So the Olympics are over, but I did promise ‘more later’. Hopefully, this amounts to that even as Hurricane Gustav literally threatens to rain on my/ our parade. Thanks for the overwhelming support of the last entry…
There is a line from Kamau Braithwaite’s poem Negus which reminds me of the exploits of Jamaica’s athletes who, recently, wowed the world with their outstanding achievements in Beijing ‘08. It reads: ‘…we who have known nothing…/ Good earth, God’s earth…’ It chronicles, inter alia, the painful histories of peoples of African descent who, now resident in the ‘New World’ have, in the words of Jamaica’s first National Hero Marcus Mosiah Garvey, ‘accomplished what [they] will[ed]’, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds which they, collectively, faced.
Kamau, who originally hails from the tiny Caribbean island of Barbados, was born Lawson Edward Braithwaite. He lived in Jamaica as well as other parts of the Caribbean and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on issues related to one of his adopted countries – our beloved ‘JamRock’. Entitled: ‘The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820’, Braithwaite’s tremendous scholarship and value as both poet and Caribbean philosopher are phenomenal. They impact various areas of life in these isles washed by the Caribbean Sea and are instrumental to my reading of the Olympic discourse emanating from Beijing.
There is, however, another agenda here. This blog provides as space in which to work out some ideas in relation to the larger theme of a (trans-) national Jamaican identity which have become as a crucial part of the ‘Beijing experience’, as well as is present in some of the attendant analyses following since, even if not stated explicitly. In my previous post, for instance, I suggested same without necessarily saying so. I wish to do just that today, as well as add a critical rider – these views are, largely, preliminary and reflect, in many ways, my own considerations of the subject. They converge around similar issues in my ongoing academic work as well as my long term interests in the area. Like others before it, this entry is part of an emerging set of ideas about the ‘national’ across a range of disciplines in the popular domain, sports being one of them.
Braithwaite’s work, like those of other scholars including Nettleford and Carolyn Cooper, has helped us scratch the surface and, quite possibly, illuminate the first half (?) of the trajectory of the processes of decolonization and its twin sister nationalism in the Caribbean They have provided an appropriate (?) context through which we may be able to analyse Jamaica’s outstanding achievements and athletic prowess recently demonstrated in Beijing. These cumulative acts of national pride, focus and determination on the part of the Jamaican athletes, then, visually remind that, questions about (trans-) nationalism are not just an intellectual preoccupation which, in the words of Nicholas Laughlin, has become en vogue in recent times in Caribbean cultural and literary studies.
While, it is not my intent to comment fulsomely on the implications of that statement here, what I wish to do; however, is to add the second ‘chapter’ in my focus on Jamaica’s Olympic exploits by way of this entry. Such was promise made earlier on which I am now delivering in fulfillment of that ‘bond’. Indulge me, momentarily, to acknowledge what is, without question, a decidedly academic look at the Olympics, specifically regarding how representations of nationalism which have come out of that experience might be considered.
Indeed, following on my earlier post last week, Annie Paul mentioned in her most recent blog that, these Olympics embody a sort of ‘Patwa power’ in terms of Jamaica’s achievements in Beijing. According to her, the achievements of the young and very talented Jamaican team at the Games of the 29th Olympiad lead by ‘lightning Bolt’ are indicative, in many respects, of a ‘politics from below’ (my emphasis!). Jamaicans of otherwise little renown, as per the society’s class matrix that is, have excelled beyond measure. Showing, in the process, how the traditions of orality out of which most of them have originated are, fundamentally, valued and valuable, despite a traditional Jamaican class politics which would otherwise negate such achievements, locally.
While, I do not wish to address the implications of orality here, it is hard to disagree let alone find fault with Paul’s well reasoned analysis. Still, its substantive value, though important, does not immediately interests me; that is, insofar as she argues in favour an importance which we have always known but which has only now been acknowledged by some within the privileged Jamaican literati. Note, I am not suggesting that Paul is either guilty of this belated recognition nor that she is a member of such an elitist grouping.
