There’s a little island a few hours south of the US, in the Caribbean, where people are wont to go to relax. Thick green jungles that climb five and six stories high, dark but not menacing – a fertile goodness that shows the perfect anarchy of nature, punctuated by the delicate purples and pinks and blues of the hundreds of flower species pollinated by the butterflies and the bees – a roiling of life. Crystal waters hugging white-sand beaches, coral reefs hosting life abundant and wild, octopuses and sharks and eels. A brackish pond where the water sparkles and glows as you swim in the night, magical and luminescent.
Food – jerked pork; music, Bob Marley on the street corner and in the buses and on the minds of everybody. “Have you heard of Bob Marley?” asked a gardener at an old slave plantation, the one where the national hero was born, that was now owned by a Jamaican man and employs dozens of locals freely and graciously in the ultimate act of revenge against the slave-owners of old. “Of course,” I said, listening closely trying to wade my way through the pidgin. “Usain Bolt?” “Yes,” I said, smiling again, his own grin infectious as he exclaims. “They are from Jamaica!”
Joy – Jamaica is a joyful place. I’ve noticed this trait in many African countries where I’ve visited or lived – that joi de vivre, that ability to find something to smile about despite the hardship. Jamaica has this, but perhaps even in greater measure; Africa’s anguish is still fresh and bloody while Jamaica looks back to the past in remembering, using that ancient misery as a bedrock for a national motto that sounds a lot like “Don’t worry about a thing, cuz every little thing is gonna be all right” but could just as easily be, “They will never again rob us of our joy!”
Slavery – the story of Jamaica is the story of slavery. What is a beautiful and fertile atoll to the modern tourists was at one point a prison island, much like Cuba is today. Where people served at the pleasure of the masters and could say nothing, do nothing for fear that somebody would come for them in the night. The stories of defiance are in every breath of Jamaica’s national joy. A freedom hard-won and well-cherished. Samuel Sharp (whose plantation I visited) and the Christmas Rebellion. A burned down house, left untouched to be reclaimed by the jungles as a permanent reminder of the fight to be free. The tireless work of William Wilberforce an ocean away who nevertheless thought of nothing but Jamaica’s slaves. Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley.
Yet Jamaica has managed to move beyond the hatred and resentment – finding a joy in sharing their experiences with the wandering tourists, like me. It was nice for me to be a tourist for a moment, usually my sojourns in foreign lands take me to places where I stand out too much; but in Jamaica I was just part of the herd, ferried from resort to beach to restaurant and listening to the stories and the music of the islands.
Now an admonition to those of you who have lost your joy – who think only of retribution, of redistribution, of revolution; who look at the world around you and see only injury and offense (you know who you are). Go to Jamaica. They need your visit, their majority industry is tourism. You need it too – to see in a green jungle and a white sandy beach a limitless expanse of opportunity; and to listen to music of meaning and freedom which is a lesson to us from a people who suffered and who have decided that suffering would not be the end of their story, but instead the beginning as they transformed it into their gift to the world – joy.