This essay introduces the project of rethinking the cultural-political historiography of Jamaica of which “The Jamaican 1960s” is a contribution. It sets out the question in relation to the idea of a Jamaican intellectual tradition. Specifically, it inquires into the way the idea of the making of a “modern” Jamaica has been crucial to a nationalist historiography—a paradigm that might be less cogent in the contemporary period.


These notes sketch, in a preliminary way, a gradually evolving project that literary scholar Donette Francis and I have initiated—though I hasten to say that I do not claim here to speak for her. Presumably we have neither identical backgrounds nor views, but we share enough, I believe, in some of the sources of our discontent and intellectual traditions, to motivate the resonance and drive the rhythms of our collaboration. The project centers on the cultural-political historiography of Jamaica, and on our sense that it stands in need of collective interrogation and perhaps also collective revision. It may well be, come to think of it, that the cultural-political historiography of the Caribbean as a whole—francophone and hispanophone as much as anglophone, nonsovereign no less than sovereign, and regional as well as diasporic—stands in need of such interrogation and revision. But Jamaica is what we know, in an internal and steadfast way, within a structure of feeling as much as a structure of cognition, and therefore it is with Jamaica that we are immediately concerned.

In some measure, then, what we are aiming at might be thought of, modestly, as a description of the shifting contours of the intellectual tradition within which we ourselves are situated. However, our aim is not a merely parochial one. As far as possible, we want to both think about, and also think through, Jamaica. That is, we want to treat Jamaica both as an unrepeatable specificity, as sui generis, and as an instance of a wider historical experience and political possibility: there is, we believe, universality in our particularity. Our aim, therefore, is less to produce new positive or empirical knowledge about Jamaica (though that is by all means welcome) than to deploy Jamaica (including the idea of Jamaica) as the occasion principally for a sustained methodological reflection. Yet, even so, we have no settled or prescriptive agenda. Rather, we find ourselves animated by the inchoate and yet restless sense that our present demands something more than, or anyway something different from, what we have at our disposal in the ready-to-hand moral-conceptual paradigms that have so far governed our historical understandings of the relation between Jamaica's pasts, presents, and possible futures. Not that we can abstractly name an alternative direction of research—on the whole we cannot. What we are still trying to discern (what we may always be trying to discern), as the genealogical self-consciousness of our intellectual tradition, are the normative conventions that have taught us how to think ourselves historically in the way that we do.1


One way to start off a reflection on the kind of inquiry we have in mind is to consider, briefly, the role of the idea of the “modern” in organizing the cultural-political historiography of Jamaica. What does it mean to speak, in any of its cognate iterations, of the making of modern Jamaica? Why has the idea of the birth and coming into being of a specifically modern Jamaica figured so prominently as an organizing historiographic principle? What exactly does the “modern” index in the overall idea of Jamaica? Is it merely a loosely conceived chronological marker without deeper conceptual significance? Or does it rather signal, however inchoately, something profound, something like the emergence of new kinds of social and political arrangements, new kinds of institutions and relational forms, and perhaps even new kinds of sensibilities and attitudes and modes of individual and collective self-understanding? Finally, is the very idea of the making of a modern Jamaica itself a distinctly modern idea? That is, might it be a modern historiographical self-consciousness for which the idea of the making of a modern Jamaica assumes such generative salience?

Two recently published books on Jamaica's social and political history throw these questions into some relief and afford us an opportunity to reflect on the idea of the coming into being of a modern Jamaica. Both books announce this preoccupation in their titles. One is Colin Palmer's Freedom's Children: The 1938 Labor Rebellion and the Birth of Modern Jamaica, published in 2014, and the other is Arnold Bertram's N. W. Manley and the Making of Modern Jamaica, published in 2017.2 Needless to say, both books ought to be of considerable interest to the student of twentieth-century Jamaica. They are ably researched and engagingly written, and both bring a great deal of new material to bear on their respective concerns. Moreover, each is written by a Jamaican historian of roughly the same social generation—born in the 1940s, that is, in the middle of their own stories, and both coming of age in the Jamaican 1960s. Both, too, are graduates of that distinctive secondary school, Calabar High School (founded by the Jamaica Baptist Union in the early twentieth century and named after the former slave port in present-day Nigeria). So that, perhaps not surprisingly, Palmer and Bertram both nourish their respective subjects with a knowing intimacy and commitment and authority. It is interesting, too, that they are both historians who come at their accounts of Jamaica in somewhat mediated ways. Palmer is a distinguished professional historian who spent a significant part of his academic career writing about the black diaspora in colonial Latin America before turning (or returning) to the anglophone Caribbean, on which he has now produced a remarkable interconnected series of volumes.3 Bertram, though formally trained in history, spent most of his adult life as a professional politician and since his departure from active politics has produced a number of historical works.4 In this regard, it is notable that whereas Freedom's Children is published by a US university press, N. W. Manley is published by a Kingston-based publishing house with a cultural-political agenda. In short, Palmer and Bertram are examples of what is best in the historical consciousness of our intellectual tradition and, reflecting this, their respective books are substantial contributions to the archive of the historiography of Jamaica.