Rather, I am contending, as does the famous Jamaican poet, scholar, actor and activist Miss Lou does, in her poem ‘Jamaica Oman’ that, Jamaican people have always embodied the celebratory convictions of character and the audacity of hope (a-la Barrack Obama), to dream big dreams like those witnessed in Beijing. Many were out conquering the world beyond Jamaica’s shores long before 2008. Among others, their quiet struggles have contributed, in part, to one of the more recent ‘wonders of the modern world’ – the Panama Canal during the first decade of the twentieth century.
The mass exodus to places like Englan’, as noted in the previous post below, decades later (1950s) and after that the United States (US) are other notable examples. Other ‘First World’ nations have received many benefits from Jamaica even at the said Olympic Games. Canadian and British Olympic champions Donovan Bailey and Linford Christie, respectively, are the product of outward Jamaican migration to the so-called ‘First World’, as are our scholars, scientists and performance artists, numbered among them even Miss Lou herself. That latter day acknowledgement has now been awarded does not diminish these unquestionable facts of our collective histories.
Miss Lou’s words mirror a similar admiration, notwithstanding that she classifies it under the gendered rubric of the traditionally perceived cunning of Jamaican womanhood:
Jamaica oman cunny, sah! (Jamaican women are cunning, eh!)
Is how dem jinal so? (How is it that they are so smart?)
Look how long dem liberated (Look how long they have been liberated)
An di man dem never know! (And the men did not know!)
By reading ‘oman’ (woman) in this case for Jamaican people I expand Miss Lou’s original meaning to also represent the imbalanced power relations established between the social and political classes in Jamaica. The Jamaican woman metaphorically becomes the larger and largely, disenfranchised (black) peoples of the society’s under-classes, specifically those who have been feminised and ‘othered’ in the alienating master narratives of patriarchal, anti-colonial, dominance outfitted with all the racialised heritage of Colonial Enlightenment nationalism. Consequently, identity politics in the Jamaican ‘nation-state’ operates with a fair amount of disdain towards the social and political pariahs not ‘naturally’ included in the arrogant definitions of statehood offered through slogans such as ‘Out of Many, One People’, as well as and to a lesser extent, the ubiquitous National Anthem.
Though welcomed, the collective nationalization of the Olympic team is curious and warrants critique in this wider context. Largely, invoked through the technology of media such actions represent, in the main, a chasm in the traditions of hegemony practised by the state. Black people in Jamaica, specifically those of working class, inner-city and the rural ‘peasant’ class origins do not (really) belong. They are not, necessarily, included in the definitions of official authority as sanctioned by the preponderance of ‘brown’ and non-black folk in the several areas of Jamaican politics. ‘Browness’, such as it is, becomes the metaphoric representation of a specific state of being which constructs the ‘nation’ as anything other than what it truly is – an African descended majority whose culture and customs differ significantly from the politics of officialdom. Paul is right, therefore, in making the connections between the Olympians ‘from below’ and Dancehall and Reggae musics even if there are (minor) distinctions between these.
Still, Paul does not go nearly as far in establishing the links between Jamaican folk culture and urban blight, which are, in part, responsible for the production of what she calls ‘pocket rocket[s]’ like Shelly-Ann Fraser and others. Acknowledgement must be duly given to the pioneering scholarship of theorists like Cooper, whose insistent refusal to bow in the face of constant criticisms and pressure have been vindicated, in many ways, by the ‘gold rush’ occasioned by the ‘Olympic fever’ which overtook us this past week. That Cooper and a (limited) number of others have argued in favour of a sort of ascendant (black) trans-nationalism which surpasses the fixed geographical boundaries of the ‘nation’ and which are rooted in Jamaican folk traditions; she has also cleared the way for Paul’s analysis.
Consequently, space has to be created in this conversation to acknowledge the extent to which the ‘folk’ as a counter discourse of grassroots Jamaican nationalism has been, fundamentally, disregarded and disrespected in the ongoing struggles for what Nettleford, in his use of M.G. Smith’s plural society model, calls ‘the battle for space’. The team of Jamaican athletes in Beijing not only displayed the power of the ‘the politics from below’ but also made two other similarly important statements. Jamaica continues to be a very racist society which refuses to acknowledge this blight on the nation’s history, by appearing to ‘apologise’ for the obvious material poverty of many of the athletes who represented us in Beijing, China.
