Published November 18, 2021
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Dadland Maye specializes in queer social justice movements, Africana studies, the Caribbean, and gender and sexuality studies. His book manuscript project, “The Making of a Queer Caribbean: Grassroots, Dancehall, and Literary Advocacy (1975–2015),” analyzes literature, dancehall music, and grassroots organizations as three significant social justice movements. He is also working on a book of essays, “Erotic Testimonials, Hallelujah!,” that draws on his erotic experiences in Jamaica and the U.S. as didactic diasporic testimonies. He earned his Ph.D. in English at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Your work as an activist and scholar focuses on race, social justice movements, and sexuality in the African diaspora. How do you see the interaction between political activism and scholarly work? Is it possible, and useful, to trace a distinction between the two?
I imagine the interaction between the political and the scholarly as a fluid one — in very much the same way my identity as a scholar and activist is fluid. At times, I see myself as both an activist and scholar. Other times, I see myself as one who resents the other. That resentment, I guess, is grounded in my assumption that the inseparability of these two camps (and taxonomies) is certainly useful but other times inadequate. My research maps the history of LGBTQ grassroots movements in the Caribbean alongside intellectual productions of scholarship, films, music, and literature. These histories focus largely on Anglo-Caribbean spaces such as Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, and Trinidad, and to a lesser extent, I account for brief histories in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Examining these geographies, I conceptualize both grassroots activism and intellectual productions as activist embodiments that produce and disrupt political genealogies embedded in spheres of the legislative, governmental bodies, and non-governmental mobilizations.
I imagine the interaction between the political and the scholarly as a fluid one — in very much the same way my identity as a scholar and activist is fluid.
In this respect, it is necessary to not always demarcate a divergence between political activism and scholarship. For instance, I read a Puerto Rican film such as “Mala Mala,” a Haitian film like “Of Men and Gods,” and a Jamaican novel such as A Brief History of Seven Killings as collectively fashioning politically activist cultivations on queer sexuality. The cultural ethics they collectively interrogate and formulate shape legislative and governmental mores. On the other hand, contextualization of their particularities and intellectual aesthetics warrants a turn away from positioning them rigidly as political. This separation of the political and the intellectual (or the scholarly) renders the text, the author, the audience, and the fields of engagement as sophisticatedly complex, richly diverse — not being forced into taxonomic camps.
How did you encounter dancehall culture, and how does your sense of the movement’s relative aliveness or exhaustion inform your reflection on Caribbean popular culture?
Born in Jamaica, dancehall is among the Caribbean’s popular cultural forms that raised me. With the same frequency I heard proselytizing Christian songs such as “I’ll Fly Away” playing in buses, on farms and in bushes next to rivers, and on the streets around domino game tables, I heard activist lectures in those same places in dancehall songs such as Shabba Ranks’ “Gun Pon Me” with lyrics I translate as follows: “I have my gun on me / And I won’t take it out / Why I won’t take it out? / Too many informers are about.”
The Christian hymn’s forecast is heavenly — prophetic of a glorious outcome at the end of life’s journey. Ranks, on the other hand, markets gun culture (violence-making, really) as productive, with rewards of earthly power and prestige. In my youth, both songs embodied a kind of “black aliveness,” (to use Kevin Quashie’s term) in which the brilliant aesthetics of their melody and lyrical beauty filled me with emotions (pleasurable tears, joy, deep contemplation of life and the future). Those episodes allowed me to exist in imaginary zones (dreamlike states) where I located unconventional plots and radical purpose, and negotiated goals as I danced, clapped hands, and shouted joyfully or silently with internal monologues.
Yet as I grew older, I became more conscious about my gay sexuality and the restrictions both Christian and dancehall culture erected in preventing me from simply being able to scream from mountaintops, if I chose, “I love men!” When confronted by restrictive mores, my interpretation of these song cultures positions them as violence.
