Edited by Azizi Powell
This post provides information about the traditional and contemporary Jamaican meanings of "John Crow" (Jancro).
This is a continuation of a pancocojams post about John Crow that I originally published in 2012. That post is part of a three part series on John Crow. The second post in that series showcases two Jamaican Mento songs that mention John Crow and the third post in that series showcases a Reggae song about John Crow. Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2012/09/john-crow-part-i-what-john-crow-means.html "What John Crow Means In Jamaica" for the first post in that 2012 series. That post provides links to the other two posts in that series.
Also, click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/10/derrick-morgan-john-crow-skank-example.html for a 2014 pancocojams post on the Ska song "John Crow Skank".
And click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/10/examples-of-john-crow-say-him-naah-wuk.html for the pancocojams post that showcases a recording of the traditional Jamaican Mento "John Crow Say Him Naah Wuk Pan Sunday" (John Crow Says He Doesn't Work On Sunday"). "
The content of this post is presented for historical & folkloric purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
This post isn't meant to provide complete information about the character/symbol John Crow (also known as Jancro).
I'm by no means an expert on Jamaican culture. I'm just learning about the John Crow character/symbol in Jamaica.
Additions and corrections are very welcome.
INFORMATION ABOUT JOHN CROW
From http://www.golocaljamaica.com/readarticle.php?ArticleID=784 "The John Crow - Graceful or Disgraceful Bird"
"John Crow, the common Jamaican vulture, was once widely known as a carrion crow or turkey vulture. In towns and throughout the countryside, these birds can be seen tearing at carcasses in the streets. Sometimes they circle in the sky or simply perch in trees or on housetops, often with outspread wings...
The John Crow is a bird of great symbolic importance. In the Jamaican setting it is associated with ugliness, blackness, evil and disgrace. In abusive arguments people will call each other names such as "dirty John Crow, black John Crow or heng man John Crow". The John Crow is also an omen of death. It is believed that if the John Crow perches on a housetop, someone inside will die. It is also believed that if a John Crow appears in an individual's dream, it signifies death or some other form of destruction in the person's family."...
Source: Jamaica: The Fairest Isle by Phillip Sherlock and Barbara Preston (1992) Plants, Spirits and the Meaning of John in Jamaica: Article Written in Jamaica Journal by John Rashford (May 1984)"
"John Crow" is a folk symbol. Folk symbols evolve. What a folk symbol means now may not have been what –or only what- it previously meant and may not be what the folk symbol will mean in the future. The connections of John Crow with the spirit world and jumbie (as discussed in those documents whose titles are given above) may explain the traditional association of John Crow with death and with the color black. However, death wasn't always considered something negative in traditional West African societies, and the color "black" wasn't always and/or wasn't only associated with death. For those reasons, it's possible that the very negative image of John Crow is an old development in Jamaican culture (which is heavily influenced by West African cultures). But John Crow may have originally or early on had a deeper meaning which wasn't negative.
It's important to note that the Jamaican "John Crow" (Janco) doesn't have the same meanings in Jamaica that the similarly named "jim crow" does in the United States.
Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2012/09/john-crow-part-i-what-john-crow-means.html "What John Crow Means In Jamaica" for more discussion about the traditional depictions of and attitudes toward John Crow (Jancro), and for information about the meaning of "jim crow" in the United States.
UPDATE: UPDATE March 15, 2016
With regard to my comment "John Crow may have originally or early on had a deeper meaning which wasn't negative", here's information about the meaning of the "vulture" in Ashanti (Asanti, Asante) culture in Ghana, West Africa:
From Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, & Eve's Bayou by Sandra M. Grayson (University Press of America, 2000), Page 36
"Among the Akan, the scarab and the vulture symbolize self-begetting, self-creation, and self-birth. An Akan maxim says of Odomankoma [the infinite, the interminable, absolute being], ‘The animal that symbolizes Odomankoma who created the world is the vulture.’ “Odomankoma a oboadee ne kyeneboa ne opete. (Meyerowitz . The Divine Kingship in Ghana and Ancient Egypt. See also Danquan, The Akan Doctrine of God"
Notes from that book:
6. "After Nunu was killed later in the film [Haile Geima’s Sankofa] no one could find her body. Shola says that the people believed that Nunu did not die; rather that a buzzard swopped down and took her back to Africa.
