NYU Black Renaissance Noire Spring 2015 - Page 42

African Consciousness in Reggae Music: By lINTON kWesI JOHNSON Some Examples Andrea Levy’s novel, The Long Song, set in Jamaica during the period before and after the abolition of slavery, chronicles the life of ‘July ,’ a mixed race girl born into slavery. When a new master arrives on the plantation, July is anxious to distance herself from her African ancestry in order to impress him. She tells him, “You must not think me a nigger, for me is mulatto.” 40 When in Jamaica I sometimes used to listen to Perkins on Line, a radio talk-show hosted by Wilmot Perkins. A few days before Christmas 2009 I tuned in just in time to hear someone berate a previous caller for talking nonsense about Africans. I have no idea what the previous caller had said, but the program’s host, Joan Williams, who was sitting in for Mr Perkins, defended the previous caller, saying that the Africans she had met didn’t like Jamaicans, whom they regarded as mere descendants of slaves. The new caller talked about Jamaica’s African heritage, invoked the name of Marcus Garvey and mentioned a recent visit to Jamaica by an African head of state. Ms Williams was having none of it. She declared that she was Jamaican, not African (as if ethnicity and nationality were the same thing); that she could not say what race she belonged to as she was too ‘mix-up’; and, furthermore, that Africans had sold us into slavery. And that was that. Next caller. I must say that I was a little taken aback by how tersely Ms Williams dealt with the caller. BRN-SPRING-2015.indb 40 Around the same time, just before Christmas, my sister gave me a Scotia Bank calendar for 2010, with a nice picture on the cover of a handsome blonde-haired, blue-eyed white boy and a pretty black girl with their arms around each other. The calendar was beautifully presented with lovely photographs, which attempted to visually portray Jamaica’s national motto, ‘out of many one people.’ The English, Irish, German, Jew, Portuguese, Taino, African, Syrian, Lebanese, Indian, Chinese and Spanish were all represented. But the Welsh and Scot were not. After leafing through the calendar, the thought crossed my mind that if I was an outsider, who knew nothing of Jamaica, and looked through that calendar, I would never guess that the country is over 90 per cent black. Ms Williams clearly has a point about being racially mixed and the Scotia Bank calendar more or less accurately represents the multi-racial nature of Jamaican society, but both point to a persistent ambivalence about race in Jamaica, an ambivalence that Andrea Levy’s novel, The Long Song, dissects. Rigorously researched, The Long Song credibly depicts the period of plantation life in Jamaican history, a very troubled history. Jamaicans may have made progress in coming to terms with the multi-faceted nature of our historical heritage, but we still have a long way to go in the decolonisation of the mind. Notwithstanding useful sociological concepts like pluralism, notions of compartmentalisation, creolisation and hybridity, the fact is that race is an important dimension of Jamaican society and culture. It could be argued that our national motto is but a fig-leaf masking unpalatable truths — what Rex Nettleford would probably dub ‘obscenities’ — about the nature of social relations in Jamaica. It seems to me that official society is in denial about the politics of race in Jamaica, a denial that Mervyn Morris would probably describe as ‘almost pathological.’ 3/29/15 11:41 AM