And yet, at the same time, these books are, in an important sense, familiar contributions to what is by now a familiar story of twentieth-century Jamaica. Virtually any attentive student of Jamaican history would, with little more than a glance at the respective tables of contents of these books, be able to offer an accurate thumbnail sketch of the overall arc and direction of their historical accounts. They would be able to more or less accurately forecast the start and end points of the story, the main cast of characters and their distinctive personalities, the driving plotline, the central events and their implications, and so on. In saying this, of course, I do not mean to now withdraw my praise for these books, only to pose the question of locating them in a problem-space that usefully illuminates the underlying project that fundamentally connects them. Both books are, in effect, shaped by a now conventional narrative way of organizing our understanding of the idea of Jamaica, or more specifically our understanding of the present of the past of Jamaica. In this narrative, the dramatic action of the story is set in motion by the “event” of 1938—the tremendous upheaval of May–June when, almost exactly a century after slave emancipation, thousands of poor, black working people riotously demanded an improvement in their conditions of labor and life. It is true that Palmer and Bertram get there differently, but both stage 1938 as the inaugural moment in the narrative of our political modernity. And once set in motion the arc of this narrative follows a set path, through a sequence of subsidiary events (Adult Suffrage in 1944 being a pivotal one), invariably bending toward independence in 1962 as the effective culmination of the story. In other words, 1938 is linked to 1962 by a teleological thread: the former is the origin of the latter; the latter is the horizon of the former. There are of course variations on the theme, but on the whole, it has remained, over a significant period of time, a remarkably stable story.5

Interestingly, though, nowhere in either of these two books is there an explicit discussion of the question of the “modern” they themselves announce in their respective titles. It is taken for granted. What, we might ask, is the role the modern plays in them? What generative discursive work does it do? There is really no mystery here—though it bears explicit articulation. The idea of the modern in both books is obviously connected to the idea of nationalism, and consequently to the promise of the nation-state. Jamaica becomes modern or, more provocatively, is made modern, in and through the nationalist project of founding a nation-state. Therefore, the idea of the modern is at least tacitly bound up with the transitional process of decolonization. The national, in other words, is the name of the anticolonial modern, and it embodies the organized and motivated aspiration to political freedom, that is to say, political sovereignty. Or to put it slightly differently, the modern is a grid that inscribes a regime of political rationality whose idiom is that of the nationalist project. The distinctive modernity of Manley, for example (and this is implicit in both Palmer and Bertram), inhered in his consummate ability to translate this political rationality into a native, that is, brown middle-class Jamaican, idiom.

Now the contemporary efficacy of the story embodied in Palmer's and Bertram's books about the “birth” and “making” (respectively) of modern Jamaica depends on the extent to which the national retains a progressive cast and forward-moving momentum, a continued sense of potential novelty and innovation. For without these the narrative stagnates into half-hearted gestures whose cynicism is often hard to disguise. In short, without a generative expectation of an expanding horizon of freedom that can be promised in its name, the narrative can only repeat the past without opening toward the hope of a political futurity. Certainly today, more than half a century into political sovereignty, it is no longer clear that the idea and ideal of the national and the nation-state retain more than a glimmer of their previous luster and dynamism. To the contrary, they seem exhausted, limping along with little or no creative energy left in them. Suddenly, for example, as the hegemonic hold of this conventional narrative weakens, we can better wonder why it has been so natural to assume that 1938 should have led to 1962. Now that we inhabit the dead end of the nation-state project, we can better ask, Why should the spontaneous uprising of the black poor, the descendants of the enslaved, have given birth to a movement for political independence that has only enhanced the elite classes? Might it not better have given birth to a demand for reparations, to a demand for the moral and material repair for the generations of enslavement?


