Whether Mama D and Mama P ever met, I do not know. I could not say for sure. They belonged to different generations, but Mama D knew them all. She had been with the People’s National Party from the very beginning – a founding member. She was still a teenager when she went to the Ward Theatre in 1938 for that first meeting. She liked what she heard and signed up for life. Mama D it was who became constituency secretary for Norman Manley; Mama D it was who walked down Kings Street on a hot afternoon, her own belly in front of her (she was that pregnant!) only to be seen by Bustamante who stopped his car and ushered her into it, driving her all the way to Kingston Public instructing the nurses to take good care of her; Mama D it was who found herself at Kings House one evening, and was obliged to have the first dance with Edward Seaga. ‘But he knew!’ Mama D complained to me years after the fact, ‘he knew who I was. He only did it to embarrass me!’ Yes, Mama D knew everyone, and they knew her, so maybe Mama D and Mama P really did meet.
Mama D’s passport will tell you that her official name was Joyce Marion Miller, but official names mean little in Jamaica. She was ‘Comrade Joyce’ to many, and ‘Dearest’ to most. ‘Dearest’ was the name that had stuck from childhood. When she became a mother she became ‘Mother Dearest’, and then simply, ‘Mama D’.
She died this summer. That was hard. But maybe hers was as good a death as one could hope for – which is to say, she was ready. Her own children had all retired; she had grandchildren and then great-grandchildren who were themselves preparing to start families. She had seen enough – had lived here, there and everywhere, and was tired. Mama D had even delayed her dying, not for her own sake, but for ours. Finally she scolded us. ‘Look, I’m ready to go, so let me go!’
Having lived well into her nineties, and with all her mental faculties in place, she had been able to tell us what and what she wanted at her funeral – what songs were to be sung, and what aspects of her life were to be highlighted. She very much wanted us to talk about her life as a PNP comrade.
I can’t imagine this was easy for everyone – to sit in a church and listen to them bang on about one party. Mama D had raised her children to be politically engaged but not blindly partisan. Quite literally, she was the mother of comrades and labourites alike, and of those who were insistently neutral. Her own eulogist, her son Errol, had been Chairman of Jamaica’s Electoral Commission. So why this insistence on the PNP? Still, her wishes were her wishes. We would respect them. At the funeral we talked about Mama D and the PNP. There was a lovely tribute in the programme from PJ Patterson, and DK Duncan who had once worked closely with Mama D, gave a remembrance on behalf of the party.
When the funeral was over, we (the grandsons) bore her coffin out of St Andrew’s Parish Church and into the cemetery. We buried her there, the poui trees weeping their yellow flowers over the graves.
We sang the usual hymns, and then we stood there, silent for a moment. And then we sang another song – our family song. Please don’t judge us – but yes, I come from a family with its own song. So we sang it. And then, that song having been sung, there was silence again. It was alright – this silence. We were contemplating our loss. We were swallowing our grief. We were looking at the poui trees and their yellow flowers. And then suddenly a woman (I don’t know who she was) started waving a bright orange flag and raised yet another song. It was a PNP song. For the first time that day, this insistence on ‘party’ felt inappropriate. I walked away from the spectacle of it all, a little bit disgusted, but glancing back I couldn’t help but be struck by the conflation of images – this lone woman waving her PNP flag, singing her PNP song, there at the side of an open grave.
The sun (that old PNP symbol) was not rising but setting, and the sky was now awash with all the reds and oranges one could ever imagine. An unwitting metaphor had been created; it wasn’t just Mama D that had died — the PNP had died as well.
Left, Right! Left, Right! Right! Right! Right!
The PNP’s death did not start with Portia – Mama P. It began before – probably in the 90s. Now I’m no political scientist, but it seems to me that that decade dealt a great big wholloping blow to those parties that once stood on the Left, those parties that were once proud advocates of social justice, proper welfare systems, education for all. Something happened. In America, Bill Clinton came to power presenting himself as “a different kind of Democrat”. He wanted to align himself with the so-called ‘Reagan Democrats’, pulling himself and his party from the left and decidedly towards the centre. It was as if the Left felt the need to prove themselves good at other things: fiscal responsibility, balancing budgets, working hand in hand with big corporate entities – things they had not been known for before. It was as if they thought of their former selves as too naïve. They stopped dreaming of a fair and egalitarian society, and having stopped dreaming, they stopped pursuing that dream. They had lost their soul.
Britain took its cue from America. Instead of ‘Reagan Democrats’ they got ‘NEW labour’ – Tony Blair. It was the same story. Left-wing politics had become infected by conservatism. It was happening in the Caribbean as well. In Guyana, Cheddi Jagan came out of the political wilderness having abandoned Marxist-Lennism; in Jamaica we welcomed back the PNP. At its helm was a reformed Michael Manley. He was now in favour of a free market economy; he was anxious to sell state-owned companies; he was anxious to prove that he was no longer the communist leaning leader of the 70s. He had repented. He had finally seen the light of capitalism and so ditched his bush jackets for suits and ties.
