Tue | Jan 23, 2018

Prisoners of our past!

Published:Sunday | June 19, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Book: Race, Class, and the Politics of Decolonization: Jamaica Journals, 1961 and 1968

Author: Colin Clarke

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Colin Clarke's doctoral thesis, Aspects of the Urban Geography of Kinston, Jamaica, demanded substantive research in that Caribbean island, circa 1961. Social dynamics were complex and multilayered, spurring a political response that was understandably ambiguous and combative. Never was there a time in Caribbean history so captivating and transformative as nations struggled to chart a new direction. Passion for independence stoked political embers; Caribbean integration was on the front burner; and, in the case of Jamaica, a fiery blend of religion and politics added an irresistible and combustible component to the social drama.

Clarke captures the onerous challenges besetting Jamaica, but we are never smothered with academic data. His journal allows access to his observations, musings, and interactions as he takes us through the populous thoroughfares of Kingston. Here, black dissidents jockey for a national platform, race and skin colour determine status and mobility; Marxism and Cuba's nascent revolution fill the air, and political elites hold court.

Clarke is meticulous, recording dates and locations of key moments and experiences. We read in one entry: "Desperate for funds, I caught the bus to Barclays Bank at Half-Way Tree ... . The bank clerks are Chinese, Chinese-coloured, light coloured, or white, but not black."

Later, he shares one of several interactions with East Indians. "Indians are concentrated in West Kingston, especially Cockburn Gardens. Indians own shops, bazaars, and restaurants - and they are especially prominent in the jewellery trade. Indians do not employ their own as Chinese do, though the Chinese are forced to employ non-Chinese by legislation. The Chinese, most of whom were not indentured, got a better start than the Indians. The Indians are trying to identify themselves as Jamaicans and their position is rather like that of the coloured people." He adds in another entry: "Most Hindus marry within group [and] I am told that if an Indian man marries out of race, his wife and children are accepted, but this is not the case if a woman is exogamous."

Edward Seaga's economic diagnosis does not escape Clarke's pen: "Eddie Seaga, the man I had heard speak at Papine, dropped a bombshell in the Legislative Council by attempting to demonstrate that in recent years, the gap between the rich minority and the poor masses ... has got wider ... . The have-nots are, according to Seaga, 93 per cent of the population."

Another entry is sociologically significant. Here, Clarke is told that the extended family "crystallises as a social force where the need is greatest, and it always has latent potential [settling] family problems", and that "it is fundamental to society".

Revivalism is popular in soothing aching souls with its eschatological message. Rastafarianism, though, is seen as a Fifth Column advocating resistance and ultimate migration to Ethiopia. Of interest is the following log: "[I]went with Jean to celebrate [Slave Emancipation Day], the national holiday in Spanish Town ... . We walk through the empty and seedy streets to the cathedral, and are astonished at the apparent lack of any form of public celebration for such a momentous event in Jamaica's history."

Clarke observes a struggling sugar industry and expresses the need for a diversification as key to economic buoyancy. Bauxite, though, is faring well on the global market and is Jamaica's lifeline.


Squatting is an imposing problem and "the Housing Department are at odds over the way [it] should be treated - the planters think they should be re-housed, while the officials in housing think they should be thrown off the land." Clarke encounters hooligan elements in Trench Town, an embattled community known for prodigious, conscious music, and there is proposed housing development to ease overcrowding.

But ominous clouds are present. Jamaicans migrate to the United Kingdom in droves sensing that politicians are ill-equipped to fix a broken society. Amid the growing disaffection, there is little appetite for the West Indies Federation.

Clarke records, "... because of the lack of social mobility ... there is a dog-eat-dog attitude among the working class. Solidarity only occurs when there is an outside threat."

Riveting are his entries on radical elements in a society that sits on a powder keg. The Marxist-leaning People's Political Party (PPP) established to "emphasise African culture and exclude the US and British," and the volatile Black Man Political Party, whose leader described the West Indies Federation "as a noose, and repression of the Ras Tafari and the poor in general."

We get a glimpse of behind-the-scenes power struggles and we feel the desperation of the underclass as Clarke details his interaction with the PPP leader, Sam Brown. "I introduced the theme of Jamaica's social polarisation and suggest that the middle class and the Government can still save the day. Brown agrees, but seems to think that the middle class will not move fast enough (for him?) Would he sell out for a good job? Sam concludes, 'Democracy gives too little too late,'"

Clarke evokes a feeling of dÈj‡ vu as his journal reads more like a looking glass, stoking a slew of questions. Has Jamaica emerged from the social blight of the early 1960s? Are Jamaicans better off today than they were on the eve of Independence? Are race and colour still markers of social status? Has the two-party system brought stability and prosperity to this Caribbean nation?

While no one expects a unanimously conclusive response, what is certain is that Clarke speaks to a region birthed by a wicked past. As painful as it is, he invites introspection many decades after the last throes of colonial rule.

Ratings: Essential

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