The Emergence of Modern Blackness in Jamaica

September 25, 2007

Today, Jamaica is known around the world for the culture it produces. Indeed, the mere mention of the island conjures up soundscapes of reggae music and dancehall, images of Rastas and resistance. For many North Americans, these aspects of popular and political culture are the dominant referents of Jamaicanness. Within Jamaica, however—and within Jamaican communities abroad—there has been an ongoing struggle over what should represent Jamaican culture in the public sphere, both nationally and internationally.

As in so many of the “new states” that emerged after World War II, Jamaicans have been grappling with the legacies of colonialism, seeking to identify a cultural repertoire that would invoke the particularities of the country’s creolized cultural history (embodied in the national motto, “Out of Many, One People”), and provide inspiration for participating in a global political economy not as British subjects but as independent citizens. This has been, at times, a very contentious process. Selecting specific events to commemorate, or dances and musical forms to preserve, exposes the fault lines that divide Jamaicans by class, color, gender, generation and location, fault lines that were established during the British colonial period.

When Britain wrested control of Jamaica from Spain in 1655, it quickly set about establishing its new colony as a plantation economy. By the late eighteenth century, and particularly after the onset of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, Jamaican sugar exports generated the bulk of Europe’s wealth. Unlike some of the other British West Indian territories, there was also a thriving peasant economy and internal marketing system. Slaves produced the primary foodstuffs for all those living in Jamaica, and, at one point during the late 1700s, controlled one-fourth of the cash circulating on the island. They also developed and maintained their own forms of cultural expression—such as jonkonnu and various forms of worship—despite the harsh restrictions on mobility, family formation and community life imposed by slavery. Yet because British imperialism was not only a system of economic exploitation and political domination but also one of cultural control, colonial subjects were socialized to accept the moral and cultural superiority of Englishness, and by default, whiteness. Jamaicans were thus trained to see their own cultural practices, reminiscent of their African antecedents, as backwards and repugnant.

As a result of this socialization, anti-colonial struggles had to be as serious about decolonizing the realm of culture as they were about the domains of politics and economics. During the 1950s and 1960s, nationalist intellectuals and artists—many of whom had been educated in the United Kingdom—were determined to build a national cultural identity that would both assert a distinctive way of life at a time when U.S. cultural influences were becoming increasingly pervasive, and recuperate and revitalize those cultural practices that were prohibited or quietly discouraged during the periods of slavery and colonial rule. Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962 was thus marked by the establishment of new cultural institutions and the “Jamaicanization” of old ones. These institutions were designed to promote aspects of Jamaica’s “folk” culture, now understood as its African heritage. This new privileging of selected Afro-Jamaican practices—those religious and secular rituals, speech patterns, foods, musical forms and dances associated with the rural peasantry—was done to foster a sense of national belonging among Jamaica’s majority black population. For the first time, members of the striving middle classes and ruling political and economic elites, alongside sectors of the “respectable” poor, were encouraged to view the country’s African heritage as something valuable and legitimately cultural.

However, as scholars working on nationalism in other contexts have pointed out time and time again, the manufacturing of national cultural identities is a project that excludes as much as it includes. Indeed, while the government’s legitimation of aspects of Jamaica’s African cultural heritage broadened the public space in which notions of national identity were debated, the privileging of particular dances, particular musical forms and specific historical events also marginalized alternative visions. In other words, the version of the nationalist project that supported the new national motto validated a particular kind of citizen and a specific vision of what constituted cultural progress and national development.

By selecting those cultural practices of the post-emancipation rural peasantry and excluding those of the rapidly growing urban unemployed, the cultural policy adopted at Jamaica’s independence encouraged the cultivation of “respectability.” Respectability is a value complex that emphasizes education, thrift, industry, self-sufficiency via land ownership, moderate Protestant living, community uplift, the constitution of family through legal marriage and leadership by the educated middle classes. This vision of progress has its roots in the post-emancipation establishment of “free villages,” Baptist church communities that provided former slaves with the opportunity to purchase land and educate their children. It was also this vision that was ultimately institutionalized through the initiation of social welfare work and democratic political nationalism in the late 1930s.