7. Opete is the Akan word for vulture"
Here's information about Nunu in the film Sankofa:
"Nunu ....an African-born field hand who went about her day-to-day life with Africa still living in her heart and was characterized as a “strong motherly slave with a rebel mindset” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sankofa_(film)
Also, read http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/01/very-old-reference-to-john-canoe-aunt.html. That post includes an excerpt of an April 11, 1886 New York Times article that includes a reference to West Indian ceremonies that include John Canoe and Aunt Sally stuffed figures which were treated with a great deal of respect.
End of March 15, 2016 Update
JOHN CROW IN JAMAICAN FOLKLORE
Martha Warren Beckwith's now classic 1924 collection of Jamaican folklore entitled Jamaica Anansi Stories contains at least two folktales that include John Crow. Those folktales will be featured in an upcoming pancocojams post.
As background, quoting from http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/jas/, "The trickster Anansi, originally a West African spider-god...Anansi is the spirit of rebellion; he is able to overturn the social order; he can marry the Kings' daughter, create wealth out of thin air; baffle the Devil and cheat Death. Even if Anansi loses in one story, you know that he will overcome in the next. For an oppressed people Anansi conveyed a simple message from one generation to the next:--that freedom and dignity are worth fighting for, at any odds."
Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2016/01/four-jamaican-anancy-stories-that.html for a pancocojams post that featured four Anancy stories that include John Crow.
I find interesting that John Crow isn't associated with death in any of these stories. Instead, John Crow appears to be an anthropomorphic character like Anancy and all the other birds and animals in those folktales. It's also interesting that the name "John Crow" isn't given in Patois as "Jancro" or any other spelling. I wonder when this spelling of John Crow's name began and when John Crow became such a villainous or insulting character in Jamaican culture.
JOHN CROW IN JAMAICAN FOLK SONGS
The Jamaican Mento songs that I've showcased on pancocojams to date-"John Crow Say Him Naah Wuk Pan Sunday", "Long Time Gal" which mentions "peel head John, and "One Solja Man" - may have been lifted from Jamaican stories about Anancy.
UPDATE: January 30, 2016
The song "John Crow Say I'm Wan' Decent Woman" is a version of the John Crow Say Him Naah Wuk Pan Sunday" family of songs. An example of that song is included in the 1981 Folkways Record album entitled "John Crow Say..: Jamaican Music of Faith, Work and Play".
The song begins with the verse
John Crow say "I wan' decent woman
Can't work can't work can't work on Sunday.
John Crow say "I wan' decent woman
Can't work can't work can't work on Sunday."
Instead of being a despised symbol, in this Mento song John Crow is shown upholding the rules of society - that Sunday should be honored as God's day and no work should be done on Sunday.
JANCRO AND THE CHANGING DEPICTION OF JOHN CROW IN JAMAICAN CULTURE
Here are a few quotes and editorial comments about the term "Jancro"
"Jancro" and "Kiangkro" are Jamaican Patois (Patwah) way of spelling "John Crow". I don't know how old (or how new) those spellings are.
From http://jamaicanpatwah.com/term/Jancro/1019#.VquA0-Twtv4 gives this definition for "Jancro":
English Translation: John Crow
Someone that is the lowest form of human life. Usually doesn’t have any redeeming qualities . To be called a “jancro” is one the most demeaning insults and would signify that this person is worthless as a life form and doesn’t serve much purpose on the planet.
(patois) Him a jancro!
(english) He’s a scum!"
"Ted Lee Eubanks' Fermata
John Crow, or "Kiangkro." This is the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), and the bird figures into many Jamaican sayings. For example, "every John Crow tink him pickney white."
Every [person called a] John Crow thinks his child is white [better than other (Black) children].
