Jamaican Americans

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by N. Samuel Murrell


One of the four large islands of the Caribbean archipelago, Jamaica measures 4,441 square miles, slightly smaller than the size of Connecticut. Its mountainous terrain, which exceeds 7,400 feet at its Blue Mountain peak, makes traveling from one end of the island to another more interesting than one would expect. Jamaica's northern shores are lined by many miles of lovely white sand beaches that attract thousands of American, Canadian, and a growing number of European tourists annually. Kingston, the capital and largest English-speaking city south of Miami, is Jamaica's chief commercial and administrative center. The island is well known for its rich-tasting Blue Mountain coffee and its bauxite mining and aluminum processing industries.

Jamaica's motto, "Out of Many, One People," is a national ideal for its diverse population of 2,506,000 in 1990. As many as 90 percent of all Jamaicans can lay claim to African ancestry. About 26 percent of the population is mixed and approximately nine percent is composed of people of Chinese, European, and East Indian descent. Intermarriage among races over centuries accounts for the diverse physical features of Jamaicans. In addition to English, many Jamaicans speak Patois (pronounced patwa)or what Jamaican intellectuals call Jamaican Talka mixture of English and African dialects. Jamaica was once called a "Christian country" because approximately 80 percent of its citizens have some form of association with Christianity. Protestants have traditionally outnumbered Catholics by a wide margin and Rastafarianism, a twentieth-century religious movement, claims a following of approximately eight percent of the population. A number of small Afro-Caribbean, Asian, and Middle-eastern religious groups also exist in Jamaica.


As early as 600 A.D., Jamaica was settled by Arawaks who called the island Xaymaca. In 1494 Columbus claimed the island for Spain and in 1509, Juan de Esquivel began transporting Jamaican Arawaks to Hispaniola as slaves. Within a few decades, the original population, which was made extinct by European disease, kidnapping, enslavement, and genocidal methods of war, was later replaced by Africans. From 1509 until the early 1660s Jamaica served as a sparsely populated Spanish-held way station for galleons en route to Cuba and the Spanish Main. It became the headquarters for pirate ships. Whoever controlled the island controlled much of the Southern Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. After a failed expedition to the larger Spanish Caribbean, British Admiral Penn and General Vernables captured the island in 1655 and driving off the Spaniards. Later Spain officially ceded Jamaica to Britain at the Treaty of Madrid, and the British then left the island to the pirates until 1670. During this time, some of the Spaniards' black slaves fled to the hills. Known as Maroons, they were an organized band of fierce-fighting fugitive slaves who hampered British rule until a peace treaty was executed with them in 1738.

Britain turned the island into a vast sugar plantation based on slave labor. Since the British one-crop sugar economy in Barbados was in sharp decline by 1650, many planters in Barbados relocated to Jamaica with their slaves. They were followed by hundreds of British colonizers and hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans. By 1730 Jamaica's 75,000 slaves produced 15,500 tons of sugar and the island replaced Barbados as Britain's most prized colony. In 1808 the slave population exceeded 324,000 and produced 78,000 tons of sugar. Oliver Cromwell's government attempted to balance the white to black population ratio by shipping criminals, prisoners of war, prostitutes, and other undesirable persons to Jamaica as a form of punishment and as indentured servants. However, when the slave trade was abolished in 1807, blacks outnumbered whites by as many as ten to one.

Prior to 1834, when slavery was abolished, blacks in Jamaica fought a bitter and often futile battle to free themselves from the savage institution of slavery. The Maroons were well known as Jamaica's only successful black resistance movement. For centuries, they menaced British troops, looted plantations, and carried off slave recruits to the precipitous mountains in retaliation against abuses. Their successful guerrilla warfare abated in 1739 and 1795 when Maroon chiefs signed peace treaties with the British government.

As the anti-slavery campaign in Britain heated up in 1830 the slave population gathered in large numbers in Afro-Christian Baptist circlesthe most vocal anti-slavery organization in Jamaicain anticipation of freedom. A different kind of revolt called the Baptist War occurred in Jamaica in 1831. Sam Sharpe, a black Baptist lay preacher, perceived that "free paper" had come but the government was concealing it from the slaves. He led a large revolt in western Jamaica, which resulted in massive destruction of property and a bloody and brutal repression by the government. It is believed that this violent slave resistance, the unprofitability of slavery, and mounting pressure from abolitionists, forced Britain to abolish the institution in 1834.


