During last week’s independence festivities, I took out my prized commemorative plate. It was a gift from the mother of a long-ago boyfriend who, incomprehensibly, complained constantly that his mother loved me more than him. Needless to say, he didn’t last.
The plate has a little chip, but it’s the spirit that counts: a little bit of tactile history. It features the Jamaican coat of arms. There is an Amerindian woman bearing a basket of pineapples and a man holding a bow. At school we were taught they were Arawak. These days, they are called Taino. But the distinction is academic.
The native people of Xaymaca, as the island was once called, are extinct. In their culture, the pineapple symbolized hospitality. Genocide was their reward for the welcome they gave Christopher Columbus. They survive only in the coat of arms and in the modest museum that is dedicated to their history. Perched above the man and woman is a crocodile. The reptile has fared better; its descendants live on.
Jamaica was one of the first British colonies to receive its own coat of arms, in 1661. The Latin motto grandly declaimed: “Indus uterque serviet uni” (Both Indies will serve one). From East to mythic West, colonial relations of domination were inscribed in heraldry. When we gained our independence from Britain, 50 years ago today, the motto was changed to “Out of many, one people.”
Though this might appear to be a vast improvement on the servile Indies, the new motto encodes its own problematic contradictions. It marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial. In actuality, only about 7 percent of the population is mixed-race; 3 percent is European, Chinese or East Indian, and 90 percent is of African origin.
It was my high school English teacher, Miss Julie Thorne, who first brought the fraudulence of the motto’s homogenizing racial myth to my attention. “Out of many, one people?” she asked the class. “Which one?”
In the highly stratified Jamaica of the 1960s, the white and mixed-race elite were the “one” who ruled the “many.” On my commemorative plate, there’s a map of Jamaica that highlights Spanish Town, Mandeville, Montego Bay, Port Antonio and Kingston — or “Killsome,” as the reggae musician Peter Tosh once wittily dubbed the city. These were the centers of commerce to which ambitious youths gravitated. Jimmy Cliff, the star of the classic Jamaican film “The Harder They Come,” sang their hopes: “You can get it if you really want,/But you must try, try and try, try and try.”
Schoolchildren memorized the original version of that gem: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But the promise proved elusive, especially for the underclass who had no consistent access to formal education, even after independence.
African Jamaican culture has long deployed music as a therapeutic weapon of resistance. The Maroons used the abeng, a wind instrument of West African origin, to sound the alarm when the British attacked. (Later, they signed a treaty with the British demanding that they return runaways to plantation slavery. Betrayal of other blacks was the price of their freedom. It is a familiar tale — divide and rule.)
But even on the plantations, Maroon traditions of resistance took root. Enslaved Africans perfected weapons of war from within. Silent poisoning of their supposed masters was a deadly tool. And music, the drumbeat of resistance, was a potent language of empowerment.
That beat lived on in the rhythms of reggae. Reclaiming ancestral traditions, the urban poor fashioned new languages of survival. In the words of Bob Marley’s “One Drop”: “So feel this drumbeat as it beats within/Playing a rhythm resisting against the system.” Reggae music brilliantly traced the lineage of “word, sound and power” that connects African Jamaicans across several generations and to the African continent.
The roots of our distinctive music, religion, politics, philosophy, science, literature and language are African. But the culture of African Jamaicans has been marginalized in the construction of the nation-state. Fifty years after independence, we must revise our fictive national motto, rejecting the homogenizing myth of multicultural assimilation.
This does not mean that the African majority disdains kinship with minority groups. We all made the crossing from ancestral homelands, willingly or not. We are an island people with a continental consciousness. We remember our origins across oceans of history. For us, independence is not just about constitutional rearrangements. It’s in our blood.
Carolyn Cooper, a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Jamaica Gleaner.