesome! That there are those who took it to mean that these intellectually gifted students normally or ever dress like this, speaks to their own cultural and sexual insecurity, which is threatened by the students’ self-confidence. This is the theme that Dean Holley-Walker spoke on, and the campaign to denigrate and shame the students is to be taken as achieving the objective of stimulating self-reflection, debate and discourse, which, after all, is what a university is about. Vice-Chancellor Professor Rex Nettleford had always reminded me when he was faced with criticisms for his views: “This is a university where all ideas must contend.”
Third, taking the cue from the students, I intend to enter into dialogue with them, and I will assist them to host a symposium at which these issues can be ventilated. This will be in possible association with our rich Departments of Cultural Studies, History and Sociology. In my view, a collaboration with Howard University Law School, whose dean’s visit serendipitously coincided with the timing of the controversy, would also be a good way in which a comparative analysis can be undertaken of our experience to the experience of our sisters and brothers in the United States.
I am in full support of my students, and I applaud them for letting us know that the affective disorder of our society, left over from its painful history, has not been resolved. The post-emancipation psychosis, as I have styled it, still affects our way of thinking and feeling which, to paraphrase our beloved former Vice-Chancellor Nettleford, the vaunt-like assent from slavery, colonialism, to independence has not been matched by cultural self-confidence.
Leighton M. Jackson, LLB, LLM, DJUR is dean of the Faculty of Law, University of the West Indies, Mona, and an attorney-at-law (Jamaica & New York). Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.