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Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica / Edition 1

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Overview


Modern Blackness is a rich ethnographic exploration of Jamaican identity in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first. Analyzing nationalism, popular culture, and political economy in relation to one another, Deborah A. Thomas illuminates an ongoing struggle in Jamaica between the values associated with the postcolonial state and those generated in and through popular culture. Following independence in 1962, cultural and political policies in Jamaica were geared toward the development of a multiracial creole nationalism reflected in the country’s motto: “Out of many, one people.” As Thomas shows, by the late 1990s, creole nationalism was superseded by “modern blackness”—an urban blackness rooted in youth culture and influenced by African American popular culture. Expressions of blackness that had been marginalized in national cultural policy became paramount in contemporary understandings of what it was to be Jamaican.

Thomas combines historical research with fieldwork she conducted in Jamaica between 1993 and 2003. Drawing on her research in a rural hillside community just outside Kingston, she looks at how Jamaicans interpreted and reproduced or transformed on the local level nationalist policies and popular ideologies about progress. With detailed descriptions of daily life in Jamaica set against a backdrop of postcolonial nation-building and neoliberal globalization, Modern Blackness is an important examination of the competing identities that mobilize Jamaicans locally and represent them internationally.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Modern Blackness is an important book. It is well written, it puts forth a creative theoretical apparatus, and it displays Deborah A. Thomas’s keen ethnographic eye. It is on a topic of extreme importance to the discipline of anthropology as well as to African diaspora and Caribbean and Latin American studies, engaging as it does some of the effects of neoliberalism and structural adjustment in today’s world.”—Kevin A. Yelvington, author of Producing Power: Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in a Caribbean Workplace

“In its critique of creole respectability, Modern Blackness challenges established views of Jamaican nationalism and the nation-state. Deborah A. Thomas argues that the young and black who live in Kingston have forged social values and transnational links that reflect their disillusion with education and aspirations to the middle class. She confronts the reader with the reality of life among the ‘lower sets’ and provides a provocative agenda for rethinking blackness.”—Diane Austin-Broos, author of Jamaica Genesis: Religion and the Politics of Moral Orders

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822334194
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2004
  • Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.18 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah A. Thomas is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.

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Modern blackness

Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica
By Deborah A. Thomas

Duke University Press


ISBN: 0-8223-3419-4


Chapter One

THE "PROBLEM" OF NATIONALISM IN THE BRITISH WEST INDIES; OR, "WHAT WE ARE AND WHAT WE HOPE TO BE"

It has long been asserted that the growth of nationalist sentiment has been particularly weak in the British West Indies. In the prologue to her memoir Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood, Rachel Manley recalls someone -maybe her grandfather Norman Manley, the "father" of the Jamaican nation-stating, "'We lack that hammock of national belonging which cradles a people against historical falls'" (1996:3). The imagery used here suggests that what is fundamental to creating nations out of newly independent states is a seemingly autochthonous identity that would cushion, sustain, and nurture a citizenry whose primary historical and current reality hinges upon the various and varying dynamics of international capitalism. Significantly, the tone of the phrase, indeed of the whole book, is one of nostalgia-more specifically, a nostalgia generated by the assessment that the dreams of a particular generation were not only deferred, but also debunked, even derailed. It is a nostalgia borne of the nagging notion that the nationalist project in Jamaica, despite formal political independence, has failed, that the "hammock" has gaping holes.

The discussion that follows outlines theideological and practical foundations of mid-twentieth-century creole nationalism in Jamaica, exploring the relationships between blackness (a racial identity) and Jamaicanness (a national identity), and between both of these concepts, class and gender. My purpose here is not merely to rehearse some of the more interesting historical developments in postemancipation Jamaica. Rather, it is to recast these developments in light of their relevance to the twentiethcentury project of defining who and what should represent the national community.

Toward this end, what I assert is that the ideology of national belonging that became publicly hegemonic by Jamaica's independence in 1962-that of creole multiracial nationalism-had its roots in late-nineteenth-century perceptions of Africa, in the history of consistent and extensive migration, and in the emphasis on the part of (black and brown) middle-class mobilizers upon cultural modernization and progress rooted in the values promoted by the sectarian churches. As a result especially of the latter, the creole multiracial nationalist perspective ultimately emphasized self-help through moderate middle-class leadership and the transformation of (lower-class) people's cultural practices, without substantial reform of the larger political and economic context. This perspective, however, never existed in a vacuum. As a result, I juxtapose its development with the consistent challenges overed up by advocates of more explicitly racially based blueprints for independent development. What is key here is that at the core of concerns regarding the relationship between Race and Nation is one of the most fundamental issues addressed by both scholars and activists throughout the twentieth century-the place of black people in the modern West.