Blacks in post-emancipation Jamaica lived in freedom but had no rights or access to property. They were exploited by the white ruling class and treated with contempt by British governors, whose fiscal policies were designed only to benefit whites. In 1865, the unheeded plea of the peasant masses for farm land erupted into a second major revolt, the Morant Bay Rebellion. This was led by Paul Bogle and supported by George William Gordon, Baptist leaders who became two of Jamaica's national heroes. The suppression of the rebellion by the ruling class was ruthless. A blood thirsty Governor Eyre court-marshaled and executed almost 400 suspects, including dozens of innocent Baptist peasants. In the aftermath, the British government appointed a Royal Commission of Inquiry, which found Eyre's penalty "excessive, barbarous, reckless, and criminal." On December 1, 1865, the secretaries of state for the colonies tore up the Jamaican Constitution and recommended a Crown Colony government for the island. The new political system limited the powers of the governor and the Assembly and allowed Britain to retain direct control over the legislative and executive decisions of the colony. Adversely, however, the Crown Colony government inhibited national leadership and allowed the colonials to dominate and exploit the black masses.

As late as the 1930s the political system continued to be closed to most Jamaicans. In the post World War I period, blacks voiced their discontent by supporting trade unions and other organizations led by young political activists such as Dr. Love (a Jamaican physician and anti-colonialist), Marcus Moziah Garvey, Brian Alves, A.G.S. Coombs, and Alexander Bustamante. The lingering unameliorated political inequity and economic hardship led to the 1938 rebellion in which the working class staged a national strike when the West Indian Sugar Company (WISCO) failed to keep its promises of new jobs, higher wages, and better working conditions in its new massive, centralized factory in Westmoreland. Garvey, Bustamante, William Grant, and Norman Manley played key roles in this organized political agitation, which resulted in better workers' compensation. The strike also put new political leaders in the spotlight and renewed interest in political change. The Peoples' National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) were born in the throes of these upheavals under the Westminster form of government. It was not until 1944 that the country was granted limited self-government and adult suffrage. The Westminster system created the two-party parliamentary democracy that led Jamaica into independence in 1962; it is in effect today under a prime minister, elected by the people, and a governor general (a Jamaican) who represents the Queen.


The documented history of black emigration from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands into the United States dates back to 1619 when 20 voluntary indentured workers arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, on a Dutch frigate. They lived and worked as "free persons" even when a Portuguese vessel arrived with the first shipload of blacks enslaved in 1629. Since Jamaica was a major way station and clearing house for slaves en route to North America, the history of Jamaican immigration in the United States is inseparably tied to slavery and post-emancipation migration.

After 1838, European and American colonies in the Caribbean with expanding sugar industries imported large numbers of immigrants to meet their acute labor shortage. Large numbers of Jamaicans were recruited to work in Panama and Costa Rica in the 1850s. After slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, American planters imported temporary workers, called "swallow migrants," to harvest crops on an annual basis. These workers, many of them Jamaicans, returned to their countries after harvest. Between 1881 and the beginning of World War I, the United States recruited over 250,000 workers from the Caribbean, 90,000 of whom were Jamaicans, to work on the Panama Canal. During both world wars, the United States again recruited Jamaican men for service on various American bases in the region.


Since the turn of the twentieth century, three distinct waves of Caribbean immigration into the United States have occurredmost of these immigrants came from Jamaica. The first wave took place between 1900 and the 1920s, bringing a modest number of Caribbean immigrants. Official black immigration increased from 412 in 1899 to 12,245 in 1924, although the actual number of black aliens entering the United States yearly was twice as high. By 1930, 178,000 documented first-generation blacks and their children lived in the United States. About 100,000 were from the British Caribbean, including Jamaica. The second and weakest immigration wave occurred between the 1930s and the new immigration policy of the mid-1960s. The McCarran-Walter Act reaffirmed and upheld the quota bill, which discriminated against black immigrants and allowed only 100 Jamaicans into the United States annually. During this period, larger numbers of Jamaicans migrated to Britain rather than to the United States due to the immigration restrictions.

The final and largest wave of immigration began in 1965 and continues to the present. This wave began after Britain restricted immigration in its former black Commonwealth colonies. The 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Reform Act changed the U.S. immigration policy and, inadvertently, opened the way for a surge in immigration from the Caribbean. In 1976, Jamaicans again relocated to the United States in large numbers after Congress increased immigration from the Western Hemisphere to a maximum of 20,000 persons per country. Although about 10,000 Jamaicans migrated to the United States legally from 1960 to 1965, the number skyrocketed in succeeding years62,700 (1966-1970), 61,500 (1971-1975), 80,600 (1976-1980) and 81,700 (1981-1984)to an aggregate of about 300,000 documented immigrants in just under a quarter of a century.

At present, Jamaicans are the largest group of American immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean. However, it is difficult to verify the exact number of Jamaican Americans in this country. The 1990 census placed the total number of documented Jamaican Americans at 435,025, but the high Jamaican illegal alien phenomenon and the Jamaican attitude toward census response may increase that number to 800,000 to 1,000,000 Jamaicans living in the United States. Government statistics report that 186,430 Jamaicans live in New York, but the number is closer to 600,000.

