Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Manley Discourse Back on Track

Published:Sunday | September 25, 2016 | 9:00 AMSir Hilary Beckles
Michael Manley: The Biography (Cover )

Michael Manley of the Land of Wood and Water was no ordinary man, either in his time and space or in any others. He was bred from a special species, chiselled from native hard wood that has stood the test of time. Jamaican in every way, he cut through and contributed to the turbulence of his country's tortured, tormented, and magnificent history like no other then or since. Juries and judges have had their say, and verdicts on his value and vision have remained inconclusive.

Now we are treated to Godfrey Smith's biography of this historic figure, and the conversation has recommenced. It isn't that we required any skillfully presented narrative to relitigate the debate, but rather that new evidence and perspectives are brought to light that may tilt the tally in one direction or another. This is the power of effective investigation and good writing. For this we owe Mr Smith a debt of gratitude. He has struck a high mark, and the Manley discourse is back on track.

There are always different levels and dimensions of knowing. Knowing a man of multiple identities is not complicating in itself, but requires a texturing and tenacity that few writers are capable of acquiring. I run the risk of saying that I 'knew Michael', and instantly hurry to say 'but only that part of him that he allowed me to know or to perceive'. With the wicket rolled, and measured for length and width, I went to work as a reader of this text. I did so without resistance, though not in search of a pleasure/ leisure experience.

There is a river that runs through the heartland of Jamaica. It divides the country into four distinct quarters; left bank and right bank, up river and down river. These worlds are all drinking from the same source, and recognise the common wealth that keeps the community integrated as one. Many men and women in history have drowned seeking to cross, navigate, and manage the turbulence of this river. All have failed. All have drowned. All have washed up somewhere to be claimed as belonging elsewhere. It is though this prism that I have peeped into the politics and personality of Michael.

 

JAMAICAN JOSHUA

 

We both loved cricket, but not for the game in itself, but for what it represented and the role it plays in the wider narrative of Caribbean art, culture and development. It's the one social praxis that has successfully brought the four groups of river folks together to live a common dream and destiny. The game is the great integrator of river civilisation; it has enabled movement and access along its banks in a fashion that is peaceful, polite, and politically passive. Michael became known as the Jamaican Joshua. But Joshua was a mountain man who wanted to climb over the other side. Michael, however, was more a Moses kind of man, who wanted to part the water and unite the worshippers.

Smith has the gift, no doubt, and showed his man as one dedicated to unity, commonality, and higher cause. But he also showed him as flawed on the fact that he did not manage his doubters and resisters with compassion and salesmanlike savvy. Rather, he ranted and raved in the face of opposition that sought to breach his bold vision for community and humanity. Forcefulness in fight, however, is not the same as lacking in grace. Here is a man, charming to the core, but inviting the need for caution and care in the delivery of criticism. No vision is without vexation. No leader is without a countering force.

The key to understanding Manley's management of the public discourse is to be found in his notion of time. For him, it was socially scarce, politically precious and frightfully finite. For him, it was a loud constant tick against which he raced. Too much to be done and too little time with which to act; and all things are important because they are intended to save something large and imagined.

 

HEART OF THE MATTER

 

Resistance management is never a good barometer with which to evaluate and assess an actor upon a national stage. It might texture and tone the soul, but it does not get to the heart of the matter. Yes, Smith shows, that Michael was not without the capacity to wield his reason like a sword. But critically, he did so because he believed it was necessary and inevitable. His flashes of sincerity were like a razor. He was blinded by the power of his truth, and no stone could stand in the way of his justice.

He imagined himself a great navigator, a Columbus like figure who would unite the world. Crossing the Jamaica river, a project undertaken by all the national heroes, cost lives and reputations. Michael tried, faltered, and in the end, failed. He did however leave behind a rich and attractive legacy that says that the crossing must and can be done. I refer to his dream of self-reliance in which all river folks would participate in growing and sharing the resources of their collective heritage.

Smith has captured the core of the case. Michael came to the crease, batted well, scored a century, though blemished by many chances. He did not go on to make the double that he wanted. In his judgement, the umpire gave him a bad decision when he was getting ready to take a new guard to deal with the opposition. Like a gentleman cricketer, he recognised that the umpire's decision is final. He nodded to the incoming batsman and walked from the field with the grace that he carried in abundance. Smith is to be thanked.

- Professor Sir Hilary Beckles is the vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies.