The Jamaicans’ Belief in Self: Why is Black History Month Important

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“The black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness” –Marcus Garvey, (Cammock-Gayle, 2013). This is a quote from one of Marcus Garvey’s teachings that sought to give the black people a sense of pride in their blackness and in them self and praise the black identity.

Today, the way in which Jamaicans view them self as individuals, as well as their national collective identity being a part of a predominantly black nation is multifaceted. This takes on different and many perspectives as well as several different demonstrations of these differing beliefs. According to Galanes (2012), the modern culture of Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean, especially the psychological space and beliefs of the people are a products of the oppression faced during slavery of more than 200 years in the Caribbean. As time progressed, the beliefs of Jamaicans have been shaped building on the mindset held during times of slavery.

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The History of Jamaica

According to Smith (2007), the Tainos (Arawaks) were the first set of people to inhabit Jamaica. The Tainos originated from South Africa. In 1494, the Spanish lead by Christopher Columbus arrived in Jamaica, disrupting the normal peaceful life of the Tainos and establishing their own settlements. This was done at the expense of the livelihood and well being of the Tainos. The British took control of Jamaica from the hands of the Spanish in the 1650s. During the control of the English, several sugar plantations and Estates were established. The main labourers on these plantations were the slaves taken from Africa. These slaves were black.

Galanes (2012) describes the environment in which the slaves were kept, as a totalitarian system which caused a lot of black slaves to resort to suicide as a means of escaping the oppression. During this period of slavery the black slaves were stripped of their African identity and forced to conform to the identity given by their white English overseers. The separation of slaves by colour; confining some to plantation work while others to house work based on a lighter skin tone caused a lack of pride and a great dislike for the blackness of the slave’s skin. The slaves were forced also to conform to the religious ideologies of the slave owners as well as a general belief that the blackness of an individual placed them among the lowest class of human beings. The black slaves also had no financial status, since they had no money. The slaves also had to endure practices such as being whipped, hanged and other punishments for anything deemed as misbehaviours by the slave owners who stipulated what good behavior was.

During this time, the slaves developed ways of communication, resulting in the creation of the Jamaican Creole. In 1838, according to Smith (2007), slavery was formally abolished in Jamaica. This encouraged many slaves to leave the plantations and settle in other areas of the island. This created a need for workers on the plantation. The indentured labour system was created as workers were brought from countries like China and India to work on the plantations. This, however, perpetuated the already existing issue of separation due to colour and now ownership of land and financies.

In 1962, Jamaica gained independence and for the first time raised its own flag. As time progressed, 7 national heroes were identified. These heroes include, Alexandria Bustamante, who was the first prime minister of Jamaica and the founder of the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party) and the first trade union and Normal Manley who founded the PNP (Peoples National Party). Other heroes were identified because of the brave resistance that they demonstrated to racial prejudice and slavery, for example: rebellions.

How Jamaica’s History of Slavery Impacts the Jamaican Belief in Self and a Black National Identity

The Jamaican history as well as the choice of national heroes alludes to strength and determination with which Jamaicans identify. According to Thomas (2007), Jamaicans are known for several qualities, one of which is their resistance. The Jamaican belief in them self encourages them to fight or rebel against anything that they deem as unbearable or unfair. This might be linked to the several years of fighting and rebelling that the slave ancestors went through in order to gain independence. Today, music form an important part of Jamaicans’ identity. Within the music in Jamaica, especially reggae or even dancehall music there can be found lyrics of fighting, rebelling or being strong. Also common in Jamaican music is the use of drums and base instruments which promote dancing derived from African dances passed down from slavery times.

Today, Jamaicans’ belief in self is impacted by external factors. These include factors like: level of education, job status, and living condition. These external factors among others, impact the value that Jamaicans place on themselves. During the years of slavery, Jamaicans were denied these opportunities. The determination to strive for these attainments after slavery is therefore strong among Jamaicans in order to feel accomplished, valued or to somewhat take back the authority that the slave owners had through the denial of these.

According to Galanes (2012), the modern culture of the Caribbean, a part of which is Jamaica, is greatly influenced by African practices. This is because most of the persons who were brought to the Caribbean as slave were Africans. Many Jamaicans, especially those identified with the Rastafarian community, form their belief of self based on their African ancestral practices left after slavery. The view of self differs in this regards however. Some Jamaicans identify more with the American culture or other cultures. This may be due to the fact that during slavery, black people were forced to denounce and hate their own cultural practices while accepting the white slave owner’s culture.

As a nation, Jamaicans celebrate their black identity. This is even represented in the colour black as one of the colours of the Jamaican flag. According to Pariona (2018), the black on the Jamaican flag, symbolizes the people as well as their strength and resilience against hardship. As a nation, it is encouraged to celebrate national black identity, however, being black is not lauded above any other complexion determined by ethnicity. This may be seen in the islands motto “Out of many, one people”. The black national identity is celebrated however, through various mediums. The celebration of black history month seeks to highlight the work of inspiring black people and influential heroes. The fact that as an island, Jamaicans celebrate events like black history month, emancipation and independence as a black nation is as a result of years spent being oppressed because of their black skin colour. I believe, nationally, the black identity is celebrated as a symbol of strength and pride, however, on an individual basis; the black identity is viewed more as a symbol of inferiority.

