Black History Month Lecture 2014: “Of John Crows, Racial Ideology and Contemporary Jamaica”

By Anna Kasafi Perkins,

Anna Perkins

Anna Kasafi Perkins, University of the West Indies/St. Michael’s Theological College February 18, 2014

He also said to the crowds, “When you see [a] cloud rising in the west you say immediately that it is going to rain—and so it does; and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south you say that it is going to be hot—and so it is. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?(Luke 12.54-56, New American Bible)

Human beings have become skilled in reading what we call “the signs of nature”. Indeed, nature has a way of providing us with indications of upcoming dangers and disasters in the responses and reactions of those most closely a part of nature – animals. Animals that function in that way are known as animal sentinels or sentinel species. Such species include birds and other small creatures that head inland ahead of a tsunami or hurricane or honeybees that are disappearing because of common pesticides contaminating pollen and nectar or fish that die in droves from polluted waters. Human beings have learned from the existence of such species and have deployed animals in artificial circumstances to serve as warning signals for us. Perhaps the most famous of these is the use of canaries in mines to detect gas leakage.

Sentinel Species

The power of this image of the canary as sentinel struck me again recently as I finished reading a most provocative novel about the Second World War written by Sebastian Faulk. In Faulk’s Birdsong, one of the protagonists had a scary encounter with such a canary that they had taken with them into the tunnels that they dug under enemy lines. He was, surprisingly, very afraid of this tiny bird. I made sense of it when I realised that many Americans cannot understand how we Jamaican people are afraid of a likl lizad – a gekko. Jamaican culture recognises sentinel species or animals. We know that we can tell when rain is going to fall heavily by seeing “rain birds” in large numbers flying off; we believe that certain kinds of howls made by dogs signal death; lizard jump on you means pregnancy. For me the best sentinel in our Jamaican culture is the john crow or turkey vulture. Literally, the john crow is a bell weather or sentinel for us regarding the nature of the environment in Jamaica. John crows are not seen often nowadays because, while there may be less carrion for them to consume, we are encroaching on their habitats and pouring poisons into the environment to which they succumb easily. Of course, many a Jamaican boy is not averse to killing any john crow foolish enough to cross paths with him. Yet john crows provide a very valuable service by ridding the environment of less than palatable roadkill or dead animals that could be the source of germs or disease; oftentimes, their circling presence signals the disposal of a corpse, thus ending the misery of too many a family whose loved one had, up till then, disappeared without a trace. Yet, as Paul Rose laments in a 2011 Letter to the Editor, john crows are disappearing and we don’t seem to care. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a john crow? Do you even care? You and I don’t care because the john crow is not a comfortable animal for us to think about. Metaphorically, the john crow is a symbol/sentinel for me of the psychological health of the Jamaican society. What do I mean?

The John Crow in Jamaican

The john crow is a symbol of vast importance in Jamaican psychology that we may not recognise; they may present warnings about our psychological health as a country that are ignored. The john crow/jankro is symbolic of all that is evil, ugly, disgraceful, black! Yes – Black! How many times have you heard Jamaicans cussing off each other and calling each other names like “doti jangkro! Stinkin doti jangkro”? One of the worse things someone can tell you is that you “blak laik jangkro”! Our Jamaican folklore is replete with stories of john crows piloting coffins through the streets asking for “Mr Brown”or being used to work obeah. Lest you believe that such stories of just lore of yore– as recently as October 2012, a john crow was found in the principal’s bathroom at Clan Carthy Secondary School (The Jamaica Star, October 19, 2012). The vulture is reported to have been seated quite calmly atop the toilet seat and was unmoved by the principal’s screams or the powerful prayers and bloody pleadings of prayer warriors summoned. It was later removed by some garbagemen who determined to burn it to death. But the bird disappeared as mysteriously as it came while kerosene was sought to start the fire! Somebody wanted to harm the principal! The John Crow is supernatural omen - of death and destruction. We believe that when a john crow perches on a housetop, someone inside will die. Many Jamaicans also believe that if you dream about a john crow it means death or some other form of destruction in your family.

Our proverbs and folksongs are filled with unflattering references to john crows:

  •  “John Crow seh him a dandy man but same time him hab so-so feather” (symbol of someone who is being very vain and pretentious). 
  • “If yuh fly wid John Crow yuh wi nyam dead meat” (you will be influenced to do bad things by the company you keep).
  • Or if someone tell you that “John Crow a roast plantain fi yuh” you well maaga an soon ded.

