Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Travails of Rihanna

Across the whole news spectrum now, the recent abuse of pop singer Rihanna (at the hands of Chris Brown) appears to dominate. Oprah and Ellen have given their opinons ('Leave!), so have Denise Simpson (on 'Good Morning America') and Robin Givens, Mike Tyson's ex -wife. Even Miami Herald columnist Leon Pitts has put in his two cents.

But do they know the whole backstory?

Let us start with a relevant fact, that Rihanna (actually Robyn Rihanna Fenty) is a native of Barbados. Barbados also happens to be where I served in the Peace Corps, and lived for 20 years.

One of my early assignments at the school I taught for while in the Peace Corps, was to instruct students in "socialization". As a (then) teacher of science (chemistry, biology, general science) I had no idea what that meant, but quickly found out. Basically, I had to try to expedite the constructive departure of "school leavers" (those who had finished taking the 'school leaving' exams) so that they might become positive contributors to Bajan society, as opposed to renegades and n'er do wells.

In the first class, I addressed male-female relationships because I'd heard all the banter on how Bajan men "whip" their women mercilessly.

I launched the class session by asking the class:

"What is the most important tool you can use in communicating?"

A boy in the front row raised his hand and since he was the only one that did, I called on him.

"De most best tool ta use is de rod. A big tamarin' rod. An' yuh can break it over she behind!"

I nearly fell over as the kid didn't even blink when he said this. However, as I surveyed the room all the young males nodded their heads as if in unison.

SO I asked another question:

"WHY would you want to beat the woman who is your companion?"A different boy responded this time, larger and obviously accustomed to doing lots of manual labor:

"Ef she don' have da food ready. Beat she! Ef she en' ready fuh sex, beat she! Ef she give yuh she mout' beat she!"

Again, all the male students nodded heads as if the kid had stated an axiom.

I asked the girls if they agreed with this. A shy type raised her hand and I selected her.

"Ef we do wrong, we gotsa get beat. Dat is troof. Ef yuh do wrong.....licks fuh so!"

When I left the class and ventured into the staff room I inquired of those there if I'd experienced some hallucination or if these kids were typical.

"Pretty typical" a female English teacher replied. "Beating is a way of life here for the working class, most of whom are only common-law wed, and many in the middle class too."

Later, I learned harsh physical discipline is engrained in Bajan school culture as well. The oft heard remark, "getting six of the best" isn't just something out of the Victorian period. It occurred regularly in Bajan secondary schools, up to the time I left the island in 1992.

The Headmaster, or Headmistress, would select the best rod possible, then lay it on the unruly posterior of whoever deserved it. At one school I taught at in Peace corps (which shall remain innominate) the HM would regularly line up 20-40 students outside his office each morning for "licks". It was almost like a switching "assembly line" and I even comented to one staffer that this was how it appeared.

Once, in the process of trying to switch two kids at once, he accidentally hit a female teacher on the shoulder as she tried to squeeze into his office.

I am sure that Rihanna's former school (Combermere, or 'Caw'mere')also had this ritual well established, though to be sure not to the same intensity as the country school referenced for the assembly line!

What is my point here?

That to someone hailing from such a culture, it would be extremely hard to see the non-application of corporal punishment as in any way "normal". The same way the girl in my socialization student averred that "Ef we do wrong, we gotsa get beat. Dat is troof." SO also anyone who had grown up in that milieu would come to accept it.

Rihanna is no exception. Is it possible Rihanna Fenty was waylaid by the Headmaster at 'Caw'mere'? No one can say for certain, but it isn't necessary to be actually beaten to imbibe the meme that "beating is good if done for a 'good reason'"

This is exactly why the calls for her to leave Brown may be to no avail, despite the impassioned plea columnist Pitts made. If Rihanna has taken the "Bajan kool aid" - even a little, she will believe that Chris Brown was dispatched to Earth to keep her in line. Not that she is a free agent, who can choose to stay with him, or tell him to get lost.

One dearly hopes that, unlike her sisters still in Bim, she will learn before it is too late.

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