Dear Damion Crawford
I write to you as a fellow Jamaican. I could show you my passport to prove my Jamaicanness, but I do not know if you would accept that as credential enough. Most people, however, accept me as a Jamaican writer and academic. My 9 books to date have consistently thought through the complicated question of what it means to be Jamaican.
It is by no means an easy question to answer. Most of my work tries to expand the dangerously limiting ideas that are out there. At the University of Glasgow where I taught until recently, my students were mostly white and from the UK. They sometimes came to my lectures on Caribbean Literature with very naive ideas about the region. Sometimes they thought that we all looked like you and me – dreadlocked men – and that we were always smiling and playing banjos and smoking ganja on the beach. On the streets of Glasgow, people sometimes stopped me to ask if I had any weed to sell.
At the university I forced my students to deconstruct and then expand these notions. I told them that Jamaica was made up of different races and classes and cultures and conflicts. I toldl them that everything wasn’t always ‘irie’ and that Jamaican culture has never been a singular thing. I’m pleased that several of these students, astounded by the largeness and complexity of it all, have since visited Jamaica, and at least one student now works as a publisher helping to produce Caribbean literature. In this small way maybe I even contributed to your ministerial portfolio of tourism.
But Damion, it isn’t only foreigners who think in limited ways about Jamaica. When I taught at UWI, I remember asking a class how they would describe our island. When a few students answered that they would describe it as ‘exotic’ I felt compelled to challenge this. I told them it’s important not to see their own home through foreign eyes. If Jamaica is ‘exotic’ to the tourist, surely it can’t be ‘exotic’ to the local.
As a writer and an academic researcher I’ve been particularly interested in the Caribbean’s spiritual landscapes. A recent chapter that I contributed to the Routledge Reader in Anglophone Caribbean Literature surveyed the vast spectrum of religions across the archipelago – from Vodoun to Santeria to Christianity to Orisha workship. My most recent novel, The Last Warner Woman, was about a Revivalist whose gift of prophecy is misunderstood in the unhospitably secular world of the UK. She is misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and sectioned off to a mental institution because of her Africanized version of Christianity.
As you well know, Jamaica didn’t start out as a Christian country. The Tainos who gave this island its name (and other words like ‘hurricane’ and ‘barbecue’) had a very different idea of spirituality. We retain little to nothing of the island’s indigenous religions. It is not unfair to point out that Christianity was quite literally whipped into us, and though I think we should celebrate and embrace our Christian heritage, it is worth remembering the brutality of its imposition. It is also understandable that some Jamaicans have taken an ethical position against the ‘white man’s religion’.
Indeed, such an ethical position has led to one of the most creative and exciting ways in which we can now be Jamaican. I’m talking specifically about Rastafari which was rejected by so many at first as un-Jamaican. Indeed, Rastafari itself tried to distance itself from Jamaican culture which it saw and still sees as ‘Babylon’. But now it is integrated and our culture is richer for it.
This is why many Jamaicans had a problem when you tweeted: “All of a sudden everybody a atheist and agnostic and undecided and non believer unuh need fi rhatid stop it… that a nuh Jamaica.” You have disingenuously represented the backlash that followed, proving yourself, if nothing else, to be a skillful politician, taking shelter in the very crowd that you pander to. You’ve pretended to be a victim and that it’s your expression of faith that is under attack. But no, Damion, it isn’t!
What’s problematic is not your ideas of what Jamaica is, but your insistence on what Jamaica is NOT. I have no problem with you telling the world that Jamaica is a Christian country, because it certainly is. More specifically, Jamaica is a Pentecostal country. And in some parts it is an Anglican country. In other parts still, it is a Baptist country, and an SDA country, and in other parts a Revival country. Jamaica is also a Rastafari country and a Muslim country and an Obeah country. Jamaica is a black country, but also a white country and a Chinese country and a mixed race country. It is a straight country, and in some corners and gullies it is a gay country. Jamaica is spiritual and it is also secular; it is a believing country and in some parts, it is an unbelieving country. And Jamaica manages to be all these things simultaneously. Some parts don’t agree with other parts, but that is alright. That’s how culture happens. No part should ever monopolize the whole.
In geographic terms, we are a small island, but our culture is a wide, wide space that can accommodate much more than you seem to think. It is my job as a writer to think through and write through that complexity. All of it! It is your job as an MP to represent your nation. All of us!
Dr Kei Miller