That we focused mostly on the champions rather than the entire team further cements the point. Thus, it may be rightly argued that the only reason Fraser and Walker, especially, are heralded to prominence is because they are gold medalists. ‘Sensitive’ viewers can, therefore, tolerate to some extent the sights and sounds of real life struggles, if even momentarily, and proceed to preface their responses either with an apology/ embarrassment for themselves (the viewers, that is!) – the so-called ‘laughter of madness’ in theater which disguises the audiences’ dis-ease with certain aspects of the unfolding performance.
Alternatively, there is the feeling that the athletes may be ‘embarrassed’, almost as a way of explaining away (?) the privation and lack so starkly told in the contradictory discourse of championship occasioned by the focus of the Olympics in Beijing. Getting to the world stage and dominating it is part and parcel of having to compete, fight and struggle regularly in one’s daily existence. It might well be argued then, that it this particular (?) kind of viewer who is shamed rather than the athletes, who incidentally, have not (yet) seen the reports themselves as they have not yet landed in Jamaica since their departure for Beijing.
Presumably, already more accustomed (?) to the familiarity of their constantly challenging contexts all that is left for most of the Jamaica’s athletes featured is win gold medals, set records and create upsets on the world stage. The Jamaicans’ exploits in Beijing could hardly be considered a surprise, in this context, as the grim realities under which many have lived and continue to live are a necessary part of their success story turned inside out, at least from my vantage point. It is completely disingenuous for our local media to project, as a result, an image of the athletes that does not meaningfully correspond with a respectful awareness of this consciousness.
In fact, the media, themselves, contribute to this unhealthy state of affairs by refusing to help forward an appropriate understanding of the material culture of lack and privation which are instrumental to creating our (world) stars. Often no connection is made with the struggles of other Jamaicans in previous decades. As Channer notes in the Wall Street Journal, many have had to flee the harsh conditions of a contradictory ‘paradise’ which accords status and privilege only (?) insofar as one is felt to appropriately embody the high (emphasis added!) nationalist and elitist virtues/ ideals embedded in slogans like ‘Out of Many, One People’! The extent to which most of these athletes are, rightly, the children and products of the Jamaican under-classes foreground, then, the long history of struggle and the traditions of greatness from which they have descended.
Resistance is genetically encoded in our DNA. Not surprisingly, plots to overthrow slavery marked by such famous revolts like the ‘Christmas Rebellion’ of 1865 in the eastern parish of St. Thomas resulted in the execution of National Heroes, Sam Sharpe, a Baptist minister and the mulatoe politician George William Gordon a day after each other. Examples like these occupy a crucial space in shaping modern Jamaican history and are a key part of our tremendous athletic and other abilities. Any effort to suggest otherwise is to miss the singular importance of a collective national (?) resistance, deeply rooted in Jamaica’s conflicted history of race (class and gender) relations. This is indelibly marked by and onto our bodies, including those of our athletes.
That the Beijing performances so wowed the world, specifically during the period between August 15 and 24, potently testifies to our transcendent abilities to rise above material circumstances to the pinnacles of greatness. This is not a fluke, nor is it happenstance. No, there is real talent here – a talent that is, fundamentally, part of who we are. It makes us a strong, confident people who know how to win, laugh, cry and expect the best even when all else suggests otherwise; when to do the opposite of the ordinary and how to adamantly refuse to do nothing at all because the deck seems stacked against us.
Our courage in the face of great adversity and the burning desire that knows that regardless of outcomes we gave it our best is crucial to what makes us Jamaican. The slew of jokes which circulated across the Internet in the aftermath of Jennifer Bolt’s comments that she fed Usain on the good ole yam (and bananas), as well coco and the much vaunted cassava of recent vintage, a-la Agriculture Minister Dr. Christopher Tufton, masks a larger point. Not only is this the staple we had to eat, many times it was all that there was available. ‘We who have known nothing… [but the] Good earth, [that] God [gave us]…!’ were sustained even in the most challenging of times by Jamaica’s ‘coarse cuisine’. It nurtured our dreams simultaneously watered by a fair amount of tears, laughter, disappointments and joy! This is but part of the other half of the story which, controversial (?) Dancehall deejay Buju Banton reminds ‘has never been told!’
Thanks to Jennifer, Wellesley and Usain Bolt, we are a little nearer to setting the record straight!