Nation Building and Race Making: The "Failure" to Develop an "Authentic" Nationalism, or, "Fear of a Black Planet"

Between the late nineteenth century and the labor rebellions of the late 1930s, the predominant ideology that unified Jamaicans across race and class was that of pride in Empire (Bryan 1991). Though the strength of this ideology had begun to decline by the mid-twentieth century, at the moment of the formal transfer of sovereignty in 1962 there still appeared to be very little commitment to the idea of Jamaica as an autonomous political (and cultural) entity among either the mass of the population or the elites. This was a phenomenon noted by contemporary observers such as Katrin Norris, a radical English leftist who viewed Jamaican society as lacking faith in itself in light of its adherence to a colonial educational curriculum and the readiness of the population to migrate:

On the eve of her constitutional independence, instead of being filled with real passion for its achievement, Jamaica is still colonial at heart, drawing her values from foreign sources; this is the greatest wrong colonialism has done her (Norris 1962:71). the "problem" of nationalism 31

Norris, like many others, argued that anticolonial nationalism in Jamaica was a weakly rooted ideology due to the lack of an "authentically" local worldview around which the entire population could be mobilized toward self-government.

Historians have explained this lack in several ways. Some have attributed purportedly weak nationalist sentiment to the prevalence of absenteeism among the planters during the period of slavery, a practice that they believe prevented the development of local colonial pride and nationalism (Burn 1937 [1970]; Curtin [1955]; Patterson 1967; Ragatz 1928). Others have argued that what protonationalist thought did develop among the urban Creole intelligentsia during slavery and after emancipation in 1838 was a sort of "colonial Whiggism" that maintained a pro-English bias and presumed that the old slave society would yield to a Victorian-like class society tempered by the civilizing influence of Christianity (G. Lewis 1968, 1983). Richard Hart, a Marxist historian and a founding member of the People's National Party, viewed the slave masses (rather than the Creole elites) as the Jamaican nation in embryo. Therefore, the factors he has emphasized as responsible for a slow development of nationalist agitation after emancipation were a pervasive loyalty to Great Britain among free blacks and people of color coupled with an imperial education policy that, in his view, successfully convinced the mass of the Jamaican population that they were racially inferior (1970). Still other historians have attributed the early dearth of nationalist sentiment to an aborted creolization process that resulted in the elaboration of a cultural dichotomy that was sustained not only by former planters but also by slaves, who failed to use their "folk" culture to develop group self-consciousness (Brathwaite 1971a).

The general consensus among these scholars is that despite the fact that a type of group self-consciousness was manifest in Jamaica throughout the period of slavery (the first slave rebellion occurred in 1673, not twenty years after the British took Jamaica from Spain in 1655, and it is estimated that there was an average of one rebellion for every five years throughout the eighteenth century), and despite the fact that these rebellions were often undergirded by the creole religio-political worldviews slaves developed within Jamaica, after "full free" in 1838, the momentum initiated by these revolts was not carried over into a nation-building project.

The development of nationalism became even more of a "problem" with the strengthening of British political, social, and cultural institutions after the establishment of Crown Colony rule in 1866. Prior to this point, Jamaica's white oligarchy had considerable autonomy from the metropolitan government in that they elected their own Legislative Assembly locally in Jamaica and constituted a particularly powerful lobby in British Parliament. The 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion led by Paul Bogle inspired a change in these political relationships for the first time.

Paul Bogle, a black Baptist preacher and literate landowner with voting privileges, led a march of several hundred armed men and women to Morant Bay, the capital city of the parish of St. Thomas, in order to articulate their grievances against a colonial government that had turned a blind eye to their increasingly unbearable living conditions. This march-one of several that Bogle led-protested then Governor Eyre's refusal to address the supplications made on behalf of St. Thomas' black peasant population by George William Gordon, a colored landowner who was a minister in Bogle's church and who was elected to the local legislature. It was designed to challenge the power of the white planter class and to catalyze a more general rebellion throughout Jamaica. Bogle motivated his followers with the rallying cry "Cleave to the Black!" (quoted in Post 1978:34), and they quickly overwhelmed the small militia that met them, taking control of Morant Bay. For the next few days, hundreds of additional followers patrolled the St. Thomas countryside, killing two white planters and forcing others to flee. Governor Eyre sent troops to regain control of the area. His soldiers shot or hanged anyone they suspected of being one of the rebels and burned down hundreds of houses. Paul Bogle was among those hanged, and George William Gordon, tried in connection with the rebellion, was found guilty despite a lack of evidence against him and was murdered. While Eyre's retaliations produced popular public outcry in Britain, British elites and several intellectuals (including Thomas Carlyle, Lord Tennyson, and Charles Dickens) rallied behind Eyre in one of the foundational moments of modern British racism.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, planters voted to dissolve the local Legislative Assembly and establish a system of direct nondemocratic rule from the metropole through a governor and his representatives (Crown Colony rule). This was significant because it demonstrated that planters' fear of potential black retribution was stronger than their commitment to local political participation. As Richard Hart has explained, "Those who for two centuries had upheld the principle of political self-determination readily jettisoned it when the disenfranchised masses appeared to threaten their economic and social security" (1970:9). Since the Assembly had be the come one channel through which nonelite Jamaicans were attempting to exert influence over the political and economic direction of the island, the acceptance of Crown Colony rule by the local oligarchy is perhaps not particularly surprising.