As a nation the use of the creole is employed within informal environments and is widely used. This is a part of Jamaicans’ black identity formed from the need of slaves to communicate, according to Madden (2009). According to Ozay ( n.d.), language plays an important role in the identity of an individual and their national identity. The Creole language in Jamaica creates a black identity that is uniquely Jamaican. The use of the creole is however stigmatized among some Jamaicans according to Lewis (2012). Many Jamaicans belief in their self and others is low if the ability to master the English language is lacking. It is possible, that, the views of the slave ancestors, that the Standard English is more acceptable because, it was the language of the slave owners, has been passed down through generations. As a result, the Jamaican creole is not accepted in all contexts, even in Jamaica.

According to Cammock-Gayle (2013), it is seen as disheartening that the lack of pride in the blackness of one’s skin both individually and nationally, is so much that the issue of bleaching of one’s skin is perpetuated. This practice of bleaching is done to lighten the black complexion, achieving a lighter skin tone. Even though physical slavery has been abolished, the impacts of the psychological oppression still linger. The creation of a hierarchical system based on skin tone, with darker blacks being at the bottom, has lead to a desire of black Jamaicans to be lighter today. This was even perpetuated by the racial prejudice of business owners who preferred workers with lighter skin. In modern Jamaica, therefore, skin bleaching is widely practiced, and to many, lighter complexion is viewed as more attractive (Wright, 2017).

Philosophical views of Jamaicans born out of years of slavery and its impact on Jamaicans’ belief in self and national black identity. The years of oppression in slavery, rebellions, and the move to emancipation and independence has seen the creation of different philosophical view points and ideas which helped to shape Jamaicans’ identity. Two of the philosophical viewpoints which influence Jamaicans are the teachings of Marcus Garvey and those of the Rastafarian community. According to Cammock-Gayle M. 2013, the philosophies of Marcus Garvey are still significant in modern Jamaica as they were in the early 20th century.

After travelling extensively, and witnessing the struggles and oppression of black people, Marcus Garvey gave several speeches and wrote literatures which encouraged having pride as black people within a black nation, having a sense of respect for each other, being aware of the Jamaican history and black enterprising. As reported by Churchill (2017), the celebration of black history month in Jamaica, allows the celebration of accomplishments of Jamaicans. For example: The celebration of athletes, artists throughout the years and other creative Jamaicans. Also celebrated, is the impressive determination of individuals like: Nanny, Paul Boggle, Sam Sharp etc who help to fight for Jamaica’s freedom. During these times, Jamaicans join together, celebrating the success and abilities of their countrymen. These demonstrate the tenets of Garvey’s teachings as a nation, which have helped Jamaicans to see them self as strong, valuable.

Jamaicans also place a great value on being educated and the use of education as a measure of one’s values. This may also have been influenced by Marcus Garvey’s teachings which encourage the black nation to be educated as a form of empowerment. Marcus Garvey also spoke about the importance of having confidence in one self. Jamaicans have held this in high regard; therefore, Jamaicans have been represented on the world’s stage several times.

Jamaicans identify with the reggae music, made popular by Bob Marley. Reggae has its roots in Rastafarian culture. Rastafarian was formed in Jamaica, allowing its members to form a belief system separate from that given by slave owners during slavery. This community revolves around the blackness of their people. The view is held that black people are royalty. Rastafarian also believes in the coming of a black Messiah. This view was also made famous through the teachings of Marcus Garvey.

This also contributes to the black national identity as the views of Rastafarians are widely spread through the lyrics of reggae songs. In recent times one such example of these songs is ‘Black is Beautiful’ by reggae artist Chronixx. The Rastafarian philosophy also teaches about ‘one love’ as demonstrated in Bob Marley’s song ‘one love’. Inspite of the high rate of crime and violence within Jamaica, Jamaicans believe in a strong sense of community and ‘one love’. Bob Marley also included in one of his songs “emancipate yourself from mental slavery…”

Some Jamaicans identify with this. This was in an effort to think independently, away from the legacy of slavery. It was believed that even the peoples’ mindset was fixated with the experiences of slavery and being inferior to the white slave owners. This however, is not fully accomplished among Jamaicans, as for many Jamaicans, their belief in self is still based on the happenings of slavery.

Jamaicans belief in self and their black national identity today is impacted by their history of slavery. It might be directly portrayed, as practices, teachings and beliefs passed down from generations, which influence the way in which Jamaicans view themselves. It might also be in terms of practices and beliefs held today which rebel against those taught during the years of slavery.       

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