But this vision of progress was in constant tension with other, more explicitly racialized visions and values. These visions and values have typically been framed transnationally—Garveyism and pan-Africanism are examples here—and, as a result, have challenged the legitimacy of territorially bounded political structures. Racialized visions of citizenship have, moreover, openly disputed the extent to which the “Many” have become “One,” demonstrating that the aspirational creole nationalist slogan nevertheless reproduces colonial social hierarchies by parenthesizing blackness, denying the possibility of a hegemonic blackness within the public sphere. In a country where 90% of the population identifies itself as black, conflicts over the place of Africa in Jamaica’s past and present and over the place of blackness in contemporary cultural citizenship are critical struggles.

One example of how these struggles operate on the ground is Prime Minister P.J. Patterson’s decision in 1997 to reinstate Emancipation Day (the celebration of the final abolition of slavery on August 1, 1838) as a public holiday. Preparations included published historical accounts of slavery and abolition written by local scholars, an emancipation song and two workbooks for young people that detailed Jamaica’s history, televised panel discussions on emancipation and related themes and the establishment of “Speakers’ Corners” in the downtown Kingston park popularized as a cultural and intellectual gathering place by Marcus Garvey. These all led up to the main event: the Emancipation vigil on July 31 from 6 p.m. until midnight in the square of the old capital, Spanish Town. This vigil featured addresses by the Prime Minister and the Ghanaian President (whom the Prime Minister had invited as his personal guest); performances by the Jamaica military band, a mento band, quadrille and maypole dancers, various choirs, and the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica; and finally, the reading of the Abolition Proclamation at midnight. Despite various technical glitches, the government proclaimed that the event itself, as well as the more general re-emancipation “movement,” was a great success.

But responses to Emancipation Day within “Mango Mount” (a pseudonym), the rural hillside community just outside the capital city of Kingston where I have conducted research over the last ten years, told another story. While most welcomed the establishment of another public holiday, and viewed the abolition of slavery as the single most important date for people of African descent in Jamaica, they also viewed the government’s initiative with cynicism. Acknowledging the prominent role played by the Baptists in encouraging the abolition of slavery, Elliott—the twenty-five year old son of a mason and the only one of his eight brothers and sisters who had attended university—saw emancipation as the transfer of one system of oppression (plantation slavery) for another (Christianity). “Men try to control people with Christianity,” he maintained, “and that’s one of the things they introduced to the slaves to let them know that they were uncivilized. So still they were not free on a whole. Restoring Emancipation Day as a holiday was a political move, they used it just to get votes.” More explicit was the commentary offered by Douglass, a gardener who worked for a middle-class family living in the district. He noted rhetorically, “The same black man did slave black, so when dem say dem gwine celebrate it, how it go? Political war is slavery too.”

In trying to encourage public discussion about the importance of emancipation, nationalist artists and intellectuals positioned Jamaica’s socioeconomic crisis as due, at least in part, to a lack of self-esteem and sense of belonging among the mass of (black) people, resulting from a historical and current belittling of Jamaica’s African heritage. But for community members, it was not cultural heritage, but structures of inequality—undergirded by patterns of color prejudice and racial discrimination, largely unchanged since independence—that were the primary factors constraining their own social mobility. “Blackness,” to them, was a more salient day-to-day experience than “Africanness,” and because they evaluated their own cultural practices not only in terms of their history, but also in relation to a contemporary global political economy of value, they proposed alternative strategies for “moving forward in life.” These strategies, and racialized visions of progress and modernity, were preeminently transnational.

This racialized vision of citizenship that i am calling “modern blackness” is firmly rooted in the transnational experiences of the majority of Jamaica’s population. For many Mango Mount youth, migration has become the most common avenue for advancement, and this was largely due to the turn away from agriculture and the lack of ability to find other kinds of work locally. In Jamaica, as elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, the figure of the rural peasant is seen as embodying respectability, self-sufficiency and autonomy—farming, therefore, figures prominently in many nationalist reconstructions of cultural citizenship. In Mango Mount, however, youth had largely turned away from farming because they didn’t see it as a viable means to develop themselves, their community, or their nation given the local effects of privatization and the global move toward a service-oriented economy. Moreover, they perceived their options in Jamaica as being limited by an occupational and social class structure that they regarded as more rigid than that which prevails in the United States. They therefore pursued more individually oriented, global-looking strategies, rather than locally rooted community-based development.

