My call for establishment of a Jamaican race in last month’s column triggered so many favorable responses that I asked Xavier Murphy, the man behind Jamaicans.com, whom we should see to get a separate race established.
Xavier didn’t know. Nobody I asked had a clue. So I went surfing on the web to find out. As far as I could discover, nobody is in charge of deciding what constitutes a race and what doesn’t. And the web produced so many conflicting views of the meaning of the word “race” that I came to realize there is no consensus on the subject.
An evolutionary biologist named Joseph L. Graves, Jr. even went so far as to state that there’s no scientific explanation for racial classifications, and that these distinctions “have their basis not in biology but in bigotry.”
And Dr Douglas C. Wallace, professor of molecular genetics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, was quoted as saying, “The criteria that people use for race are based entirely on external features that we are programmed to recognize.”
Obviously, a lot of people much more learned than I, hold the view that the concept of race is – at best – an illusion and – at worst – a tool of oppression and injustice.
The idea of basing racial concepts on the color of a person’s skin was rejected as unscientific by every source I clicked on. One group, which professed to base its conclusions on the Bible, scoffed at the notion. “All people have the same skin color,” the group’s thesis declared. “You see, we all have the same coloring pigment in our skin called melanin. If we produce a little melanin … our skin will be a very light brown (or “European white”) If our skin produces a great deal of melanin, we will be a very deep brown (“black” if you will).”
So what does that mean in practical terms? A whole body of law exists in America that defines the rights and privileges of members of certain races. But how does the law decide who belongs to what race? The Supreme Court has wrestled long and hard with this issue and, as far as I could see, failed to come up with a useful answer. I came across a report that in one case, the court went all the way back to 1492 to figure out whether someone was Hispanic.
There are many saner ways to combat injustice and discrimination. One would be to put the burden of justification on employers for such actions as promotions and terminations. If the action is shown to spring from any other reason than merit, the plaintiff would be compensated. Another would be to provide the nation’s education system with adequate funding and mandate universal early-childhood programs to give everybody a fair start in life. Believe me, a lot of the kids they classify as African-Americans are too smart to need extra help getting into university if they receive the proper preparation to start with.
Anyway, that’s America’s problem. How about the question of a Jamaican race?
The answer might be to establish a clear definition of the word “race.” I would be comfortable using it to describe people who share a set of identifiable cultural behaviors.
We could ask the Jamaican Parliament to pass a law declaring those of us who share certain listed cultural attributes as being eligible for inclusion in the Jamaican race. But that’s hardly practical. The criteria might prove too ephemeral to put into words. And I am sure the Jamaican Parliament has more pressing tasks to tackle at this time.
But here’s something simple that we can do. When we have to fill out one of those forms that ask us to declare whether we are Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander or whatever, we could check the “Other” box, and where space allows, write in “Jamaican.”
We could do more, too.
When I was in Jamaica, a friend took me to an event sponsored by the Alliance Francaise, a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization. Its mission is to promote and enhance the knowledge and appreciation of French culture, to increase the knowledge of the French language, and to encourage interaction among French, French-speaking and other people through programs in education and the arts.
Wouldn’t it be great if Jamaicans had a similar cultural refuge? Suppose we had an organization with branches all over the world, where we could go to be Jamaican for an evening. Imagine kicking back with suitably Jamaican refreshment (if rum is too strong, you could have sorrel, sour-sop juice or tamarind beverage). We could talk patois and eat yard food to our hearts’ content. We could play a tape of Miss Lou or Ranny Williams, or watch a live performance of a current Jamaican play or movie. We could get down to a solid reggae beat without fear of disapproving eyes. And we could bring our friends along, the ones with a little bit of Jamaica in their souls.
There are several organizations that have the makings of something similar. Right off the top of my head, I can think of the Jamaican American Club (http://www.jamaicanamericanclub.org) and this (Jamaicans.com) web site. And I am sure there are many other groups on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
What we need is an initiative to bring such groups together and expand them into a worldwide Jamaican network. Perhaps the Jamaican Tourist Board would help get the movement rolling. Surely, the Jamaican government would quickly recognize the benefits that the island would reap from such a development.
George Graham is a Jamaican-born journalist and author who has worked as a reporter in the Caribbean and North America for more than half a century. He lives in Lakeland, Florida. His books, “Hill-an’-Gully Rider” and “Girlie: A Love Story,” are available at http://stores.lulu.com/georgeg.