Terry from Derry: Exodus, Movement of Jah People
By Terry Boyle
Growing up the 70s, my brother Sean and I were big Bob Marley fans. We were kindred spirits with the Rastafarian movement in most everything, apart from two crucial items; hair and marijuana.
Since both of us were in line for male pattern baldness, the hopes of growing a dreadlock, never mind a group of them, lay far outside the realm of possibility. Since neither of us were potheads, we gravitated to the music and the soul of an oppressed people.
It was this longing for liberation that resonated with us as teenagers growing up in the Troubles. In Marley’s music we had found a tribe, not unlike our own, struggling to find their own cultural identity while still being held by the trappings of colonization.
The cause of the Rastafarians and indeed all displaced and subjugated peoples creates a common bond that transcends colour or race. For those who appreciate the art of Steve McQueen, you can see how his experiences as person of colour growing up in London shaped his affinity for Irish people who shared similar discrimination in the English capital.
The right to education, cultural expression, language, and access to mainstream professions are met with resistance by the dominating culture. McQueen’s Small Axe series (available on Amazon Prime) is a beautifully crafted collage of the artist’s recollection of his community’s struggles. Each story reflects the tyranny of racism, offset against a celebration of the essential breadth of human experience.
McQueen’s stories are not didactic. They are invitations to the outsider to witness the collective sores of a community defamed and stigmatized by bigotry. They call upon us to recognize a common humanity.
Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice says something similar; ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?’ Small Axe thwarts the usual linear narrative structure and, as such, concentrates more on human experiences than storytelling.
We see the sorrow, laughter, tenderness, and warmth of a community fighting to preserve its right to co-exist as different but equal. And, it is these qualities in Marley and McQueen’s art that I find resonates with my own Northern Irish background. You find the same sentiments present in Heaney’s poem, The Other Side.
Shylock continues: ‘If you poison us, do we not die?’ Death comes to us all. It is the great equalizer. Life is precious, and we only grasp life’s fragility when we first experience the death of a loved one. There’s a permanent missing piece to life; a hole in the soul that cannot be patched, or filled in.
The mark of another’s presence in our lives is absorbed by us as a natural part of life. We are not invincible. Our mortality is, sadly, reinforced repeatedly by the passing of others. Yet, these common experiences, which could bring us together, are erased and forgotten when it comes to alienating or subduing a group of people.
There are some, such as the pigs in Orwell’s, Animal Farm, who thrive by dominating those they consider inferior. These people create an elitist mythology that they use to perpetuate the idea that ‘some animals are more equal than others.
In doing so, the elite are able to manipulate others to do their dirty work. Money, fame, and political power is afforded to the few. A few that we have allowed to have certain liberties that are not extended to the rest of us. We have become so familiar with reports of political corruption that it no longer shocks us.
When teaching in Chicago, I was surprised whenever some political infraction was brushed off as ‘that’s Chicago politics for you.’ We have been so used to corruption among those in power that we no longer expect them to be accountable.
However, if the woman or man in the street does anything close to what the celebrity, money person, or political representative does, we demand action. We have allowed ourselves to be persuaded into a double standard by those who believe they are deserving of ‘special treatment’.
The biblical exodus typology used by Marley, the black Civil Rights Movement, and others, calls upon us to resist oppression. Enslavement and coercion to accept our lot, creates a way of thinking that aims to strip away our autonomy. We, the disempowered, become so acclimated into believing the lie that we need our oppressor, that we accept the unacceptable, a loss of our freedom.
We may think that we live in a democracy, but if our society fails to recognize the rights of all then we are deluding ourselves. Once the rights of others are demonized as morally wrong, that lie is exposed. If the police force is not serving all equally, and lack unaccountability, there is no fair rule of law. Whenever there is not equal access to higher education or professions, are civil rights are deficient.
It’s too easy to fall for those in power to use a rhetoric that blames a specific group of people. The Nazis did this in Germany and we know the results of that agenda. When politicians rail against democratic elections, we can be sure that they want to undermine our autonomy and whittle down our freedom.
We need to be suspicious of those in power when they try restricting the right to vote in their favour. It’s the thin edge of the wedge. Shylock’s final words are a warning to those in power. You can continue to mistreat and abuse your power, but eventually the wronged will have their revenge.
The ‘movement of the people’ is a powerful force to be reckoned with. People power is realized when we create a true democracy that values differences and discriminates in favour of all it citizens.
*Terry is a retired professor at Loyola University, Chicago. He writes and reviews plays, while also teaching modern Irish and English drama. Moving from Derry, N. Ireland to Chicago in 2004, he continues to enjoy is work with the Irish American community throughout America. He can be reached: tb*****@lu*.edu