Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Peter Espeut | We are of mixed heritage

Published:Friday | October 14, 2016 | 10:00 AM

Our heritage is that which has been passed down to us from those who have gone before us, which we maintain in the present, and pass on to future generations. This includes our history, myths, diet, clothing, taboos, language, music, folklore, mores and religious beliefs, as well as our prejudices, superstitions, 'bandoolooism', Anancyism, habits of littering, high rate of teenage pregnancy, and racist and repressive structures.

Just because something is part of our Jamaican heritage does not mean that we should retain it. Rather, our national goals of sustainable human and economic development require that we should actively work to purge Jamaican culture of negative attributes such as sloth, indiscipline (including sexual profligacy), and selfishness, so that we pass on to the next generation a better Jamaica than we inherited.

Recently, a letter appeared in the press questioning why Jamaica's coat of arms - part of our heritage - depicted a crocodile and a Taino carrying a longbow. To the letter writer, this seemed to be promoting violence and death. In fact, the Tainos did not use the bow and arrow, and so, to that extent, the arms are inaccurate; a spear would have been more true-to-life. It was the Europeans who shot the Jamaican Tainos with crossbows.

This coat of arms, granted to the new English colony of Jamaica in 1661 (there was as yet no Great Britain) soon after Charles II was restored to the throne, contains three heraldic symbols more Jamaican than you or me: two Tainos (representing Jamaica's aboriginal inhabitants (already victims of genocide by this time); the pineapple (native and possibly endemic to Jamaica); and the crocodile (Jamaica's largest land animal). There are also three English heraldic symbols: The Cross of St George (patron saint of England), the royal helmet, and the mantling.

 

MIXED AND DISTINCT

 

I think the three Jamaican elements in our coat of arms are quite appropriate. One might question the others on nationalistic grounds, although an argument could be made to retain them as they are part of our heritage. There are those who wish to purge our nationscape of all traces of our colonial past, as if there is nothing of value that we have gained therefrom. To go would be our Parliament, our civil parishes, thousands of place names, and the fruits which our former colonial masters introduced: mangoes, ackees, otaheite apples, sugar cane, bananas, and so on: almost everything except pineapples and guavas. They would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater!

The fact is that our heritage is mixed: the melange that is Jamaican culture draws on elements from the British Isles, Africa, India, the Far East, the Americas (including the Taino) and the Levant. And there is a brew called 'Jamaican Culture' that is distinct from its several ingredients, which often we only appreciate when we are overseas. I would like to think that it is the Jamaican synthesis which we celebrate this week, rather than simply the disaggregated parts.

And this is not to say that the brew has one single taste, for the potpourri that is Jamaica has many flavours - variations on a theme.

 

REJECTING JAMAICAN BLEND

 

On the other hands, I have Eurocentric friends who emphasise their Britishness by an affected accent and the cut of their clothes. I have Afrocentric friends who, in an effort to reject everything British, have given themselves Afrophonic names, wear what they consider to be African garments, and reject versions of Christianity they feel come from Europe. It seems to me that both these syndromes are a rejection of the Jamaican blend, and give the lie to our motto, 'Out of Many, One People'. The reality is that after 54 years of Independence, we are still plural, still many.

The crucible of slavery was so debilitating that it channelled most of our creativity into music and dance. I know of no sculpture, drawing or painting originating from the Jamaican enslaved, or even the former enslaved, until the 20th Century. To this extent, modern sculpture, drawing and painting are uniquely Jamaican, not African or European. We have several good examples of Taino sculpture, drawing and painting (the earliest Jamaican art), but there is a gap of centuries.

It is my wish that during this Heritage Week, we consider what it means to be Jamaican, and that we seek to purify the brew, filter out the grit, and rejoice in our uniqueness as a people.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to columns