Signs Of The Times: #Mosquitofidead

imagesFor the first time in more than 30 years, my sister, Donnette, didn’t come home for Christmas. I’m not amused. Like the wise men from the East, she always comes bearing gifts. These are not last-minute, hit-or-miss purchases. You know the obligatory gifts that nobody actually wants.

Many of my sister’s gifts are handmade. She’s a multimedia artist, masquerading as an attorney. Some of her gifts are exquisite thrift-shop finds. She has mastered the art of hunting for treasure in unlikely places. When I go thrift-shopping with her, I wander aimlessly around the store. All I can see is junk.

After a few minutes of idleness, I feel obliged to ‘find’ something. I usually do very well with books. I like hardbacks and you can find lots of them in very good condition. Americans no longer seem to read books much. And I might pick up a barely-used designer handbag which looks like a bargain at $30. And so it goes.

Then my sister comes and inspects my cart. She imperiously tells me to put back practically everything. The handbag is much too expensive. It will be on half-price sale in a couple of days. And if it’s gone, there’ll always be another one. On rare occasions, she actually approves of one or two of my selections. And I feel relieved. My thrift-shop game is improving.

DIE-HARD JAMAICANS

Thanks to chik-V, my Christmas gifts are languishing up north. Like many other Jamaicans I know, my sister decided it wasn’t worth the risk of infection to come home this year. I can think of at least 35 confirmed cases of the ‘no chik-V Christmas for me’ syndrome. Yes, Dr. Ferguson, we all know that 35 is the magic number.

costbenefitscaleThese fearful souls are die-hard Jamaicans who come home every single year. Sometimes, more than once. After hearing so many chik-V horror stories, able-bodied yardies a foreign did a careful cost-benefit analysis of their holiday options. Stay in the cold, far from those nasty mosquitoes; or come to the warmth of family and friends – and risk a deadly bite. The sensible ones stayed put.

I wonder if Dr Ferguson was thinking about Jamaicans abroad when he tried to hide the truth about the spread of chik-V from tourists. If the Ministry of Health had heeded the early warnings about the threat of the virus, we might have protected that sure tourist market of Jamaicans who come home often. Not to mention all those of us here who have suffered so terribly.

One year, my sister came for Christmas and got dengue. It was not pretty. So I completely understand why she decided not to come this time. She went to Florida instead. I reminded her that chik-V is there. And I promised to dead wid laugh if she got foreign chik-V.

DYING FROM CHIK-V

I really admire those hard-core Jamaicans who decided to brave the mosquitoes. Nothing can keep them away from home. They will always take their chances with us. And if chik-V is going to become endemic in the Caribbean, as the experts say, we’re just going to have to learn to live with it or die from it.

images-1On Christmas Eve, I called the Ministry of Health to get the current estimate of deaths that might have resulted from chik-V. Admittedly, this is not a cheery holiday topic. But unlike so many of our politicians, I don’t believe that ignorance is bliss. We might as well know the truth, however unpleasant.

I wasn’t able to get any figures out of the Ministry. The story goes something like this: We haven’t been able to confirm all the cases that look like chik-V. So we can’t know for sure how many deaths are chik-V-related. The Ministry of Health is still in denial.

I was told to visit the website of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO). I couldn’t easily see an answer to my question. I did find a Gleaner article by Anastasia Cunningham, published on October 4, 2014: “113 Suspected Chik-V-Related Deaths in Region”. According to that report, “Jamaica has recorded at least two deaths suspected to be related to the virus, which has a fatality rate of less than one per cent.”

WHO CARES?

With apologies to Elvis Presley, all I can say is:

Every time you give me figures I’m still not certain that they’re true

Every time you talk to me I’m still not certain that you care

Though you keep on saying we haven’t confirmed the chik-V cases

Do you speak the same words to someone else when I’m not there?

Suspicion torments my heart

Suspicion keeps us apart

Suspicion why torture me?

