Jamaica is an island. It is an island emerging from the sea at an incredibly slow rate. It is either a place where one is stranded, or it is a place from which one has escaped. It is also a place where one goes to escape or to work. All this is done simultaneously. Jamaicans escape from Jamaica, Holiday-makers escape to Jamaica. Most of them do not escape to Jamaica, but to the cellular concentration camps called all-inclusive hotels. Entrepreneurs, development workers and diplomats go to Jamaica to work. The African slaves and the Irish and Indian indentured labourers were brought to Jamaica to work, to become things and to be left stranded. To the Rastafarians Jamaica is Babylon, an island but not an I-land. They want to repatriate to Africa, to the New Jerusalem: Ethiopia.
Jamaica is a word. Words are instruments of representation that do not represent. They do not stand for the things themselves, but for our incomplete, non-linear and severed understanding of things, which is inter-subjective and collective to the point of a belief in mutual understanding. That is a significant point for Jamaica is a very common word in the conversation and writing of jamaicans and people in Jamaica. Moreso. As an expatriate, Jamaica is what Jamaicans most want to talk to you about.
As a word Jamaica is also a series of letters and acronyms beginning with the letter J: Jamming, Jam-rock, Jam-Pro, JBC, JTURDC
Jamaica is a shape. The shape we see from outer space has been transferred onto a map. Before we could see it from space it has been surveyed. So its shape has a history. Two histories of which one can be seen in the fossils and coral rock, high up on the hills of St. Elizabeth. Whether it had a shape before Columbus arrived, we do not know. Until then it must have only had a two dimentional shape, as a series of blue mountains emerging from the gentle curve of the horizon. On the map, and from space Jamaica is shaped like a low cloud, suspended within the Caribbean Sea from the other, larger islands in its vicinity, Cuba to the North, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico to the North East. The island is occasionally ravaged by man, hurricanes, droughts and earthquakes.
Jamaica is also the word used in the National Anthem: Jamaica, Jamaica, Jamaica land we love. This is true, unequivocally. The tears on her face when the Jamaican flag rises to the top flanked by two US flags at the Atlanta Olympics. The film was shown in all cinemas all the time.
The main cultural preoccupations of the recent past include political hooliganism: Green versus Orange. The violence is fantastic. It is thought that 1 in 4 women are raped during their lifetime. Then there are the inner city slums, the guns, the poverty, the drug abuse, the drug trafficking, police corruption, police brutality, government corruption, a culture of political patronage, inflation, environmental pollution, sewage disposal, tourist hassling, male indolence, the marginalisation of the male, ignorance and the lack of education, the system of eductation, the break down of the urban infrastructure, the problems of single parent families, urban neglect, to name but a few of the problems. At the same time there is a generous congestion of cars, expensive cars, Bimmers, Mitsurubbishies, Sports Utility Vehicles and most marvellous of all the glimmering Ford F150ís. And never ending traffic congestion.
It is also a country with a breath-taking landscape, an extraordinary rich and fecund soil, bottomless resources, enormous talent and a huge and eternal potential. The same aesthetics that makes many of the institutions work awkwardly: the relaxed attitude to visual order, straight lines and trim edges, also feed the general traits of character which, for all its turmoil and explosive anger, is laid back, informal and, that infernally paradoxical word: relaxed.
But this is a self-image. And one must be careful with such things. The words making up that image belie a subterranean meaning. There is, to my mind, no such thing as a national character, such images are an aspect of self-perception. Certainly, a country is made of people who share a culture, share values. Bt this is a country of collision. It values are freshly hybrid and socially divergent. The icons of achievement within the mind of one person are the butt of contmept for another. This would be no more than normal except that the icons of achievement belei a political belonging. The people in Jamaica are the same people as everywhere else, but the culture that has arisen, has arisen from the contingencies and determinism of a historical development.
They cause the possibility for generalisations. They cause, for example, the conflict between being and doing.
Jamaica, despite the kindness of the overwhelming majority of the people, their willingness to have the whole world changed, despite their patience, is in the grips of a harsh cynicism and an amazing desparation. This desperation, this frustration at being kept down, at having been repeatedly betrayed, of knowing that it is up to themselves to change but resulting, in some instances, in a loss of will to get back up, (I am thinking particularly of the indolent young men who see no distant needs) has unbridled creative activity and channeled it towards the expression of self, of being and towards a vocal concern with issues of identity. This is where Jamaica has become an emblem for the world.