There is an island of rolling hills and blue-green mountains, nourished by swirling rivers that empty into a yawning sea. Those burnt-faced, olive-skinned people who were its first inhabitants, in homage to its resplendent vistas, bestowed on it the name, ‘Xaymaca’ – “Land of Springs”. After their demise at European hands, came those of my stock and physiognomy, in differing shades of Africa (Europe and Asia) led, manacled, by the same bloody hands. For brevity, this is the narrative of those occupying that land in the sun, washed by a shining sea, somewhere between the two Americas.
Those who today are striving to rise, in earnest quest to occupy their rightful place in this broad earth, do so with mud of servitude and humiliation clinging unrelentingly to hem of garment. Sometimes this garment clothes the body, sometimes the spirit, and oftentimes the mind. Not till we understand the nature of this clinging mud, search for ways to purify our garment(s), and indeed triumph in ultimate immersion, shall we be free to claim this vast, generous sunshine for ourselves, for our children and their children.
Among us are those who simply brush off this most fundamental and painful aspect of our history. It is fanned, shooed away like flies disturbing an otherwise fine picnic, welcoming the amnesia. So for fear of work that must bolt us down to serious thought, engage us in painful trudge, search, introspection, tear open our bleeding hearts to balmy sunshine and cause us to think back, on the present, future, we hide our faces, and with flailing arms brush and fan and writhe. To the keen onlooker we are mad and trivial. We pretend that to talk about issues fundamental to our progress, to the very nature of who and why we are, is to be impolite. Shall we gather empty-handed at this conference of human civilization? The branches of our future grow out from the roots of our past. In this day we seem overanxious to tend to those branches without engaging the subterranean mainspring. And in this we are a lost race, a motherless child, a ship – rudderless and dangerous, both to herself and those who ride within her hold. I contend that we shall achieve nothing, cover no ground, indeed arrive empty-handed if we allow the substance of our past, the raison de’être of our history and ancestral memories to simply fall through our careless fingers.
I am sometimes pained to think that we do not take ourselves seriously, nor do we seem to know why we should. After all, life is cheap and we are not really headed in any direction. Promises are made but never kept, at all levels of life and society. We see no hope in our immediate environment, and live beholden to some thug who spares us another day, or some burglar who decided last evening to pass by me and mine. We are choking in salubrious air, starving at the harvest, bloody in paradise, wealthy and empty of coffer. Our red-brown earth from which harvests have sprung, are springing and shall spring, we mistake for the mud of humiliation and defeat. There is little attention to those details that may craft a serious life on this spot of Caribbean earth.
Who are our leaders? Why do they lead? Is there some broad, selfless conviction that led them to assumption of leadership? Are they possessive of love – copious and immeasurable – for their fellowman? What vision do they have for the present and future? What kind of society do they wish to fashion for our children to occupy? What are those broad, deep ideals to which they shall encourage citizens to cling? Do they come for gain of gold, or gain – illimitable and incorruptible – the liberation, progress and fashioning of men? Do they lead, or pretend to? Are they able to lead? These questions must be contemplated, turned over in secret chambers of the mind. Any serious leader should have arrived at answers to these questions before office of leadership is contemplated. I often think of my country as a headless host, heading into the stygian backwaters of barbarity. To say that it pains me to see us so disposed is an understatement… and I wonder of our leaders!
Leaders are fashioned in the molten lava of life. They rise up amidst the masses with vision beyond mere bread and meat. In the case of Jamaica our leaders ought to be thoroughly (re-) acquainted with our history – its hated pain, humiliation and suffering. This should be seared indelibly in their consciousness. It is for this hated pain, this humiliation and suffering that Maroon Nanny fought and died, Sam Sharpe and Bogle and those countless, nameless warriors whose indomitable spirits form the pantheon of our ancestry. Every leader should know this. Every leader should be keen on guiding Jamaican citizens into prospects that these brave men and women envisioned. And trickling from the top down, this attitude to our history should be a way of life. For this memory, this signpost must be the reason for our relentless striving. It may not be made of gold, but it inspires the search for gold. It may not be merry, but it traces a way towards happiness. It may remind of bond, slavery, pain, humiliation that dwarfed and blinded pride and dream, but it ought to animate towards guerdon in freedom, enlightenment and glory. I say from the top down because our leaders ought to be our bravest men. Bravery is not merely for battle, but for life. For living requires bravery as does leadership. Those who lead ought to be keen on pulling up those at the very bottom of society to higher ideals. But they must be themselves possessed of both ability and ideal. For, as in the case of Jamaica, if leaders fail, or are unable to pull up those at the bottom, then they shall be dragged down.
