In 2018, Sherine Virgo enrolled her daughter at the Kensington Primary School located in Greater Portmore, St. Catherine. By now, you have already heard and/or read about this case, so I won’t delve too much into the details. But for those who do not know, Mrs. Virgo was given an ultimatum in 2018 to either cut her daughter’s dreadlocks, or to enroll her elsewhere. The Virgo Family then ensued a legal battle, in which the case was settled on July 31st.
Jamaica’s Supreme Court ruled in the favor of the primary school in mention, on their dejection of the dreadlocks hairstyle. According to the ruling, the Virgo Family argued that their constitutional rights of self expression and religion were infringed upon. The Court ruled that this was not the case as they were not Rastafarians, but ‘Dreads’ as Jamaicans call it. To explain the differentiation, Rastas are the followers of the religion Rastafarianism (of which my name originates from 😉). Whereas Dreads, are the non-followers, who simply enjoy the Rasta’s hairstyle known as dreadlocks or “locs.”
Like a bad joke at a funeral, this ruling’s timing could not have been worse, but in 2020, it fit nicely betwixt Covid/BLM and the general unease of the populace. The ruling resulted a massive cry of outrage both on social media and in person — as seen with the protests at the Ministry of Education, Youth & Culture (MOEYI). Our current Prime Minister, the Most Hon. Andrew Holness, has stated that he will be reviewing and amending the Education Act to “reflect a modern and culturally inclusive position that protects our children from being barred from any educational institution on the basis of wearing locs as an ordinary hairstyle irrespective of religious reasons.” Hopefully, this can go further and attack the overarching issue that schools have regarding the self-expression of their students.
As usual, it takes events like these to get the wheel of change turning. Change, that for decades, many have been beckoning for. Chienj weh shuda cum fram Jesus de pon di kraas!🤦♂️ The rules stipulated by schools in Jamaica, are often entrenched in traditionalism, as stated by many Principals, (Senior) Teachers and Deans. Therefore, it makes me wonder just what is this ‘traditionalism’? 🤔 Where does it come from? 🤷♂️How does it affect us? 🤔and How do we move forward? 🤷♂️
What is Traditionalism in Jamaica?
Two weeks ago, I threw a question out to my followers on Twitter:
A few of the persons who interacted with the tweet outside of replying, noted that they didn’t have answers…. Perhaps the question was too difficult due to it’s bad phrasing or maybe they had never been taught to question what is the norm? I think I should have asked for examples of the concepts instead — with how our brains work, we generally understand how to categorize a concept we know, but not necessarily understand. Anyways, as they say, silence is deafening. A dual explanation was asked for because our standards of professionalism are tied to our cultural teachings of traditionalism. Which leads me to my next point…
Where does it come from?
Jamaica, a Caribbean nation, underwent slavery like the Americas and the Caribbean. As such, many of the laws and beliefs we have today, stem from this history. Schools such as Wolmer’s High and Manning’s High, that are from pre-emancipation, and schools such as St. George’s College and St. Hugh’s High, that are from post-emancipation but pre-independence, are labelled Traditional High Schools.
For those who have attended these traditional schools, please to share your comments and experiences on the rigidity of the rules enforced upon you. Rules that, no doubt, have not changed much since inception…rules such as Black boys maintaining low-cut hairstyles (and God forbid they get a fade), and rules such as Black girls not being able to freely wear afro hairstyles in classes or on the compound.
I attended Bridgeport High School, which is also located in Portmore, St. Catherine. You see, schools like mine, which are not considered traditional high schools, emulate the traditional ones. I mean, it makes sense, right? Schools like Immaculate and Munro are renowned schools and as such, can be seen as the blueprints for success. Therefore, if I want to start a secondary school, I would try to emulate them to attain their standards. Simple mimicry; basic human behaviour. Therefore these schools perpetuate whatever ridiculous and prejudiced rule they want, because it is ‘tradition.’ 🤪
So, with some of these rules stemming from a colonial period of racism and prejudice…is it safe to say that we are still using Massa’s whip on ourselves? I’m asking for a friend.
How does it affect us?
I don’t know about you, but I’d like to know how does a fade, or having my hair more than an inch high, impair my learning. For any mature educators reading this, please to inform me in the comments below.
What I do know, is that these pillows of archaic rules have been resting over many youth’s self-expression and self-esteem, ultimately suffocating them. Thus leading to so much adolescent rebellion and lifelong issues with systems that lack transparency. How do you expect youths to grow to appreciate and understand why you are disciplining them, if they do not understand. They are not dolls to dress up and attire as you please, because your whims and rules dictate it so. They are autonomous beings going through process of individualization, socialization and puberty. They need guidance, communication and patience.
When someone who looks like you in skin complexion and other physical features, forces you to cut your hair, yet allows someone of a lighter complexion with loosely-curled hair and other Eurocentric features, to grow their hair, 😂😂. Imagine how that made myself and the other boys feel? Whew, the self-deprecation and loathing that was passed down to us by the older generation continues to jump out like young grasshoppers among blades of grass!
How do we move forward?
The current prime minister, The Hon. Andrew Holness’ statement is but the first step. We need more action. Since Jamaica’s independence, the successive administrations have struggled with the idea of a Jamaican identity. We have for (arguably) the most part, successfully found it in the arts, particularly in music. However, the arts in Jamaica are for those who can sing, dance and draw. What about those who express themselves in fashion? What about the way we dress and style our hair? The space around the head is crucial to our identity. There is a lot of unpacking, unlearning and re-learning that needs to take place in Jamaica. Bob Marley’s seed “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” has yet to fully take root in the psychological gardens of the Black Caribbean national.
Maybe it is time to question what traditionalism is. Maybe it is time we teach that, instead of perpetuating the harmful notions that Black hairstyles are unkempt and unfit for the professional space. Deep, negro, spiritual sigh. Think about what I said before…imagine the face of every Black child, contorted in frustration, as they watch their lighter skinned, mixed, White, Asian or Indian friends get passed over because their features are acceptable. Straight hair, loosely curled and obedient — that is what the system wants and that is not who children are. The majority, about 76.3% of Jamaicans are of African descent, so we have primarily kinky-coily-curly hair.
I don’t know how much an inch of a Black boys hair is worth, but it must be a lot if we’re so quick to rob him of it. I believe, in the year of our Lord, 2020 AD, that our colonialism inspired traditionalism should be put to rest, so that progressive thinking around how we identify as Jamaican, can take precedence. Our natural appearance needs appreciation, after which we’ll find confidence being who we are as a people. School rules shouldn’t flaunted but they need to reflect the populace with fair and balance ideologies. No one race or social class group should be given preference over the another because of how they desire to identify through their hair and any other physical attributes. Leadership is needed to advance the cause; by my penning this article, I am adding my voice to the cause of an oppressed society. I want us all to be part of appreciating our Black selves, in every aspect.
To those who are plagued with self-deprecation and hatred, here is my vote of confidence to you:
Our kinky-coily-curly hair is beautiful. The next time you think of butchering or chemically modifying it because of what a cruel and anti-black way of life dictates, please to rethink. Our skins are elaborately and intricately colourful and our hair can be styled however we feel. We are Black and Jamaican. We are trendsetters. It is embedded in our culture and the very social fabric of this nation. It is something that makes us distinct and that forms part of the Jamaican identity; an identity our kinky-coily-curly hair is a part of.
How do you feel about these old and oppressive school rules? Do you have an experience you would like to share? Let me know in the comments below!