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Im a Bald head 'rasta' - Carolyn Cooper

By Mark Dawes, Staff Reporter

Dr. Carolyn Cooper, Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies, in the Department of Literatures in English at the UWI, Mona. - Contributed

SHE IS rootsy, highly likeable, Afrocentric and feminist. But did you know that Dr. Carolyn Cooper, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies, was once an active youth leader and organist in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church?

She does not attend church much these days, but remains appreciative of the moulding at the North Street Seventh-Day Adventist Church, central Kingston, during the formative years of her life.

"I believe that the Seventh-Day Adventist Church is entirely responsible for my radicalism. Everybody was going to church on Sundays. I was going to church on Saturdays... So deviance from convention was valorised. It was seen as something positive that you had the courage to do what you felt was right - and not go with the masses. I celebrate that upbringing for the kind of questioning spirit that I have had from I was a child."


Born in Kingston in 1950, Carolyn was one of three children born to George and Modesto Cooper. Her mom, who died in the 1970s, was a teacher at the Rollington Town Primary School, while her father was a tailor. Her dad, now 86, was an elder in the church, while her mother was involved in the benevolence ministry.

Gleaner: So when yuh bruk out?

Cooper: I don't think I bruk out, you know. As I always tell my father when he is trying to win me back to the fold, 'The Bible says train up a child in the way that he should go and when he is old he shall not depart.' I say it is either I was not properly trained, or I am not old, or I haven't departed. I prefer to believe I haven't departed because some of the basic values stay with you for example 'Love God and love your neighbour as yourself'."

Professor Cooper, who is a co-host of CVM-TV's 'Question Time', said that after a while as a teen to young adult her questioning spirit made church leaders and other church folk uncomfortable. After a while, she was going to church just to socialise rather than to learn doctrine.

As a graduate student in Toronto, she attended an SDA church there which mainly comprised West Indians. "I used to ask questions and get into trouble. There were people at the church who did not want to call themselves black. They said they were coloured. Black was seen as radical. You were 'in Black Power' if you defined yourself as black.

"When I came back to Jamaica, I said, you know, I am too old for people to be calling me a trouble-maker. If people are happy with the church as it is leave the people with dem church. It is simple for you to leave than to be there constantly trying to reform them.

"I remember once the assistant pastor in the Toronto church saying to me something like: 'As people see you on the platform, your very presence becomes upsetting. You don't even have to open your mouth. They know that it is trouble.'


"What was upsetting was that it was not anything radical that I was saying. From I was in high school, I was asking questions. I remember going to summer camp and one of the pastors telling me it is a sin to wear jewellery. I noticed that all of the pastors' wives were wearing these brooches, which functioned as jewellery. So I said, 'If one can wear brooches, why can't one wear earrings?' The answer was that one wears earrings on one's person and brooches on one's clothes. I said what kind of foolishness is that! The argument, too, was that a watch is not jewellery because a watch is functional, that is, it tells the time. I said, 'Well because it is functional, it does not mean it is not jewellery'. So I got into these kinds of discussions.

"That is one of the reasons I stopped going to church as such, because I could not take the contention. I would be sitting down and mumbling through the sermon or quarrelling with the sermon. I said, 'Let me keep myself quiet. Let me go to beach on Saturday. That is more spiritual than to be in church quarrelling.

"I recognised the limitations of the way the church functions. Churches function for many people as a space where your come together, with the people who think like you. It is like a mutual admiration society. The people who ask questions like 'Is this the right way?' or 'Are we doing the best we can?' are marginalised because they end up being labelled as trouble-makers."

Gleaner: What would it take for Carolyn Cooper to go back to church?

Cooper: There is a saying that as people age, they go back to their roots. I don't think I am old enough yet. I think if I had children, I would go back to church because I think church is an important socialising agent for my children. I am not saying church is only for the childish... but I don't have children so that motivation of going to church and being part of a church community is not there."


For her, the essence of religion is "to start in the corner where you are and try and make it better for somebody else and you can change the world that way. For me, that is the essence of religion how you conceive your relationship with other people to whatever force you think that created all of this. The whole of creation did not just come from nowhere. So whatever, you call it, God, Allah or Jah there is some supreme force that generated all of this. You may not be a

creationist or evolutionistic but everybody must come out of something. And it is that spirit of creation and generation that you are honouring when you say you worship.

Professor Cooper is in the final stages of editing her upcoming book on dancehall music and she is regarded by many as an authority on erotic language in Jamaican culture.

Gleaner: What is there about slackness and the erotic in Jamaican popular music that church people need to learn about?

Cooper: Well I am not going to tell church people what they need to learn about. But what I have been arguing is that some of this celebration of sexuality that people call slackness is part of the divine. It is part of the creativity that got us here in the first place. Maybe it is something we need to value. Some of what is happening in the popular culture is really an expression of a kind of spirituality that we don't often recognise as spiritual. Maybe because it manifests itself in the body - the separation between spirit and body that is made in some Western cultures may not be as valid in other societies including Jamaica. One person's joyful noise is another person's slackness."

Professor Cooper describes herself as a "bald head Rasta". The problem, she says, is "I have difficulties with Selassie as God.

"I believe that Rasta represents a really important development for us as black people. One of the big issues for us in Jamaica is dealing with that whole history of enslavement and colonisation and for us to find a space in which we can reclaim the dignity of being black. Rasta for me is the philosophy or the 'livity' that really represents a radical challenge to some of the mainstream Christian values that we were taught.


"But it also blends some of the Adventist values around health, and you grow up with the notion of your body as the temple of the living God so you know that is not everything you see that you're going to eat. Health was a very important issue for us in the Adventist Church. Just the idea that you can't be consumed by what you eat and you must make intelligent choices - and that is such an important part of Rastafarian 'livity'.

Spirituality has material dimensions to it. Coming out of an African worldview, the body is the soul case. The body encases the soul. If your body is weak that means your soul doesn't have that much protection. The soul is that essence of character and personality and consciousness that manifests itself in your whole way of being.

A self-described left-wing feminist, Professor Cooper believes "God is bisexual. My God can't be a man and I am a woman. No sah. God made me in His own image or Her own image so that divine force has to accommodate both male and female."


Depictions of God as male, she said, happens "because man rule the world. Or man think them rule the world. So they just make up God in their own image... I think the ideal thing is to move away from that patriarchal notion of God as the Father and say 'Dear Heavenly Parent'. But then again, I have problems with heaven. Is God up in heaven. I have difficulties with heaven. I really don't believe there is a place up there with streets paved with gold, with milk and honey flowing - I really don't believe there is a hell with fire burning round-the-clock waiting for the damned. I think that is coming out of a medieval view of the world."

Professor Cooper hopes in the future to introduce a course at the UWI 'The Bible as Literature'. But she is not certain if she regards Jesus Christ as a historical figure. "I don't know if all truth resides in the Bible. I think it is something you have to take on faith. It's either you believe it or you don't believe. My feeling is that if Jesus is God, Selassie is God too."

And what of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the professor said, "If you are going to believe, it is either you buy the whole shebang, or you just say, 'Well, I really don't know.' Because the resurrection story is something you have to take on faith. None of us know anybody who dead and come back. It is either that you believe the whole Bible or don't believe anything at all."

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