What does it mean to be Jamaican?


Monday, July 28, 2014

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MANY of us, at home or abroad, have a love-hate relationship with our country. The love part is about the richness of our natural resources and the vibrancy of the culture we have created from the fusion of our predominantly African ancestry, sprinkled with Taino, Asian and Europeans. It manifests itself in our world view and lifestyles that are uniquely and proudly ours. The part that many of us are challenged by is our relationship to the State -- the political arrangement that has as its primary responsibility the protection of the well-being of its citizens. Sure, we are so much better off than many, but we have a far way to go.

I had reason to reflect on all of this a few days ago on a trip to New England. I left home, frankly, not paying particular attention to exactly where I was going. I was heading for a college town in Storrs, Connecticut. I figured it could not be too different from the others I had been to. I arrived in Willimantic, the nearest big city to Storrs, and immediately realised that this was no bucolic New England town. It looked gritty and post-industrial, like it had seen much better days and is struggling to stay alive. This proved to be the case, I found out eventually.

Located in Eastern Connecticut, Willimantic used to be the centre of production for silk and cotton thread from the end of the United States Civil War to the start of World War II. It was a thriving town then and immigrants from all over Europe flocked there to work in the mills. The economy was further boosted by railroad jobs; it was one of a few stops between Boston and New York on the high-speed "White Train" in the late 19th century, and up to the late 20th century up to 100 trains a day passed through the town. Hard times hit the town when the mills closed, and without them the town's economy floundered. There are movements to rebuild the economy around arts and culture. Its population of just over 17, 000 is more than 70 per cent white.

The bus I intended to take to Storrs, about seven miles further north, pulled away from the stop as I tried to cross the road, but disappointment soon turned to delight at what was immediately in front of me: the Jamaican colours emblazoned across one of the cleanest and brightest little storefronts -- a restaurant -- on Main Street. "Jamaican Me Crazy," the sign said in yellow letters on a green background. I greeted the three people inside in my native tongue so they would know right away that we are one. Also, that they could tell me how they came to be selling jerk pork, curried goat and beef patties in meat and potato country.

Richard, the proprietor, who had been sitting flat on the floor, scraping away at something, was happy to talk. He left Jamaica at age eight for England and spent just over 30 years there. He moved to the United States 20 years ago. The restaurant is barely eight months old; a post-recession venture upon which he was tying his family's hope and his burning desire to return to Jamaica to help a few young people.

Fifty-one years after leaving Jamaica, Richard's heart remains in a little community called Harry Watch in our beloved Manchester. We talked about real estate around the area and found that we had a common affinity for combing the sites to inform ourselves; we could both name the top five sites. We talked about his plans for the restaurant, about our children, and the common struggle to keep them safe and grounded in 'foreign'. He is proud of his four sons; one is graduate of the University of Virginia, one of America's top public universities.

By the time I left, they felt like family; and we are. We are connected, not by blood, but by birth to the same land, and even more strongly by the commonality of nationhood, which French scholar Ernest Renan described as a "spiritual principle based on shared memories, the cult of a glorious past as well as the ability to forget shameful events in the nation's past".

It may not all apply, but the core of it holds true. Nationhood is not just about space, it is about the choices that we make, the acts that we perform, and the goods and services that we consume in celebration of our affinity to something that is largely intangible, but profoundly meaningful to us. The majority of us abroad -- even those who, for practical reasons, become citizens of different places -- continue to identify as Jamaicans, to give back, however we can, to consume our goods and services, and promote the positive aspects of our culture; and to be shamed by too many negatives.

That is not in conflict with our desire and advocacy to see our country progress, particularly in areas where we could have been much further along but for the failure of the State apparatuses to execute their obligations. In this regard, honest advocacy is meaningful service.

Renan said further that nationhood is "the collective affirmation of a national will by the citizens of a country". Quite often, however, we are uncertain of exactly what that means for us across the divides of partisan politics and entrenched special interests.

As the 176th anniversary of full emancipation from plantation slavery and the 52nd anniversary of our Independence approach, it is an imperative of nationhood to contemplate what our national will is, to affirm it and pursue it. While it seems sometimes that we are perpetually at war with ourselves, the truth is we share some core values. We all value education and religion, our creative energy, our resilience, and our courage. We love our country, we are proud of our enormous cultural footsteps in the world. This was reinforced ever so forcefully when I eventually made it to Storrs and, at a cafeteria lunch stop, discovered that the soup of the day was Jamaican jerk chicken soup.

It did not taste like anything I recognised, but I was proud as hell anyway.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a social justice advocate.




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