DV1012H_ackee-and-saltfish_s4x3On Christmas morning, I got this gloating email from my sister: “Ackee and salt fish ready. Mackerel run down running down. ‘Food’ cook and breadfruit and plantain frying”. She’s obviously at home. I don’t even have Christmas cake. My friend, Kemorine, who always gives me one of hers, didn’t bake this year. Her hands weren’t up to it. Yes, chik-V.

Two Sundays ago, I bought a tee shirt, designed by a Jamaican living in Florida. On the front, there’s the now-familiar image of a chicken with a gun and the words, “Chik-V Warrior”. On the back, there’s a clear sign of the times: “#mosquitofidead”. Fi true. Mosquito mash up mi Christmas!

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Jamaicans Abroad Too Poor To Come Home?

On a visit to the US some time ago, I got into quite an argument with a Jamaican who wants to come back home to live one of these days. This is a man who truly loves his homeland. One of the clearest signs of his passion for Jamaica is this truly spectacular garden sculpture on his front lawn.

bustamante-children-hospital-kingston-jamaicaIt’s a map of the island, at least 10 metres long, with rivers and hills and valleys and signposts. The works! It’s a remarkable tribute to yard. I wonder what his neighbours think about this arrogant display of insular pride. Not that their opinion would matter to him. After all, it’s his yard. And his Jamaica!

So hear how the argument started. The gentleman of the house announces that he’s getting ready to send a gift of money to the Bustamante Hospital for Children. He’d solicited contributions from Jamaicans living in the US. Then he begins to ‘mouth’ one of his friends for not making a donation.

FOR THE CAUSE

He next turns to me and solicits my gift for the cause. I jokingly say that I live in Jamaica and that is contribution enough. Well, as the Trinidadian comedian Paul Keens-Douglas would ask rhetorically, “Who tell me say dat?” My man is not amused. He pours out his soul. Living in Jamaica is no sacrifice. He’s a college professor and most of his peers in Jamaica are living far better than him.

Then he says, “Just look at the size of the houses for lecturers on the campus of the University of the West Indies!” He obviously hasn’t been inside many of them. Most are quite run down. The university can barely afford the upkeep of its housing stock. I beg my upset host to please not start on UWI lecturers. Many of them are living in institutional housing because they can’t do better.

And, in any case, those ‘big’ houses were not built for the natives. They were designed to attract (white) expatriates in the early days of the university. It’s only the grace of God that has blackened the campus. And as the campus got blacker, the houses got smaller. The racial politics of housing is quite visible. The natives needed to learn to ‘small up’ themselves.

TAXED TO DEATH

So my host launches a new line of attack. Guess why house prices are so high in Jamaica? It’s because Jamaicans are trying to dig out the eye of returning residents. They have no conscience and are mercilessly exploiting ‘foreigners’. I should have just agreed with him. But I don’t. I argue that the exorbitant cost of housing has little to do with returning residents.

esttaxI suggest that it’s much more basic than that. Everybody is trying to gouge out everybody else’s eye. And that includes the Government, acting under the watchful eye of the International Monetary Fund. We are being taxed to death at every turn. Then I pointed out the fact that it’s only a few people who are really living big in Jamaica.

Not many people have legal incomes that can cover the cost of the palatial residences that are as huge as the egos of their occupants. People in the know can buy their houses cash. But most of us don’t want to know what those people know. So we continue to live as best as we can. In fact, it’s only poor people who still believe in mortgages.

ACKEE TREES IN FLORIDA

All the same, my frustrated professor does have a point. Most middle-class Jamaicans living abroad cannot hope to reproduce their lifestyle in Jamaica. This might seem absurd to those of us here who can barely make ends meet. But housing is, in fact, a major problem for some returning residents.

Owning a house in the US is no guarantee that you’ll be able to afford a replacement in Jamaica. Suppose your house in the US is worth $300,000.00. You foolishly sell it and come home. Can you find a comparable house for $35,000,000.00? You’ll be lucky to get a modest town house for that price in a ‘safe’ neighbourhood.

