We are of mixed her­itage

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Peter Espeut is a so­ci­ol­o­gist and de­vel­op­ment sci­en­tist. Email feed­back to col­umns @glean­erjm.com. Peter Espeut

OUR HER­ITAGE is that which has been passed down to us from those who have gone be­fore us, which we main­tain in the present, and pass on to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. This in­cludes our his­tory, myths, diet, cloth­ing, taboos, lan­guage, music, folk­lore, mores and re­li­gious be­liefs, as well as our prej­u­dices, su­per­sti­tions, ‘ban­dooloo­ism’, Anan­cy­ism, habits of lit­ter­ing, high rate of teenage preg­nancy, and racist and re­pres­sive struc­tures.

Just be­cause some­thing is part of our Ja­maican her­itage does not mean that we should re­tain it. Rather, our na­tional goals of sus­tain­able hu­man and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment re­quire that we should ac­tively work to purge Ja­maican cul­ture of neg­a­tive at­tributes such as sloth, in­dis­ci­pline (in­clud­ing sex­ual profli­gacy), and self­ish­ness, so that we pass on to the next gen­er­a­tion a bet­ter Ja­maica than we in­her­ited.

Re­cently, a let­ter ap­peared in the press ques­tion­ing why Ja­maica’s coat of arms – part of our her­itage – de­picted a croc­o­dile and a Taino car­ry­ing a long­bow. To the let­ter writer, this seemed to be pro­mot­ing vi­o­lence and death. In fact, the Tainos did not use the bow and ar­row, and so, to that ex­tent, the arms are in­ac­cu­rate; a spear would have been more true-to-life. It was the Euro­peans who shot the Ja­maican Tainos with cross­bows.

This coat of arms, granted to the new English colony of Ja­maica in 1661 (there was as yet no Great Bri­tain) soon after Charles II was re­stored to the throne, con­tains three heraldic sym­bols more Ja­maican than you or me: two Tainos (rep­re­sent­ing Ja­maica’s abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants (al­ready vic­tims of geno­cide by this time); the pineap­ple (na­tive and pos­si­bly en­demic to Ja­maica); and the croc­o­dile (Ja­maica’s largest land an­i­mal). There are also three English heraldic sym­bols: The Cross of St George (pa­tron saint of Eng­land), the royal hel­met, and the mantling.


I think the three Ja­maican el­e­ments in our coat of arms are quite ap­pro­pri­ate. One might ques­tion the oth­ers on na­tion­al­is­tic grounds, al­though an ar­gu­ment could be made to re­tain them as they are part of our her­itage. There are those who wish to purge our na­tion­scape of all traces of our colo­nial past, as if there is noth­ing of value that we have gained there­from. To go would be our Par­lia­ment, our civil parishes, thou­sands of place names, and the fruits which our for­mer colo­nial masters in­tro­duced: man­goes, ac­k­ees, ota­heite ap­ples, su­gar cane, ba­nanas, and so on: al­most every­thing ex­cept pineap­ples and guavas. They would be throw­ing out the baby with the bath­wa­ter!

The fact is that our her­itage is mixed: the melange that is Ja­maican cul­ture draws on el­e­ments from the Bri­tish Isles, Africa, In­dia, the Far East, the Amer­i­cas (in­clud­ing the Taino) and the Le­vant. And there is a brew called ‘Ja­maican Cul­ture’ that is dis­tinct from its sev­eral in­gre­di­ents, which of­ten we only ap­pre­ci­ate when we are over­seas. I would like to think that it is the Ja­maican syn­the­sis which we cel­e­brate this week, rather than sim­ply the dis­ag­gre­gated parts.

And this is not to say that the brew has one sin­gle taste, for the pot­pourri that is Ja­maica has many flavours – vari­a­tions on a theme.


On the other hands, I have Euro­cen­tric friends who em­pha­sise their Bri­tish­ness by an af­fected ac­cent and the cut of their clothes. I have Afro­cen­tric friends who, in an ef­fort to re­ject every­thing Bri­tish, have given them­selves Afro­phonic names, wear what they con­sider to be African gar­ments, and re­ject ver­sions of Chris­tian­ity they feel come from Europe. It seems to me that both th­ese syn­dromes are a re­jec­tion of the Ja­maican blend, and give the lie to our motto, ‘Out of Many, One Peo­ple’. The re­al­ity is that after 54 years of In­de­pen­dence, we are still plu­ral, still many.

The cru­cible of slav­ery was so de­bil­i­tat­ing that it chan­nelled most of our creativ­ity into music and dance. I know of no sculp­ture, draw­ing or paint­ing orig­i­nat­ing from the Ja­maican en­slaved, or even the for­mer en­slaved, un­til the 20th Cen­tury. To this ex­tent, modern sculp­ture, draw­ing and paint­ing are uniquely Ja­maican, not African or Euro­pean. We have sev­eral good ex­am­ples of Taino sculp­ture, draw­ing and paint­ing (the ear­li­est Ja­maican art), but there is a gap of cen­turies.

It is my wish that dur­ing this Her­itage Week, we con­sider what it means to be Ja­maican, and that we seek to pu­rify the brew, fil­ter out the grit, and re­joice in our unique­ness as a peo­ple.

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