When You Call Someone’s Name, They Are Still Present

February 2023

In Jamaica, words of caution are not easily forgotten. In fact, as I write these introductory words now, I still can hear my paternal grandmother’s raised voice of warning. “Who cyaa hear mus’ feel,” she would yell only after my sisters and I had disregarded her less ominous call to slow down or quiet down. Jamaican proverbs like the aforementioned one have served as cultural guidance and protection for so many of us at home or in the diaspora, and my father’s experience is no exception. Not all guiding words, however, come from a parent. Sometimes they come from a fellow countryman whose commitment to national development is firmly rooted in people and their culture. On two separate mornings (30 July and 6 November 2022), I talked with my father, Dr. Leahcim T. Semaj, about the motivational gift of words he received from his mentor and friend Dr. Cliff Lashley. May we always utter Lashley’s name.


Isis Semaj-Hall: Where and when does your relationship with Cliff Lashley begin?

Leahcim Semaj: My interaction with Cliff Lashley begins with my time in graduate school at Rutgers, where I would attend functions at Jamaica’s [Consulate General] in New York. Cliff would put on events and talks, and he was always inviting speakers and inviting people from the Jamaican community to come. So that became a very important meeting place for discussion, for conversations. The crowning moment was the first presentation I made after completing my PhD in 1978. Cliff’s advisory words to me were, “I don’t want you coming here with no professorial discourse. I would like some prophetic utterances from you.” That line stuck with me, as I had a commitment to Jamaica and I planned to return to Jamaica. In fact, back in 1976 when he had first learned about my commitment to Jamaica, he had given me a copy of Martha Beckwith’s Jamaica Proverbs.

IS-H: I’ve seen that book on your shelves.

LTS: Yes. In it Cliff wrote, “Leahcim Semaj, who wants to learn about his people’s philosophy. Enjoy Jamaica. Cliff.”

IS-H: He was very aware of your ambitions. Do you think of him as a mentor?

LTS: Yes. When I was coming back to Jamaica, he gave me letters of introduction to Professor [Rex] Nettleford, to Aggrey Brown, and probably to one other person. It all felt so special and formal; just like that old thing when the Duke of So-and-So gives you a little recommendation today. Cliff Lashley’s letters introducing me to Jamaica’s intellectual community. . . Me, as a dreadlock Rastafarian whom he expected to join that community, it felt very special, more special even than a note from an English duke.

Can we return to the book he gifted me in ’76? Because in it is a quote that reminds me of him. It says, “Wha’ you don’t know older dan you.”1

IS-H: Ah, yes, a Jamaican proverb.

LTS: Yes. It translates to be, “What you don’t know is older than you are.” So no matter how much you know, there’s so much wisdom—the wisdom of your people—and there’s a knowledge base that is older than you are. Even as you’re trying to acquire knowledge, you have to understand that there’s a body of knowledge that is older than you. This is really what you’re trying to access, especially if you plan to interact with your people and be of benefit to them. You need to understand that body of knowledge that has come through your people and is older than you. Knowledge is not one-dimensional. It is about wisdom and has everything to do with culture. One thing about many intellectuals, especially “Third World Caribbean intellectuals” who become very Anglo-Saxonized and pretend that the only knowledge is that which they gained from the slave master, from the colonizer, is that they do not acknowledge that there’s a body of knowledge that our people used and worked with to keep them safe for the four hundred years. There’s a line from Peter Tosh that says many of us were brought from Africa, but some of us were sent to guide and keep them safe, you know? Cliff understood this view and was very committed to it. Our history and our pedagogy and our knowledge base didn’t start with the end of slavery. There’s a deep structure of African culture which was steeped in literature, music, art, science, and Cliff Lashley was well aware of that.

IS-H: Did he help you to decolonize your mind?

LTS: Yes. He provided that transition and that freedom. Lashley provided that because he was also an intellectual and a gentleman without apology.

IS-H: That word gentleman comes up often when people mention Lashley. Can you say what that means for you?

LTS: Style and substance. Style and substance mean a lot to him. The way he carries himself, the way he dresses, the way he speaks. All very controlled, no wasted words. No careless utterances.

IS-H: Did being a gentleman separate him from the people of Jamaica? Put another way, do you think Cliff Lashley understood his people’s philosophy? And what was the evidence of that for you?