One significant result of the increased migration of the younger generation among poorer Mango Mount community members was that the older generation—once primarily dependent upon the local middle class for the development of their village, both in terms of infrastructural amenities and employment opportunities—now also received assistance from family members abroad. From the perspective of the poorer class of people in Mango Mount, the power of the local middle class and the power of the Jamaican state were linked, and therefore their lack of confidence in the state’s capacity to create meaningful change in their lives was also mapped onto local middle-class individuals, many of whose contacts and resource bases were generated primarily through their access to state institutions. This material and ideological shift meant that the role of the local middle-class population as the legitimate leaders of the community was in flux.

Because so many community members have focused their eyes toward America—and toward the possibility of entering into a lucrative migratory circuit—it is not surprising that they have also tended to dismiss agricultural paths to progress within the contemporary global order. As a result, cultivating the kind of respectable and vindicationist blackness advocated by mid-twentieth century creole nationalists has not been particularly attractive to them. But this does not necessarily mean that they have turned to some of the more politicized aspects of the revolutionary blackness of reggae and Rasta that have advocated black people’s triumph over white oppression. Instead, they have developed a racialized working-class expression of the dominant ethos of globalization, even as they simultaneously expose, critique and satirize that ethos. Importantly, they have identified the acquisition of wealth as an equally valid route to progress as the achievement of formal education or the development of agricultural autonomy, the routes usually advocated by sectors of the nationalist elite.

Yet it is popular cultural production that has been the integral node through which people experience and mediate relationships to global processes, thus producing new modernities for themselves. When I asked poorer community members in Mango Mount what kinds of cultural representations they felt were typically Jamaican, it was not surprising that reggae and dancehall music topped their lists. Dancehall—the most powerful form of popular culture in Jamaica and the soundtrack for modern blackness—is a culture that supplies a public forum through which ideologies alternative to those professed by the creole professional middle classes are articulated. Many village youth identified dancehall as a cultural expression that has united youth of different colors and class backgrounds, in part due to the growing power of dancehall within the public sphere of cultural production in Jamaica since the early 1990s. Roots plays—popular plays, performed in patois, which humorously present a variety of familiar stock characters and are interspersed with popular dancehall songs—are another part of the culture that has developed around dancehall music. With an improvisational style and actors who interact directly with the audience, they are often morality tales about the consequences of sexual betrayal and dishonesty—and are frequently maligned as “trashy” by middle-class theatergoers.

Intensified migration has clearly shaped local meanings of “America” in important ways for modern blackness. On one hand, lower-class black Jamaicans have adopted and adapted some of the trends offered up by the popular African-American sitcoms on TV, through the collaboration between dancehall DJs and hip-hop artists or on the streets of New York themselves. On the other hand, the difficulty of extracting personal and national development goals from the shadow of the United States has perpetuated an ongoing resentment, one that is occasionally extended to black Americans who, despite the stylistic appeal of African-American popular culture and despite the political appeal of transnational racial solidarity, nonetheless are sometimes suspected of carrying the banner of the United States.

Within this context, it is especially important to note that many younger community members believed that as much as the United States had influenced Jamaican culture, Jamaicans also influenced U.S. culture. As one younger man put it, “Jamaicans want American style but Americans want to talk Jamaican, walk Jamaican…. It’s a two way thing.” He viewed cultural appropriation as a selective two-way process, albeit an uneven one. Contrary to the dominant image of the centrally bombarded and besieged Jamaican, powerless either to resist or critique that which is imposed from “elsewhere,” youth asserted that David could not only challenge Goliath, but could also influence what Goliath listened to, how he dressed, what he liked.

What Mango Mount youth argued marked an attempt to reinscribe and recreate their own agency through the process of consumption itself. While coveting U.S. “name brands,” they were also quick to point out the extent to which they defined consumer trends (in music selections, linguistic repertoires, clothing styles) within Jamaica and to extend this power to Jamaicans overseas. This “radical consumerism” challenges the local emphasis of the mid-twentieth century creole multi-racial nationalist project.

The creole nationalist project has also been challenged by the public emergence of another phenomenon within popular culture: ghetto feminism, most clearly embodied through the persona of the scantily clad and sexually explicit female DJ. Contesting the pursuit of respectability, ghetto feminism also issues a critique of patriarchy through its public affirmation of female agency, especially as this is related to sexual desire and fulfillment. This is most evident in the work of dancehall DJs such as Tanya Stephens, Lady Saw and Ce’Cile. Tanya Stephens, for example, tells men that the consequences of satisfying themselves but leaving women “hot like a ginger” are that women will find their satisfaction elsewhere. In her song, “Yuh Nuh Ready,” she pulls no punches:

Have yuh ever stop to think wha mek a gal cheat
Yuh need fi check yuhself before yuh start
kiss yuh teeth
Caw yuh nuh ready fi this yet bwoy
Have yuh ever wonder what mek a girl cum
A woman fus fi satisfy before yuh say yuh done
Yuh cyan say a thing if yuh end up a get bun
Caw yuh nuh ready fuh this yet bwoy

Ghetto feminism as proclaimed by the female dancehall artist eschews the model of privatized female sexuality associated with middle-class femininity and respectability, while destabilizing the patriarchal ideological framework that positions masculinity as transcendentally powerful. Most significantly, dancehall has created a space for a new public advocacy of these tactics by women for women.

This, then, is what i am calling “modern blackness” in Jamaica. Modern blackness is urban, migratory, based in youth-oriented popular culture and influenced by African-American popular style. It is individualistic, radically consumerist and “ghetto feminist.” And as an ethos that has been defined by lower-class black Jamaicans, it is expressed through their cultural idioms and innovations.

Modern blackness, however, is not itself a new ideology among poor black Jamaicans. What is new is that by the late 1990s, it had replaced the creole vision of Jamaicanness in the public sphere. Modern blackness reflects a broader transformation in terms of who (and what) has the public power to define and represent Jamaican culture in the contemporary era. This transformation has not been due to any one specific social movement, or even to the work of several different movements. It is, instead, the result of a confluence of factors that have had a variety of (sometimes unexpected) effects. First, the significant decline in the influence of the professional middle classes, who gained state power at independence as cultural and political brokers in the lives of poorer Jamaicans, has bolstered the autonomy of working-class and poor Jamaicans, and has given them relatively greater ability to eschew conventional middle-class modes of respectability as the means toward social mobility. Second, the public projection of a more explicitly racialized concept of citizenship and leadership by the current Prime Minister, P.J. Patterson, has opened a space for other expressions of blackness to become “louder.” Third, the intensification of transnational migration and the proliferation of media technologies have amplified a diasporic consciousness. And finally, despite the insistence of many commentators that U.S. media and consumerism have caused Jamaica’s most intransigent problems of crime, violence and underdevelopment, the increased political, economic and social influence of the United States has opened doors for many black Jamaicans to sidestep British colonial ideologies that linked color and class to culture and progress. This last point is critical. Because the ascendance of modern blackness within the public sphere coincides with a period of intensified economic contraction and political and drug-related violence in Jamaica, its challenge to the dominance of creole multiracial nationalism has also generated a resurgence of crisis-oriented discourse. Nevertheless, modern blackness itself constitutes a crisis only for the maintenance of British colonial class and color hierarchies.

What the Jamaican case illustrates is that the context of anti-colonial struggle facilitated a hegemonic reorientation toward the nationalist state as the guarantor of increased democratic participation and as the symbol around which pride could be mobilized. In Jamaica, the multiracial harmony envisioned by mid-twentieth-century creole nationalists was upstaged, during the 1990s, by an unapologetic blackness. Urban sound system dances have stolen the limelight from rural Jamaicans’ “folk” forms as Jamaican bodies—still racialized, still classed, still gendered—keep step with global time.

Hanging national development upon the hook of a creolized unity, then, is to chase a phantom. If the transcendent unity envisioned at independence has not fundamentally transformed colonial color, class, cultural and gender hierarchies some forty years later, can we not give up the ghost? Modern blackness chiefly challenges the subordination of black people—politically, socially, economically, culturally—that was established during slavery, persisted throughout the creole nationalist era and has been reestablished, though in somewhat different ways, by globalization, privatization and structural adjustment policies.

Popular culture is not transcendentally resistant, and both globalization and nationalism are clearly Janus-faced. On one hand, popular culture productions like dancehall have the potential to generate transformative visions and are spaces through which alternative norms are developed. On the other hand, by engaging, appropriating and resignifying dominant cultural—and to a degree political and economic—practices, poor and working-class Jamaicans have aspired to a modernity of their own making within the context of their own history. Rather than seeing this engagement as false consciousness, assimilation or passive acquiescence to the hegemony of neoliberal capitalist globalization, then, we must see it as laying claim to an as yet unfulfilled promise.

About the Author
Deborah A. Thomas is assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University. This article is adapted from her book, Modern Blackness (Duke University Press, 2004).

Tags: Jamaica, race, afro-descendent, identity, culture, resistance

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