And just think of a basic commodity like a car. This is not a luxury in the US. If, as a returning resident, you decide to bring your car home, you suddenly discover that you are not wealthy enough to import it. Its value has increased by 54 per cent, the rate of duty. True, this is much better now than in the dreadful days of 100 per cent duty on cars under 3,000cc and 260 per cent duty on cars over. But still!

ackee3As a wannabe returning resident, you do the maths and you realise that you are not wealthy enough to ever live in Jamaica again. So you settle for the occasional visit. And you smile every time you remember that ackee trees are flourishing in Florida. Home is where you can afford to live.

And, to be honest, it sometimes grieves you to think that Jamaicans still expect you to keep on sending remittances that you can hardly afford. It is they who should be sending you money so you can save up to return home. But, at core, you are a true yardie in exile. So, no matter what, you will continue to do all you can for Jamaica. From a distance!

‘Straight’ Spouses At Risk

images-1No matter how hard I try to filter out spam, I end up getting all sorts of unwanted email messages: fraudulent appeals from friends supposedly stranded abroad who need large sums of money to help them come home; sales pitches from China offering goods and services I don’t need; notices that I’ve won huge sums of money in lotteries for which I don’t even have a ticket. You know the usual thing.

The most interesting bit of unsolicited mail I got last week was from South Florida Connects, Inc. Its tag line is ‘No Straight Spouse Left Behind: Straight Spouse Awareness’. The language is old-fashioned, but the issues are current. The website reveals that “You are a straight spouse if you are a heterosexual individual married to or dating someone who is secretly gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgendered.”

images-2I immediately wondered how you would know that your allegedly heterosexual partner is not what he or she appears to be if his/her double life really is a secret. That’s the trouble with being an English teacher. You constantly pay attention to the meaning of words. All the same, I suppose secrets have a way of slipping out, especially if the spouse in hiding secretly wishes to come clean.

The website offers the assurance that “[i]t is better to be hurt by the truth than to be comforted with a dangerous lie”. Then again, proverbial wisdom advises that “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”. Anyhow, I called the number on the website (954-815-6563) and left a voicemail message.

Ian Boyne

Ian Boyne

PAINFUL RELIGIOUS HARD TALK

The night before I got the ‘straight spouse’ email, I watched ‘Religious Hardtalk’, hosted by Ian Boyne. It was painful. I saw my friend Annie Kitchin valiantly trying to engage in intelligent conversation with the Rev Clinton Chisholm. She had a hard time. Rev Chisholm defines himself as a “Christian apologist”. This is not the same as an apology for a Christian. Annie declared herself to be an atheist.

The problem with being an apologist for any cause is that you often end up appearing irrational. Even if, as in the case of Rev Chisholm, your cause is proving the rationality of Christianity! An apologist takes a position and refuses to budge. On the subject of homosexuality and the Bible, the good reverend seemed unwilling to concede that the laws of Leviticus which sentence to death perpetrators of “unnatural” acts are unconscionably outdated. Well, that’s how it sounded to me.

images-4Annie was on form, completely dismissive of the backward view that all Old Testament laws have validity in modern times. She systematically demolished Rev Chisholm’s arguments. But, of course, he may not agree. In any case, it is precisely this hanging on to irrelevant biblical codes of conduct that makes us so unwillingly to accept the fact that the human rights of all homosexuals in Jamaica ought to be protected under the law. Not only those whose class privilege usually gives them immunity.

And just as the rights of lesbians, all-sexuals and gays need to be protected, so too ‘straight’ people should be protected from the guile of deceitful spouses. We need a ‘straight spouse’ support group in Jamaica. It’s the flip side of J-FLAG. I searched the Internet to see if we already had a support group here. I ended up right where I started: on the South Florida Connects, Inc website.

