Sunday, 15 February 2015

In Defence of Jamaica,s Cultural Identity

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. –Marcus Garvey.
Over the years a lot have been said and written about Jamaica’s cultural identity. Jamaica’s motto “Out of Many One People”, aptly describes the melting pot development of the Jamaican society. The composition of the Jamaican society is predominantly made up people of African descent. However, there are also white Jamaicans, Indo-Jamaicans, Chinese Jamaicans, as well as, Jamaicans of lighter skin tone who have intermixed with other ethnic groups to produce a culturally rich and diverse people.  
Jamaica like other Caribbean islands has a common heritage. This common heritage has been interwoven by the experiences of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, exploitation, colonialization and emancipation from slavery.  Our proximity to North America, mainly the United States of America has played a significant role in impacting Jamaica’s cultural identity. In fact there are many who are of the opinion that Jamaica no longer has a true authentic culture due to the cross fertilization of both cultures. Jamaicans have always had an obsession with most things ‘foreign’. Jamaicans have become accustomed to a way of life which over that has been void of the historical trappings of our African ancestry and have been replaced with a Eurocentric taste. For the most part the media should take some responsibility for the re-shaping of the Jamaican culture. Africa is often portrayed as a war torn, famine and disease ridden continent. However, the media which has responsibility for informing and educating the public does much disservice by ignoring the positive side of Africa.  Despite a slowdown in the global economic recovery Africa continues to be one of the fastest growing regions in the world today. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB) the economic boom in Africa is not only confined to the continent’s natural resources but incorporates less traditional areas such as retail commerce, transportation, telecommunication and manufacturing which are all areas expect to grow in leap and bounds. The (AfDB) report projects that by 2030 consumer spending will increase from $680 billion in 2008 to $2.2 trillion. This is indeed remarkably news and augurs well for the continent for the future.
A working definition of culture is of utmost importance in any discussion regarding cultural identity. The Jamaican culture refers to human activity within different aspects of everyday life that relate to Jamaican traditions. The term culture means different things to different people. However, they are some basic tenets that must be incorporated in the definition of culture, such as reference to the arts, beliefs, customs, food, dress, institutions and other entities of human thought. I dare say that culture is very much a dynamic process and is ever evolving. 
Despite efforts by our CARICOM leaders to integrate the Caribbean Community the Caribbean as a region is no way closer to full integrate in 2014 than the region was when the Treaty of Chaguaramas was signed in July 4, 1973.
Most Jamaicans easily identify more with our North American neighbors’ the United States of America and Canada than their neighbours in the Caribbean region. The distance, cost and other culturally nuisances’ associated with travelling throughout the Caribbean region makes it less attractive for Caribbean peoples to visit each other in their respective islands.
Additionally, there is a perception among many Jamaicans that they are not welcome in other Caribbean territories. This perception has become the reality for a significant number of Jamaicans and was reinforced recently by the Shanique Myrie versus Barbados case.
Jamaican Shanique Myrie was denied entry into Barbados, she subsequently sued for sexually assault and the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) awarded her costs against the Barbadian government.  The perception many have of Jamaicans tend to be one clothed in negativity. Oftentimes Jamaicans are described as overly aggressive. Aggression has a different connotation than assertiveness. The fact is most Jamaicans are assertive and this is probably a direct result of our forefathers’ history of slavery and the inhumane conditions they experienced during the Middle Passage. There is no way a people could have endured such harsh conditions packed together like sardines abroad ships and nothing emerging from that experience with some level of assertiveness and yes aggression.
The Jamaican cultural identity continues to evolve.  Our values and attitudes are no longer being shaped and defined by ourselves. Instead the Jamaican cultural identity has become a cultural hybrid mirroring closely the happenings of those who now have control of the purse string to which the Jamaican state need access to.
This can be viewed in the proliferation of fast food eateries on the Jamaican landscape. This has resulted in the Jamaican populace sharing some of the same issues associated to some of the issues our rich neighbours to the North now face. More and more Jamaicans are now overweight and obese as they turn to unhealthy processed and prepackaged foods instead of cooking a healthy meal.
In an age of globalization and advances in technological advancement governments no longer have full control over what their population is fed. Social Media, for example, Face book, Twitter, Instagram have all added to the cultural penetration which has swept and continues to impact the Jamaican cultural landscape. Our young men for the most part now wear their pants below their waist exposing their under garments. This alien cultural practice has taken hold especially of our young men. Tight fitting clothing for males is another example of this cultural invasion. In a bygone era in Jamaica male clothing especially pants was loose fitting, however, the genie has been let out the box and in some instances there is blur of what constitutes male versus female clothing.
The cultural penetration sweeping Jamaica and indeed the rest of the Caribbean is so pervasive and powerful that in many instances international lending agencies are able to influence legislative laws in the parliament of sovereign states in exchange for lending them their money to satisfy their balance of payment problems.
On the other hand our closeness to North America has had and continues to have some positive spin off on the Jamaican culture and life in general. Jamaica’s track and field programme has benefitted tremendously over the years with our athletes competing against US athletes. Our athletes are now respected and in demand.
Another positive impact on the Jamaican culture comes in the form of economics. Remittances or foreign exchange inflows now accounts for approximately 15% of Jamaica’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Thirdly, more and more Jamaicans are now doing their tertiary level studies in the United States. Upon their return home after studies they oftentimes bring with them their expertise and qualification to help in nation building.  The Jamaican culture has evolved in a world class brand that is envied and admired globally. Our distinct dialect patois has been used repeatedly in US pop culture mainly Hollywood in movie/comedies/. Last year there was even a controversial Volkswagen advertisement which included Jamaican patois. This speaks volume of the importance and acceptance that the global community attaches to the Jamaican culture and brand. It would be amiss if during the discourse we did not mention Reggae. The history of reggae music originated right here in Jamaica. Reggae music is now known in almost every country on the planet due to largely to the efforts of cultural icon Bob Marley. We must and should strengthen our local institutions in an effort to counter this cultural invasion. We need to re-focus more on our national symbols to reclaim and reaffirm our cultural identity. This can be done in part by exposing our students to the importance of retaining our culture as well as the significance of respecting our national symbols. By ensuring that Civics becomes a compulsory subject at the secondary level of the education system is one such way of maintaining our cultural integrity.
“We may have different religions, different languages, different skin colour, but we all belong to one human race”. –Kofi Annan
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.