Who is Jamaica?

The morning after Emancipation Day, August 1st, I took out my prized Independence commemorative plate from the hand-carved mahogany cabinet in which it’s kept.  It was a gift from the mother of a long-ago boyfriend who, incomprehensibly, complained constantly that she loved me more than him.  Needless to say, he didn’t last.  Gender politics in Jamaica can be quite complicated.

The plate does have a little chip, but it really doesn’t matter.  It’s the spirit of the thing that counts: a little bit of tactile history.  The decorated plate features the Jamaican coat of arms.  On February 3, 1661, Jamaica became the first British colony to receive its own arms.  The Latin motto grandly declaimed: ‘Indus uterque serviet uni’ (Both Indies will serve one).  From East to mythic West, colonial relations of domination were inscribed in heraldry.

1661 Coat of arms

The coat of arms memorializes the Amerindian people of Jamaica.  There is a woman bearing a basket of pineapples and a man holding a bow.  At school we were taught that they were Arawak.  These days, they are Taino.  But the subtle distinction is purely academic.  The native people of Xaymaca, as the island was once called, are extinct. In their culture, the pineapple symbolized hospitality.  Genocide was their reward for the naïve welcome they gave Christopher Columbus.   They survive only in the coat of arms and in the modest museum that is dedicated to their history.

Perched above the Taino man and woman is a crocodile.  This reptile has fared much better than the indigenous people.  Its descendants are still alive.  A popular tourist attraction is the Black River safari which allows foolhardy explorers to get up close and personal with crocodiles.  An ad for the safari promises:  “A smiling crocodile right alongside the boat.  You can touch him if you are brave”.

At Independence in 1962, the national motto, enshrined in the coat of arms, was changed to “Out of many, one people”.  Though this might at first appear to be a vast improvement on the servile Indies, both East and West, the new motto does encode problematic contradictions.  It marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting compulsively that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial.  In actuality, approximately 90% of the population is of African origin; 7% is mixed-race; 3% is European, Chinese and East Indian combined.

It was my high school English teacher, Miss Julie Thorne, who, for me, first interrogated the racial politics of the supposedly unifying motto.  She had come from the United Kingdom to teach on an international   development program much like the Peace Corps.  As an outsider, she could immediately detect the fraudulence of the homogenizing racial myth.  She asked us students a rather cynical question.  “Out of many, one people?  Which one?”

The classic Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, released in 1972, documents the mood of the earlier decade.  Optimistic rural youth migrated to Kingston and the smaller towns, looking for fulfillment of the promise of Independence.

On my commemorative plate, there’s a map of Jamaica which highlights Kingston, Spanish Town, Mandeville, Montego Bay and Port Antonio.  These were the centres of commerce to which ambitious youth gravitated.   Jimmy Cliff, the star of The Harder They Come, sang their hopes:

‘You can get it if you really want,

But you must try, try and try, try and try

You’ll succeed at last’.

Cliff’s lyrics echo a famous 19th century exhortation that has been much spoofed:  “‘Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.  Schoolchildren in Jamaica memorized that gem.  It motivated us to excel.  But ‘it’ often proved elusive, especially for the underclass who had no sustained access to formal education even after Independence.

The Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote an empathetic novel The Children of Sisyphus, published in 1965, which skillfully recounts the uphill battle of those who tried to make it in Kingston, or ‘Killsome’, as Peter Tosh wittily dubbed the city.  The crushing boulders of oppression kept rolling back down.  Trapped in a cycle of repetitive failure, pauperised people struggled, nevertheless, to make meaning out of despair.

Reclaiming ancestral traditions of resistance, the urban poor fashioned new languages of survival.  Reggae music became the heartbeat of a people who refused extinction. In the words of Bob Marley’s “One Drop”:

“Feel it in the one drop

And we still find time to rap

We making a one stop

The generation gap

So feel this drumbeat as it beats within

Playing a rhythm resisting against the system”.

