“[M]ove on from that painful legacy,” encouraged British Prime Minister David Cameron on September 25, 2015 as he spoke not just to a joint sitting of Jamaica’s Parliament, but to Jamaicans locally and remotely who walk with the memory of slavery. Cameron’s words entered into the ears and deep into the cultural memories of those attending at Gordon House, Jamaica’s parliamentary building. By asking Jamaicans to “move on,” the PM effectively denied the Jamaican ex-colony reparations for slavery and refused to apologize for the British Empire’s colonial role in that peculiar institution.
In the days following, social media, academics, politicians, and mainstream news outlets weighed in on the speech, none more eloquently than Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller’s predecessor, P.J. Patterson via an open letter to David Cameron. Patterson responded by reminding the British PM and the wider webbed world that history is never in the past:
The 180 years of slavery in Jamaica remain fresh in living memory. There are people alive in Jamaica today whose great grandparents were a part of the slavery system and the memory of slavery still lingers in these households and communities. Those 180 years were followed by another 100 years of imposed racial apartheid in which these families were racially oppressed by British armies and colonial machinery. The scars of this oppression are still alive in the minds and hearts of millions of Jamaicans. To speak of slavery as something from the Middle Ages is insufficient. For our communities its legacies are still present in their memory and emotions. To reject this living experience is to repudiate the very meaning and existence of these people’s lives.
Patterson’s words were firm and, for me, they rang clear with reverberations of iconic reggae band Burning Spear’s “Slavery Days.” What Patterson describes as “living memory” is also what Burning Spear queries with a haunting refrain: the unsettling experience of past meeting present. And surely it is Babylon’s voice that was ventriloquized through Cameron as he spoke those provocative words “…[M]ove on from that painful legacy.”
In these reflective weeks since Cameron first delivered his speech I have considered his editorial choices (or those of his speech writers). Yes, Cameron ultimately employed the mute switch regarding a conversation about slavery, but he was very careful to maintain the melody of a longstanding relationship of influence between the nations, and he was very, very careful not to imply that that relationship was ever hierarchical. Instead Cameron leaned on his memory as he began his speech: “This place feels instantly familiar, […] this familiarity [between England and Jamaica] is about much more than just bricks and mortar.” Indeed by “mov[ing] on” and muting some of the more brutal details of history in favor of a more idyllic narrative Cameron continues the colonial tradition of historicizing. So, in many ways Prime Minister Cameron is right. England’s relationship with Jamaica is about “much more” and that unspoken “more” is transcribed into and infused into the Caribbean’s artistry.
The kind of revisionist nostalgia that Cameron put forth in his speech at Gordon House is precisely what Jamaica’s literary and musical artists are critically working against. And for a hundred plus years writers from across the Caribbean have been providing an alternate response to the old African proverb: until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
Politics will always be politics, but how we as a community make sense of politics ought to be balanced by our region’s various modes of story telling. From Burning Spear to Marlon James, Joe Arroyo to Julia Alvarez, Stuart Hall to Aime Cesaire, to name just a few, the artists and critics of the Caribbean are and have been the proverbial lions. So, to build on Cameron’s words, I affirm that the relationship between art and politics is about much more.