During the late nineteenth century, the colonial institutions that had been strengthened by Crown Colony government were significantly transformed with the trend toward secularization and the rapid expansion of empire, yet imperial racism was not attenuated. The "new imperialism"- justified through the pretense of philanthropy, now defined as the bestowal of civilization-emerged as part and parcel of Social Darwinist principles of progress. Within this context, a new racism, now intellectually legitimized as science, was used to justify paternalistic class domination and white social authority and (tropical) people's cultural practices were placed on the agenda of change. Would-be nationalists, then, were placed in the awkward position of having to prove both their equality (to the civilized British) and their diverence (from the uncivilized masses). At the same time, they were required to destabilize aspects of Social Darwinism in order to generate support for their cause. That is, they had to demonstrate the debilitating evects of Jamaica's history of plantation slavery. As a result, early nationalists were led to emphasize reform rather than political and economic radicalism. This emphasis persisted despite the emergence of alternative nationalist ideologies and was ultimately consolidated within the creole multiracial nationalism that became hegemonic by the time of Jamaica's constitutional independence.

Early Black Nationalism: Jamaica's Jubilee

The 1888 publication of Jamaica's Jubilee; or, What We Are and What We Hope to Be was the first published work by black Jamaicans that codified a critique of racism. The book was geared toward demonstrating to a British audience the progress of ex-slaves in Jamaica during the fifty years since emancipation and toward assuring them that blacks held no feelings of revenge (C. Wilson 1929). The five authors, all of whom had substantial connections to the nonconformist missionary churches, attempted to convince their readership that fifty years of freedom and missionary effort had benefited the people of Jamaica who, with continued assistance, would progress even further:

We launch [this book] forth upon a considerable public, in the earnest hope that it will, in this Jubilee year of our country's Emancipation, awaken in the bosoms of our friends in Britain and Jamaica a still livelier interest in us, and evoke still more persistent and hopeful evorts on our behalf; while we trust that the wholesome advice, the faithful admonitions, and the encouraging facts contained in it, will produce their legitimate evect on ourselves, the struggling children of Afric in the West. (JJ 10)

The book is divided into five essays, each of which tackles an aspect of Jamaica's past, present, and future, illuminating the meanings of freedom and progress for the authors at the turn of the century.

In their attempt to refute the widespread belief that black Jamaicans were incapable of possessing "those mental and moral qualities so indispensably necessary to his rise in the scale of true civilisation" (JJ 12), the authors outlined several advances since emancipation. The increase in elementary schools after the abolition of slavery was cited as evidence of the ex-slaves' ability and desire to learn. The authors also placed great emphasis upon the increased number of mutual improvement societies, reading clubs, and Christian associations, the proliferation of musical and social gatherings during Christmastime, and the increase of legal marriage. In their estimation, these indicators of the former slaves' progress had been due to fifty years of "social liberty and equality, of religious privileges, of educational advantages, and of intercourse in various ways with civilized and Christian men" (JJ 75). The "Jubilee Five" also cautioned the readership against censuring Jamaicans for not having advanced further in the fifty years since emancipation, arguing that "no other people could, under similar circumstances, have reached a greater height on the ladder of social advancement within the same period of time" (JJ 83, italics in original):

That a nation is not born in a day is a truth that holds good here. Those who are expecting to find our people higher up the moral, social, and intellectual ladder, have certainly forgotten how many centuries it took other nations and peoples enjoying superior advantages to be what they are to-day: notably, the British nation, now the foremost, on the whole, in science, art, commerce, literature and religion. (JJ 16-17)

Notably, the authors attributed the postemancipation developments in Jamaican society to the nonconformist missionaries, whom they viewed as having instilled in the slaves a desire for freedom and progress during slavery and as having worked to counteract the evects of the slavery system that had continued after emancipation, including, as they saw it, laziness and apathy. The British colonial government, on the other hand, was indicted for having abandoned the ex-slaves after emancipation and for having failed to initiate any policy that would counter the destabilizing influences of slavery. The authors' view was that Britain left "Africa and her children" derailed on the path to civilization:

Has [the Jamaican negro] been happily positioned since his introduction into this island? Have his advantages been of the best and most favorable kind? Has sufficient encouragement been held out to him? The only answer to these questions that can have any show of fairness and justice, must be in the negative. (JJ 13, italics in original)

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Modern blackness by Deborah A. Thomas Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : "out of many, one (black) people" 1
Ch. 1 The "problem" of nationalism in the British West Indies; or, "what we are and what we hope to be" 29
Ch. 2 Political economies of culture 58
Ch. 3 Strangers and friends 95
Ch. 4 Institutionalizing (racialized) progress 130
Ch. 5 Emancipating the nation (again) 158
Ch. 6 Political economies of modernity 195
Ch. 7 Modern blackness; or, theoretical "tripping" on black vernacular culture 230
Conclusion : the remix 263
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