Reggae music filled the gap between reality and expectations. It articulated the philosophy and opinions of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.  The reggae drumbeat evoked Rastafari philosophy and livity, a coinage that is the decided antithesis of levity. With biblical authority, Rastafari claimed the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 as fulfillment of the prophecy recorded in Psalm 68:31:  “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”.

Marley’s conception of reggae as a rhythm of resistance brilliantly traces the lineage of ‘word, sound and power’ that connects African Jamaicans across several generations and to the continent.  The deployment of music as a therapeutic weapon of resistance is a long- established tradition in African Jamaican culture.

The abeng, a wind instrument of West African origin made from cow horn, is preserved in Jamaica by the legendary Maroons who emancipated themselves from enslavement.  In highly tactical wars of resistance, they defeated the British, asserting their right to self-government. The abeng sounded the alarm, protecting the Maroon strongholds from sudden attack.

The relationship of the Maroons to the wider community of African-Jamaicans is complex.  They signed a treaty with the British which demanded that they return belated runaways to plantation slavery.  Betrayal of other blacks was the price of their own freedom.  It is a familiar tale – divide and rule.

But even on the plantations, maroon traditions of resistance took root.  Forced to survive in the very belly of the beast, enslaved

Africans perfected weapons of war from within.  Silent poisoning of their supposed masters was a deadly tool.   And music, the drumbeat of resistance, was a potent language of communication through which those who were forced to simulate accommodation to servitude were empowered to exercise agency.

The word ‘abeng’ is of Twi origin.  This language provided much of the African-derived lexicon of the Jamaican Creole language that is now the mother tongue of most Jamaicans.  Devalued by the elite, the language of the majority speaks to the marginality of African culture in the construction of the nation state.

Conversely, cultural icon Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, has used her heart language to affirm Jamaican identity.  In her humorous poem “Independance”, [sic], which satirizes the song and dance of the elitist project of constitutional decolonization, Bennett creates a vociferous working-class persona, Miss Mattie, who has a rather grand 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


She hopes they’ve warned the mapmakers

To stop drawing Jamaica so small

Because that little speck

Can’t show our greatness at all!

Moreover we must tell the mapmakers

That we don’t like our position –

Would they be kind enough to take us out of the sea

And relocate us in the ocean

Jamaicans are island people with a continental consciousness.  We remember our origins across oceans of history.  For us, Independence is not just about constitutional rearrangements.  It’s in our blood.  From Miss Mattie’s perspective:


Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

And she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independent to


We are independent by nature

That’s how we’ve been born and bred

And she’s happy to see

That the government has now become independent

Elitist and popular conceptions of the Jamaican character finally converge.  Independent is who Jamaica is.


13 thoughts on “Who is Jamaica?

  1. I really enjoyed your article, Dr. Cooper. I initially ready it in the New York Times but feeling like you hadn’t gone into the depth of explanation to capture the complexity of your comments, I search for your blog. In doing so, I was ellated to read more about your article as well as to get introduced to your previous writings. I am myself a Jamaican American who has always identified with the “out of many, one people” moto because it is visibly the case in my family that we are of several nationalities which, as you say, represent only 7% of the population. Although, this is the case with my family, we embrace our African hertitage as much as our Chinese, Indian, Irish and Central American roots. Personally, I am extremely patriotic about Jamaica and embrace all of the wonderful cultural uniquenesses we share as a people (fortitude, educational values, sense of humor) and regardless of being considered, as you say, a minority among Jamaicans, I value my Jamaicanness and love all of my people as much as myself. I hope to one day return to Jamaica permanently to contribute to ever growing progess and prestige. I am revealing in our wins at the Olymipics and smile spontaneously as I think on our sung and unsung accomplishments around the world. We are a blessed and amazing people and regardless of any cultural divisions which may exist from a visual inspection, it is our strongly shared Jamaican values, opinions, norms and expectations which make us “one people” in the bigger picture, wouldn’t you say? By the way, you are a beautiful, brilliant woman and I have nothing but the highest admiration for you!

