There are those who argue that the entire concept of national heroes is unnecessary. But the truth is that every nation needs figures of excellence who their countrymen can look up to and admire, of whom they can say “They are great, but I am like them and they are like me”. In countries with long and rich histories such figures are thrown up naturally and there may be no need for official recognition. The British government for example certainly does not need to tell its youth that Shakespeare, Newton and Churchill are great men. But in small young countries like Jamaica there is certainly a strong case for the official nurturing of heroes. Would those who argue against national heroes be happy if our youngsters had only foreigners to emulate?
The last Jamaican national hero was chosen decades ago, and to some a new addition is long overdue. Public sentiment seem to have identified three potential candidates – Bob Marley, Michael Manley and Louise “Miss Lou” Bennett. But just what is a national hero?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a hero as a person noted or admired for courage or outstanding achievements. But official national heroes require another dimension, they must also be worthy of emulation by the young, and parents should be happy to see their children pattern themselves after them.
Nowadays few widely admired figures anywhere seem to be paragons of virtue, leading some to conclude that modern icons don’t have the moral fibre of their ancestors and there are no real heroes left. But what has probably changed is not human nature but the intense media scrutiny that modern celebrities are put under and the speed at which information about their faults flies around the world.
But then saints have been rare in every age, and even they tend to become self-conscious about their saintliness. Mahatma Ghandi was quite unhumble about his humble way of life. “If the master only knew how much it costs to keep him in poverty” one of his aides supposedly remarked. Nelson Mandela has, according to one biographer, “a towering sense of self-regard”.
But if we no longer expect our heroes to be spotless, we at least expect them not to trumpet their faults abroad. Whatever his private life may like, a role model should at least act like one in public.
Now Bob Marley’s accomplishments cannot be disputed. He was one of the greatest – perhaps the greatest – popular musicians of the 20th century. And he is incomparably the most famous Jamaican who ever lived. Say Jamaica in many parts of the world and people who scarcely know in which hemisphere the island is located will answer “Bob Marley!”.
To be fair Marley never claimed to be anything but a reggae musician, a profession for which ganja smoking and womanizing are pretty much de riguer. But those who would make him a national hero have to ask themselves this – should a man who reportedly had eleven children with seven women and who continually sang the praises of marijuana be presented to the youth of Jamaica as someone to pattern their lives after?
For Marley’s lifestyle has become as much a part of his image as his musical genius. A parent whose child says “I want be like Bob Marley when I grow up” might be pleased if the youngster meant that he wanted to emulate Marley’s proud determination to succeed. They would not be as happy if the youngster meant that he wanted to smoke ganja continuously and try to impregnate every girl he met.
It is true of course that Robert Burns, Scotland’s greatest national hero, was a noted womanizer and whisky lover. But it is understandable that a nation famous for parsimony and disciplined endeavour should take to heart a marvelously uninhibited poetic genius. The difference is that sober Scotland is never going to be overrun with alcoholic philanderers, while free wheeling Jamaica already has an oversupply of spliff smoking multiple baby fathers.
Michael Manley at least only had children with woman he married. And he was the nation’s longest serving and only three term prime minister. But in the end every leader must be judged on one simple criteria – did he leave his people better off than he found them? And while Manley was a marvelous inspirational speaker and implemented many progressive social reforms, he failed miserably to improve or even maintain the lot of Jamaicans. His 1990s term was short and uneventful. But between 1972 and 1980 the nation’s average per capita GNP fell by 35% in real terms and the homicide rate went from 8.78 to 41.58 per 100,000. In other words the average Jamaican became one third poorer under Manley’s stewardship and murder increased by almost 500% increase. Can a leader under whose watch the nation became markedly poorer and more violent be really said to have been a man of outstandingly successful achievements?
Jamaicans don’t know much about Louise Bennett’s personal life, except that she married to one man for a very long time. But we do know that she almost singlehandedly made it acceptable for Jamaicans to talk and act like the people of African descent that they are. Without Bob Marley reggae might not have become so popular world-wide, but it would still be one of the most profoundly moving popular musics ever created. What would Jamaican culture have been like if Miss Lou had never been born? No one has any idea. Because sometimes it seems that all our folk culture sprang from her fertile mind. She did not create all of it naturally, but it was her championing of Jamaican folk culture that preserved its vital core and enabled it to blossom in time. She may not be well known abroad, but her cultural influence is global. For it was from her rhythmic ‘dub’ poems that sprung deejay music and dancehall and thus ultimately rap. But her greatest achievement is that she, more than anyone else, made Jamaicans proud of being themselves.
Jamaicans are a contentious lot, and there are very few things we all agree upon. But are there anyone who doubts that Miss Lou is the mother of Jamaican culture and a national heroine in every sense of the word?
Written by: Kevin O’Brien Chang
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