Heroes and villains
Every year during National Heritage Week, we are fed a sanitised diet - almost national myths - concerning our history and our heroes. We glory only in certain (more positive) aspects of what we have inherited from our ancestors, and we choose to ignore the less noble parts of our patrimony.
We glory how Nanny and the other Maroons fought British soldiers, Jamaican militiamen and loyal 'black shot' - and won - signing a peace treaty. We call the Maroons freedom fighters, but we close our minds to the fact that, after signing that treaty, they became bounty hunters, turning in runaway slaves (or their ears) for the reward money. It was the Scott's Hall Maroons who put down Tacky's 1760 rebellion, and in 1865, the Hayfield Maroons captured Paul Bogle and handed him over to the authorities.
We glory in resistance to slavery and the revolts of Tacky, Blackwall and Sam Sharpe while choosing to forget that betrayal of slave revolts by 'loyal' slaves and sucking up to the slavemaster is part of our heritage, too.
Although today we call them heroes, Deacon Paul Bogle and Deacon George William Gordon were vilified by plantation Jamaica and accused of holding back progress. When they challenged the corrupt constabulary and judicial system, they were executed; but many elements of that status quo remain with us in modern Jamaican society. We honour these martyrs as heroes, but we do not honour the causes for which they gave their lives. It is somewhat superficial.
Marcus Garvey, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante bucked colonial Jamaica, which did not consider them heroes; Garvey and Bustamante were, in fact, jailed by the civil authorities. What is the message that their lives should be sending to contemporary Jamaicans, especially during National Heritage Week? Is it that heroes are persons who see something seriously wrong with the society in which they live and have the courage and the will to make personal sacrifices to fight to change it? Do the Jamaican authorities want any more heroes to appear on our landscape?
Protest is part of our heritage, and we do a lot of it, but without seeking to be heroes. And I am not just talking about blocking roads. Rastafarianism, backed by reggae, is aggressive protest against Eurocentric Jamaican society (including traditional Christianity). And (read Jamaica Genesis by Diane Austin-Broos) Pentecostalism is a similar, if more benign, version of the same thing. Hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans live lives of protest against an unjust social and economic order in a very un-heroic manner. Use this to interpret the census data on religion!
Truth be told, garrisons, political donmanship, 'christening pickney-first', contracts and waivers to friends, and influence peddling through political donations made in secret, are all part of our political heritage. But every year, more and more Jamaican heroes protest against this corrupt system by dropping into the 'uncommitted'.
Primordial Jamaican heritage is the natural environment - flora and fauna, forests, coral reefs, rivers and mangroves. Rather than glorying in our natural heritage, government and private sector have joined together to exploit as much of it as possible for private gain. To be an environmentalist in Jamaica today is to be vilified, to be considered backward and against progress. Environmentalists never make the National Honours lists, which is only to be expected: National Honours (with titles such as 'Honourable') are part of the political spoils, to be shared within the dwindling political class.
We lionise Christian missionaries who laboured to make Jamaica a 'Christian country', like William Knibb (we gave him an OM), and Joseph Dupont, SJ (a statue of him was erected in Parade by public subscription)], and Christian culture pervades our national institutions. Yet, at the same time, we perpetuate superstition and spiritualism as our heritage and culture (like bruckins, dinki mini, Pocomania, gerreh, zella, Revival Zion, burru, obeah and myal; and don't forget belief in dreams, rakes, divination, and number systems like drop-pan - aspects of our cultural heritage we are actively passing on to the next generation).
Secularist, atheist and pagan activists are campaigning to reverse the work of the missionaries. We haven't really made up our minds what parts of our conflicting and contradictory cultural heritage we want or don't want to keep.
If heritage is what we pass down from generation to generation, illiteracy is a big part of it. Our layered, iniquitous education system makes sure that Jamaica's class system is replicated from one generation to the next.
Give us vision lest we perish!
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural development practitioner. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.