Jamaican migration became so large that it caused a national crisis in Jamaica. The exodus has resulted in a serious "brain drain" and an acute shortage of professionals, such as skilled workers, technicians, doctors, lawyers, and managers, in essential services in Jamaica. For example, the mail often takes one to three months to reach its final destination because of a shortage of postal service supervisors. During the 1970s and early 1980s about 15 percent of the population left the country. In the early 1990s the government began offering incentives to persons with technical, business, and managerial skills to return to Jamaica for short periods of time to aid in management and technical skills training.


Jamaicans migrate to the United States for many socio-economic reasons. Migration is encouraged by economic hardship caused by a failing economy based upon plantation agriculture, lack of economic diversity, and scarcity of professional and skilled jobs. Since the nineteenth century Jamaica has had a very poor land distribution track record. The uneven allotment of arable crown lands and old plantations left farmers without a sufficient plot for subsistence or cash crop farming, which contributed to high unemployment statistics and economic hardship. During the 1970s the standard of living declined due to economic inflation and low salaries. When companies and corporations lost confidence in Michael Manley's Democratic Socialist government and his anti-American rhetoric and close business ties to Cuba, the flight of capital from Jamaica and the shift in U.S. capital investments worsened the situation. Jamaica's huge foreign debt and the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) restructuring of the economy further exacerbated the island's economic woes in the 1980s and 1990s. An increase in crime, fueled by unemployment and aggravated by the exporting of criminals from the United States back to Jamaica, forced thousands of Jamaicans to flee the island for safety. Today, unemployment and under-employment continue to rise above 50 percent, wages continue to fall, the dollar weakens, and the cost of goods and services continues to increase.

The Jamaican mentality that one must "go ah foreign" and "return to him country" to "show off" evidence of success has become a rite of passage for thousands of Jamaicans. This began when the United States imported Jamaicans to work on various projects in the 1800s and early twentieth century. Before long, Jamaicans saw migration as an attractive solution to the harsh social and economic conditions on the island. Since 1930 an important part of Rastafarian theology is the idea of repatriation to Africa in order to escape oppression in "Babylon." However, many Rastas conveniently "followed the star" of the Yankee dollar instead of the "Star of David" (Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia). After 1966, Ethiopia as a haven for Rastafari faded in the bright lights of U.S. metropolitan centers. In addition, many Jamaican students and trainees study at American institutions. Not all return to Jamaica upon completion of their studies. Many stay because of the lack of job opportunities at home and an entrenched British-colonial bias among Jamaica's elite against American education.


Of the Jamaicans documented in the 1990 census 410,933 reported at least one specific ancestry. Of this number 94.5 percent are persons of first ancestry, and the remaining 5.5 percent are of second ancestry. The regional composition is as follows: 59 percent live in the Northeast; 4.8 percent in the Midwest; 30.6 percent in the South; and 5.6 percent in the West. The Northeast and the South have the largest number of immigrants and are home to most illegal Jamaicans in the United States. Jamaicans refer to Miami and Brooklyn colloquially as "Kingston 22" and "Little Jamaica" respectively. Accessibility, family connections, the help of friends or church, jobs, group psychology (including gangs), access to college and university education, and weather conditions explain the heavy concentration of Jamaican immigrants along the eastern coast.

Jamaicans have a saying, "Anywhere you go in the world you meet a Jamaican." According to the 1990 census, there are Jamaicans in every state in the Union. The census shows that regionally, there are 30,327 in New England, 223,310 in the middle Atlantic, 18,163 in east north central, 2,698 in the west north central, 121,260 in the south Atlantic, 2,882 in the east south central, 9,117 in the west south central, 2,696 in the mountain region, and 21,571 in the Pacific region.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Jamaican immigrants generally have four options once they arrive in the United States. The first option is to remain a "bird of passage" by viewing oneself as a temporary alien accumulating some Yankee dollars to return home. The second option is to immerse oneself within the culture and work for the improvement of the African American community. The third option is to settle in white suburbs, secure a good-paying job at a white institution or company, and live a life of being the conspicuous black family in town who enhances the diversity of the community. The fourth option is to engage in academic and professional training while intending to return to Jamaica upon completion. Most early Jamaican immigrants chose the first option because they did not intend to become part of the American mainstream. However, since the 1970s more Jamaicans have sought permanent residence in the United States because of social and economic problems back home.

In addition to adjusting to severe weather variations, especially in northern states, Jamaican immigrants must make many other adjustments to American society. First, they must adjust to their new citizenship or residency. Those who are naturalized American citizens often wrestle with the issue of a split national allegiance to Jamaica and to the United States. Immigrants who are resident aliens enjoy the same privileges as all legal residents and are generally more settled than illegal aliens, who exist in a state of vulnerabilitya voice-withno-vote status in the United States. Thousands of Jamaican American professionals, academics, and skilled workers fall in this category.

