Editorial | Culture, politics and elections
Jamaica is advertised as having a vibrant and diverse culture built on an evolving democratic base. This standard, accepted narrative gives comfort to many. It is a narrative that is rarely unpacked or challenged. The political process that has evolved since 1944 draws heavily on this vibrant culture and, in turn, seeks to influence its direction.
There is usually short, of-spirited debate around issues of politics and culture, but nothing is ever resolved from a national perspective. The very diversity which gives the nation its strength is a major hindrance to any resolution on the cultural front.
But what is this Jamaican culture that is so broadly spoken about? While its distinctive features – music, art, language, religion, etc – can be readily identified, it is not easily defined in a holistic sense. In fact, the Jamaican culture is often seen more as a live experience to give comfort and enjoyment, fulfilling a sense of belonging.
The recent experiences with the Buju Banton concert and Champs 2019 are good examples of the vibrancy and pulling power of aspects of the culture. Jamaicans at home and overseas revelled in the experiences.
Many Jamaicans are less comfortable with exploring the history and social dimensions of this culture. Jamaica’s history carries with it a lot of unresolved pain and suffering for the black majority. The legacy of this history does generate a great deal of anger and deep resentment, particularly for the older generation, even while there is much to celebrate in the modern era.
The complex and complicated history of slavery, colonialism, and post-Independence Jamaica, and the effects on the evolution of who we have become as a people will make any meaningful discussion difficult outside of narrow circles.
In the wider society, many of the deeper issues around our culture are ignored in the wider debate due to fear, anger, resentment or sheer ignorance. Many have simply come to accept today’s status quo of power, race, class and colour. Some avoid the debate by simply accepting the philosophy of meritocracy to justify whatever status they have achieved. For them, failure is attributed exclusively to the individual, nothing to do with systemic or structural biases embedded in the culture.
Many just wish that these cultural issues of race, class, colour, wealth and power, and the seeming correlation among these variables, be ignored or would just go away. They earnestly believe that the country should simply celebrate the ‘kumbya world’ that the Jamaican motto, ‘out of many, one people’, conjures up and get on with life. There is no stomach for a debate around such controversial or painful issues, which they fear could lead in any direction.
We raise these matters to put into some context the controversial comments by the losing candidate for the People’s National Party in the East Portland by-election, Mr Damion Crawford. While we make no judgement on the comments of Mr Crawford, we are sure that simply overlooking the issues of the deep social and economic inequality within Jamaica and the cultural divide that is thrown up is not a solution.
Simply burying our collective heads in the sand on these issues of culture and power relations will only allow opportunists and naysayers to dominate the debate. Jamaica, as a country, must consciously and calmly engage in a wider national debate on these tough issues to forge a national consensus and to narrow the divide.
Ignoring the difficult and often emotional issues of culture and power will not resolve them. They will just fester and later explode, creating greater chaos. To some degree, the levels of corruption and crime that the country now faces are rooted in the national culture that has been allowed to evolve. A culture not rooted in modern values and attitudes of inclusiveness, fairness, responsibility and equity. If these were some of the values truly driving the society since independence, then much more growth and prosperity would likely have been achieved.
BUILDING JAMAICAN IDENTITY
To call for a new national debate on things cultural is not to ignore the works of past stalwarts like Professor Rex Nettleford, who explored dance and literature. He, like Louise Bennett-Coverley, Olive Lewin, Eddy Thomas, Edna Manley and Ivy Baxter, contributed greatly in shaping how we experience and celebrate the modern expression of the Jamaican culture.
Despite their great accomplishments, they were never able to stamp a ‘Jamaican identity’ accepted by all because of the deep-seated and unresolved differences based on race, colour, class and power.
Until we tackle these issues and have an honest, open debate geared towards a genuine national consensus, we will not build a truly great nation.