NO SEX ON HONEYMOON

Debbie Thomas-Brown

Debbie Thomas-Brown

Debbie Thomas-Brown, a Jamaican nurse and former schoolteacher, founded the association based on her own experience and the fact that her research showed there was no support for immigrant straight spouses like her. Right off the bat, she said the fundamental problem is that Jamaica makes being gay a crime. Our society does not allow gay people to be their authentic selves. So many pretend to be heterosexual for an easy life.

Their spouses pay the price, especially innocent young women raised in Christian homes who have little sexual experience and no point of comparison to measure their spouse’s performance – or lack of it. Debbie told me about a young couple who had no sex on their honeymoon. The husband had absolutely no interest. Then the wife caught him with a huge erection, pleasuring himself with the help of gay porn. You can just imagine how she felt.

images-8Deprived of sex, neglected wives start to believe that something is wrong with them. Their husbands tell them they are too thin or too fat. They are just not sexy. In some instances, their husbands have sex (with them) only once a year. Debbie argues that gay men tend to marry women with low self-esteem, who often have anxieties about their attractiveness.

Another target group is women in service-oriented professions who have been trained to keep secrets: nurses, teachers, doctors, social workers, lawyers and police. They are not likely to ‘out’ their partners. And if the women do confront their husbands in private, even with very good evidence, the men usually accuse their wives of being ‘crazy’. And the women start to doubt themselves because that’s the last thing they really want to believe.

images-9I learnt that there’s a Grindr app designed for gay men that facilitates quick hook-ups. It’s available all over the world. Say you’re in the National Stadium at a football match and you send out a message that you want a ‘Canadian’. In the jargon, that’s an uncircumcised penis. In two twos, the app will locate several willing members nearby. It’s as easy as that.

Debbie said she would love to be a guest on ‘Religious Hardtalk’. She has a particular burden for Christian women who get caught in relationships with men on the down-low. And it’s not only women who are conned. Heterosexual men also end up marrying lesbians in the church. Finding a ‘good’ man or woman in the house of the Lord is not as straightforward as we once thought it was. Over to you, Pastor Boyne!

Why Is Marcus Garvey A National Hero?

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson poster

I suppose it would look bad.  The leader of the largest organised mass movement of African people in the twentieth century disregarded in his country of birth!   All the same, given the anxiety in some quarters about the African heritage in Jamaica, it is truly remarkable that the political elite had the good sense to recognise Garvey’s heroic stature and honour him accordingly.

Born in 1887, only 21 years after the Morant Bay rebellion, and 53 years after Emancipation, Garvey grew up in a Jamaica that was still trapped in psychological bondage.  As a child, he would probably have heard the denigrating mantra, ‘Nutten black no good’.  He might even have been asked, ‘How yu so black an ugly?’  As if he had anything to do with it.

Garvey grandly rose above the hateful definitions of blackness in Jamaican society and prophetically affirmed, “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind”.  Many of us sing along with Bob Marley, who popularised Garvey’s words in his “Redemption Song”.  But do we fully comprehend the profundity of the exhortation to free the mind?

Garvey made that liberating statement in 1937 at a meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  By then, he was almost at the end of his tumultuous life.  He died less than three years later in London.  Like many Caribbean migrants of his day, Garvey caught the spirit of exploration.  He went to Central America when he was twenty-three, then to the UK, returning home in 1914.

UNIA Parade, Harlem, N.Y.

In August that year, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica.  He went to the U.S. in 1916, and by 1917 had launched the New York Division of the UNIA with all of 13 members. After three months, there were 3500 dues-paying members!

‘The Moses of the Negro Race’

Without access to Facebook and Twitter, the UNIA grew exponentially.  Almost one thousand UNIA divisions were established within seven years.  Garvey was soon described in messianic terms.  The headline of a 1920 article published in the New York World loudly and, perhaps sceptically, proclaimed“The Moses of the Negro Race Has Come to New York and Heads a Universal Organization Already Numbering 2,000,000 Which is About to Elect a High Potentate and Dreams of Reviving the Glories of Ancient Ethiopia”.

