Of Afros and beards

Lance Neita

Sunday, December 03, 2017

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There's much to talk about this week as we approach the Christmas season. First there is that wonderful news about Davina Bennett placing third in the Miss Universe competition. I missed all the media hype that accompanies global beauty contests like this one, and even the fact that Miss Jamaica was a popular entrant with a chance of making it into the final 16. To tell the truth, like many of you, I didn't even know her name.

We are elated. Her beauty, charm, confidence, and personality have immediately made her an icon in our minds, representing the best of beautiful Jamaica. She has been adopted into everybody's family as our favourite daughter. The Jamaica Observer reports her as “working with deaf students, and working on a new sign language app, making it easier to celebrate someone who is not just beauty but brains as well, with a well developed sense of community”.

And her community is so proud of their international star! Mitchell Town, in Clarendon, has swelled with pride at the success of their own home-grown Davina. Family, neighbours and community residents poured into the streets on Sunday night to make merry and express their joy. There was, of course, the reflective, “Dem tief wi and gi it to South Africa, but is awright, dem can gwaan.” I can see the smiles, hear the laughter and the cheers, and share the good feeling in that tiny little village close to Lionel Town and almost next door to the Rocky Point Fishing Village.

What she accomplished that night in Las Vegas, and before a watching world, was significant. She chose to wear her natural hair in the neatest Afro style I can ever remember seeing, instead of the straight-hair blowouts and extensions we are accustomed to on the Miss Universe and Miss World stages.

Afros and black people's natural hairstyles don't usually get far in these arenas, so her act of wearing her true hair is a statement against the norm. Winning with an Afro was as important and as significant as Marcus Garvey or Martin Luther King making a statement. I compare it to George Headley's brilliant representation of the hopes and aspirations of thousands of his countrymen whose dreams of independence and nationhood in the 1930s and 1940s were slowly being defined by his exploits and incredible achievements on the international cricket field.

Her victory reminds me of the elation felt in the same parish, Clarendon, in 1968, when Karlene Waddell, from the equally tiny district of Four Paths, became the first truly black girl to win the Miss Jamaica title. She was crowned by the 1967 Queen Laurel Williams and became an instant favourite of Jamaicans all around the world. Sad to say, Karlene, who remained bright, beautiful, modest and charming all her life, passed away 'too soon' a few years ago.

The beautiful Davina Bennett has in 2017 chosen to use her platform and provide representation to the countless faces at home watching, who share her natural hair texture but rarely get to see the attribute reflected in beauty pageants.

These Clarendon girls don't stop here. An amazing coincidence is that out of those same Vere plains in Clarendon came the singing sensation Millie Small, whose hit song My Boy Lollipop took the world by storm in 1964.

It was a massive hit, reaching number two both in the UK Singles Chart and in the US Billboard Hot 100 and number three in Canada. It also topped the chart in Australia. Initially it sold over 600,000 copies in the United Kingdom, including singles sales, album usage, and compilation inclusions. The song has since sold more than seven million copies worldwide.

So Clarendon — Toots and the Maytals and all — must be feeling on top of the world; almost as giddy as when news came out of London one evening 54 years ago that Jamaica had won Miss World. Eeh, Sah! The petite 20-year-old Carole Joan Crawford had just been crowned at the London Lyceum Ballroom.

The news hit Jamaica around 4:00 pm on November 7, 1963 and sent the entire country wild with excitement. People danced in the streets and hooted their car horns as the news broadcasts came in on Radio Jamaica and the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation.

The response across the nation was spontaneous. Director of Tourism John Pringle immediately adjourned a board meeting to dash off a congratulatory telegram to London and the overseas tourist board offices.

Prime Minister Sir Alexander Bustamante telephoned his congratulations. And Opposition Leader Norman Manley's message said: “Mrs Manley and Rachel send you warmest congratulations.”

Over in London, the huge crowd in the ballroom had gone crazy. Carole had been a crowd favourite from the beginning. The waiters at the plush Waldorf Hotel, where she was staying, raked in a small fortune from the bets they had placed on her. Her photograph was splashed on the front page of every newspaper in England. She received a personal congratulatory call from film star Joan Crawford, her role model, and made a Jamaican band world-famous when she said that her favourite song was Byron Lee's Portrait of My Love sung by Ken Lazarus.

The Government of Jamaica laid out elaborate welcome-home plans. She was to be met at the Montego Bay airport by a host of dignitaries. The Jaycees of Jamaica, then organisers of the Miss Jamaica competition, arranged a welcome ball at the Casa Blanca Hotel, where she would be greeted by spectacular fireworks as she made her entrance into the hotel.

A 'Miss World motorcade' from Montego Bay to Kingston was arranged. Minister of Development and Welfare Edward Seaga also arranged a public reception at the National Stadium.

Unfortunately, the tragic assassination of US President John Kennedy took place on November 22, the day before Carole was scheduled to return home. The public receptions were understandably cancelled or postponed as Jamaica joined the rest of the world in mourning the death of the president.

This was Jamaica at its best one year after attaining Independence. Carole Crawford had reigned over the 1963 Independence festivities as our Independence Queen. In those early days, we were beginning to take our place among the nations of the world as the “boasiest and brightest little country on the planet'.

Davina Bennett is following in the footsteps of a Jamaican queen, and they have both made a smashing impact on the world.

The bearded schoolboy

Now speaking of hairstyles and Afros I can't help wondering what is happening to the promised new school grooming policy. The issue of the regulations governing hair at schools has on more than one occasion erupted into controversy at private and public schools.

The new policy will be determined after extensive consultation across the island with school boards, students' councils, teachers, and I expect parent-teachers associations. It is not an easy one, in fact it is a most sensitive issue tied into race and quality of hair and religious beliefs and practices. It is not just a hairstyle matter. The policy must also look at dress as well as grooming.

At first it was the uproar over student and parent adjustment to school uniforms when short skirts and baggy trousers and sheath-tight trousers were flaunted. A new factor is coming into the mix. I don't know if you have noticed a trend that has crept in allowing boys to wear beards and heavy moustaches at school without the hue and cry accorded to other assaults on the grooming code in terms of dress or hairstyles.

The word “allows” is used advisedly, as there must be permission from the school administration to tolerate this latest adornment which has been added to the list of dress codes.

Some may ask this old fogey what is wrong with a student wearing a beard if he is doing well at school. I guess if I were a teacher I would feel uncomfortable teaching a class with boys looking like big men before their time.

Munro boys from my generation may remember that Englishman and respected Deputy Headmaster David Whitmarsh-Knight walking through the dining room at breakfast, and with only a slight touch on the shoulder sending boys who were sprouting glimmerings of hair above the lips, back to the dormitory for a clean shave. No fuss, no demonstrations, no shouting. Times and customs have changed and my nephew tells me we will just have to accept this new trend. Shakespeare's whining schoolboy has now become the bearded schoolboy.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant, historian and writer. Send comments to the Observer or




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