  2. Your article and blog taught me a lot. I have always thought of Jamaica as a special place although I have never been there. The country has contributed many things to world culture. You are right to point out the failings of the country’s motto…

  3. Dr. Cooper, I read your op-ed in the NY Times (albeit a more condensed version) and it led me here. I must say that I read the piece in the Times twice and I still disagree with you that our motto of “Out of Many, One People” is “fictive” and needs to be revised. You pointed out that the population is of 90% African origin, the rest mixed, and from Europe and Asia. If that’s the case, aren’t we still from many? When Miss Thorne asked “Which one?” someone should have said “The Jamaican one.” Are you suggesting that we discount the 10 percent because the country is overwhelmingly of African descent?

    My great great grandfather was an English slave master who sent his son (my great grandfather) back to England to be educated. After college he went back to Jamaica and married an Indian woman who immigrated to Jamaica as an indentured laborer. My grandmother was from the cockpit country in St. Elizabeth and had settled in Trelawny. Her grandparents were runaway slaves. I am a prime example of “Out of Many, One People”, and my skin color is as dark as yours.

    Jamaica has come a long way since the 60’s, and now a lot of the “many” own their own businesses and hold top executive positions, or top teaching positions, yourself among them. I attended Jamaica College in the 80’s and early 90’s, and as I understood it, just 15-20 years before my arrival on that campus, it was a high school for the “one” as you call them. Today in Jamaica, as in most places in the world, education is accessible to the masses, even though opportunity after said education may be scarce. Opportunities may not abound at the moment but remember that it has just been 50 years and we still have a very long way to go.

    I think we are still out of many, one people; we are Jamaicans. No matter our skin color or ancestry, we were born on that lovely island and most of us still consider it home even though we may reside afar. We should never be like the Americans where we have to define every ethnic group. There are no African-Jamaicans, we are simply Jamaicans, no matter if the outside of our skin is white, or black, or we have Asian eyes, we are simply Jamaicans. Happy 50th Anniversary to the land of my birth.

  4. Professor Cooper, I speak here for the minority of Jamaicans who are of mixed race. When you ask “who is Jamaica” the answer is that Jamaica is all of us– all colors, sharing a common history, language, and culture. Not one of us is native to the island. Though non-African groups in Jamaica constitute a very small slice of the population, they have nonetheless made significant contributions to Jamaican history, culture, cuisine, and politics. The truth of this legacy is not to be discounted, devalued, or ignored. There should be no racial or ethnic test to determine who is a real Jamaican. As a daughter of a Jamaican mother and half-Jamaican father, with roots on the island dating back several hundred years, I know it is false and divisive to suggest that Jamaica should be for peoples of African origin only. We are one people; ‘One Love’ as Bob Marley, himself of mixed race, pointed out. This is what is reflected in the national motto, and this is the beauty of Jamaica- that despite hard times, we are a united people. I speak for my family who do not appear African yet are deemed to be non-Jamaicans, both at home and abroad, because of such false and divisive ideas. I have seen and felt the sadness and sense of alienation this produces, and know in my heart that this is very, very wrong. Is it right for the majority in America to deem all nonwhites non-American? Of course not. And the same logic applies to Jamaica. Jamaica is all of ours, a fact written in our blood and shared history. Thank you for considering the viewpoint of the minority. We still count.

    • Ms. Cooper’s article does not discount your identity as a Jamaican. The national motto (“Out of Many, One People”) was/is an imposition on the black majority that do not have your multicultural experience as the motto suggests – nor is that experience as wide-spread as you have been lead to believe.

      The motto served to protect the post-colonial leadership class that looked like you – but in doing so the full identity and cultural expressions of the black majority was marginalized. The question for you is, was/is that psychological imposition necessary for your success and safety in Jamaica?