The saying that most piques my interest as we reflect on the meaning of Black history in our Jamaican space is “ebi jangkro tink im pikni wiait” (every john crow thinks his offspring is white). I admit to being puzzled as to why this was a thing to put on the john crow. But then the john crow is black and ugly and for many of us that’s the worst thing to be. So does that mean that every john crow wishes his offspring were in fact, white, rather than black like him? And is john crow under the illusion/delusion that is the case? (Note – every john crow is assumed to be male! John Crow is usually written as a proper noun!) I learned recently, however, that there is a john crow that is white. Yes – a rare albino john crow that is white. It is so rare that many Jamaicans have never seen one (and at the rate we are killing them off,never will). I’ve never seen one myself but there are some great pictures of albino john crows online. There are also what they call partially albino or leucistic john crows, which have a mix of black and white feathers. The colouration of these albino john crows results from a rare condition, in which a bird does not produce melanin at a normal level or in a normal pattern – very similar to albinism in humans. The colour patterns can also be the result of injury, poor nutrition or a genetic imbalance. This white or partially white john crow is called the headman john crow or parson john crow and other john crows are said to defer to it during feeding. The headman john crow is said to be given the pick of the carrion (if there can be any such thing). Notice my emphasis on said! There is a mythology about this rare bird that assumes it is so different it must be more important/special/better and that the other full black john crows must treat him as such. You can almost imagine the other black birds kow towing: “Yes, Massa. Si di nais piis a ded miit ier, sa.” What is it about our psychology that would automatically assume this.

Perhaps, we need to look to history. bird watcher Wayne Murdock claims that the headman john crow gets its name directly from our history of enslavement ( crow.htm). According to him, the bird gets its name from its striking plumage, which evokes memories of miscegenation during enslavement. The mixed race male son of the planter and his female slave was oftentimes appointed headman over the other Black slaves. The albino john crow is invested with the value given to this mixed race progeny and so perpetuates the lower valuation of pure African blood, whatever that is. So again the spectre of race rears its head in the life of the benighted john crow and it is seen to reflect/mirror the racial issues that are at play in a racialised society like Jamaica. John crow a carry hebi hebi load!

However, another piece of scientific information that my friend June Wheatley shared with me had me thinking. Her mother had told her that every john crow is actually born white! Neither of us knew if that was so and we spent an entire afternoon trying to verify that john crow fledglings are actually white when they hatch, that is, covered by pure white down. Research on the web told us that was the case and that within ten to eleven weeks the birds fledge and take on their natural colour – black, like their parents. Yet no one we asked seemed to know. I considered this fact verified after calling several places (Life Sciences (no one available), Hope Zoo (don’t know of it), Veterinary Division (yes), Institute of Jamaica (yes)…) and being pointed to actual sources. Verifying this scientific fact got me thinking further. Whatever could we be accusing the poor john crow of when it is true that his offspring is indeed born white? Is the john crow not believing what is true or is he lamenting that his baby will one day become black like him? The saying is usually interpreted as meaning, “Most parents sometimes have puffed up views of their children” ( Lennox Thomas, in his scholarly discussion of the psycho-historical relationships between people of mixed heritage and diaspora Africans, quoted the “old” saying from a 1962 Katrin Norris publication, as illustrating well that in the Jamaican/Caribbean space the light skin child is a symbol of hope and social betterment for a family. Norris equated the jangkro saying with another whose meaning is clear, “ebri jakaas tink him kubi a rais aas” (“every jackass thinks his colt is a racehorse”. According to Thomas, even dark skinned people have historically hoped that their children would be born “with colour”, meaning with a lighter colour, in order to have a better life. Ironically, the truth of what every john crow knows has been perverted into a critique of the pretentiousness and overreaching of Black people.

Racism as Ideology

How we have loaded down the poor john crow is an indication that the race question is alive and well among Jamaicans of a new generation albeit in a different fashion. Jamaica has come a far way in our awareness of the value and meaning of Blackness, especially through the efforts of Marcus Garvey and the RastafarI. More Jamaicans today in some measure accept a Black identity and less easily accept the social denigration that comes with Black skin. For that we can celebrate. For that we can celebrate Black History and National Heroes Day and Emancipation and Independence! Yet, as the late Professor Barry Chevannes, in a 1989 ISS working paper, reminds us: it is not only race as skin colour that was an issue in Jamaica but the existence of a racial ideology of which skin colour is just one expression. Indeed, like Chevannes, I want to argue that the ideological perspective is a “cognitive system of binary opposites. All the qualities singled out for devaluation in the racially different group are the opposites of qualities which provide the subject group with a positive self evaluation” (Chevannes 1989, p. 4). Among the elements that make up this ideology of racism are:

a) Skin colour – black versus white/brown (In European culture, white is the symbol of purity and goodness, while black is its opposite – a symbol of impurity, uncleanness, evil (cowboys wearing white or black hats, etc.). A common explanation for the racial subordination, including the enslavement of Black people is that Black people were the children of Ham, who was cursed for having looked on his father Noah’s nakedness (Genesis 9.20-27). The religious fiction behind racial subordination is clear. The idea is that blackness is a mistake or the result of sin – Black people are to be blamed for their oppression. Victim blaming at its heights.

