What is a Jamaican? Who is he? Has he a past? Is there any meaningful way in which he can define himself, culturally or personally, within the present? These are questions which every Jamaican must inevitably ask himself; not out of any fashionable intellectual curiosity, but out of sheer necessity. They are questions that are prompted by an awareness—existing on varying levels of intensity—that there is something in his experience hopelessly peripheral and hollow. It is perhaps for this reason that what impresses a Jamaican most on returning home after a few years abroad—as I did recently—is the marginality of his society. It immediately becomes clear to him that if ever a society is on the fringe it is his own.
Jamaica shares a colonial past with most under-developed countries. But this is about as far as the similarity goes. It is distinct, not in anything positive, but in the absence of a quality which almost every other society possesses—an integrated culture rooted in a past having some degree of continuity and which exists within some kind of civilizational framework.
In Africa, there was a tribal and, in some cases, feudal past. To be sure, severe strains were imposed on these systems by the impact of colonialism, but almost invariably the tribal structures refused to disintegrate; and modern Africa, despite its radical innovations in almost every sphere of life, is best seen within an evolutionary context rather than as a continent which has made a complete break with its past. This is even truer of Asian civilization. Japan and China are the most eloquent examples that come to mind. But everywhere pre-colonial cultures persisted in the face of the most drastic technological change. In the case of the Americas and the other white ex-colonies, the experience was, of course, somewhat different, but the basic pattern remained the same. What took place here was more a transplanting, perhaps even a ‘mutation’ of West European civilization; the break with Europe was mainly political and economic. Anglo-Saxon culture survived and flourished in the New England colonies; in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, it survived. France continued in Quebec; and Spain in Latin America.
The case of Jamaica—and to a large extent the other West Indian Islands—is quite different. Ours, in a sense, was the perfect colonial experience. Jamaican society was in no way transplanted. It was made. The negro slaves torn from Africa were not given the slightest chance to preserve or perpetuate any part of their culture. The ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery, in the short space of three months—the official length for seasoning a slave—completely detribalized the African and made him into a different man.
Of course, the odd African word or custom survived. And there are a few, like Melville Herskovits, the American anthropologist, who, in their liberal, well-meaning attempt to destroy ‘the myth of the negro past’ have developed curious theories about the ‘inherent religiosity’ of the negro. There is, indeed, a great deal of religion in Jamaica, as there is among the Negroes of Brazil and North America. But it is clear enough that this intense religious sensibility is a function of socio-economic deprivation rather than an indication of ethno-historical continuity.
Indeed these so-called survivals from the African past are fundamentally re-interpreted; in the New World they perform quite new functions. True, the Spider, ‘Anansi’, is a folk hero of the Ashanti as much as he is that of the Jamaican. And there is much in their characters—the shrewdness, the cunning, the dry, sardonic wit, the sustained struggle not only to survive, but to outwit the great odds that existence, physical and social, present—that is similar. But it seems clear that these elements persisted in Jamaica, not because of any direct continuity with the African culture, but because the slave system offered numerous opportunities for these tales to be functionally reinterpreted. And certainly, there is nothing in the character of the Ashanti folk-hero to match the painful, pathetic self-contempt of the spider-man in Jamaica.
The sense of marginality I spoke of earlier is, of course, never consciously experienced when one is actually living in the society. A West Indian novelist has suggestively entitled one of his novels, An Island is