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed your article, Carolyn. Your scholarship is truly inspiring. Every time I read your blog/articles, it gives me more courage to assert my own academic research that strives to validate an African presence that is too often misconstrued by many as ‘Black supremacy’ or anti-something or another.

  6. Author and Professor Carolyn Cooper, I was introduced to your writing in the New York Times’ op-ed, and I have since read some of your columns in The Gleaner. Your writing is concise and your ideas are well-researched, so though I disagree with some of your points, I look forward to reading more of your columns and eventually, your books. I posted one point on which I disagree on the Atlantic Wire “What Matters Now,” Atlantic Magazine’s summary of important New York Times stories, and I post that response here.

    We look forward to your writing, your ideas, your insight and your views, because whether we agree or disagree with your analysis, your writing is historic.

    “About Carolyn Cooper’s op-ed, “Who Is Jamaica?” in The New York Times, the piece is a rant that is brilliantly written, but I disagree with the author on one point that she glosses over — that Jamaica does not have African culture that has survived. I am someone who interviewed my Jamaican American family in the U.S., where my father has been since he arrived as a teenage replacement worker during World War II, and also interviewed my ancestors in Jamaica and used our nicknames that survived from colonial times and our rebel Maroon folk history to trace ancestors to specific villages and families in medieval Ghana in West Africa.

    “My ancestors have roots in specific Akuapim villages of the Akan people of Ghana, West Africa. They are related to the Ashantis and Fantis. After I identified the families, we compared my father’s DNA with that of dozens of families, and the DNA matched. So did the nicknames, which were identical. Even the looks, voices and careers were identical. So I know much survives in Jamaica from our African ancestors.

    “But the author may be correct that not enough is being preserved and built upon. One skill that can be built upon is the strength of some of these ancestors in colonial times. The Maroons, enslaved Africans who escaped, built wilderness communities and fought back against slavery, were invincible. So the author missed the point when she says, Jamaica’s “distinctive music, religion, politics, philosophy, science, literature and language” have been “marginalized” in building the nation. She gives the example of the Jamaican coat of arms, citing and explaining the emblems, symbolizing the country’s indigenous inhabitants and the pineapple, symbolizing hospitality, but does not explain what the crocodile on the coat of arms symbolizes. The country’s coat of arms was created in 1661 by the colonial English who captured this and other colonies from the Spanish. So, having found 17th- and 18th-century Maroon ancestors, many of the enslaved Africans who rebelled, escaped to the hills and settled, I suggest that the crocodile on the 1661 Jamaica coat of arms represents what it has always symbolized in traditional heraldry.

    “The coat of arms represents a mysterious legendary beast, a powerful symbol of fury and power, a guardian of a great treasure, so I suspect that the English included it in the island’s coat of arms because after capturing the island from the Spanish in 1655, they faced unexpected resistance from the few hundred free African people and the thousand or so enslaved African people. By 1656, English Vice Admiral Goodson and Major Sedgwicke wrote to Oliver Cromwell complaining that the militia was unable to capture the slaves who escaped to the hills, formed anti-slavery resistance communities, and, and were now attacking and resisting under leaders like Juan Lubolo. The strength of the crocodile is an ancient symbol of the ability to resist, fight for freedom, and rebuild. That is where builders can start rebuilding a stronger nation and culture.

    “The English in 1661 recognized the strength of the African people who were now Maroons when they wrote to Oliver Cromwell, saying, “the Blacks there are many, who are like to prove as thorns and pricks in our sides, living in the mountains and woods.” These are people who had rebelled in their medieval African villages, before they were captured on the battlefield, for they have the strength to rebuild a nation after hundreds of years of abuse and 300 years of colonial rule.
    The 50th anniversary of freedom from colonialism is a time to reflect on the roots of the strength and rebuild socially, culturally and financially.”

    • Pearl, I did not say that “Jamaica does not have African culture that has survived”. I was talking about the Arawak/Taino people who were victims of genocide. Please reread my article more carefully. I am amazed that you could read ‘Arawak’ and see ‘African’!

