Songs of Jamaica: Sung in the Present and Future Tenses

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Today, in Jamaica, all that remains of Marcus Garvey's childhood home in St. Ann's Bay is the house's foundation. There's not even a historical marker there honoring the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), who was an early martyr to J. Edgar Hoover's machinations. Is this typical of the Caribbean's largest English-speaking island--and, if so, what does it matter to us? Consider ...

Jamaica gave America the brightest literary star in the Harlem Renaissance galaxy, who was also that congregation's most protean political radical: Claude McKay, two of whose volumes of poetry employing the island's patois, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, were already published before McKay set foot in the United States in 1912. Jamaica also gave us Garvey, the century's pre-eminent voice for black self-determination. Yet search as you will, you won't find much honoring either man in his homeland, unless you count the occasional street name or, in Garvey's case, the odd statue or two (including one in St. Ann's Bay) set on grounds that are cleaned only on the eve of National Heroes Day. (In Kingston, Jamaica's capital, police officers and taxicab drivers can't even locate Liberty Hall--UNIA's headquarters following Garvey's 1927 deportation from the United States and his return to the island--which in any event stood unused for decades in the recent past.) Nor will you find in Jamaica an extensive interpretation of the maroons, who in 1739--after decades of struggle under the leadership of captains Cudjoe, Accompong, Johnny, Cuffee, Quao and others--compelled the British governor to recognize their autonomy by treaty (and who thereafter aided the island's rulers by capturing runaway slaves and helping in 1760 to suppress Tacky's Rebellion, Jamaica's most serious slave revolt). But the country's capital does have a history museum of sorts--one celebrating the life of Bob Marley! And they say prophets aren't honored in their own country.

Even the Bob Marley Museum owes nothing to the Jamaican government, having been established by the late reggae star's family, who still oversee its management. So what is a visitor to the island to do if he or she is inclined to explore Jamaica's heritage? First, don't despair: Banish thoughts of Mad TV's "Lowered Expectations" skit from your mind. Second, look to the future: In Port Royal--today a small fishing village but in the 17th century a major center of Western Hemisphere trade and the headquarters for marauding buccaneers--the Jamaica National Heritage Trust and the government plan to restore the town's historical buildings and open several interpretive museums. As well, the Marcus Garvey Foundation hopes in the not too distant future to transform Kingston's Liberty Hall into a Garvey museum and a venue for evening musical and arts events, the latter of which would help to reinvigorate the capital's downtown night life.

In the meantime, assuming you don't wish to wait five years before tasting Jamaica's heritage as well as its jerk chicken, check out Kingston's one real treasure, the National Gallery of Jamaica. Although this art museum contains a few artifacts from the Taino people--the island's indigenous population at the time of Columbus' 1494 landing--the bulk of its holdings are 20th-century paintings and sculptures.

Particularly prominent are works by Edna Manley, the wife of one of Jamaica's national heroes (Norman Manley) and the mother of one of its prime ministers (Michael Manley). In her own right, Edna Manley was an artist of note; she was also the focal point in the late 1930s and 1940s for the rise of a self-conscious Jamaican arts movement, many of whose leading artists--including John Dunkley (a Kingston barber and self-taught artist who was a favorite of Norman Manley), Henry Daley, David Pottinger and Albert Huie--have works hanging on the museum's walls. One of the pleasures of the museum is watching the shifts (or their absence) in style and narrative of Manley ("Negro Aroused," "Horse of the Morning"), Pottinger ("Nine Night," "Bread Sellers") and Huie ("Crop Time," "A Noon Time") over the decades from the late 1930s through the 1970s. …