April 12, 2006

We and Them

Democracies, unlike dictatorships, give societies a chance to start over. On March 30, 2006, Jamaica was given a chance to start over under the guidance of Portia Simpson-Miller, our first female Prime Minster. This represents a shift in the consciousness of the nation to select a woman who does not come from the “brown” middle-class or elite, and is really “one of the people.” Her appointment brings to the forefront the question that haunts the Jamaican psyche: Who is we? Who is them? It also highlights the 3C's of Jamaican life (part of the unfortunate of the legacy of British colonialism): color, class, and connections.

Jamaica’s history has been marked by stratifications of race and class. Access to power has been dependent upon color, the schools one attended to gain connections, or the class into which one was born. Portia Simpson-Miller has overcome these seeming barriers by the strength of her character. By just being Portia, she has given the lie to many of the historical agreements that we have made with ourselves and the world. Portia Simpson-Miller embodies the idea that in our democracy, you don’t have to be a man, you don’t have to be white or “brown,” and you didn’t have to belong to the middle or upper classes to become Prime Minister of Jamaica.

Many people whose only access to power has been gained by trading on color, class and connections hate her for this. Some of her enemies who instead of relying on their talents (which they doubt) and have gained power by trading on color, class, and connections (because they see no other way to gain and maintain power except through these “traditional” routes) will plot against her. Let them. Portia Simpson-Miller represents the part of us that believes that we can rise without these external trappings and become who we want to be.

Perhaps, that is why so many of us have found ourselves in the diaspora. We believed that there wasn’t enough opportunity in Jamaica for ourselves or our children or that we would be robbed of the benefits by people who still feel that violence is the only way to get what they want. So, we left.

But we can start over. And Jamaicans in the diaspora can be of enormous help because we no longer view the island along strictly partisan views (another of the “traditional” routes to power) because “we own we corn.” We’re not dependent upon any of the external means that you would have needed in Jamaica—we’ve done this on our own in the belly of Babylon.

Until the elections, Portia Simpson Miller is our Prime Minister, and because we are not bound by the “traditional” way of looking at things, we can applaud those at home who made the initial decision to reject the idea that only “certain people” should hold the highest political office in Jamaica. But there are those who think that because we left the island that should discount us from having a say in the island’s affairs. After all, we were the ones who left.

But the Jamaican diaspora can have a positive effect on the nation as it did for the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Out of that historical experience, the Jewish people, created a nation and wrote psalms and lamentations that spoke about exile and the desire to return to Jerusalem. Psalm 137 was written in exile, and from which The Melodians composed “By the Rivers of Babylon.”

We can learn, as we have always done, from this story. Jamaicans have always identified with the Bible--we are a “People of the Book” and biblical narratives have always comforted us when we felt we were “strangers in a strange land.” But just as how the Jewish diaspora had a unifying effect (the canonization of the Hebrew Bible began in exile), and rather than the diaspora being a death knell (which was the intention of the Babylonian captors), the people used the experience to examine the “traditional” agreements that they had made, individually and collectively; what worked and what didn’t work; what made them great and what made them grovel, so they could eliminate from their consciousnesses, individually and collectively, thoughts that could hinder the clarity of their historical mission.

We have a similar opportunity before us. There are some, however, who want to cling to thoughts that have kept us trapped in “mental slavery.” There are always people who benefit from keeping others in “mental slavery” and there are some of us who really don’t want to be free. We only want, as a friend of mine said recently, a “kinder Massa.” Many of the old ideas don’t work, but we continue with what Albert Einstein defined as insanity, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

We can discard the negative ideas (that border on a kind of insanity) about class, connections, and color by embracing our Prime Minister in our quest to be “Out of Many, One People.” She has been given a chance in this historical moment to embody our highest hopes and ideals which we have demonstrated in the discipline of athletes who have excelled because of our support and their individual discipline. Our athletes know they are the best in the world and we believe them. Synergy is always a formula for success.

And “certain people” shouldn’t “feel no way” because the people have chosen her and not them, for if they work to help her and not hinder, then everything will be irie. They will show their strengths when they honor the wishes of the people. The opposition to Portia should not be motivated by class or color, but the direction where her ideas are leading country.

The rest will be up to Portia, and she will need to continue showing the strengths that have gotten her this far and not look back (and become a “pillar of salt?). She will also need vision and courage. Or to put it another way, “Put [her] vision to reality.” She will have to convince those people, whose only solution to the crime problem is to buy more guns, hire more security guards with bad dogs, and to hang them, that we need to create viable solutions to our education and employment situation which may mean giving up very narrow individual and class interests for the benefit of we. For it’s not that they don’t want to work. Jamaicans are a hard working people. So much so that the stereotype from In Living Color is still prevalent: “You lazy Lima bean! You only have tree job.”

Similarly, they will have to be convinced that it will take time, and the quick fix of drugs and crime will not bring lasting security. They will have to be convinced that opportunities can and will be created for them and their children. They will have to be convinced that they are not merely looked upon as objects for plunder. They will have to be convinced that social mobility will not be impeded by class, color, or connections.

And this is where the arts can play a role in creating a vision for the nation. Art has a way of sensitizing us to their problems. Read “Apocalypse Dub” and “No Sufferer” or Echo in the Bone and Dog by Dennis Scott and you will see an artist holding the many contradictions of Jamaican society in a loving embrace without moral censure for he had recognized these flaws within himself. And if there was any judgment, it was, “Ladies and gentlemen, we live badly.”

Jamaicans at home and abroad have the option to either continue with the old agreements which so far have led to increased scattering and our elevation to “the murder capital of the world” or we can start over. We can create a Jamaica that has not yet been seen. And this is not mere wishing. The intellectual capital that we have used and expended all over the world and in our country to export our wisdom and weed can be put to use in Jamaica.

The choice is ours.



FSJL said...

Perhaps I'm growing old and cynical, but I don't think that Portia is likely to provide a real fix to the multitude of problems that Jamaica faces.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Fragano,
It's not a Portia thing. It's really generational thing (Frantz Fanon's quote about generational issues) and part of my essay, which I hope wasn't clouded, was if she listens to the voices of this generation (in and out of the diaspora)that had the capacity to imagine a female PM, then some things could change. But WE have to put our minds to it.

I will tell you, every time I'm in New York or I travel on the I-95, I marvel at the engineering and the cooperation that it took to build these structures. But I also know that it took one mind (a collective decision about America's greatness) and a few laws to insure that despite the lawlessness, kickbacks and evil that are a part of life, they were built and still stand.
I think WE can do the same, but we have to decide. And it's really also up to the people in Jamaica again to come to that decision. If they decide that they want to continue with things as they are now(as a manager, I know wherever there is chaos, a minority is usually benefitting from the chaos), then those of us outside JA will just retire in Florida and Atlanta and enjoy the benefits of living/retiring in the US. It's no skin off our teeths.
The point is, however, WE wish for a better Jamaica. And as Brother Bob would say, "As it's been said already, Let it be done."