The chance for a broader view of history
Celebrating Jamaica’s 60th Anniversary
How time flies — it really does. During this my 63rd year of life, it now comes to mind that Jamaica, my birthplace, having evolved from a fledgling state to one that joined the great pantheon of nations, is in its 60th year of independence. How strange it is that my birth certificate reckons me to be, chronologically speaking, older than my own country. And yet, before my eyes saw the light of day, this country bred a culture spanning centuries which was, is now, and will always be, as a grandfather to me. How is that possible?
For generations, before independence in 1962, under the shadow of British colonial paternalism, my people were made to feel that they were not ready and, indeed, might never be ready for self-rule. This was reinforced by Eurocentric notions of what was good, bad, beautiful and ugly. It was based upon a skewed definition of progress which was devoid of their African, Asian and Middle-Eastern genera. It was a threadbare argument asserting that they had lacked the fortitude needed for the inevitable vicissitudes of nation-building. But having survived the sweltering heat of slavery and the sand storms of indentured service — much to the surprise of their colonizers I might add — they were prepared to do so again and actually succeeded in doing so by exhibiting leadership in ways that would become the delight and envy of the world.
I grew up to the ‘patriotic’ musical strains of God Save The Queen, a personage I beheld while standing at the side of a street in Kingston, “when mi yeye de a mi knee”, as Jamaicans say, my father holding my hand firmly, while she waved from her motorcade to the throngs who came out to see her. That was in March 1966. The red, white and blue of the Union Jack was our standard up to a little over three years before. And then, before I knew it, this familiar personage was replaced by a dark-skinned, bespectacled man: our second Governor General, Sir Clifford Campbell.
Before I had even learned the old anthem, I had to learn a new one under the banner of the black, green and gold. That simple act served as a beginning in the long process of enculturation into a new society that would, in time, fundamentally touch and permeate every facet of national life.
With the passage of time, the Pound notes featuring The Queen’s image and superscription, even the coins I used as a boy in primary school to purchase june plums, snow cones and asham, gave way to august faces that were just as familiar to me as was The Queen’s.
I can recall the image of our first Prime Minister, The Right Excellent Sir Alexander Bustamante, although I don’t recall seeing him in real life. However, I do remember seeing our first and only Premier, one of our champions of independence, The Right Excellent Norman Washington Manley, in a three-piece grey suit, standing in wait at a gas station while the attendant bustled about his car. How time flies.
As the awe instilled in me by the British for colonialism was transferred to such men of courage and vision, I found myself on the cusp of a paradigmatic shift in public education and industry. It was a course inspired by them — one of thought and of action — which best suited our Caribbean experience with all of its concomitant challenges.
In my preadolescence I learned what it was to grieve when the nation lost its beloved second Prime Minister, Sir Donald Sangster who died in office.
In my adolescence, I watched as one Prime Minister — of the green persuasion — was helicoptered in to a national event, stood on the same stage with him as he delivered a speech, and watched him fly out forthwith. Other occasions also come to mind where another Prime Minister — this time of the orange persuasion — was the central figure in close proximity. I was there when he delivered one or two speeches to the student body at my high school. I was there at his official residence where I stood face-to-face with him as a choir boy dressed in CARIFESTA costume — perhaps only outshone by the sixth form girls who gushed, giggled and swooned over him.
Father Time also placed me in a moment where I was in close proximity to yet another politician (again of the green persuasion) who would one day become the country’s leader himself, watching as he unpacked his family’s belongings at a resort in Ocho Rios. In the faces of those public figures I saw a form of greatness that was clothed in flesh and blood, that walked in imperfection, that was not rarefied and, hence, unattainable. I looked into their eyes and I saw myself and my peers. They were successful in opening up a world of wonder, excitement, inspiration and promise and I was eager to partake of it. There were other cultural icons who would later set fire to my imagination and my ambition.
Those images and more now come flooding back from my formative years, as vividly as when they were first imprinted on my mind, with sounds etched indelibly on my soul:
The excitement over the visit of Emperor Haile Selassie. The jubilation over many of our athletes winning track and field events at the Olympics. Watching from the bleachers as they played masterful cricket at Sabina Park. Miss Jamaica contestants parading by the pool at the National Stadium.
Dancing to the rousing music of many reggae artistes of international renown. Rolling in stitches to the comedic antics of Ranny Williams and Oliver Samuels. Seeing Black Jamaican faces in the film The Harder They Come with Jimmy Cliff. Rejoicing or cussing at results from our Festival Song Competition. Junkanoo. Stilt walkers. Maypole dancers. The National Pantomime. The Jamaican Folk Singers. The Jamaica Military Band. Float parades. The whistling of peanut vendors push-carts. Air Jamaica — our Love Bird. J.O.S. buses, more commonly known as the Jolly Joseph and Patty Pan. Country buses swaying from side to side under the top-heavy weight of produce, packed with singing passengers playing tambourines on the way to market. All a part of my precious memories from when I was a boy.
