“I said that life (sweet life) – it must be somewhere to be found (somewhere for me) Oh, instead of concrete jungle (jungle!) – illusion (concrete, jungle!) -Confusion (confusion). (concrete, jungle!)”
–“CONCRETE JUNGLE”, Bob Marley
A Dream, A Destiny
The 48° 0′ 0″ N/83° 0′ 0″ W” realism is far removed from twangy dialects echoing between the boundaries of golden, sun-drenched beaches, rolling lush green hills, and the occasional rum-shop rendezvous. The persuasive percussion of Bob Marley’s “Concrete Jungle” is poignant in the mind of a West Indian dreamer living abroad – a dream, an aspiration, a notion of bettering, opportunity and access. The 20th century’s passage of flying north for a “better life” is ever lucid, as Marley extols his irony in a snow covered Canadian reality.
It begs a question that may prescribe a characteristic of the West Indian in the quest for exploration. “Did we forget where we came from?” Did we forget that we are a transient people? Our journey is one of millions of us traversing continents and boundaries for over 500 years, making migration “what we do”. Yet, abandonment of the only world one knows for another to which we “dream-to-belong” must stem from a tradition of Exodus – a theme Marley also exquisitely appraised.
The West Indies, circa 1960, was ambient with longing and desires. Island people imbued with ambition brought on by the social and political movement towards independence and enfranchisement were itching to excel. The attitude of “island life, no problem” was searching for new meaning and like poetry in motion, arose a consciousness, an awakening that was pungent with the aroma of “selling out”. The yearning – that dream for a mulatto landscape – was like trading in the wrought iron manacles of plantocracy for a tight fitting pendant of island abandonment – a fettered disconnection. The picture postcard may have depicted a passive, subservient people – cane cutting, grinning mango eaters – a metamorphosis of Thomas Carlyle’s “Pumpkin Easters”, but in the shadows of the former barracoons and town dwellings a different type of tropical storm was brewing.
Out of Many, One.
Villagers in fishing communities like Bathsheba, Barbados needed a soldier, an activist of change, a hero even. The neighbour’s son sailing off to an uncertain destiny would do. As any casual survey of Caribbean anthropology would reveal, one by one, men and women fled villages and neighbourhoods from Jamaica to St Lucia, leaving empty seats in church pews on Sunday mornings and classrooms without teachers, as sons and daughters climbed aboard ocean going vessels, some never to return.
Marcus Garvey, the god-father of the awakening, led and men like Sir Frank Worrell followed as the first black man to captain the West Indies Cricket team. This meritorious triumph reverberated accolades of panoramic proportions. CLR James, Che Guevara and Sir Garfield Sobers, and later, others like Michaelle Jean (born in Haiti and former Canadian Governor General) continued to break free from their shores and as leaders embarked on actualising their dreams and hopes, and in time were elevated as national Caribbean heroes. They gave validation to ambitions of new nations that they could manage their own affairs, and lit cinders of possibilities to a hapless people through their successes and achievements. These collective outbound journeys in themselves gorged new pathways of a hope and promise that the greener grass, those golden streets lay in waiting for any one who dear to dream, and was victorious acquiring a ticket to ride.
Like the bursting of a dam, laborers, nurses, teachers and service workers left in droves to northern territories in search of their golden calves. Children with shiny faces and gunslinger flip flops were left behind in some matri-petal family setting, desperately hanging on to promises of one day going “home”. Bob Marley’s music depicts the real life trials of his island people and their struggles in search of an identity when their ‘roots’ were tightly interwoven like ancestral African hair. To the world, he became a musical legend; to us he was a son and prophet attesting and spliffing truth and meaning to the beliefs of millions.
Marley’s narrative described people on the move, geographically and psychologically. Millions of women and men migrated from holy-sounding rural communities like St. Ann, St. Joseph and St. Andrews with steadfast ambitions of fame, security or personal enlightenment. Driven by false promises, they mustered the courage to abandon their known world for the unknown. And yet, while Bob Marley’s Concrete Jungle speaks of a sweet life out there to be found, did the West Indian really have to leave the islands to find it?
Together We Aspire and Achieve
The voyage “overseas” meant that one had left the nest. Expectation and ideals laid heavy burdens on a young traveller, but he never forgets his origin, his Black Shack Alley. By the 1970s, the perceived mishmash of drifters and spurned progeny of aristocracy had become The Awakening of the ambivalence of Caribbean people, having gained momentum with the Black Power Movement, a force that emerged from the Civil Rights Movement. Islands had began to forge their identities and redefined their rich heritage: Jamaicans embodied strong willful people, reggae music became its powerful sound and message, and natty-dreads its symbol of identify and glory. As these once nomadic voyagers began to find their voice, purpose and form, so did these nations-states.
Once we accepted our intrinsic nature for the bon voyage, without compromising our dignity, perceptions shifted. We have negotiated countless barricades and now more than ever we are defined by our ambitions and not solely by our history. Today, in leaving our communities, whether conscious or not, every single West Indian, Islander or Caribbean national in the global diaspora is an ambassador of a new order for our diverse Caribbean selves. We have become The Island. From that moment, what we say and how we say it; what we do; and how we move, is sensational. Our pride, vivacity, our food, music and our character make us unique, setting us apart.
When ACU|BIEN Founder, Gus Franklyn-Bute shared his dream to expose the real identities, ambitions and achievements of island people everywhere, setting into motion a deep introspection of who we are, this exploration reveals the sophistication of a once transient region, and brings to light the dreams of its sons and daughters. We are inheritors of that early 2nd era migration agenda. We are nation building athletes who have taken the baton from our fore-bearers. For the men and women who have made their homes away from home, they shall forever be The Island in a bigger, braver, newer world.