The Jeremy Frith and Friends event was advertised as a ‘uniquely Bermudian’ night of spoken word. Throughout the night, they played recordings of him, sometimes reciting his poetry, sometimes just talking about the things he was passionate about – the environment chief among them. These underscored the difference in his regular voice, which did have a Bermudian accent, and the exaggerated one that was put on for certain rhymes.
At the Sunday Chat, in addition to our discussion about ‘artistic freedom’, we talked about ‘vernacular poetry’. It was argued that his work fell in this genre, and folks pointed to poets like Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar who wrote in accents they did not have. Someone suggested that Jerry Frith had created a character to speak about things he felt he could not.
* shrugs *
Artists employ many tools at their disposal and I SUPPOSE this MAY have been one of his, and again, as for White Gombey, artistic freedom is something to consider. So after the conversation, I wasn’t as spitting mad as before (so don’t write me about how I yelled the word minstrel in the video), but it still doesn’t sit right with me, and I know that I will never be a fan.
Is it that he (and the other ‘vernacular poet’ featured, with a poem ‘Ladder to the Aditor’) used this accent only for humourous effect or to encourage us to all get along?
Is it that the ‘poetry’ was actually just not that great?
Is it the seeming conflict that some are celebrated for being able to 'put on' the accent, while others who genuinely have it are penalised?
* sucks teeth *
But over the last few weeks, I’ve read a fair bit about Jeremy Frith and realized how often people share his words when they want everybody to stop talking about race, immigration and the wealth gap. Some of his less ‘social revolutionary’ quotes are:
“It didn’t matter much back then if you was rich or poor…
There was fresh food on the table and no locks on the door.”
In this piece he’s speaking of his father’s time, so the 1920s and 30s? Romanticising being poor during any era is not recommended, especially when you’re rich. To be fair, maybe being poor in the 1920s was awesome. I can say that in the 1980s, it was not.
“They’ve watched their forests crumble
And their farmland turned to homes,
But they’ve always held a welcome
For those who crossed the foam.”
‘Welcome’, as in come on over and work for me for free while I beat and rape you a little? Sounds grand.
“Some cry ‘let’s study history to see how our folk ver treated’,
But forget dat history’s verth is making sure it’s not repeated.
And black treats vhite as vhite treats black, keeps spinnin’ like a top.
Oh Gawd I vish dis Ig’rance vud stop.
Sigh… I… Never mind.
“It really doesn’t matter what ship your family came over on
We are all in the same tiny boat today.“
What in the revisionist history is this? Do I even need to explain why this shouldn’t be publicly said like ever again?
At The Event one of his sons mentioned that his father had ‘blind spots’. I don’t know what specifically he was referring to but, for me, his lack of awareness about racial dynamics (dareisay colourblindness?) and general kumbaya vibe fall into that category.
So while I can see that he seemed to be quite a lovable character, a passionate and engaged conservationist, and a favorite Frith uncle, his friends, family and the media must see that continuing to recite his writing without context will understandably raise a few hackles.
(Psst… Kristin, what is the context? Girl, I don’t know! I think it has a lot to do with how hard he tried to eschew his privilege. But I ain’t sure.)
His poem ‘Send em Back’ being shared extensively, including by the Royal Gazette, during both the 2014 and 2016 debates about immigration was not helpful or relevant. Alongside the poem, RG said, “Jeremy Frith was also something of a moral shark-oil barometer, a man with an unerring sense of justice, fair play and decency.”
Rosy Hall, a Bermudian currently at Oxford University, pursuing her PhD in dialect, with a specific focus on linguistic appropriation and mockery wrote on Facebook, “There is a fundamental problem with statements like ‘all Bermudians are immigrants’ / ‘there’s no such thing as a native Bermudian’/ other sentiments from that Jeremy Frith poem. I’m shocked and appalled that this piece of writing is being cited in 2016. This is historical erasure to the extreme, based on a technicality. True, Bermuda was uninhabited when it was discovered. But can we please not ignore the fact that people have come to Bermuda under a huge range of circumstances? At the two extremes, some came to Bermuda by choice and profited enormously, and others were brought by force and enslaved.”
There was so much potential to have a night celebrating Bermudian story-telling, even if it was to be centred around this one man. Yes, he had his ‘blind spots’ but clearly, he also had his seeing ones. Why didn’t we focus on those?
At every turn, The Event was just a sharp stabbing reminder of white privilege, which Mr. Frith’s friends and family say he used to amplify the voices of those unheard, that he was often frustrated, because people paid more attention to him than to those he felt had better ideas and ability.
Then why are we STILL listening to his and his friends’ mediocre writing that was surpassed in leaps and bounds by the work of poets that have worked on their craft their entire lives?
Why are they telling me stories about how he enjoyed naughty calypso, and towed children around in a tractor?
Why am I expected to sit and quietly digest themes of erasure?
Why is everyone saying how the crowd was so ‘diverse’ and a ‘cross-section of society’ when it was 80% white, and at least half was over 65?
Why am I listening to a poem called White Gombey?
WHY AM I LISTENING TO A POEM CALLED WHITE GOMBEY?
Why are people applauding and whistling for White Gombey and this entire night?
Why did the Royal Gazette write this glowing review? (That one is rhetorical.)
How did this entire event come to pass?
Was common sense busy?
Did good judgment have her ringer off?
How did we get here? [We’re not supposed to be here!]
‘Here’ is hosting an event at my home because I was so frazzled and needed to understand whether I was as alone in this world as I felt in that theatre. ‘Here’ is having to explain that telling people it doesn’t matter their ancestors were slaves is downright ridiculous. ‘Here’ is spending hours and hours writing on a tightrope balanced between ‘WHAT THE FUCK WHERE YOU ALL THINKING?’ and ‘this is someone’s beloved deceased father and these are well meaning people and oh hello… yes I know you didn’t mean it like that.’
That night will forevermore be etched in my mind. It was such a moment of reinforcement where I was inwardly yelling 'Girl... you are not crazy! This shit is real! So real you spent $50 to be able to see it in the flesh!' I will never forget the feeling of sitting, surrounded by people whooping and hollering while I berated myself for not walking out, so conscious of not being branded the 'angry, black girl'.
And what has transpired since will also be a vivid memory.
The discussions and debates, emails and DMs, the anonymous anger and the genuine desire to do better.
So here's to being the first domino, and saying the things that make you and everyone else uncomfortable.
It's a start anyway.
Now... someone buy me a drink.