Then there were excursions to Palisadoes Airport, Port Royal, Gunboat Beach, Hellshire Beach, Castleton Gardens, Dunn’s River Falls, Milk River Bath, Hope Gardens, Tom Redcam Library, The Institute of Jamaica, the RJR radio station, the J.D.F. at Up Park Camp and Newcastle, The Ward Theatre, The Little Theatre, the Denbigh Agricultural Show, and the Coronation Market. Singing along with passengers on a JRC train ride to the country while out from school on holidays.
Those were some of the people, events, sights, and sounds which served to shape, define, inspire and guide me in my early years. Because of them, as a boy, I entered a JCDC-sponsored singing contest twice, winning a bronze medal under the tutelage of the late, great Noel Dexter, on my first outing. Because of them, as a boy, I had an article published in the now defunct Daily News. Because of them, as a boy, I was part of an ensemble that won an award at The Schools’ Drama Festival, which was later filmed on location and aired on JBC Television. Because of them, as a man, I now corral these memories and pen them into words for progeny in celebration of our 60th Anniversary. Because of them, I am still, very much, proud to be Jamaican.
Even as all these wondrous memories come flooding back to me now, and pride of heritage fills my spirit, yes…I can also recall the decidedly unpleasant times like the beginning of our currency’s slide, the price increases, the food shortages, the bloody political violence gilded by the popping sounds of the gun, the Green Bay Massacre, the road blocks with burning tyres, the curfews with helicopter searchlights, the water lock-offs and the power outages.
Sadly, that was also Jamaica, but contrary to the grossly imbalanced view presented largely by foreign media, that was certainly not all we were then, nor did it represent our national aspirations. As is the path of so many emerging nations throughout history, our nation was like a teething baby, wailing through our growing pains.
Who are we? We are the Honourable Dr. Louise Bennett-Coverley; The Honourable Robert Nesta Marley; Professor Rex Nettleford; Dr. Thomas Lecky; Dr. Henry Lowe; Dr. Olive Lewin; Drs. Manley West and Albert Lockhart; Alvin T. Marriott; Cecil A. Baugh; Mallica Reynolds (Aka, Kapo); and we are Professor Mervyn Morris.
Who are we? We are Carole Joan Crawford; Cindy Breakspeare; Lisa Hanna; Toni-Ann Singh; Merlene Ottey; we are Usain Bolt; Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce; we are Veronica Campbell-Brown; Michael Holding; Courtney Walsh; Elaine Thompson-Herah; Jody-Anne Maxwell; Asafa Powell; Alia Atkinson; George Leslie “Bunny” Grant; Mike “The Bodysnatcher” McCallum; Richard “Shrimpy” Clarke; we are Orville Haslam, and we are the Jamaica Bobsled team!
Those individuals are all of us. They reflect the unnamed and unheralded Jamaicans like our farmers, market vendors, domestic workers, construction workers, hotel workers, bus drivers, taxi operators, store clerks, doctors and nurses, teachers, police men and women, and our entrepreneurs. This is a national collective that perfectly personifies and epitomizes what the colours in our flag convey, which is that “The sun shineth, the land is green, and the people are strong and creative.” In Jamaica’s 60th year, I embrace, and I celebrate these as signs of great things to come.
I have seen, laughed, cried, been angry and have questioned much. There are more tough times ahead. Still, I hold to a broad view of history, not allowing myself to be confined only by evidence of the inevitable pitfalls of nation-building. Moments along the continuum of time do not always accurately predict destinations in time. Paul Bogle’s comrades in arms, for example, after the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, might have thought that their hopes for freedom were irrevocably dashed at his execution. But look at us today.
Many examples can be used from life, juxtaposing what one might be experiencing now, in contrast to tracking social, political, economic, religious and cultural movements with yesterday’s precedents in mind as against tomorrow’s stare decisis. Failing to do so could lead to unnecessary despair or to fraudulent and devastating hope. And so, one must traverse the milieu of life as one in a proverbial minefield — choosing either to stand still, wringing one’s hands and shaking in one’s boots, or trudging ever forward with motions born of a courageous “do or die” attitude which is likely to achieve some degree of success. We can easily point to numerous examples across history and countries in support of this truth.
In its 60th year, I say to the people of my homeland, to those who have tasted of the bitter swill of our colonial past, and also to their progeny, whose teeth have been put on edge because of that past, mark the lyrical pronouncement of none other than our beloved brother, Bob Marley:
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
‘Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
Ooh Some say it’s just a part of it
We’ve got to fulfil the book!
A broader view of history does not limit itself to the exigencies of now, but invests time and effort in the prospects for a brighter tomorrow. We must not eat all the corn but save some for planting. A Greek proverb makes the point with more eloquence and lucidity than I ever can: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”
Editor’s Note: Mr Al Murray received a Gold medal for the more expansive version of this article submitted in the 2022 Festival competition