Van der Zee photo

       At the heart of Garvey’s vision of a universal movement of black people committed to self-improvement was the expectation that the colonised African continent would be liberated. Garvey asked himself some unsettling questions:“Where is the black man’s government? Where is his King and his kingdom? Where is his President, his ambassador, his country, his men of big affairs?”  His answer:  “I could not find them and then I declared, ‘I will help to make them.'”

You have to admire Garvey’s nerve.  A lesser man might have quailed at the prospect of taking on such a superhuman mission.  At the beginning of the twentieth-century there were only two independent African countries:  Ethiopia and Liberia.  The rest of the continent had been captured by European squatters.  Lion-hearted Garvey, girded with his philosophy of African Fundamentalism, militantly declared, “Africa for Africans, at home and abroad.”

Liberty Hall, Harlem, N.Y.

Garvey saw parallels with the struggles of other oppressed groups who were demanding the right to self-government.  In a speech delivered at Liberty Hall in New York in 1920, Garvey related why he’d started his career as a street preacher, spreading the good news of African redemption: “Just at that time, other races were engaged in seeing their cause through—the Jews through their Zionist movement and the Irish through their Irish movement—and I decided that, cost what it might, I would make this a favorable time to see the Negro’s interest through.”

“The Place Next To Hell”

Despite the global reach of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and his overarching vision of economic enterprise, his wings were clipped when he was arrested on bogus charges of using the mail to defraud.  Imprisoned, he took flight, writing The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, with the sustained editorial oversight of his second wife, Amy Jacques.

Deported in 1927, the indomitable Garvey launched a newspaper, The Blackman (1929-1931), then The New Jamaican (1932-1933).  Perhaps Jamaica wasn’t ready for the black man.  In his first editorial, for The New Jamaican, Garvey spoke the plain truth:  “Jamaica is a fine country from a natural viewpoint—it is a terrible country from economic observations. To consider how the people of Jamaica live, that is, the bulk of the population, is to wonder if we, at all, have any system of economics. We shall endeavour to enlighten the country on the possibility of creating a better order of things for everybody through a system of education in economics—a thing not generally known nor taught in Jamaica.”

Eighty years later, things have not changed ‘to dat’, despite political independence.  We still haven’t gotten the economics right.  In frustration with Jamaican politics, Garvey once described the island in an issue of The New Jamaican as “the place next to hell”.  Despite the almost hellish circumstances in which he sometimes found himself, Garvey was always self-assured.  An article published in The Daily Gleaner on January 19, 1935, quotes Garvey:  “My garb is Scotch, my name is Irish, my blood is African, and my training is half American and half English, and I think that with that tradition I can take care of myself”.

This afternoon at 3:00 p.m., Professor Tony Martin, a distinguished Pan-Africanist scholar, will deliver the 3rd annual Marcus Garvey lecture at Liberty Hall in honour of the 125th birthday of our First National Hero:  “If Garvey Dies, Garvey Lives: The Enduring Relevance of Garvey’s Ideas”.   This lecture will certainly silence those cynics in this “place next to hell” who object to the teaching of Garvey’s philosophy in our schools.  Claiming Garvey’s legacy for our children is full freedom.

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:

Jamaican

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

English 

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:

Jamaican

Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

And she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independent to

English

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.

‘Worl-map Fi Stop Draw Jamaica Small!’

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!

Miss Lou acknowledges the fact that Independence is much more than the song and dance of Festival celebrations. It requires a capacity for self-sacrifice that some Jamaicans may stubbornly resist:

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

Capture Jamaica.

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:

Yuh waan see how Jamaica people

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

Louise Bennett

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!

Jamaican High Commission, London

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’

Sir Clifford Campbell,
first native governor-general

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!

Sir Kenneth Blackburne, last British governor and first
governor-general of independent Jamaica

‘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.