b) Body norms – handsome versus ugly (“black and ugly”; beautiful black woman as the exception – “What a beautiful black woman”! Skin colour is only one aspect of phenotypical differences that have been set up by the ideology of racism. Hair quality (nice hair/straight/good hair vs bad/board/dry head), nose shape (straight vs broad), lip size (thin vs thick/libba lip).

c) Character – moral versus immoral (anything too black no good!). Character failings and propensity to sin is imputed to the person of African descent, especially sexual irresponsibility. d) Culture – savagery vs civilization (Many of the distinctly Jamaican elements of cultural practice continue to be denigrated. Our folk religion and beliefs, our popular music forms (reggae and dancehall – boogoyagga music). But perhaps the most telling denigration of Jamaican culture is the treatment of the Jamaican language, which is still called “bad Inglish” and endlessly connected with illiteracy and dunceness.). Yet Jamaican popular music has been credited with the role of challenging the ideology of racism that pervaded Jamaica into the 1970s. Reggae music and Dancehall is mainly delivered in Jamaican.

It is important for us to realise that racism is not a natural or inevitable phenomenon; it has a long history and is the result of human actions and interactions. Too often we let it appear that it is inevitable, grounded in nature, the result of divine punishment. That perhaps is the power of the racial ideology.

Perhaps the most telling contemporary expression of the impact of the racial ideology in Jamaica is the bleaching phenomenon. I agree with cultural critic Annie Paul, who in her blog The Active Voice,ruminates on Bleaching, Cake Soap and Vybz Kartel. She says, "I think Vybz Kartel is the very embodiment of the contradictions that bedevil Jamaican society and we should be grateful to him for foregrounding this disfiguring practice. But we need to go beyond that and deal with the fundamental problem that causes people to bleach their skins to begin with: the social value placed on lighter skin colour. Until that is addressed the bleaching agent industry will continue to flourish here and everywhere else that puts a premium on ‘fair’skin (In the country of my birth pale skin is so prized that someone of my complexion could never play a starring role in Bollywood) (2011)."

Paul states further in another blog posting:

“It seems obvious that if Jamaicans want to eradicate the practice of skin lightening or bleaching they must first put an end to ‘colourism’—the tacitly accepted value system that provides those with white or light skin a much wider range of opportunities for social advancement” (2012). It is these attitudes that are captured in the meaning that is given to the headman john crow in our national psyche. In the Jamaican context, differences in skin tone have been made to and continue to be made to signify value in terms of social and political hierarchy (Stoney 2009). A lot of ideological work has been done from the time of enslavement until now to turn such biological facts into signifiers in the first place. Politics and power are at the root of racial signifiers. That is what we have not come to terms with sufficiently even as we regularly celebrate Black History here in Jamaica.

I would like us to close with another biblical image. The image of Elijah in 1Kings17:2-7 being fed during the famine by ravens! My friend Michael McAnuff Jones reminded me of that story and its relevance to our discussion. According to Michael Jones, God chose to feed a prophet using a type of john crow! That is so true. In Leviticus 11.13-19, the raven, the vulture (which is another name for a john crow) and a number of other birds are called unclean and prohibited from being eaten. Part of the reason ravens, vultures and john crows are considered unclean is because of their consumption of carrion, dead flesh. Yet, this unclean bird, eater of dead flesh, fed Elijah and kept him alive. To quote McAnuff Jones, “The man with the word was sustained by the black bird”!!!! (email to author February 18, 2014). Perhaps it is time for us Jamaicans to revise our image of the john crow as we allow our Blackness to tek laif. Ah so Jangkro se!!!



Black, Ann. Familiar Jamaican Birds 2. Jamaica Information Service: Kingston, 1992.

Chevannes, Barry. The Case of Jah Versus Middle Class Society: Rastafari Exorcism of the Ideology of Racism in Jamaica.

Haynes-Sutton, Ann, Audrey Downer and Robert Sutton. A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamaica.Christopher Helm/A&C Black Publishers: London, 2009.

Johnson, Tekla Ali. The enduring function of caste: colonial and modern Haiti, Jamaica, and Brazil: The economy of race, the social organization of caste, and the formulation of racial societies. Comparative American Studies: An International Journal. Vol 2(1): 61–73.

Jones, Michael McAnuff. Email correspondence with author. February 14, 2014.

Moyston, Louis. Jamaica: 100 years of black consciousness advocacy. Jamaica Observer. February 14, 2014. advocacy_16011044

Paul, Annie. Bleached Skin, White Masks… January 30, 2012

Paul, Annie. Cake Soap and Creole: The Bleaching of the Nation… January 12, 2011

Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular culture: An Introduction. Pearson Longman Thomas, Lennox. The Psycho-Historical Relationships Between People of Mixed Heritage and Diaspora Africans. historical_relationships_between_people_of_mixed_heritage_and_diaspora_africans~Lennox_K_Thoma s.pdf

John Crow found in principal's bathroom. The Jamaica Star online. October 19, 2012.

http://jamaica- Turkey Vulture.

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