Martin Henry | To be Jamaican
“Whaa gwan mi bredrin? Everyting criss? Oonu gud?”
This is white former American Harry ‘Danny’ Myers putting on his best Jamiekan as he was sworn in as a naturalised Jamaican. “Mi waan bawl cause mi so excited,” he said.
And he did.
Myers was one of 33 new naturalised Jamaicans sworn in on February 28. Among them was the ex-Canadian Dr Shane Alexis, who had lawfully by the Constitution contested, and lost, the South-East St Mary by-election as a Commonwealth citizen in Jamaica for more than 12 months but was derided and chastised as a ‘non-Jamaican’.
Alexis has chosen to become “100 per cent Jamaican” to continue his work in hard-scrabble Jamaican politics. Like Edward Seaga of the other side, and many years before him, who gave up American citizenship in favour of his Jamaican roots and rose to be leader of the Jamaica Labour Party, prime minister and leader of the opposition.
The Passport Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA) is telling us that some 40,000 people have applied for Jamaican citizenship in the last 10 years.
What IS it about Jamaica?
Some, a small minority, may be just regularising their roots, like Alexis. But the majority, like Danny Myers, have just fallen in love with the place or have found opportunities here that ‘born yas’ have trouble seeing.
Myers visited Ocho Rios as a 17-year-old cruise ship passenger and climbed Dunn’s River Falls.
“When the ship was leaving, tears were in my eyes because I did not want to leave,” he told the swearing-in.
He’s not alone. As a pastor, he started bringing in mission teams to St Mary from 1998 and relocated here fully in 2011.
“This has become the land I love,” he proudly declared.
Jamaica is riddled with economic problems. People have been leaving as economic migrants from the turn of the 20th century. Almost all of us have immediate relatives in the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), and Canada – the Big Three.
All but three of the 12 children in my birth family have been migrants to a Big Three destination. But we have close family in Costa Rica and Cuba from earlier waves of migration.
It is easier to understand the Africans, the Guyanese, the Haitians, and Sri Lankans, among other Third World peoples, who joyfully opt to become Jamaican citizens. And there are quite a few of them contributing to the education and health sectors, among others.
But why would an American like Danny Myers choose here over there?
Jamaica is riddled with crime and has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Crime, murder, have deeply touched Myers’ life here. Readers will recall the brutal murders of two American missionaries in the mountains of St Mary in 2016. They were Myers’ friends and colleagues. And he had the gruesome task of identifying the bodies.
The induction of the new citizens took place at a time when there was a fresh break-out over elements of Jamaican culture and when school children had just celebrated the annual Jamaica Day under this year’s theme, ‘Celebrating Jamaica: Embracing Positive Values ...Visioning Inclusive Education for a Better Jamaica’.
Law students at the University of the West Indies (UWI) ignited a firestorm over their dancehall theme for the Mr and Miss Law 2019 competition.
The battles were not just about the appropriateness of a dancehall theme for ‘respectable’ lawyers to be, but, even more fundamentally, about the culture itself and whether its uglier sides like dancehall’s promotion of violence and the gun culture is its debasement of women, and its celebration of ram goat sexuality. Treating these as mere artistic reflections of the society rather than actions of advocacy only compounds the problem.
Whatever its saving virtues, and I hear there are many, or its contributions to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, which used to be a function of art, dancehall concentrates to toxic levels the vulgarity, coarseness, crudeness, and ‘slackness’ that are powerful features of Jamaican culture, in art reflecting life and influencing life.
But there is a spiritual energy, vibrancy, openness, brash freedom, love, and livity which characterises Jamaican culture and to which people landing on the Rock from cruise ships and airplanes immediately feel and are drawn.
Like Danny Myers.
For a while now, the last Friday in February has been designated ‘Jamaica Day’ for school children by the Ministry of Education. The schoolers dress up in their colours and exhibit Jamaican ‘culture’.
The man from the ministry says that the national celebrations at the National Arena were intended to showcase to Jamaica and the rest of the world that “as a country, we are united in recognising a day dedicated to the exposition of our culture”.
But what is this culture that makes us ‘Jamaican’ and that makes so many others want to be Jamaican?
Students were expected to use the arts – dance, drama, music, visual arts and other forms – to promote concepts learnt from the National Standards Curriculum, which has a ‘Culture in Education’ component. But they were to place emphasis on positive values in their presentations.
What might those positive values be?
The news release said that schools and other organisations would be displaying their innovations in science and technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics. These are key elements of culture, too.
As the UWI law students celebrated the dancehall aspect of their culture, whatever the criticisms of it might be, I wonder if they thought of the law they’re learning as a part of the Jamaican culture?
We seldom do.
We have inherited the British Legal Code and parliamentary democracy with it, making Jamaica a politically stable democracy under the Rule of Law and one of the freest countries in the world.
JA IS EXTRAORDINARILY FREE
At the moment, we are seeing our robust and rambunctious parliamentary democracy at work in the East Portland by-election and in the Budget Debate in the Parliament.
Despite Damion Crawford drawing the colour and class card, for which he has been castigated by many, and despite the real issues, Jamaica is extraordinarily free of the kinds of demographic divisions that engender hatred and strife in so many other societies, including the one from which Danny Myers comes to become a Jamaican citizen.
The travelled Martin Luther King Jr famously remarked at a civic reception for him in the same National Arena in June 1965 that he had never felt more at home anywhere else in the world.
“In Jamaica, I feel like a human being,” he told his audience.
King was a Baptist pastor and Danny Myers is a Christian missionary. As a sort of reaction to European dominance, we tend to give pride of place to Afro religions, including the homegrown Rastafarianism in culture. But Christianity has been far and away the most influential religion on Jamaican culture, broadly and correctly conceived, as I am doing here.
Even at the level of its music, more Jamaicans can and do sing the sankey Amazing Grace written by that ex-slave trader John Newton, than can sing the words of Marley’s Redemption Song from the Reggae music playlist.
Jamaica has emerged as a sports powerhouse on the world stage. And last Thursday evening, I sat in on an engaging presentation by Professor Colin Gyles, the deputy president of the University of Technology, on Dennis Johnson, UTech, Jamaica and ‘the Jamaican Sprint Factory’. Sports is very much a part of the Jamaican culture. And we mustn’t overlook the material culture in architecture and products.
Being Jamaican, at home or abroad, born ya or naturalised ya, is to be immersed in this bold, vibrant, boisterous, creative, free and open, loving and violent, peaceful and cantankerous, mixed up and schizo melting-pot culture that sustains a spiritual livity and performance which amazes and attracts the world.