A Terrible Beauty is Born: Jamaica in the Seventies
Ten years after Jamaica gained independence, the island seemed poised for success. A newly elected Prime Minister, Michael Manley, (nicknamed “Joshua,” but more like Xango) was increasing opportunities and ownership among the formerly disenfranchised, largely black, populace. We were talking loud, “bigging up” ourselves, and walking with a swagger, like Ivan incarnate.
When we stood still, we realized that we were standing at the crossroads of the Caribbean with our arms akimbo. We had every reason to be optimistic. There was so much happening:
- We were witnessing before our very eyes the birth of Reggae—from ghetto music to World music. And there were always performances by Big Youth, U-Roy, I-Roy, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Bob Andy, Judy Mowatt, Lloyd Parks, Rita Marley, Cynthia Schloss, Marcia Griffiths, and Jacob "Killer" Miller.
- Bob Marley had grown from a local star to an international superstar.
- Perry Henzell’s, The Harder They Come, had opened to popular and critical acclaim.
- Rastafari and the Twelve Tribes of Israel, proponents of Black dignity/pride and the Caribbean connection to Africa, were changing the Jamaican story by questioning identity and introducing a new vocabulary, Rasta speak, with its emphasis on the individual and his/her connection to the indwelling God with the use of I-man and InI.
- Radio DJs were giving up their American accents, and trying to sound more Jamaican every day. They all wanted to be Errol “ET” Thompson.
- Trevor Rhone, Dennis Scott, Norman Rae, Buddy Pouyatt, Paul Metheun, Trevor Nairne, Louis Marriott, Tony Gambrill, and Alwin Bully were opening plays at The Barn, Little Theatre, Creative Arts Centre, Garden Theatre, and Centre Stage.
- Poets in Unity were in full swing all over Kingston.
- Honor Ford-Smith and Sistren were performing in Jamaica and abroad.
- Third World was not only creating great music, but they were also staging Explanitations.
- Attendance at Reggae Sunsplash proved that Reggae could be marketed successfully.
- Rex Nettleford and NDTC staged Court of Jah and other visually stunning and complex choreography.
- Karl Parboosingh, besides creating great art, was making trouble at the Olympia.
- Jamaica School of Drama students such as Stafford Harrison, Noel “Godfather” Walcott, and Malachi Smith were growing from students into directors, actors, and performers.
- Inspired by Kamau Brathwaite, writers such as Mutabaruka, Mikey Smith, and Oku Onuora started a new genre of writing: dub poetry. I remember going to the first reading that Oku Onuora gave at the Tom Redcam Library after he had been released from jail due to the intervention of Mervyn Morris and PEN.
- John Hearne was at the Extra Mural and publishing Creative Arts Review.
- Dennis Scott had won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Uncle Time.
- On any given day, you could see Kamau Brathwaite loping across the UWI Mona Campus, Mervyn Morris driving his white Peugeot, or Eddie Baugh strolling across the Mona Commons.
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And then, Manley playing on the theme of exploitation and control of our destiny, tried to levy a bauxite tax. He also said the word, the totally unnecessary word, that no Caribbean leader should ever say in a post-McCarthy era: socialism.
Did he have the right? Yes, he had every right.
Should he have had the right? Yes, he should have had the right.
Should he have known better? Yes, he should have known better.
Manley knew the US history in Haiti, Chile, and Cuba.
And with all of that, with all that he knew, he said the word.
Henry Kissinger, who was Secretary of State, did not like that word. Henry Kissinger hated that word. That word made Henry Kissinger stay awake at night. That word gave Henry Kissinger hives.
Henry Kissinger, who knew how to use the CIA to destabilize even far more stable economies than ours, merely glanced at Jamaica, and we started to crumble. And, of course, there was also internal resistance.
Every Jamaican is born a Maroon.
And Manley should have known that too. He should have known that sometimes a leader, especially a Caribbean leader, needs more Anancy and less Xango.
Then, the bangarang started.
The politicians who had been in bed with the gunmen turned their boys loose and they’ve never been able to control them.
We lived through Orange Lane, Green Bay and other horrors.
The violence crept from downtown over Torrington Bridge and came uptown.
“Everywhere was war.”
The only solution was escape. We were back at the harbor with the slave ships and we weren’t waiting for the Black Star Liners. We began leaving to the Cayman Islands, New York, London, and Miami, and another diaspora began. We left for Miami on the famous “five flights,” and we left a hole in the economy and in the life of the country. A few of us have gone back, but most of us are still leaving.
“Everywhere is war.”
We’ve never really recovered from the war. It’s still going on. It was a blow to our minds, hearts, and bodies and we’re still staggering.
It’s like we were being punished in the slavedom days, and old habits die hard.
We started doing what we did during the colonial past. We’ve put social promotion and economic interests ahead of authenticity and questioning anything because on national level, we’re afraid to promote anything that will assert our collective identity.
“We don’t need no trouble.”
We’ve stopped talking. We’ve become voluntary mutes.
We’re afraid of saying anything that will upset the Big Massa because if he comes back, who knows what he’ll do this time?
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