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Linking the Jamaican Diaspora
Claude Robinson
Sunday, June 20, 2004

AS government leaders and ordinary citizens fretted that the return of hundreds of Jamaican offenders from British jails would worsen the crime problem, two events in Kingston this past week served as sober reminders of the 'other Jamaica' abroad and the increased role it can play in national development.

At the first ever Jamaican Diaspora Conference, hundreds of delegates joined policy makers, business leaders and the university community from June 16-17 and agreed on several measures to "unleash the potential" that resides in Jamaicans living outside Jamaica.
One important outcome of the Diaspora Conference was the decision to establish a Jamaica Diaspora Foundation and related Jamaica Diaspora Institute to be located in the Mona School of Business, UWI.

Among other things, the foundation is to "strengthen the links and support systems" between Jamaicans residing at home and those residing abroad, and "facilitate and increase" the contribution of the diaspora to the development of Jamaica.
The institute will conduct research and serve as a data resource on a range of issues of concern to the diaspora, including immigration, citizenship, racism, deportations, remittance flows, demographic patterns and entrepreneurship.

Significantly, the head of the Mona School of Business, Professor Gordon Shirley, will shortly take up his new appointment as Jamaica's ambassador to the United States. He will be in a unique position to ensure effective working of the link between the diaspora and the university.
As the links between yard and abroad were being strengthened downtown, academics and intellectuals were exploring issues of "Culture, Politics, Race and Diaspora", uptown on the Mona campus.

Occasion was the 3rd annual 'Caribbean Reasoning' which, this year, focused on the thoughts of Professor Stuart Hall, the seminal Jamaican thinker who has changed the way academics think about culture and media.
Hall's activism has also "captured the essence of the migrant experience" in the United Kingdom to use Professor Stephen Vascianne's expression.

Estimates place the number of Jamaicans abroad between two million and 2.5 million, almost equal to those residing in Jamaica. They earn an estimated US$40 billion a year and sent back some US$1.3 billion last year in remittances, equivalent to 13 per cent of GDP.
These are not inconsequential numbers and so there may be a temptation to focus only on the economic contribution of remittances and the proposal for a bond issue outlined to delegates by Prime Minister PJ Patterson.

But the two days of discussion at the Jamaica Conference Centre, the 'reasoning' on the Mona campus and Professor Hall's academic and activist work affirm that the strength and significance of the relationship between Jamaicans at home and abroad transcend remittance.
The concept of diaspora, we need to remind ourselves, not only describes the dispersion of a group of people throughout the world. It embraces concerns about cultural assimilation and loss of identity, about people sometimes suspended somewhere between here and there.

How much of the 'home' culture survives in the new 'host' environment? What is the impact of the immigrant culture on the 'host' culture? How much of the new culture has to be assimilated in order to survive the new environment?
These are important questions in a world which some believe is threatened with cultural sameness, inflicted by the dominance of American values in global media.

Most Jamaicans can readily identify with Colonisation in Reverse, the classic poem by the iconic Louise 'Miss Lou' Bennett about the impact of the massive migration of Jamaicans to England in the 1950s.
Stuart Hall, who went to Oxford University on both the Jamaica Scholarship and the Rhodes Scholarship from Jamaica College in 1951, was an important part of that migration.

Professor Hall, universally acknowledged as the leading figure in the world in cultural studies, has also been concerned with racist and other negative portrayals of blacks in the British media.
In a famous appearance on BBC Television in November 1971 he said, "There is something radically wrong with the way black immigrants - West Indians, Asians, Africans - are handled by and presented on the mass media".

He attacked the negative racial images, insisting that they cannot be resolved by "a few more black faces on the screen, or by an extra documentary or two on immigrant problems".
For him, the problem lay in the structure of media and the way they operate.
The media tend to favour "experts and privileged witnesses" as sources of news and opinion, reflect organised viewpoints, favour the articulate and are "defensive about the sacred institutions of society".

The sacred institutions the media defend are the same ones where black people most encounter problems in these sensitive power areas: employment, public discrimination, housing, parliamentary legislation, local government, law and order, the police.
These biases work against blacks who are usually, outside the consensus, relatively unorganised, relatively inarticulate, "and their anger and frustration often outruns the terms of polite debate".

The diaspora has become better organised and articulate and better skilled in getting its message across in mainstream media but I believe Hall's critique remains essentially valid.
Complaints about negative portrayal of Jamaica, echoed among some groups at the diaspora conference, affirm his continued relevance. In fairness, the complaints were about both the foreign and local media.
At issue now is how can the media better respond to the need and desire to link the diaspora in a new partnership of development and cultural affirmation.

Part of the answer lies in the new communication technologies which allow the creation of what Professor Rex Nettleford called "rival agents of cultural formation" to challenge traditional media systems and power structures.
The mass media play a crucial role in defining the problems and issues that the public will consider marginal or important. They attach feelings and emotions to issues. How we think about ourselves and our possibilities in the world depend, in large measure, on the images we portray of ourselves - or allow others to tell our stories.


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