Jamaica’s Culture – A Fascinating Heritage

Dr. Verene Shepherd

Jamaica’s culture, arguably, ranks among the most fascinating in the world.

It is one encompassing music, a variety of dances and food, folklore, language, norms and values, and customs and beliefs, which underlie an ethnically diverse society.

However, on the occasion of the nation’s 58th Independence Anniversary, several champions of the country’s rich culture, while concurring that Jamaica has fared well in preserving these aspects of a priceless heritage and promoting them among the youth, much remains to be done to further advance what obtains.

Culture advocate and Professor, Dr. Verene Shepherd, who describes culture as an expression of the society’s beliefs, ideas and the values, says it is an important asset for every member of the society, including children.

She lauds the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) for its role in promoting various aspects of the culture, especially the performing arts, among children and young people who are continuously exposed to these engagements during the annual festival events and Grand Gala celebrations.

“It’s clear to me that the teachers are doing a good job to pass on Jamaican culture in terms of the performing arts and music,” Professor Shepherd says.

She notes, however, that one area which remains a challenge is the language of patois.

“It is a language by itself. It has all the aspects of any other language from the vocabulary, dictionary of Jamaican English, and so on. So it is a proper language and the children speak it naturally. But what is problematic is that some of them get the impression from persons in the society who should know better that it is not a proper language,” Professor Shepherd contends.

She further argues that instead of compelling children to speak proper English, adults should encourage them to embrace that part of their culture.

“We have to teach the children that there is nothing wrong with their nation’s language… that it is a part of their culture and their right to speak their indigenous language,” Professor Shepherd adds.

Noting further that the manner in which persons dress and wear their hair is another aspect of the country’s culture, she says, children should also be encouraged to embrace their hair in its natural state and texture.

This, she contends, instead of being told that something is wrong with wearing locks or that their hair is not neat, adding that “I think we are projecting our elitist and colonial ideology unto our children”.

“In Jamaica’s 58 years of Independence, we should not be having this discussion about hair,” the academic posits.

Regarding aspects of the culture pertaining to identity, Professor Shepherd argues that “I don’t think enough is being done to teach the children about their origins”.

“This a is a country with 90 odd per cent black people and yet in the society, I think, there is a kind of anti-African sentiment by too many people… and this is being filtered down to our children,” she adds.

In the same vein, Professor Shepherd says young people need to be taught to love their black skin instead of the being told that ‘nothing black no good’ and that it is better to be brown, adding that “we have to teach pride in our race and that can come through the teachings of [National Hero, the Rt. Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey]”.

She contends that education has to be the vehicle by which culture is passed on, adding that one way of doing so is through history which should be mandatory in school.

Additionally, she says the society’s leaders and policymakers should also emphasize the importance of studying the arts, as individuals need to know their history to be well-rounded individuals.

Another culture advocate, Professor Carolyn Cooper, concurs that the festival tradition is one of the main ways in which Jamaica’s cultural heritage is being preserved and promoted among young people.

Additionally, she says some young people learn about their culture from their grandparents while others, who are growing up without the benefit of having these family members, are dependent on the schools, churches and other institutions to keep the ‘ole time’ values alive.