It is noteworthy that in Jamaica’s last election it was this new version of the PNP – a PNP that had been slowly but utterly transformed – that could now boast of its handling of the economy; it was this new PNP that had brought the most conservative kind of austerity to the island and was proud of it; it was this new PNP that did what even the JLP had failed to do, passing IMF test after IMF test; it was this new PNP that was being praised by the World Bank and almost all the financial elites of the world. Obviously none of these are bad things in and of themselves, but many of us wondered – when did the PNP become this kind of party? Where was Mama D’s PNP? When did their core principles shift, and what were their core principles now? What were the lofty ideals and ideas that shaped their policies? Even if we could accept that the PNP had new ideas about how to effectively manage the economy, it disturbed us that they had become conservative in other ways; it was this new PNP that began to callously disregard the environment, to sell off vast plots of land to foreign interests, to send bulldozers into protected areas such as the cockpit country; it was this new PNP that scoffed at genuine concerns about endangered species, dismissing them as ‘two lickle lizard!’ It was this same new PNP that could hardly find enough humanity in themselves to express sufficient sympathy for the babies who had been dying across the country; it was this new PNP that began to express contempt towards intellectual discussions, dismissing them as the mere ramblings of ‘an articulate MINORITY’.
When did all of this happen? When did the PNP become so callous, so brutal, so unfriendly in their pursuit of policies? When did broader macro-economic policy become the end and be all? When did they become anti-intellectual, only caring to engage with the larger sections of the electorate that could give them enough votes to win an election? When did the PNP become this party?
And if the People’s National Party had moved from left to right, it is fair to say that the Jamaica Labour Party made similar movements from right to left.
Perhaps the JLP noted the great big plot of land that the PNP had abandoned. Perhaps the JLP, like good entrepreneuring Jamaicans, decided to go and ‘kepture’ that land, squatting on its acreage and setting up shop. In the last election the PNP promised more austerity while the JLP promised an end to auxillary fees at schools, a big tax break for the poor, and they had previously abolished user fees at hospitals. Gone were the days when it could be said that the JLP (as prudent financial managers) raised money while the PNP (as social do-gooders) spent it. The tables had decidedly turned. And I wonder if this has happened in any other country – where the Left became Right, and the Right became Left – but where it all happened so slowly that no one stopped to acknowledge that the shift had even happened.
An Aritculate Minority
No one expects the PNP of today to be the PNP of yesterday. Things have changed. Theirs is a heritage to be proud of, but not necessarily mired in. Mama D’s PNP, that party that first met at the Ward Theatre in 1938, was the first of its kind in the English Speaking Caribbean. You could say they were Jamaica’s first ‘Articulate Minority’. They lead the fight for Universal Adult Suffrage; they lead Jamaica towards independence; they were profoundly committed to the post-colonial project; they knew the power of words, repealing the ‘Bastard Act’ and declaring there were no more Bastards in Jamaica; they consistently chose principle over power – Norman Manley having called the election that would make him Leader of the Opposition instead of Jamaica’s first Prime Minister. Theirs was a party of profound principle and intellect.
But if the PNP has been marching Left/Right/Left/Right – then it’s been too long since they took a moment to stand still; it’s been too long since they took a moment to stand for anything at all. Today’s crop of politicians prefer to tell us vague and vacuous things. ‘We here to uplift the people!’ or ‘We want prosperity!’ or ‘We’re moving Jamaica forward!’ as if such sound bites mean anything at all.
There is a growing population in Jamaica. It is a population that the PNP itself has tried to mock and diminish with that phrase ‘articulate minority’. That the PNP should show such contempt to this particular group is profound. In doing so, the PNP is mocking the ghost of itself; they are mocking the remnant of what they had once been; they are looking into a spotless mirror, on a distant reflection of what they had once been back in 1938, and sneering. For let us consider what is behind the intended insult: to dismiss a group of people based on their numbers; to suggest that minorities don’t count and are not worth listening to. And also, to dismiss a group of people because they are articulate – therefore too middle class, too fussy, people for whom too much education has gone to their heads and therefore don’t represent the ‘common people’.
A long time ago, it was the JLP that used this kind of anti-intellectual and populist rhetoric against the PNP. When Norman Manley insisted on the importance of education, Bustamante shot back that ‘people can’t eat book!’ He said that the common people of Jamaica needed saltfish, not education. And it worked! The JLP swept into power and the articulate minority that was the PNP could only grumble about the ‘saltfish government’ they had to suffer under. History proved Busta wrong and Norman Manley right. So it is strange and disappointing that the PNP has taken on such contempt for the chattering class.
If I am considered a part of the new ‘articulate minority’, I am happy with that. Every day, Jamaica’s new articulate minority grows in number and in frustration. We are mostly educated, bright enough, and engaged. We think about our country with passion and rigour. We happen to be left leaning in our politics. We don’t accept the status quo. We want to change things and are willing to put in the work to see those changes through. We spend time thinking about what it means to be ‘Jamaican’. We ask each other, what are our good traits, and what are our worst traits? We judge ourselves and wonder how we might become better people and better citizens. We dream about what Jamaica might look like next year, and then five years from now, and then twenty years from now – not just economically, but socially as well. We think about all the inequalities that have crippled our society. We think about class, about the environment, about language rights, about sexual identities, about religious tolerance. We think these thoughts but there is no longer a political party in Jamaica that is willing to think alongside us let alone lead us in that thinking, introducing policies that might pursue such a vision.
It was the PNP that used to do this, and do it well. They used to help all of us to think both deeply and loftily about Jamaica. But something happened. Something died. Somewhere, a heart stopped beating. And this summer, as I walked away from Mama D’s grave, and the unknown woman waved her orange flag in the light of the setting sun as she sang her PNP song, a wave of sadness came over me, and I realized I was sad for something much larger than the death of Mama D.