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.
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.