I contend that for many a Jamaican leader there is no broad, selfless conviction that led to assumption of leadership. Not since Grandy Nanny, not since Bogle and Sharpe, not since those who spilled their bowels in defending our dignity; not since Father Manley and Bustamante, who etched not their dreams in shifting sands, have we seen selfless conviction nourished by keen understanding and broad humanity. For Manley understood the potential of the Jamaican masses. He was keen to pull them up with him. He was keen in his uprightness of spirit and manner and mind and will, that they be not grovelling in the mud where humiliation and servitude had for centuries wallowed them. Is there anyone below the age of twenty who understands the political philosophy of Father Manley? Is there any youth who understands the race-philosophy of Garvey? Today, all around, I see my fellow Jamaicans wallowing in a mud sometimes made more foul than the aforementioned. This mud is now soaked with blood of thousands yearly butchered, now saturated with tears of those who for them mourn, now mixed with our penury and loss of vision, and now choking the minds of those freshly born, but tired, jaded with the old, old fear of living in a society that ravages and discards them to death. All this happens while our leaders stand idly by, crafting some commission to “look into these things”. And I wonder of our leaders!
Are we seven steps removed from Slavery – the same slavery we fan away like flies disturbing the picnic? Every man and child, woman and girl ought to be able to stretch out limbs to fullest extent, learn and achieve at highest level, be at peace when lying in bed or walking upon some rightful path. Every person should be free to live without threat of bullies or bullets. In Jamaica every mind should be able to dream and think, sing and take joy in those broader aspects of life, without having to cower beneath cloak of fear and depression. Where this is absent we are still in bondage, abysmal and profound. Do we not understand that our overall development starts in the mind? You may possess gold and precious metals, live in palatial spaces, and are outwardly rich, yet thoroughly wallowed in that mud.
A leader with vision for the present and future is one who seeks to understand all aspects and levels of life. This person ought not to be trivial, for to live and to lead a living, breathing mass of men is a serious undertaking. I have long advocated for my country a programme of education. I speak of education in its broadest aspects, not merely that kind of learning for which we have some inane definition cast in rusty iron, but of an education that shall yield men to the world – rounded and thinking. That legacy of keeping those at the bottom down, we will have to discard, for if they are down we are right down there with them! National life shall be a thriving, upward thrust – of mind, spirit, economics. For this we will need schools – of all kinds and description. We shall need schools with and without walls. Today, what we need more than ever is to teach our people to think, for this shall be our salvation. Thought should be free and impartial, dispassionate and sanctified, divested of dogma. Where goes the philosophy advocated by Garvey and Manley? Where goes the poetry of McKay and Marson, M.G. Smith and Virtue? Have they withered into nothingness, or do we read, teach?
In this day the ears of impressionable youngsters are filled with vacuous lyrics of those who write without responsibility, assailed by brutal beats, engorged with wanton-violence that dulls thought. Are these newly emergent so-called artistes our recent philosophers? Are we satisfied to emulate their violent philosophy, or should there be leaders on the lookout, ready to censure and to teach? I do not see broad-spirited, sympathetic men being cultivated, only those who would kill at the slightest provocation. Sometimes this provocation is indirect. I may provoke you by being different – in creed, thought or manner. How shall we make it as a nation if we continue to be dragged down by lyrics without responsibility? How shall we make it if we do not encourage creative thought in those coming into a sense of self? I wonder of our leaders!
Those elected leaders who do their years in office – ten, twenty, forty years – are they satisfied after all this time that they have not walked all over the physical land called Jamaica, knowing in substance what they claim in words to know? Are they satisfied that in all this time they have not made better the lot of those they were elected to govern? In Jamaica, in this day, there are those not seven steps removed from Slavery. In 2009 they live in 1900 – without running water, without electricity, without roads or bridges. It is true that someone will read these words and disagree with me saying, “But most of the people in Jamaica have these things”. I ask in return, “Really?” Are all Jamaicans satisfied with the quality of life they lead? There are those Jamaicans who are not even sure to what level they may aspire. Having lived in the blinding dust of penury and illiteracy for so long, their eyes do not recognize much else. These are the people we need to pull upwards so that they may stand in illuminating light of development and selfhood. We ought to teach. God we ought to teach! It will demand kind and patient hands, lovers of life and broad humanity. We ought to endeavour to take everyone with us when we embark upon our progress. For if a single person suffers penury, lives without the boundaries of broader knowledge, still has that mud clinging to hem of garment, all of us are thus disposed. We shall not and cannot be free, developed and liberated until all are.
Courtney A. Hogarth is a Jamaican artist resident in Beijing, who was awarded a Ph.D. in Classical Chinese Painting by the Central Academy of Fine Arts in that city.