Mon | Aug 2, 2021

National adultery and political symbols

Published:Sunday | April 15, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Carolyn Cooper

The light-headed person who came up with that provocative backdrop for the swearing-in ceremony last month of the mayor of Montego Bay must have been under the influence: liquor, hard drugs, politics - whatever. He or she made a complete mockery of the national flag by blacking out the green. This juvenile act proves that we have sunk to a new low in national politics. Even the flag is no longer safe in the mindless colour war between orange and green fanatics.

In this particular skirmish, the green party is completely innocent. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) had nothing to do with the protocol for the civic ceremony. Blame must be placed fairly and squarely on the orange party. The People's National Party (PNP) won the local government elections and appears to have lost its head. If the decision to decorate the civic centre with a no-green flag was taken without the knowledge of high-ranking orange officials, the backdrop should have been immediately taken down before the start of the ceremony.

In this instance, silence definitely means consent. By passively sitting through the ceremony, members of the orange party signalled their approval of the backdrop. How could Mayor Glendon Harris lower himself to assume the vestments of office in front of a defaced flag? His belated apology that "somebody messed up" is simply not good enough. That anonymous 'somebody' is actually the whole lot of them who proceeded with the ceremony as if the missing green was not really a grave issue.

The PNP's apparent condoning of this vulgar display of colour prejudice, so to speak, is alarming. It means that national symbols such as the flag have lost their power to help us rise above partisan political affiliation. The national flag is now just like an orange or green T-shirt that party faithful wear to show their true political colours.

Or not. 'Licky-licky' people will greedily take the T-shirts, phonecards, money and whatever other handouts are on offer from both the orange and green parties and then vote exactly as they please. They may not vote at all since some of these hangers-on are nothing but 'waggonists' who aren't even registered.

'Hardships there are'

The distasteful anti-green flag is forcing us to take a fresh look at the meaning of this national symbol. We can no longer assume that as a society we all accept the grand idea that national pride is wrapped up in what is really just a piece of cloth. It seems as if we are quite prepared to cut up the cloth to suit our rather limited political agendas.

All the same, I must admit that I do have issues with the flag. Mine are black, not green. The original colour symbolism of the flag is not pretty: 'Hardships there are but the land is green and the sun shineth.' The black in the flag represents hardship. This is not a good sign.

Fifty years ago, this colour code must have seemed quite appropriate. Newly independent Jamaica was once a slave colony. And the legacy lingers. Over many generations, our people have, indeed, endured great hardship. The elite in the society who haven't suffered very much were the ones who took it upon themselves to create our national symbols.

I would bet my last devalued dollar that nobody consulted the masses about what they thought the colours of the flag should symbolise; or what would be an appropriate national motto. It was business as usual for the elite. They simply mimicked their European colonisers. For them, black was the colour of evil, death, ignorance, savagery, etc. - the complete opposite of white, which meant goodness, life, knowledge, civilisation, etc.

There was a little complication that the elite clearly did not take into account. The majority of the Jamaican people are black. But not invisible. How could the elite have failed to see this? Or, perhaps, they did and just didn't give a damn. That's how they came up with their colour-blind national motto, 'Out of Many, One People'. Jamaica, in their eyes, was not a predominantly black society; it was multiracial. The black in the flag could not possibly symbolise the majority of the people.

Green and Black Power

I thought the meaning of the black in the flag was changed in the 1990s as a result of the work of the committee that was set up to examine national symbols and national observances, chaired by Rex Nettleford. The recommendation of the committee was that black should now symbolise 'strength and resilience'. The committee was not courageous enough to go all the way to the blackness of the people.

But on a 2009 Jamaica Information Service (JIS) web page, 'This is Jamaica', the old meaning of black is very much in evidence. Is the JIS webpage out of date? Or have we gone back to the old symbolism? In the 21st century, we cannot afford to keep thinking that black is hardship. We cannot remain imprisoned in old models of identity.

And we simply cannot adulterate the meaning of the green in the flag. One of my favourite Reader's Digest jokes goes like this: Children learning the Ten Commandments in Bible school were given picture cards each week illustrating the law. Many parents anxiously awaited the illustration for 'Thou shalt not commit adultery'. They were relieved to see a farmer pouring water into a bucket of milk. Adultery. Adulteration. Watering down.

We cannot allow the green in the flag to be appropriated by the JLP and devalued by the PNP. It's far more potent. Green represents the fertility of the land; it symbolises the creativity of our people: JLP, PNP and every other P. Green is a promise of regeneration. Green is the new black.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com/. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.