LTS: Yes, I think he did understand. I saw it when he addressed people and when he instructed me as to how I should communicate. For example, if your people are at one stage and you wish to move them further along, he showed me that you should start with them where they are. There’s a lot of examples in Miss Lou’s work that relate.2 She has some wonderful poems about those who we would call in Jamaica “speaky-spokey,” those who think they’re better than everybody else because they had access to more or to a different type of education. Cliff wasn’t like that. He put his education to work in the service of the nation’s people. He recognized that there’s a body of wisdom that your people have. In fact, one of the last projects he was working on was about cultural literacy . . .  How to capture the cultural literacy of Jamaica, package it, codify it, and be able to measure it. It was a project that we were working on together a year or so before his death. The concept of cultural literacy is really one that says that there is a given body of information that holds a society together. And that the more all of us are familiar with that body of information, the higher the probability of an egalitarian society exists. Our plan was to interview a number of cultural leaders in the various critical spheres of the Jamaican culture and identify the subject areas and the various bodies of knowledge that were deemed critical for someone to be an “educated” Jamaican, in the broadest sense of the word. For us, this meant knowledge related to literature, art, history, and popular sayings that anyone who is a Jamaican should be familiar with.

So, yes, I think he did understand his people’s philosophy, and that’s why he was a very good friend of Rex Nettleford and Professor Aggrey Brown. They, like Cliff, saw the connections between media, dance, the Jamaican culture, and the tools that you gained from being part of the intelligentsia. He saw intelligence not as a tool to ostracize you from your people but as a tool to help your people.

IS-H: What do the people of Jamaica need to know about Cliff Lashley?

LTS: Here was a man. He was small in stature. A little man, you know, small in stature, and cultured and educated. He was committed to the finest things. He had bought an apartment down by Kingston Harbor, one of the early developments that the government put up when they started trying to encourage people to live in apartments and so on. Ocean Towers, I think it was called. And because he had spent so much time abroad and he hardly lived in that downtown apartment, every couple of years he would just redo the whole place. He would travel and collect ideas and books. The place was just covered with books! He was always buying books because he was always consuming knowledge. And everywhere he traveled, he collected Jamaican art, Caribbean art, because he was somebody who was, you know, of the people. He was never with the idea that some of our intelligentsia have of “how far can I remove myself from the people.” No, just look at the fact that he lived downtown. He had no problem living downtown, working from there, etc. Maybe it is because he went to Kingston College, because what KC was designed to do was to give poor people’s children a start in life. So that is part of what you come away from KC with. And then he had a chance to be educated and he maintained his common touch.

IS-H: I noticed that in some of your memories you jump tense. So you said “He’s into design,” which is present tense, and “He was always consuming knowledge,” and that is past tense. How do you think about Cliff Lashley today, in 2022, that allows you to jump tense like that? Are you thinking about him in a kind of everlasting way?

LTS: Not consciously, but with the African worldview it says as long as you call a person’s name, they are still present. The thing about “death,” physical death, is that it seals your space. So when I say he is it’s because that’s what he is. Is and was are almost synonymous terms because he can’t turn into anything else now, because his legacy is sealed. The only thing that tarnishes his legacy, as such, would be the context of his death. And just the horror of how he died. But in terms of what his work and life represented, his persona, that is sealed. That’s why the tense is present.

IS-H: Do you believe that you have paid what he’s given you forward? And have you done so with him in mind?

LTS: I have paid it forward, but not necessarily with him in mind. I just internalized it. I consider myself, in a sense, a public intellectual. Whether I’m in Florida or in Jamaica, a week does not go by when I am not doing an interview on radio, on television, for the news, for newspaper columnists, for a newspaper writer who wants to clarify an issue. Some person might say that I give away my knowledge. But what is the knowledge for? The more you give away, the more you have. And if you can help to remove darkness and to clarify issues, you should. I think I have the ability to explain complex constructs in a way that ordinary people can understand. So that’s how I pay it forward. I mean, I gladly share with anybody. So, yes, I do believe that I’ve paid it forward in terms of just sharing my knowledge, freely sharing my knowledge with anyone who makes a request.

