Hiding from our history, Jamaica? Musings after lunch at Lillian’s

They hide in plain sight; some cared for, but little known and understood, others neglected and almost forgotten.

Lillian’s Restaurant

I wont pretend that the slavery origins of this country don’t contain many painful memories, but history wont change by ignoring it.

For example, take the lovely, quaint building that now hosts a restaurant, Lillian’s, at the University of Technology. It’s housed in what was reportedly an overseer’s house, on the former Mona Sugar Estate. It now gives students of hospitality and hotel business a workplace to develop their skills. Yes, it has the accolade of being protected as part of the National Heritage Trust. But, what of its origins and its history? Should it just stay there in relative blissful anonymity?

View from restaurant onto UTech campus

We can always argue that more important topics are there to be discussed or fought over. But, each day that passes pushes hidden knowledge further away.

With no criticism for anyone involved, I imagine what it would be like if visitors and nationals alike knew of the rich history that sits in that unprepossessing area that leads up to the urban mess that is Papine.

Yes, the archiologists have been watching over the developments going on at the university sites, and trying to figure out what and whom the bones represent. Yes, it would be a wonderful thing to have a separate exhibit on one of the sites of higher learning as testimony to those who went before and made now possible.

In general, Jamaica has not seen its history as part of its offerings to the world. One bumps into it, incidentally, and very specifically, as with Port Royal, Devon House, and Rose Hall as notable examples. But, we utter little about Sligoville, the abused beauty of Spanish Town, the many features that dot the landscape, like parts of sugar mills, and marked slave graveyards.

Do we love ourselves enough to care about that?

You bastard! You, too?

Jamaica is filled with many apparent contradictions and confusing situations. I’m reading a book by a friend, which touches on some of this, but I’ve not finished it yet. Meantime, let me make some bold assertions. Most people in Jamaica are closely associated with people who come from so-called illegitimate liaisons. Many people also come from very stable relationships. Illegitimate offspring and their parents are not necessarily the same as people in fractious relations. Our world is not filled with happily married couples and their smiling children. Au contraire.

When a large part of your population comes from ancestors who were slaves, with all the restrictions on normal associations that such situations involved, you’d think that the way that social relations are considered would be mindful that people lived for centuries by rules created by oppressors. Why then should those rules govern modern lives? That realization has not yet penetrated all aspects of Jamaican or Caribbean life. You don’t have to hate the colonists, but it seems a bit odd to drink the Kool Aid, unthinkingly.

Historical accounts tell us that many things that were the norm for the colonists were not the norm for their slaves; one of these was marriage, which was largely forbidden amongst slaves. So, you build a whole social structure around the banning of marriage, with reproduction going ahead outside legal marriage–including between slave masters and their slaves. Why then should it be a social stigma to continue to reproduce children in such ways?

You have a whole social structure based around social support that is much wider than immediate family. Why then would it seem odd that such support systems prevail in the future?

Recent data show that around 75 percent of births in the Caribbean are to out-of-wedlock mothers.
Sexual relations between unmarried people is very much the norm in Jamaica. This should really be no big surprise, if you recall that slaves could buy their freedom and one easy way to get the money needed was prostitution. This is not seeking justification for women exploiting their bodies, just putting some historical context into the Caribbean picture.

Children who were born out of wedlock in Jamaica could not inherit property until Michael Manley piloted the act to abolish the illegitimacy law in 1975, so that “no bastard no deh again”. That would not force fathers to act in any particular way, but it set new legal standards here.

Jamaica only made it a legal requirement for a child’s father to be named on the birth certificate a couple of years ago. My father was there with my mother all of her life and at my birth, and throughout all of my existence, but his name is nowhere on my birth documents. He was a full part of the family picture, just not needed to be present, legally. Did he feel insulted?

Being a bastard has never meant that children did not know their fathers or did not have their fathers’ influence in their lives. Amongst Jamaicans, I would imagine that being a bastard, though not with that term and it’s pejorative tones, would not be seen as a major issue. Many families are made up of children of several fathers. Children of a single father but of different mothers may live in close association. Family is family! It’s a complication that hits Jamaicans when they have to deal with other societies, who feel that marriage and it’s legal trappings bestow some sort of superior status on persons. So, it’s hard for them to deal with half-brothers and half-sisters, or children who carry the mother’s surname, or children who cannot state their father’s name. That’s how it’s been for generations of Jamaicans. Many of us can only trace our lineage through the female sides of our families.

My impression is that any stigma of illegitimate status is lessening when Jamaicans move outside of this island. As other countries find so-called alternative lifestyles becoming more common, Jamaican norms are closing in on other norms. To the world!

Similarly, most children in Jamaica are still brought up by groups much wider than their immediate families. That’s not so out of line with what happens in lots of small or rural societies. It’s still common to have “Granny” much in the picture. A cousin of mine just had a baby and ‘boom!’ she’s back home with her mother. It’s still common for a village or neighbourhood or close associates to be involved closely in a child’s rearing. That used to be seen as a positive, but it need not be so: outside influences are not all good. However, I was having dinner with friends over the weekend and several people were recounting stories of how they had funded other people’s children’s education from primary school through university.

These are just some simple complexities of this little country. They are not unique but they have a large influence on how things run.

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