The point here is that it is now doubtful that this entire paradigm—with its distinctive organization of chronologies and personalities and events—should continue to shape our preoccupations. And thus we are faced with a significant challenge: How might we effectively de-normalize this paradigm? How might we release ourselves from its obligatory gestures and unreflective conceits? How might we step back from its pathos of political desire, far enough to enable us to see more than the historical details and to recognize the conceptual-ideological program at work—and yet not so far as to lose the baby with the bathwater, that is, to lose a sense of the concrete historicities that have informed the paradigm and thus also formed us? I do not think that any of us is quite sure how to answer these questions. Indeed, it may be that the best answers cannot be abstract ones but will only emerge gradually in the course of new work.6

In any case, the project to which the following essays are contributions aims to put into question the normative narrative of the making of modern Jamaica. The essays themselves grow out of a symposium organized around the theme of the Jamaican 1960s held at the University of Miami, 29–30 October 2015. This is our revisionary historiographic starting point: the 1960s. The choice is not entirely arbitrary. As we have already seen, 1962 has been the telos of the conventional narrative of Jamaica's cultural-political modernity. And thus the first decade of sovereignty—one that was, in any case, eventful and transformative—constitutes a critical vantage from which to rethink our historiographical self-consciousness. Needless to say, I am not going to rehearse or summarize the essays. They do their own varied work in their own varied voices. Not surprisingly, they do not conform to any ready-made agenda. Their impetus is less to find fault with the older paradigm (though doubtlessly there is much to critique and doubt) than to explore, provisionally and experimentally, whether or to what extent it continues to be helpful in illuminating contemporary Jamaica. They are part of an expanding and open-ended work in progress—one that Donette Francis and I are trying to enact and develop and reflect on all at the same time. Thus by the time the essays here are published in November 2017, we will have convened a second symposium, on the Jamaican 1970s. For all serious students of Jamaica, the decade of the 1970s is a watershed for many reasons—not least for the cultural and political upheavals embodied in reggae and the socialist experiment of the first People's National Party administration of Michael Manley. In this way, we hope to systematically revisit other formative decades in the historiography of Jamaica—we are already talking, for example, about the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1980s. And, of course, as we do so we intend to interrogate the assumptions about chronology that underpin our own critical intervention.

The Miami symposium was a robustly stimulating occasion. Part of the reason, I think, is that for most of us (I mean, participants) our personal and intellectual identities are, in some relevant formative way, entangled with Jamaica. Thus, as I have already suggested, the idea of Jamaica as an object of scholarly preoccupation is not an external one, shaped only by professional concerns. To the contrary, it is also an internal one, constructed and lived simultaneously at vital levels of experience and cognition and commitment. In short, we think of ourselves as not only observers of but participants in a Jamaican identity, an identity at once lived and argued over in the very debates we are reflecting on in a scholarly way. In this sense, our project is not merely an exercise in intellectual history, because what we are debating are the contours of an intellectual tradition in which we ourselves are (partly) formed. Indeed, this is a crucial dimension of what our project is after: the self-conscious construction, extension, and revision of an intellectual community.


For more on this, see David Scott, “The Temporality of Generations: Dialogue, Tradition, Criticism,” in “Interpretation and Its Rivals,” special issue, New Literary History 45, no. 2 (2014): 157–81.


Colin A. Palmer, Freedom's Children: The 1938 Labor Rebellion and the Birth of Modern Jamaica (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); and Arnold Bertram, N. W. Manley and the Making of Modern Jamaica (Kingston: Arawak, 2017).


One need only mention the following to give a flavor of the project: Colin A. Palmer, Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); and Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power: British Guiana's Struggle for Independence (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).


See, for example, Arnold Bertram, P. J. Patterson: A Mission to Perform (Kingston: AB Associates and Supreme Printers and Publishers, 1995); and Jamaica at the Wicket: A Study of Jamaican Cricket and Its Role in Shaping Jamaican Society (Kingston: Research and Project Development, 2009).


I have been thinking about this story-form for a number of years, initially in my preface to an interview in an early issue of Small Axe; see David Scott, “‘No Savior from on High’: An Interview with Ken Post,” Small Axe, no. 4 (September 1998): 88.


Two books that come to mind as embodying instructive rehistoricizing directions are Deborah Thomas, Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); and Sheri-Marie Harrison, Jamaica's Difficult Subjects: Negotiating Sovereignty in Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Criticism (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2014). But see also Donette Francis's critical essay “Transcendental Cosmopolitanism: Orlando Patterson and the Novel 1960s,” in “American Studies: The Caribbean Edition,” special issue, Journal of Transnational American Studies 5, no. 1 (2013): 1–14.