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7niNckrXa70 "Talk Jamaican - John Crow (Jangcro) -Peter Grant
This unfortunately visually poor quality video log was uploaded to YouTube on Jan 22, 2011. The summary to that vlog indicates that "Peter from WirelesSolutions.net shares how the term jangcro which is used to describe a vulture is also used to address people."
Peter shares that "John Crow" is an insulting reference used by Jamaicans for males and females, including children.
Insulting someone by calling him or her "Jancro" derives from the negative depictions of and negative attitudes about the black John Crow buzzard vulture. Given those "traditional" Jamaican depictions, I find it interesting that a contemporary description of Jancro is of an albino bird.
Glossary of Jamaican Reggae-Rasta words, expressions, and slang.
“Jancro- John Crow, which is the name for the hated albino buzzard/vulture; also an expression of hate.”
John Crow is hated and feared because it is a symbol of death and people hate death. Death is commonly associated with the color black. But it appears that Rastas have turned that traditional symbolism upside down by depicting the buzzard as albino. Does the albino buzzard represents White institutional power and/or White people? If that is the case, then perhaps Rastas are saying that instead of Black people hating themselves, they should hate what (or who?) hates them (oppresses them).
Although I know very little about Rastas-I don't believe that hating White people is a tenet of Rasta culture. That hate would be incongruent with the "One Love" sentiment that has become a worldwide concept thanks to the Rasta Bob Marley. Yet, all of Bob Marley's Reggae songs aren't "kumbaya". Some of them are quite revolutionary.
I'd love to know whether the depiction of John Crow (Jancro) as an albino bird is relatively recent.
Jancro- John Crow, which is the name for the hated albino buzzard/vulture; also an expression of hate.
He's a jancro
That yard full of jancro's
by KC!! June 02, 2006
Here's a comment that I wrote for the pancocojams post on the Mento song "John Crow Say Him Naah Wuk Pan Sunday" whose link is given above:
"Although John Crow is almost always a despised character, in Beenie Man's [Reggae Song] "John Crow" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOMBNQXWR60) when the (black?) motorcycle is referred to as "John Crown" it's a compliment. My guess is that like John Crow (the vulture), that motorcycle is seen as "intimidating" and "fierce" in the vernacular sense of those words."
Having said that, my sense is that most contemporary Jamaicans don't consider John Crow to be a complimentary figure or symbol.
UPDATE: January 30, 2016
This news article serves as an example of how "John Crow" is still considered negatively in Jamaica:
"Opposition Leader Andrew Holness wants National Security Minister Peter Bunting to go beyond the apology he made for likening members of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) to john crows, saying the minister should pledge not to make such utterances in future.
"While we received in Parliament the statement from the minister of national security, which acknowledges the error of his statement, we must have a commitment that such statements will never be made again," Holness declared in the House of Representatives yesterday.
Bunting, who in the past has called for divine intervention in tackling the serious crime problem locally, yesterday backpedalled on his 'john crow' comment, which was made at a constituency conference in Eastern St Andrew last Sunday."...
UPDATE: January 31, 2016
Here's a link to Jimmy Cliff's 1990 Reggae song entitled "John Crow" which is part of the sound track for the Stephen Segal movie Marked For Death https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2paeZozCZk
Here's part of the lyrics to that song:
...Jancro a go nyam your supper soon, boy
Jancro a go lead the children astray
Jancro a go meet the retribution
Justice has finally find it's way
Still, oh yes, you know that your time has come
You don't do right you gonna dead tonight
So now a go take you down the road to doom
The jancro a go nyam all your supper soon
Jancro a go nyam your supper soon, boy
Jancro a go lead the children astray
Jancro a go meet the retribution
Justice has finally find a way
Are you worried, says the wolf in sheep's clothing
Try to lead the children astray
But don't we know (?) a who fe frighten
Take my hands I will show you the way
"nyam" - jamaican Patois word from Wolof (West African language) meaning "eat". The name of the vegetable "yam" also comes from this Wolof word. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jamaican_Patois_words_of_African_origin
This concludes this post.
Thanks for visiting pancocojams.
Additions and corrections to this post are very welcome.