My point is that my readings of dancehall’s aliveness or exhaustion depend on when and why I am analyzing the culture. In moments when my research seeks to determine dancehall’s activist genealogy as grounded in a resistance to colonialism, and as an aesthetic that reflects Caribbean aliveness, my analysis places the exhaustive characteristics of the culture on the peripheries of the discourse. But when speaking about its violence-making against Caribbean LGBTQ persons, particularly between 1980 and 2004, my interpretation shifts to that sorrowful account as a centered site of interrogation.
In one of your articles you write “I had to leave Jamaica. I wanted to know how widely freedom could expand and caress me.” How has exile affected what Jamaica is for you today?
Jamaica is one of my homes. When I think of Jamaica, I often remember the aunt who raised me from childhood. She was laid to rest in January 2021, this year. It was a very difficult month for me. I feel like she is the only meaningful connection I had back in Jamaica. My father passed away. I do not have a relationship with my mother who is still in Jamaica. Despite the stench of death still in the background of my emotions, Jamaica for me today is the memories with my aunt. It is those beautiful flashbacks of myself walking uphill and downhill with a bucket of water on my head as I leave the standpipe where the community went to fetch water to bathe or wash clothes. I also smile at the memories of my singing in church while, outside, goats, donkeys, and cows stood still or ate. And when I meditate these days, it is helpful to call upon the past of my running barefoot in the rain, fearlessly beneath the lightning and thunder, smelling fresh earth, licking water off my lips. Jamaica is this past, grounded in a connection to the earth, a kind of unnamed naturalist and organic existence — what I now recognize as the reason I like to sit in the sun on the lawns at Brown University and read and write, the very reason I like to get up in the mornings and run four miles along the water on Memorial Boulevard, and on Saturdays, I look forward to doing 10 miles on East Bay Bike Path.
Exile is triggered by fear. But exile, particularly when time, distance, and security have provided healing, allows for reflections on the love one misses. Exile also equips me to grant permanent residency to a colorfulness I took from Jamaica.
Exile is triggered by fear. But exile, particularly when time, distance, and security have provided healing, allows for reflections on the love one misses. Exile also equips me to grant permanent residency to a colorfulness I took from Jamaica. I like bright colors in my hair and clothing. I like tattoos, many of which are of animals. These inscriptions allow me to carry Jamaicaness within me in every space I occupy. I do not carry it deliberately, but naturally, consciously. Had I reflected years ago on what exile meant to me, I would have spoken about the homophobia — the day when my aunt kicked me out of her home because she heard I was gay; the words I was told my father had expressed about my being gay (“Me goin’ shoot him when me see him”); the hate I had for Christianity and its culture of brainwashing and homophobia, and the clarity and morality I obtained through atheism; the resentment I had for Jamaicans just from hearing their accents in the streets of New York City where I lived, and my pledge to never return there to “that hateful country” — the reason many persons like me had to flee and obtain political asylum in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Today, I am in a peaceful state of mind and a more tolerant geographic place in the U.S. This rich history of being Jamaican is the reason I also love the U.S. in different ways I could never love Jamaica.
While attending to criticism of anti-gay violence in Jamaica, your writings also express the need to give voice to “the stories of love and regular life that bind Jamaicans to Jamaica.” In doing so, you gesture towards an intellectual and political approach that seems to lay beyond the borders of “critique” widely taken. How would you characterize your scholarly approach toward violence?
In the introduction of her book Exceptional Violence [Duke University Press, 2011], Deborah Thomas writes that “it is an old cliché of anthropological area studies that if one wants to study kinship and political systems, one goes to Africa; hierarchy, to India; exchange, to Melanesia, and so on. Within the Caribbean, if one wants to study violence, one goes to Jamaica.” Thomas’ observation acknowledges that misnomers about Jamaica as a violence hub exist widely, even within intellectual spaces. Thomas is referring to perceptions of violence in numerous areas including gun crimes, politics, drugs, and gender-based manifestations. With respect to anti-gay violence, I have become drained from meeting persons in the U.S. who tell me I have an accent and then ask, “Where are you from?” After learning I am Jamaican, I get the regular responses: “I hear they kill gay people there.” “Is it safe to visit?” “You must be lucky you are here.”
