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Celebrating the 50th, at home and away

Saturday, August 04, 2012

HARD as it is to believe, it's been 50 years since the Union Jack went down the flagpole for the last time as Jamaica's official emblem and the new black, green and gold standard ascended to catch a slight wind and billow out tentatively. Three hundred and seven years of British colonialism had come to an end and we, as a people, were now on our own. But what did we know about Independence? Self-government? Being in charge of our own affairs?

Some people did know, having promoted the idea for years. One was Norman Manley, who made sure the concept was embedded in the DNA of the party he helped found. The concept, in fact, had begun taking root as far back as the late 19th century, when the freed slaves agitated at length for land, dignity and respect. In the end, the leaders who framed the new nation didn't strike out on bold new paths, but stuck closely to the template the white dominions - Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand - had worked out after World War I and which became enshrined in the Statute of Westminster of 1931.

So we still have a dominion with the queen as head of state, governors-general who still carry British titles, and the British Privy Council as this independent country's court of last resort.Successive prime ministers have talked about completing the disengagement, and the present PM has reiterated her desire to do so. We wait, sceptically.

But let's not throw cold water on a party. This is, after all, a time of celebration. And you can be sure that the new nation was born into a time of celebration. We had street dances and parties all over the place. In 1962 I was a rookie at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation and lived in Harbour View. That was a proud community, with householders competing with each other and streets jostling to see who had the best lawns and gardens, whose house looked the snazziest and even who had the best grass on the verges bordering the sidewalk. We had street parties that continued for days.

There was an Independence festival, orchestrated by a young Eddie Seaga, who as minister of development and welfare held the reins of most of the institutions which could mount such an undertaking. There were music festivals, with a festival song; culinary competitions with chefs - amateur and professional - showcasing their concoctions of meat, vegetables, sweets, pastry, fruits and what not; contests for art and literature; theatre and dance and numerous other events. It was a bacchanal which went on for weeks. So successful was that first festival that it became a fixture in subsequent years.

Some years before we even had an inkling of Independence: The Gleaner arranged a beauty contest different from all others we had seen before. It was called "Ten Types - One Beauty" and the organisers divided Jamaica's racial spectrum into 10 shades of skin - from coal black to Nordic white. It was enormously popular, and entries poured in from across the country. The paper organised a team to vet the entrants and named panels to judge them. Reporter Sybil Thompson, who began as a shorthand note-taker at the old Legislative Council, was appointed a kind of den mother for the young women who put themselves forward. I was a cub reporter with the paper at the time and witnessed the roller-coaster she rode in this process. By the time Independence came around the contests had all been run and the winners chosen. The 10 young women, wearing the national colours, formed part of the centrepiece of the ceremonies at the stadium that night and in subsequent functions.

That stadium, by the way, was not intended for the Independence celebrations - when it was commissioned we had no idea Independence was on its way. Rather, it was built to accommodate the Ninth Central American and Caribbean Games, which are, by the way, the oldest regional games in existence. In the lead-up to the events, it appeared that the original builder would not be able to finish it in time, and Premier Manley called in an experienced construction pioneer, AD Scott, to fix things. He put together a consortium of construction companies which worked together to complete the project in time.

The games themselves began a little over a week after Independence Day, and the 1500-plus athletes from 16 countries added to the festive spirit. I can recall clearly the opening of the games, when Sir Kenneth Blackburne, the new Governor-General (who was the old colonial Governor) performed the official launching ceremony. In front of a packed National Stadium, with his stiff upper-class English accent, Blackburne read out the proclamation. I can still hear him declaring open "Lohs Nwayvohs Hwaygohs Sentro Americanohs ee del Caribay".

It was the first time that the average Jamaican was able to witness at first hand esoteric events like the steeplechase and the marathon. We still used the imperial system of measurement and we saw metric in use for the first time, as the marathon, long-distance cycling and other road races all bore signs indicating the distance in kilometres. We had known before about the relay races and sprints - our specialty - as luminaries like Wint, McKinley and Rhoden had already cut their teeth in previous Central American and Caribbean Games before graduating to the Olympics in London and Helsinki.

Now that the 50th is upon us, Jamaicans everywhere have been feverishly organising events to mark the occasion. In Toronto, where I live, the first Monday in August is a civic holiday, to take advantage of the tropical weather. For 45 years, since Canada's centennial year, the city has been home to a huge Caribbean carnival - the biggest to take place anywhere. It attracts visitors from all across North America and beyond to sample the food, music and pageantry of the road march, mas, calypso, soca, reggae and all the other types of music originating among our islands.

Conveniently, the civic weekend also coincides with Jamaica's Independence Day, and this time the folks have gone all out. They have laid on a gala bash next Saturday, with photo displays of the happenings of the past 50 years, a dinner featuring Jamaican cuisine in a Hope Gardens setting put together by guest designers from the Jamaica Horticultural Society and an after-dinner party. The entertainment features a variety of Jamaican and Canadian stars, including performances by Jay Douglas with the All-Stars Orchestra, Derrick Harriott, Leroy Gibbons, Kreesha Turner, Steele, Nana McLean, Ammoye, Blakka Ellis, DJ Eugene Chang, Dwayne Morgan, Heritage Singers, Iyah Yant Drummers, Kafaye Rose, KasheDance, Letna Allen, Rachael-Lea Rikards, Robert Owen, Stephen Lewis and the KCC Choir, Wire, and Miss Universe Jamaica 2012, Chantal Zaky.

Perhaps the most ingenious expression of the Independence spirit I have seen is in front of my local Jamaican store in the suburb of Scarborough. The parking lot was recently re-paved, and the proprietor of Nicey's, Vincent Lai, took advantage of the stretch of fresh black asphalt to create a Jamaican flag at the doorway to the store. To make sure nobody drives a car over the flag, he has partitioned it off with an oil drum painted in the national colours with an actual flag on top.

Enjoy your celebration - the 50th comes but once!


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