Historians Say Jamaica’s Cultural Heritage Remains Strong

Some local historians and sociologists believe that despite the influences of globalisation, Jamaica’s cultural heritage and practices remain strong, distinct and vibrant.

They all share the view that Jamaica’s cultural legacy must be preserved and respected for its immense contribution to the country’s development.

Director, Institute of Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona and noted Historian, Professor Verene Shepherd, tells JIS News that there are many aspects of Jamaica’s culture and heritage that set us apart from other societies, including our local cuisine, music, fashion, religion and sports.

“I have not been to any other country where I’ve seen the kinds of cuisine that we have in Jamaica. I think our ackee and saltfish, our curry goat – the way it’s done in Jamaica – are all uniquely Jamaican; nobody else does it our way. Our music is distinctive, especially reggae music and increasingly dancehall, those are recognised internationally and branded as uniquely Jamaican,” she says.

Prof. Shepherd also notes that Jamaica’s success in track cannot be ignored, noting that the consistently superior performance of the country’s athletes over the years has brought the nation international recognition and has placed us shoulder-to- shoulder with some of the most developed states.

Political Scientist and lecturer, Department of Government, UWI, Professor Rupert Lewis agrees with this sentiment, pointing out that the country’s stellar achievements in sports continues to serve as notable examples of its success, since cutting the proverbial umbilical cord,which joined itto England.

Prof. Lewis argues that Jamaica has had a revolution in cultural development, since 1962, which is characterised by the global impact of the country’s music and by the confidence that the population has in what it creates.

“There’s no doubt that Jamaica has more than come of age in the sphere of culture and that’s probably the area that brings us together more than any other area and it cuts across class,” he notes. Connected to culture is the country’s development in athletics, which now sees Jamaica poised as a global powerhouse in the sprint events.

Prof. Shepherd also points to Jamaica’s history of resistance and an impatience for injustice.

“I’m not saying that resistance is unique to Jamaica and Jamaicans, but if you look back at our history in the Caribbean, the system of exploitation was so severe up to 1838, that I think our people have really stamped on the landscape, that history of struggle and that history of impatience with any form of subjugation. We are known worldwide for standing up for our rights,” she remarks.  

She further argues that despite the influences of North America and other cultures, especially through the cable television and the Internet, most Jamaicans have still been able to maintain their authenticity. “There is still something uniquely Jamaican about us,” she says, noting that the mixing or integration of outside influences have not erased “what is truly Jamaican from our consciousness”.

Sociologist and Researcher of Jamaican Culture, Dr. Donna Hope, concurs, noting that although what is termed as “Jamaican culture” has changed and evolved over the years, what exists is still uniquely Jamaican.

“One of the things I have a challenge with is the idea that culture remains static. Jamaican culture is something that is dynamic and so we have always been sort of borrowing from other places and putting together a kind of bric-a-brac montage to come up with what we consider to be Jamaican,” she argues.

Dr. Hope states that there is a lot of “cross fertilisation” with North American mores, fashion and style, “because of the porous borders that we now inhabit in a globalised world” and what is seen as Jamaican culture today is probably not exactly the same as what is was 50 years ago.

“But it is still distinctly Jamaican, because of how we would use other elements of a culture and fuse them with ours,” she points out, noting that “the Americans have taken from us as well in this current era, so it’s a kind of give and take.”

Prof. Shepherd, in the meantime, laments the negative effects of the outside influences that have infiltrated the Jamaican society, through particularly cable television and the “reality TV lifestyle”.

“We have to clean up some of the rubbish that is being shown. We are too quick to copy some of the reality TV shows and to implement them here. They don’t work for us and in many cases they are just corrupting the minds of our young people,” she says.

She also points to the need for greater attention to be paid to the preservation of heritage sites. “I lament the fact that some of our heritage sites that should be on the landscape as evidence of our history and culture are not being preserved properly,” she says, citing the historic town of Port Royal as example.

She says institutions such as the Ministry of Culture, the Institute of Jamaica, the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) and the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) are important fixtures in the cultural landscape as guardians of Jamaica’s heritage and culture.

“We still have to watch to ensure that we preserve and protect our heritage so that it can still be distinctive and that our young people can have something to emulate,” she says. “We have a legacy that we need to continue to protect, and so we have to thank those who have gone before like Louise Bennett-Coverly and Mass Ran (Ranny Williams) and all the people who have built up this culture,” she comments.

Prof. Shepherd also says that the younger generation owes a debt of gratitude to our National Heroes, such as Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Sam Sharpe, Nanny and Paul Bogle for leaving a legacy that all Jamaicans can be proud of today.