zaterdag 17 april 2010


At the time of the election of Barack Obama, the 4th, or already 5th, of November 2008, as president of the United States I was in Jamaica, as part of a two-weeks vacation. I’ve been there before in late 2006, when I combined it with Cuba, and I made some friends in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, off the main tourism zones in Jamaica.

When I returned in 2008 I met these friends and contacts again to get to know Jamaica better. My interest in Jamaica stemmed and stems primarily from my love, since my teens, for reggae music. Reggae as a genre originated in Jamaica and as I went more and deeper into reggae, starting with Bob Marley, but soon listening to many other artists, I naturally got to think of Jamaica, where all the lyrics were about or at least made, and the music arose. It must be for some reason that reggae took shape in that way on that island, I reasoned.

Anyway, I got to go to Jamaica, which is not very cheap, or easy, from Amsterdam, and Jamaican friends I made were even connected to the music industry, in some ways.
I chose November mainly because it was somewhat outside the busiest tourist season and at the end of the “hurricane season” (though still partly rainy). To get a relatively cheaper flight I had to book way in advance, I’m talking about a year or so, so it’s safe to say that I did not time it to coincide with the possible election of the first black/half-African president of the USA.

Jamaica is an island with currently about 2,8 million inhabitants, of which about 85% can be considered (mostly) black/of African descent, another (around the) 10% is “brown” (mixed European/African). USA as a big neighbour has been – for better or worse - very influential in the Caribbean, economically, politically, culturally, and as a migrant destination.
Put these things together and you can only conclude that the election of the first black US president must have a special significance in Jamaica, which added to my trip an unintended “journalistic” or “scholarly” dimension. I began to realize this as the date of my trip came closer.

Welcome to Kingston (and US economic influence..)

The question is then: what did I notice? I arrived a day before the 2008 general elections in the US, and got settled soon, so my mind could focus on this what could be perceived as “history in the making”. The probability of Obama winning the elections increased according to many close to the elections, so there was a moderate degree of optimism.

I watched television with Jamaicans: often US channels broadcasting the results, until Obama’s victory was definite. Since it was night and some got sleepy, ways parted, and it was in my cheap hotel in uptown Kingston that I heard the victory speech of Obama held in Chicago. Where were you when……well… there, in Kingston, Jamaica.

In between two parts of Kingston: uptown/New Kingston, a more wealthy part of Kingston, and a (lower) middle-class area (not really a ghetto, but not wealthy either), where we drove as my friend drove me to my hotel, there was not really a mass euphoria, neither were people celebrating on the streets. Not that I expected that, I did not know what to expect, really. Maybe some celebrated at home, or it was simply too late for some.
There was some attention to it, among Jamaicans I knew, and by Jamaicans on the radio and television.

The television at the Kingston hotel where I stayed. Secured….

As I met the same friend(s) again the next day, there was more attention to it: in the media, radio, comments by my friends, or by other Jamaicans that I just picked up. A man entering a supermarket greeted a friend working there and also said something like “black man time”. Similar comments were made in the media. The Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner had “Obama makes history” on its front page the 5th of November, and on the radio it was discussed. The people I knew were happy with the fact that a black man was now president of such a powerful country. Also the fact that first lady Michelle was black got special mention.

A few days later I got to visit, through a friend of a friend, the studio in August Town, Kingston, of Sizzla Kalonji , the conscious dancehall reggae artist, a Rastafari of the Bobo Ashanti mansion. I heard there a part of the song about “a black man in the White House” that Sizzla apparently composed by then.

These two weeks I traveled throughout Kingston and several other parts of the island, from which I learned much, and which I found overall nice and interesting. It was a nice, “easy”, yet inspiring trip, overall, these two weeks Jamaica.

View of Falmouth on the North Coast, where I also spent a few hours one day

I did not have the idea that the island Jamaica exploded and was in a mass euphoric state due to Obama’s victory. People went on with their daily lives, which include struggles, especially for those in the poorer areas and ghettos of Jamaica, which I also visited some days. Throughout all this, however, I felt like Obama’s victory was “positively acknowledged” as part of a historical sense of black pride in Jamaica, dating back to Marcus Garvey and others. This was hardly ever aggressive, negative, vindictive, let alone directed at me (a white tourist, even though a reggae lover). I liked this: most Jamaicans I met, I felt, saw the person before the race. Whiteness was either irrelevant, noted as part of “stating the obvious”, or simply a sign (“Does that machine work? No you need to go to that other one, close to where that white man is standing”).

Statue of Marcus Garvey in St Ann’s Bay. “We declare to the world Africa must be free”

Most Jamaicans I met seemed proud of who they were, their blackness, their culture, country and identity and expressed this pride regularly. That’s “a natural fact”, as some have sung.
This pride apparently need not result in racially based aggression or hatred. I think it’s all about acknowledging common humanity, true communication, and openness of mind.
This is possible. “Yes we can”, as Obama would say.

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