In a series of humorous poems written at the height of Independence euphoria in the early1960s, Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, raises some quite serious questions about Jamaica’s readiness for the rigours of independence. In the opening verse of the poem, “Independance” – yes ‘dance’ – Miss Lou expresses her misgivings about the strains of the nation’s new political status:
Independance wid a vengeance!
Independance raisin Cain!
Jamaica start grow beard, ah hope
We chin can stan de strain!
No easy-come by freeness tings,
Nuff labour, some privation,
Not much of dis an less of dat
An plenty studiration.
In “Independence Dignity” an excited speaker addresses a Jamaican away from home:
Dear Cousin Min, yuh miss sinting,
Yuh should be over yah
Fi see Independence Celebration
Miss Lou’s choice of the word ‘capture’ suggests that Independence may prove to be a rather restrictive state of affairs. Like the ‘privation’ and ‘studiration’ that are the price of Independence, the level of discipline that the new nation’s status requires seems far different from the usual unruly conduct of some out of order Jamaicans:
Rise to de occasion
An deestant up demself fi greet
De birt a dem new nation!
Not a stone was fling, not a samfie sting,
Not a soul gwan bad an lowrated;
Not a fight bruck out, not a bad-wud shout
As Independence was celebrated.
This amusing catalogue of all the bad behaviour that is temporarily suspended suggests that after rising to the occasion for one ‘degeh-degeh’ day, a lot of people will soon fall back on their old ‘lowrated’ ways. The strains and stresses of behaving properly might prove to be very taxing.
The Higher Monkey Climb
In “Jamaica Elevate” Miss Lou creates yet another enthusiastic character who also writes to a Jamaican in the Diaspora, singing the praises of the new state of Independence. But the speed with which the weight of Independence is dropped on Jamaica – biff, buff, baps – leaves the letter-writer dizzy:
So much tings happen so fas an quick
Me head still feel giddy!
Biff Referandum! Buff, Election!
Baps, Independence drop pon we!
At the root of the poem is the cautionary Jamaican proverb, ‘the higher monkey climb, the more him expose himself.’ The presumptuous elevation of Jamaica to a scanty army, an unformed navy, consuls and ambassadors who ‘Dah rub shoulder an dip mouth/ Eena heavy world affairs’, is clear evidence of the pride that goes before the fall.
The make-do armaments of the newly independent nation are remarkably similar to the stones that are not flung in “Independence Dignity.” The more things change, the more they remain the same:
We defence is not defenceless
For we got we half a brick,
We got we broken bottle
An we coocoomacca stick;
But we willin to put down we arms
In Peace and Freedom’s name
An we call upon de nations
Of de worl to do de same.
‘Me Heart Go Boop’
In “Jamaica Elevate” Miss Lou also raises the vexing issue of colour and class politics in the newly independent nation. She highlights an amusing case of mistaken identity, underscoring old antagonisms. The new, native Governor-General, the Queen’s representative, resembles a family member, Bada John. At Independence, the changing face of authority would seem to confirm the ‘elevation’ of not just the Jamaican state, but, more important, black people.
But with wicked wit Miss Lou reveals the purely superficial nature of what appears to be fundamental social change. The immediate response to what looks like Bada John’s picture in the newspaper humorously defines the usual circumstances in which a black person would be deemed newsworthy in the media politics of the times – the heralding of misfortune:
Di fus day im picture print, de
Paper drop outa me han;
Me heart go boop, me bawl out
‘Something bad happen to John!
‘Meck dem draw de picture big so?
Him too ole fi pass exam!
Him no buy no sweepstake ticket?
Someting bad happen to John!’
Of course, nothing bad has happened to John. But in the eyes of some backward Jamaicans, the resemblance between him and the Governor General would have been a clear sign that something bad had happened to that high office. The representative of the queen really ought not to look like her subjects.
A Speck of Greatness
In all of the mockery of the grand rhetoric of Independence, Miss Lou does affirm the high self-esteem of so-called ‘ordinary’ Jamaicans. Miss Mattie, for example, has a rather expansive vision of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:
She hope dem caution worl-map
Fi stop draw Jamaica small
For de lickle speck cyaan show
We independantness at all!
Moresomever we must tell map dat
We don’t like we position –
Please kindly tek we out a sea
An draw we in de ocean
What independent-minded Miss Mattie does acknowledge is the fact that map-making is not an exact science. Territorial borders shift as power dynamics change. Furthermore her vivid image of repositioning us out of the sea and putting us into the ocean is a recognition of the transatlantic origins of the Jamaican people.
Our history is one of migration. All of us foreigners who came, willingly or not, and now call this island our own, do have a sense of ancestral homelands. This speck of Jamaica is great because our conception of ourselves is not dependent solely on our present insular location. Beyond the boundaries of this little island, we envision landscapes of greatness that we can also claim as ours.