      • Hi Carolyn, I referred specifically to the emblems, people and cultures reflected in the original coat of arms, and given the historic rebellions the English were facing from the African Maroons in Jamaica when the coat of arms was designed, I suggest that another interpretation is possible. The people shown in the original coat of arms depict the Arawak/Taino people, and the crocodile depict the African people the English faced in Jamaica in the 1600s. This is an interpretation of the emblems on the nation’s coat of arms, given how coats of arms are designed with emblems that reflect a variety of people and events. The crocodile represents strength and resistance. And as you said, the crocodile survives, so if we can interpret and say the crocodile on the original coat of arms represents the brave African ancestors who resisted in the 1600s when the coat of arms was designed, then African descendants can build on that strength and resistance. The English faced such resistance from the Africans in Jamaica in the 1600s, even as brutal colonists, the English would have included them on the nation’s coat of arms. That is what I see in the crocodile.

  7. You’ve done it again Dr. Cooper! Keeping your fans and readers on their toes about what they think, know and believe. The topic of heritage is a hot topic and one that has many facets just as their are many perspectives of personal experiences. Although sad, I’m glad how you gave honor to the original inhabitants of the island. You really tell the story so all can learn and acknowledge the good, bad and often ugly past. Thanks for sharing your viewpoints as we are allowed to share ours.

  8. Great article as always! They taxed and terrorized the Africans to finance the bogus indenture-ship of everyone else that came after. The truth is the truth – Out of One, Many!

    Keep your energy up Ms. Cooper – love you like ackee and yam!

  9. I happen to fall in this mixed ethnic cultural variation myself as you have rightly said many Jamaican are mixed racial and are non-the-less not very comfortable with the manner in which the full negroes were treated especially in pre and early postcolonial era. In spite of this we have a rich legacy which only a fool would try and dispute. My grandmother was born on May 11, 1908 and departed this life in October of 2010 – 102 years on this blessed planet. Her mother was among indentured labourer from India and her father was called Usherwood of a Scottish origin. She was clear in complexion and had long straight mane. My mother who is her daughter has a more African black look because my grandmother had her single child with a pitch black man called Frazer. The definite skin tone we now embrace if we were to look back a century we would find ourselves in higher hue. I am proud of my rich cultural heritage which is embedded in my mother side of the dynasty.
    I must say I must commend Professor Carolyn Cooper for her indebted research into the psyche of the Jamaican experience over the ages. We must embrace iconic people like these and accelerate our quest to preserve their invaluable and humbling contribution and commitment to the grassroots of the noble isle called Jamaica. She has masterminded the unreservedly commitment in the preservation of the Jamaican Creole without not even a miniscule amount of apology. She has worked assiduously and unwaveringly for the preservation of the vernacular – we the genuine Jamaicans embraces so wholeheartedly. I am eternally grateful for the undying professional and diplomatic manner in which she embraces our treasured language. The class structure is of such that some considers other to be illiterate if they embark on the illumination of the common language of the local.
    It is alleged you are different and of a lesser academic stableness and accomplishment without saying a word further if you make the mistake and speak the language of the common people before an interviewer by the interviewee before an interview you are gone. In spite of the unquestionably reality that they too speak to their friends in informal settings they would stamp out a one in a million chance of a young man to achieve upward social mobility. You would have just jeopardized your chance of a promising future. I am a proud speaker of the language I knew from my first breath.
    The article she wrote depicted the many struggles we have encountered in our readiness to face the real world. The tremendous sacrifices of this loving lady has presented an aura about us as a people wherein people from the four pole of the world can look at us as a dominant people who are very special in every art form they so embrace and pursue. The rural urban drift that was depicted by this lady made the country a source of concern in the manner in which people try to live in search of the Jamaican Dream or ideal. The subhuman manner in which some Jamaican chose to live to satisfy their egos and face the harsh reality of abject poverty, subsequently the survival instinct chips in hence wondering into a world of crime and violence.

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