I just got back from a much needed vacation to the island country of Jamaica, which is probably one of the most beautiful places on earth. Like our own country, Jamaica was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage to the Western Hemisphere in 1494; and like America, the native tribes were displaced to make room for colonialists. Jamaica was under Spanish rule until it was conquered by the British in 1865, where it remained a colony until 1962, when it achieved independence from the British crown.
During the Atlantic Slave Trade in the 1700s and 1800s, many Africans were brought to both America and the Caribbean islands to work the farmlands on plantations, and in Jamaica’s case the sugarcane fields, which was the island’s most important export. Jamaica also brought in slaves from China, of all places!
Here in the United States, President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and the British crown abolished slavery in Jamaica in 1834.
Like America, Jamaica has had its share of political problems, including power struggles between the parties. But for the most part, the people of Jamaica support their elected leaders and whichever party is in power at any given time. They seem to work together for the shared goal of strengthening their economy and improving life for all citizens of the island nation.
Having traveled several times to Jamaica in the past thirty years for both business and pleasure, I am always amazed at the progress made on the island in the commercial and tourism industries. Jamaicans are very proud of the strides they have made in their country, with good reason. On my first trip to Kingston back in 1981, I was startled to goats roaming the main streets of the capital city, which consisted of not much more than shacks and outdoor markets. Kingston is now a bustling city, with modern office buildings, international banks and hotels, gourmet restaurants and even fast food chains. The cities on the north coast, fondly referred to as “the country” by native Jamaicans, boast some of the most beautiful resorts and attractions you can imagine, rivaling any on the planet. Whether you want to play golf on one of their world class courses, or spend the day relaxing on the beach, or stroll through tropical gardens, or take a ski lift through a rainforest to the top of one of Jamaica’s many mountain chains, a Jamaican vacation is one you’ll never forget.
But, the most strikingly amazing thing about Jamaica is that the people of this lovely country are by far the friendliest, happiest and most courteous people I have ever encountered in my life. It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with the CEO of a corporation or the housekeeping staff at a hotel, you will always be treated like a welcome guest by people who are truly happy to see you. Expect to be greeted with a warm handshake and a genuine smile whenever you walk into a room.
Coming from a place like Miami, recently dubbed the “rudest city in America” by a popular magazine, this can be quite a culture shock. Albeit a very pleasant one.
What also never ceases to amaze me about Jamaica, is that everyone I encounter in Jamaica is proud of their country and their heritage. They speak of their history of colonialism and slavery as a stepping stone to their independence. It’s not something that they expect to be pitied or compensated for – it simply is. While the ancestors of most of the people of Jamaica were colonial slaves, “who outnumbered their white masters by a ratio of 20:1 in 1800″, I have yet to hear a single Jamaican claim that they are owed anything for their country’s “shameful past.” No one in Jamaica seems to blame the Spanish, or the English, or even America, for a damn thing. They have a strong sense of pride and a sense of ownership of their country and its history. Warts and all.
We Americans could learn quite a lot from the people of Jamaica, which appears to be a true melting pot of cultures celebrated by all. The official motto of Jamaica is “Out of Many, One People.” Jamaicans take this to heart. Our concepts of “race relations” and “intermarriage” are literally foreign to a country where the color of one’s skin is no more important than the color of one’s shoes. In a country where one’s identity is not wrapped up in one’s race, all citizens are simply un-hypenated Jamaicans. What a refreshing way to live!
Although we just celebrated President’s Day this past Monday, when I was growing up we had two distinct and separate holidays to celebrate the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln on February 12th and President George Washington on February 22nd. By signing the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln freed the American slaves. Today, on Washington’s official birthday, why don’t we all celebrate by striving toward an America envisioned by these two great men? Until such a time that we can all be un-hyphenated Americans, we will forever be enslaved to a “shameful past.”
My hope is that one day we will be more like Jamaicans when we can truly embrace the conviction “Out of Many, One People.”
“Spreading the Wealth”