I know these persons mean well, so I find some sweet ways to acknowledge their concerns, but also to point out that things are changing for the better, though slowly. When time allows, I also try to shift the conversation to creolist aspects of Jamaican culture that are richly reflected in poems by Louise Bennett-Coverley, dance choreographies by Rex Nettleford, and a number of figures in roots play theater productions. In mediums of poetry, dance, and play, queer persons often hold prominent performative positions. Critically reading their performances, one cannot ignore how they often use these spaces to radically disrupt gendered norms in ways that allow the performer’s identity to be perceived as queer even off stage. Yet their sexuality isn’t ridiculed because the performance culture provides a shield — or one might say, unconventional tolerance of queer sexuality. In no way am I suggesting that queer-perceived persons live freely when they are performers. Rather, I am highlighting the complexities of queer sexuality, visibility, and liberation in Caribbean nations such as Jamaica. Attending to these diverse queer narratives should also be the labor of discourse in which queer subjects aren’t merely visible through their adjacency to violence.
In mediums of poetry, dance, and play, queer persons often hold prominent performative positions. Critically reading their performances, one cannot ignore how they often use these spaces to radically disrupt gendered norms in ways that allow the performer’s identity to be perceived as queer even off stage. Yet their sexuality isn’t ridiculed because the performance culture provides a shield — or one might say, unconventional tolerance of queer sexuality.
Notwithstanding this needed perspective, I reject any sentiment that attempts to silence discourse on anti-gay violence. There are a large number of Caribbean scholars who would like to hear not another damn frigging word about anti-gay violence. The rhetoric often presented has something to do with such discourse pathologizing Caribbean identity and making the queer subject visible through narratives on violence. The visibility ethics of this argument often hides the true reason: the nation- and region-centered ethos of worry about the impact of international discourse on the country’s reputation and tourist economy. That is really the main reason, in my view! A national and regional agenda that does not factor queer civil rights as a pressing matter — period!
At the same time, I know such reasons should be considered, given the significant body of research on anti-gay violence and the demonstrated tastes of certain countries in the Global North (the U.S. and U.K. included) that satiate themselves on doom-and-gloom stories from the “Third World.” Nothing is amplified quicker in the international news media than “Third World” death and suffering. In these moments, I wonder about the extent to which “First World” decency and humanity are materialized from harvested spectacularizations, an assemblage of otherness by way of decay and death, pitifully leaving the prioritized nations of the world incapable of locating life or even aliveness outside their borders.
Nevertheless, my research pushes back at the comfortableness of viewpoints banked (or perhaps bankrupted) in some postcolonial discourse such as the very one I advanced just now about the tastes of the Global North. Frequently these viewpoints stop at faulting the Global North as the troublemaker, the producer of Caribbean violence, or the voyeuristic gazer on the Caribbean’s pitfalls. Meanwhile, some theorists have no qualms about using a conspicuous theoretical formula: creolism or indigeneity plus a welcomed Caribbean practice or art form or popular culture equals Caribbeanist manifestation (essentialism). This is indeed the case with some readings of dancehall. Some scholars root dancehall’s genealogy in creolist pasts such as folklore and language mixtures. In this way, dancehall is read as Jamaican, a Caribbeanist popular culture manifestation of resistance and pride. Dancehall’s development out of its transnational encounters with U.S. music forms, for instance, is acknowledged in scholarship but not popularly mentioned.
When I speak about the Caribbean, I do recognize the Caribbean’s existence outside the region — across the Americas and in Europe, Africa, and Asia — but some essentialist readings of Caribbeaness often imagine the region as the critical site. In these manifestations, the performativity of Caribbeaness is more likely to conjure imaginations narrowed down to a regional locus than a transnational spread of diaspora. When it comes to an unwelcome subject such as violence, the formula changes. Essentialism is abandoned. The violence is not always owned as the Caribbean’s. The violence is theorized as largely the making of the U.S. or the legacies of slavery. Thus, when I hear a push to step away from anti-gay discourse, I understand the value of such arguments, but I will not stop from asking where within the formula is this reasoning positioned. Indeed, I wonder, how might the Caribbean own some deployments of anti-gay violence as productively Caribbeanist? That is among the questions with which my research engages.