IS-H: You mentioned earlier that Lashley lived downtown, and he had no problem living downtown, and, in a sense, that allowed him to be a man of the people. But would you say, based on what you were just explaining now about yourself being a public intellectual, do you think of Lashley as being a man of the people in that same regard, in the same kind of way of open discourse with the public?

LTS: Not necessarily. And the reason I say that is because I don’t think I’ve ever heard him speak patwa. It’s difficult to be in open discourse with the public without at least attempting to speak the language of the public. He’s proper, proper in mannerism and language, almost a Jamaican Englishman. I distinctly remember doing some work with the Eagle Foundation and I got a call, and I told Cliff that I’d be leaving to go up to the Bob Marley Museum. The call was from Rita, and she said she would like to talk to me about some issues. And Cliff said, “Excuse me, what do Rita Marley and yourself have in common? If she wants to speak with you, she damn well can find her behind down here!” Now, technically he’s right, but that’s not the way I see the world. There’s a level of respect that I have for Rita Marley, and if she would like to talk to me, I’d say, “Okay, Rita,” and I’ll stop by. The point is that while he is a man of the people, Cliff saw himself as equal to all. He saw himself as equal to all, from the socially elevated to the socially oppressed.

IS-H: Is equality something you think you learned from Lashley?

LTS: Yes. Sometimes you can learn from a person without having to emulate and become them. You learn from them, you internalize what you need to do, but then you take it on your own terms.

IS-H: Can you talk a bit more about Lashley and the era of “Jamaican Englishmen”?

LTS: There was an era in Jamaica when parents spoke Standard English and were educated, but there were lots of parents whose own education was quite limited, and they forbade their children to speak patwa. They would be punished for speaking that way. I do believe that persons like Nettleford and Lashley were socialized in that era, so that very early they almost lost the ability to speak it, and so insist that you speak in Standard English and the Queen’s English and so on.

Every time this discourse about Jamaican and English appears, we see letters in the newspaper from otherwise educated, intelligent people saying, “Oh, no, no, you could never let patwa become the official language.” Or they quarrel that “English is the proper language,” and so on. I mean, they are committed to this view. And I just excuse myself from the discourse because I know that any discussion about a substandard language is not a linguistic phenomenon, it’s a political phenomenon. Any idea can be expressed in any language. If a language doesn’t have a word for something, it mek it up or it borrows. Simple as that. Make it up or borrow it. The Jamaican proverb “Love you like cook food,” or “Love you like Jesus love likkle children,” shows that language can conceptually incarcerate and shows that you have to find somewhere around it, like “You pretty like money.”

IS-H: It’s true—language finds a way to connect people. And it’s also true that there’s a Jamaican proverb for every feeling!

That Beckwith book you’re holding has many gems. Is there another proverb that makes you think of him?

LTS: Well, there is this one: “If you hab shilling, wash de shilling, drink de water, and keep de shilling.”3 Which translates to, If you have a shilling, use it in such a way that you can get something without losing the value of the money. Drink the water and keep the shilling, which means keep your principal. You understand?

IS-H: Ahh, I understand. The shilling is one’s intelligence about and understanding of the culture, and the economic principal would be one’s moral principles, yes? This is how you see Lashley?

LTS: Precisely. He never lost himself or alienated others in his intellectual pursuit of nation building through cultural uplift. He invested himself. Bright, intellectual, committed to Jamaica, and he was able to, in the time I knew him, transmit some of that to me and concretize my direction and my feelings.

IS-H: May he walk good.

LTS: Always.


Isis Semaj-Hall (a.k.a. the Riddim Writer) is a lecturer in the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona. She is a decolonial feminist and cultural analyst with a creative practice that is nurtured by sound. Her research and publications use dub to query Caribbean literature, identity, and futurism.

Leahcim T. Semaj is a management consultant, motivational speaker, creative thinker, social philosopher, and quantum transformation psychologist rooted in Jamaica. He is president of Above or Beyond Consulting.

[1] Martha Warren Beckwith, Jamaica Proverbs (Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 1925), 114.

[2] See Louise Bennett, Aunty Roach Seh (Kingston: Sangster’s Bookstore, 1993), and Jamaica Labrish (Kingston: Sangster’s Bookstore, 1996).

[3] Beckwith, Jamaica Proverbs, 67.


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