Me know no law, me know no sin: Thoughts on Caribbean Identity.

“Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin” is an eighteenth-century Jamaican popular song recorded in print by the bookkeeper, J.B. Moreton in his West India Customs and Manners.

I first encountered this song at a public forum at The Undercroft on the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies.

Dr Carolyn Cooper (Head of the Department of Literatures in English and Director of the Reggae Studies Unit, Institute of Caribbean Studies) made reference to it in her address on the topic “Are we really out of slavery?”

The full song is as follows:

Altho a slave me is born an bred
my skin is black, not yellow.
I often sold my maiden head
to many a handsome fellow.

My Massa keep me once for true,
and give me clothes wid busses (kisses)
Fine muslin coats, wid bitty too
To gain my sweet embraces.

Him, Obisha, him did come one night
An give me gown an busses;
Him get one pickinniny, White!
Almost as white as misses.

Den misses fum me wid long switch,
And say him for da massa;
My massa curse her, “lyin bitch!”
And tell her, “buss my rassa!”

Me fum’d when me no condescend
Me fum’d too if me do it;
Me have no one for t’and my friend
So me am for’cd to do it.

Me know no law, me know no sin,
Me is just what ebba dem mek me;
This is  the way dem bring me in;
So God nor devil tek me!

For those who don’t understand the Jamaican vernacular here, this is a song about a slave woman who is rather ‘flighty’ and in my opinion ‘deceptive’. She says she ‘often gave her maiden head to many a handsome fellow”, which suggests not only that she has been with many men for money but that she has fooled them into thinking she was a virgin. Further, she speaks of her relationship with her master, who would favor her with dresses and seduce her with kisses then have sex with her. She then had to suffer the wrath of his wife, who’d beat her for bearing his child. She inherently purports in the end that she is not responsible for her actions and for her there is ‘no law’ and ‘no sin’. She is merely a product of the people around her and their imposing influence over her.

Now, Dr. Cooper, a feminist, no doubt intended the song to highlight her view that the Jamaican woman, in particular was still in many ways a slave, as quite a number of them exhibit the traits of this slave woman in their sexual promiscuities. Many of them, like the woman in the song justify their actions with the exploitation they endure at the hands of the men, often in higher social positions than themselves.

I, on the other hand, often accused of being a misogynist – and often guilty – was otherwise inspired, though I do appreciate, as always Dr. Cooper’s perspective.

To me, this was  a reflection of a very popular perspective we have in the Caribbean that we are wholly products of the external and higher influences of persons or countries. I am more than willing to agree that this may be so for many persons, but I submit that it is because we allow ourselves to be shaped by the ‘powers that be’.

Whatever the United States or England say is right or wrong, we adopt without question. We eat their nasty food, wear their ridiculous clothes and speak their ignorant language. And our excuse: They are the ultimate Western Superpower. So it’s fine if they bend us over a barrel and impregnate us as long as they give us “gown an busses”.

This applies to many other ‘massas’ out there: the church, the government, the media and whomever else we feel like blaming when the time comes. This is the reason we, in the Caribbean seem to “know no law” and “know no sin”. In other words, we have no real sense of identity. We can’t decide whether to be Afro-centric, Euro-centric, or American but either way we have to be one of them.

Why are we allowing ourselves to be “what ebba dem mek [us]”? Can we really continue to ride on the coat tales of our ancestors for justification of our actions? Our history and heritage are supposed to inspire and guide us, not be an excuse for mental stagnancy.

Mutabaruka, the famous radical and outspoken Jamaican Dub Poet, made a hell of an interesting point at the same forum. He said that the type of slavery we experience today is not a physical one with chains and whips. It is a mental one and it is much worse. It is much worse because at least our ancestors knew and could see that they were slaves. They could try and break the chains and run away. They could literally fight for their freedom. We cannot so easily fight for ours because we do not see our masters. We cannot see the chains that bind us and many of us do not even know we are enslaved.

It’s time for us to stop making excuses and begin breaking our chains and moving toward freedom by first declaring our own identity. We need to educate ourselves on where we come from and how we got here and stop allowing ‘massa’ to tell us what is ours, for he is a liar. Their religion is not our religion. Their language is not our language. Their food is not our food. Their laws are not our laws. We can think. We can learn and we can create.

It is time for us to unite as a region and declare who we really are to the rest of the world. We can no longer be satisfied with our lives as shaped by ‘massa’. No war needs to be declared, no tension even needs to be created. But as one, we will be able to say to the world that we have grown up, taken our freedom and we are walking our own path and as Jamaicans say, “NUTTN NUH WRONG!”

A me dat.

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