Fifty years ago Jamaica joined the ranks of independent states. I was not around then, but in my mind I imagine that it was a proud moment for our people and our nation. When I was growing up that moment was brought to life for me by festival songs; names like Stanley and the Turbines, Toots and the Maytals; and the Astronauts excited me. I looked forward to Independence Day there was always a dance or a fun day at the school up the road. My childhood was calm, pretty idyllic. I never grew up with cable television or electricity; I grew up with neighbours and Wednesday markets, farming and Sunday school. I was happy. When I was about eight everything changed; two phenomenal things happened; I developed kidney problem and had to be hospitalized in Kingston at the Bustamante Children’s Hospital and we had a national election. All of a sudden my peace was shattered; as a young patient at Bustamante the violence that came along with the election was all too pervasive.
The nurses and doctors and other patients spoke about the violence openly. I don’t think I understood then the full implications of the stories I was hearing. I was too young and too sick. I do remember travelling back to the hospital after being released for follow up and outpatient care and my mother having to change my orange dress somewhere in Old Harbour. The bus driver refused to take us any further unless my mother changed my clothes. I am not sure if she bought another dress or if she had one in her bag, but I remember being undressed and dressed again in a more neutral coloured dress. I can still remember my mother’s anxiety and fear and how apprehensive the people on that bus were about my nice orange dress with the white strings. I liked that dress. I did not trust it very much after that; I just remember being uncomfortable every time my mother tried to get me to wear it; I felt like the dress had betrayed me.
I remember my brother who is six years older than me, deciding that he was awaiting a P.J. Patterson motorcade and he would hide out and ring the bell when the motorcade was near his hiding place. The Labour Party bell was an important statement in my house when I was growing up. I think I learnt the Labour Party song “Equal Rights and Justice” before or about the same time I learnt to sing the national anthem. I can still sing it, as a matter of fact as I write the words keep reverberating through my head. I remember the motorcade stopping and some really burly men coming out and asking rather loudly “a who ring the bell; me seh a who ring the bell? “Thirty years later I can still hear his voice. I think my sisters and I were convinced that something terrible was going to happen to us. By this the terror of the election violence which was mainly concentrated in Kingston had made its way to my remote rural community. I understood that we were on the brink of becoming Communist and that there was a virtual battle over good and evil that was taking place between the two parties. There was no middle ground in this debate; if you were for the party my mother supported you were right if not you were wrong. There was no compromise, we were good, and they were evil. I remember that the Gleaner had published a centre spread with all the JLP candidates contesting that election and as the election count progressed we ticked off the seats that were won by the JLP.
I remember a number of incidents from that election, in particular the incident with Cecil July at Top Hill (or is it Hill Top) St. Elizabeth. I also remember my mother going to a political rally with my brother in Lacovia (the same one who had rang the bell) and coming back home in the dead of night with dreadful stories of a car which attempted to mow them down at the rally while they were listening to Neville Lewis. I will never forget how scared I was for my mother who went to every rally, even the ones at the National Arena. I remember Euphemia Williams, who subsequently defeated P.J. Patterson in the 1980 election, passing through my community in a motorcade, she gave my little sister a Shirley Biscuit, we were standing at the gate when she stopped and asked for my mother.
I grew to political maturity at university and I managed to extricate and liberate myself from the biased and totally uncompromising dialogue around politics that Jamaicans usually engage in. I also developed a love for history and began a serious look into the history of my island nation; I became absorbed with its political history and began to extricate myself from some misinformation, lies and half truths. I remember a lecture I attended after the Zeeks incident when Anthony Bogues, one of my politics lecturers, framed the context of urban violence to his students in an attempt to get us to understand the reality of political violence, garrison politics and the connections between our two major political parties and violence. He took us on a journey and in the process helped us to appreciate the truth of our political geography; both physical and mental, and how it has created boundaries and borders which continue to define how we interact with each other and create our nation from day to day. I was amazed at that presentation; I was too awestruck to take in all that he had said because his presentation felt very much like I was watching a movie from a Hollywood action flick. Things from my childhood in St. Elizabeth began to click and fall into place and I woke from my political slumber; promising myself that I would not fall prey to the political manoeuvrings that had catapulted us down a path of hellish cruelty.
I reflect now because I see that somehow we all as Jamaicans are going to have to wake up from this self inflicted amnesia which has allowed politicians to get away with everything from mayhem to murder. There has to be some amount of accountability; everything can’t be explained away with the mere mention of a P. I discovered some time ago that Jamaicans are not really Jamaicans, they became a P first. We fought for independence after we fought for the right to belong to a party. We were voting along party lines long before we knew the colours of the flag. A nation did not go into independence in 1962; two parties did. For that reason our nationalism has always been tenuous and dependent upon whether or not the parties are feuding or if it is near election time. As a matter of fact the only mention of nation at election time is when the political hopefuls mouth platitudes of economic growth and transformation. Yet we have seen powerful evidence of the strength of this nation and its people but those who would lead us are very uncomfortable with the identity of the people who would emerge if we first saw ourselves as Jamaicans.
What do we do now as we approach fifty (50)? We have been celebrating our athletes, and basking in the phenomenon of our culture. But I wonder sometimes if we have come far enough from that 1980 election. Are we truly a nation? What are we first Labourites, Socialists or Jamaicans? Have we truly forged a community and are we truly a proud people? I never saw that dress the same way I did before I got to Old Harbour.