Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Ahead of their Time
The story of Alexander Bedward, movingly told in the play of the same name by Louis Marriott, is an allegory of the struggle of people of colour to take their rightful place in post-emancipation Jamaica. Bedward took the spiritual road, Garvey took the socio-economic path and Claude McKay chose a way through literature. They were all ahead of their time and they all died in obscurity.
Born in the 1840s, Bedward succeeded the American founder of the Jamaica Native Free Baptist Church, Shakespeare Woods. He was a charismatic leader, garnering the support of over 30,000 followers at the height of his popularity in August Town. He encouraged his members to grow their own food, and miraculous healings were recorded at the Hope River. Traditional churches started losing members to Bedward's movement, and the establishment closed in on him. He was overtaken by delusions of grandeur - the scenes of Bedward anxiously inquiring about Gleaner reports are still being replayed by succeeding generations of leaders. Bedward's absolute power at Union Camp created what may have been the first garrison in Jamaica, repelling the security forces when they tried to investigate a case of praedial larceny. His rapid descent begins when he fails to keep his promise to fly. He was committed to the Bellevue asylum where he died in 1930.
A good education brought Garvey and McKay a certain level of respect, but they could not eventually withstand the powerful establishment. After being deported from America on charges of "mail fraud", Garvey's growing following raised the eyebrows, as well as the hackles of the authorities in colonial Jamaica. He eventually migrated to England where he died broken-hearted in 1940.
The gentle-hearted McKay started out as a policeman but quit the rigors of the beat to become one of Jamaica's finest poets, colouring our childhood with memories of his "green hills of Jamaica", and awakening our consciousness with militant poetry. He was quoted by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and toasted in post-revolution Soviet Union where he shared the reviewing stand with Russia's leaders for their Labour Day Parade in May 1923.
But this sensitive, elegant Jamaican writer died in 1948 in a Chicago hospital, a devout convert to Catholicism and a humble teacher who had failed to earn from his much-praised work.
Every overworked, unappreciated individual can take comfort in the fact that succeeding generations have revived interest in the lives and work of these three remarkable men. In his book, Marcus Garvey Said… Ken Jones (who went to great lengths to put out this recent edition) quotes the late Martin Luther King Jr: "Marcus Garvey was the first man, on a mass scale, to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny and make the Negro feel that he was somebody." Claude McKay's body of work continues to amaze and inspire generations of students worldwide.
It would be unfair to ignore the role of enlightened white folks in the struggle for equality. White clergy members of the Protestant Church and white abolitionists were in the forefront of the 19th centu ry movement for emancipation. McKay was befriended in his adolescence, by a Mr. Jekyll English gentleman who became his intellectual and literary mentor. In England, his friend Frank Harris promoted his poetry and arranged a private meeting for him with George Bernard Shaw.
By the 30s, white Jamaicans like Bustamante and Edna Manley put the establishment in a quandary, with Busta baring his chest and daring the security forces to "shoot me but let my people go" and Edna carving the powerful and poetic Negro Aroused.
Armed with the bravery and eloquence of his remarkable ancestors, Bob Marley, the son of a black Jamaican woman and a white Englishman, gave us Redemption Song, the anthem for a century of self-realization. But were it not for a white Jamaican with English roots, Chris Blackwell, Marley might also have died in obscurity.
This has been Jamaica's unique legacy: the bold assertion of self-worth, supported by all the races of the majority of her people. There may still be the few who would want to perpetuate their puzzling prejudice, but we are teaching the world great lessons about the strength of racial harmony.
In the name of those who have bequeathed our proud history, we should resist any inclination to devalue the efforts of our fellow Jamaicans.
-Jean Lowrie-Chin - 2004