Religion in Kei Miller’s August Town

“If solid concrete houses rise at the beginning of the road, the architecture will dissolve into clumsy board shacks by the time you get to the cul-de sacs”

Augustown, by Kei Miller, is inaugurated through the actions of a blind matriarch, Ma Taffy and the many characters who populate Augustown. The story begins when Kaia returns home with his locs removed, and, with an atmosphere drenched in dread and threats of death, the events that preceded the advent of Augustown’s uprising begin to unfold. We are introduced to the infamous,  Alexander Bedward, the “Flying Preacherman” and members of the Rastafarian community who lead the growth of the movement in this small locale. The novel is packed with personal testimonies from Gina, Kaia’s mother, Gina’s affluent employer and principal of Kaia’s school, Clarky the fruit vendor and of course, the opprobrious teacher who wielded the scissors that stimulated the day’s events, Mr. Saints-Josephs. The looming narration encapsulates the book’s theme and plot in saying “Each day contains much more than its own hours, or minutes, or seconds. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that every day contains all of history.”

The book’s namesake, and primary setting is a small community nestled within a valley cocooned at the base of the Blue Mountains. It is home to gang violence, police brutality and class-driven oppression. It also houses a sort of resilience, an unbending backbone marked by the willingness of its inhabitants to keep on living despite a call for their blood. Native to Miller, the book uses religion as a vehicle towards innermost expressions of the community’s inhabitants as well as a framework to convey the relationship between who is just a man, and who gets to be God. The author illuminates the limitations of black people’s existence by our physical oppressor. Even spiritually we have known limited freedom besides the elements approved of by those responsible.

Miller has long employed irony in his illustration of religion within black communities. A great example is the extract below from Miller’s  ‘The Same Earth’:

“Yes, even the business of preaching, it seemed to [Pastor Braithwaite] had its Tamarind Season – a time to struggle and invent and grab at anything that would help compose a lively sermon for the expectant congregation. Nineteen eighty-three was still a couple of years shy of the great explosion of dancehall in which artistes like … Lady Saw would tell about a hood lodged so deeply and tightly in her hole that it could not be taken out – a culture so degenerate and colourful it would provide plenty of venom for sermons.”

We are able to see the use of the pulpit for disguise of true opinions and think-pieces by those entrusted to it. Miller here is underscoring that the congregation oft believes that everything behind our Christian experience comes or is directly inspired by the word of God or Jesus himself, but the reality is that the black Cristian experience is often coloured through the lens of the person delivering the message. Even within our own communities, local leaders have been able to move persons to rebuke and revolution by substantiating a personal paradigm with scriptural reference. Once, this was the role of planters citing scriptures that ensured enslaved persons that their reward is in heaven, and rebellion (unsaid was any form of disobedience, or incompliance to orders given no matter how inhumane) would result in a fiery end.  In Augustown, Alexander Bedford, a central protagonist in the fable, is responsible for conjuring up this religious experience. An excellent example of this is when he states 

“No pickney who born with high colour in this country, or who born to sit in highchair, or who born to high-society people, none of them dying from dystenery, dem not deading from no mosquito bite…but blessed is we who born low, for we shall  be lifted up!” 

Bedford then goes on to describe how he will be lifted up to heaven like Elijah and come back with lightening in his hands that is suggested to bring ruination to this “wicked town named Kingston.” Intertwined in Bedford’s speech is scripture, but, overarchingly will manifest into a man made, man inspired, and man powered move towards revolution contrary to their spiritual beliefs. Without saying it directly, Bedford knows the congregation’s longing for social change is only disguised as hope in God; So he is able to indirectly incite them to take it upon themselves to create the change that they want see by suggesting that it is the will and urgence of God that they do so as the book would reveal. 

Alongside this, Miller’s literature is sparked with biblical allegories that do encourage hope (as biblical extracts are meant to incite) followed by a crushing disappointment made seemingly unavoidable once one’s position in society is low enough. Characters like Bedford, who made extensive ways to connect themselves to God and journey on to achieve incredible feats in his name (floating) are brought to nought by those, currently representing the aforementioned planter class, who are firm in the belief that hope incites rebellion and should always be crushed. Even in his poetry, Miller writes

“Forgive her, the selfish belief
That heaven is reserved for ladies
With names like Agnes or Beryl
& that no Tanisha would ever inherit the Kingdom of God”

Kei Miller illustrated by Keith Negley

reaffirming this haunting motif that not even an extra-terrestrial body can save black people from their earthly bondages. Wariboko (2011) states “Race . . . engendered the civilizing mission as an instrument for achieving its objectives in the African continent; and in a mutually reinforcing manner, they worked in unison to vilify “blackness” and African personhood in order to valorize whiteness”.  This suggests that practiced religions that originate from colonization (the civilizing mission) directly contribute to self-hate and alienation of our own blackness, true strength and true freedom. Then, religious freedom should be found in religions created and organised by our own. 

The book delves further in its address of religion, extensively highlighting the Rastafarian community who outwardly reject any white influence on their lives and spirituality. The Rastafarians base many of their ideologies upon perceived abuses of the Afro-Jamaican poor by the wider society. Chavannes states “Rastafarianism represents one creative avenue as used by Jamaican blacks to transcend the frustration and hopelessness of their situation as they perceived it (Chevannes 1971; Kitzinger 1969; Watson, 1974).” God, then, was being utilized to reframe oppression. Without this spiritual paradigm, life becomes too harsh for viewing.  One of the main tenants of the religion is the understanding of black superiority, a direct contradiction of the island’s social and political scene. Within Augustown this was not realised. They, with their black God continued to be persecuted first for being black, and then for rebelling against the religious indoctrination through lifestyle and overt symbols and dress. For these believers, long hair symbolizes an attachment to their ancestral and racial ‘roots’. In one instance, “Clarky’ a fresh produce peddler, is subject to a beating and a shaving by the police who continued to represent the will of the oppressor. Without his hair, a symbol of his freedom, it is almost as if Clarky is reminded of who or what he is in the grander scheme of things and this realization, it can be assumed, led to his downfall. However, it begs to question is this persecution of both Rastafarians and the syncretised religious expression of Jamaican protestants just an essential ingredient of establishing a new religious stronghold such as in the time of Jesus? Is religion the opium or the cure?

Miller’s examination of this theme leaves the reader heavy with thought. Whereas it ends on a sad note, it continues to reemphasise to the oppressed that there is no true freedom within the presence of the oppressor. The book leaves the reader inspired and angry. After reading, I was especially curious about the author in terms of his heritage and his beliefs that allow him to colour such a vivid and praiseworthy narration set in the beautiful Jamaica. Kei Miller is a renowned poet, acknowledged for his contributions to the discipline by Commonwealth Writers Prize, OCM Bocas Prize, Forward Prize, and Costa Book Awards among others. He was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica and uses these experiences to colour his craft.

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