At Jamaica’s independence I was a young man in Toronto. I had just opened up my business. It was six months old. I wondered if I would survive. I wasn’t thinking much about independence. But I do remember waking up the day after the event and realizing Jamaica was an independent nation. I felt so proud. Fifty years later, I am just as proud to be Jamaican as I was then, if not prouder, because we are a nation of tremendous diversity.
Honorary Consul of Jamaica, Winnipeg
I was raised in Kingston and grew up as a British subject. Although, I knew we would still be part of the British Commonwealth and still be governed by British common law, as we are to this day, I was uncertain: Would things really change? I remember before independence when things were so British I always wondered: Where were the Jamaicans who worked in the banks? Where were the Jamaicans who worked in the stores? There were no dark-skinned faces.
They said things would change after independence and little by little they did. And you got the feeling that this lovely island, this beautiful land, was really ours. Dark faces were in the banks; kids didn’t have to come from fantastic rich homes to get into high school and college.
Developing a new country is challenging because suddenly you have to do the governing you have never done before. But now we actually owned the land we belonged to! After independence Jamaicans were even in charge of their own ceremonies. I remember when we got our first black Governor General. Before that they were always white and British.
I came to Canada just after independence. It wasn’t the best time to leave Jamaica, but I was already enrolled in the University of Manitoba. But you always go back – to a place where you still belong and your people are in charge, in every way.
Author, granddaughter of former Jamaican premier Norman Washington Manley, Toronto
My memories of independence are not totally as joyous as most of the Jamaicans I know. It was 1962 – I was about 16 – and I had grown up with my grandparents. I was very much part of my grandfather's dream of federation. I have wonderful memories of people telling me that my grandfather was out building the nation; I figured it was just a larger version of his carpentry, as he had built our cottage.
The nation he was building was not Jamaica alone, but the wider federation of the Caribbean. We were getting ready to be born, we would be a family of 10 – 10 sibling islands. He would show me the map of the Caribbean and there were our sisters and brothers, and then our cousins, the French islands and the Dutch and the Spanish. It all seemed so exciting. And many people forget we were actually a federation, a legal entity, for two years headquartered in Trinidad with our federal flag. But my grandfather took the question of federation to the Jamaican people and we lost the referendum.
My grandfather very nobly went to negotiate with Britain for our national independence. He was successful. Now Jamaica would be an only child. That was a heartbreaking thought for me, and still is. I am an unrepentant federalist.
My grandfather, then premier, was narrowly defeated in the next election. So independence was a sad time for me, seeing another party lead us into the independence my grandfather`s work had forged. I have ambivalence about the time.
What I do remember and do attach to that time is the joy of that moment – the sheer cultural ebullience. The music playing everywhere that would soon become known worldwide as Jamaican music: Millie Small, Toots and the Maytals, the beginning of a stream of festival songs.
Culturally and socially we have gone from strength to strength. Our music, our writing, our art and our theatre. Socially we have thrown off all the old yokes of colonialism, and have embraced the ideals of a just society, but we need in many ways still to move to more tolerance of one another.
And while we are culturally and socially strong, we still have to think about our economic viability. It's not good that as many as 80 per cent of our students wander off to the first world. Or that we have a trillion-dollar debt. Or that economic inequity is still appalling. So whilst we celebrate this exciting milestone we must keep these things in mind.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.