A second adjustment must be made to the cultural traditions and social roles of racial or ethnic groups with which the immigrants must identify. Today, Jamaicans enter a more prosperous society than that left behind. However, the first and second waves of immigrants suffered much of the racial prejudices of Jim Crow laws and the economy of pre-civil rights United States. Recent immigrants may not encounter the older blatant forms of segregation, but they suffer from the effects of subtle discrimination and stereotypical perceptions based upon color and ethnicity. Although Jamaica is not immune to color distinctions, immigrants to the United States become much more conscious of their blackness (often as a disadvantage) than they did back home in Jamaica, where blacks are the majority and many are highly respected leaders. In the United States, they must adjust to living in communities where blacks are treated as a numerical, political, social, and economic minority.

Third, Jamaicans also must learn to adjust to life in some of America's toughest neighborhoods. They become street-wise very early and learn where to walk and work, and which apartment buildings and neighborhoods to live in. Occasionally, they become victims of inner-city crimes, but many Jamaican youths have penetrated the gangs and drug culture in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Boston. Some are named in organized-crime raids by the FBI and other law-enforcement bodies. Finally, because of their large numbers in many U.S. neighborhoods, uninformed Americans often classify any foreign black with a different accent as Jamaican. When Africans, Haitians, Barbadians, and other groups commit felonies, Jamaicans are often de facto implicated in the act by the media.


Jamaica's ethnic distinctions are not as large as those of Trinidad, Guyana, or the United States, but Jamaicans are rich in cultural traditions and ethnic diversity. Although the population is predominantly black, small enclaves of East Indians, Chinese, Lebanese, Europeans, Jews, and other ethnic groups enhance the rich cultural heritage of the country. The motto "Out of Many One People" brings Jamaicans together to celebrate a wide range of local, national, and international cultural events throughout the year.


The Accompong Maroon festival is kicked off in Accompong, St. Elizabeth, in January. The annual Jamaica Carnival takes place in April and May in Kingston and Negril, respectively; and the Labor Day celebration is observed on May 23. In June, there is a Jamaica Festival National Heroes Tribute at National Heroes Park, in anticipation of National Heroes Day, celebrated on October 17. The Jamaica Festival Performing Arts Final also takes place in June, and the Jamaica Festival Amateur Culinary Arts, as well as the Jamaica Festival Popular Song Contest, are staged at the National Arena in July. Independence Day observed in August is the most celebrated cultural event in Jamaica. The Portland Jamboree follows Independence Day, providing ten days of colorful street parades, parties, street dancing, cultural and sporting events, fashion and cabaret shows.


Jamaicans celebrate religious holidays like Christmas, Good Friday, New Year's Day, Ash Wednesday, and Easter Monday. Additional holidays includeBob Marley's Birthday (in February) and Boxing Day. The National Heroes Day celebration occurs on October 17, during which local communities come alive with music, folk dance, and colorful dress. Politicians or other prominent citizens give speeches and pay tribute to fallen heroes at National Heroes Park. The Independence Day celebration is Jamaica's grandest holiday. Between March and August, the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission offers an interesting array of colorful events that exhibit local talents, featuring visual arts, performing arts, and entertainment. On the first Monday in August, a profusion of color and excitement fills the air as community cultural groups showcase their abilities, and preachers and politicians thunder patriotic sermons and speeches. This culminates with the spectacular Grand Gala in Kingston. Jamaican Americans usually observe these holidays by staging their own local activities, such as traveling to Jamaica for the Big Splash. On Labor Day, Jamaican Americans join other Caribbean people during the Carnival celebration in New York.


Many Jamaican festivals celebrate Jamaica's rich musical tradition. In the 1960s, Count Ossie merged native Jamaican, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-American musical rhythms with rock and other influences to create a distinctively black music called "reggae." This music, which the Rastafarians and Bob Marley popularized, is a plea for liberation and a journey into black consciousness and African pride. Like calypso, reggae began as a working-class medium of expression and social commentary. Reggae is the first distinctly Caribbean music to become global in scope. Each August, Jamaica stages its internationally acclaimed music festival at the Jamworld Center in Kingston. Over the five-day period, the premier music festival of the Caribbean attracts over 200,000 visitors. Each year it features top reggae stars like Ziggy Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Third World, and Stevie Wonder. This is followed immediately by the Reggae Sunfest at the Bob Marley Performing Center in Montego Bay. In the post Lenten period, the streets of Kingston come alive to the pulsating sounds of calypso and soca music. For nine emotionally charged days, local and international artists treat revelers to the best of reggae, soca and calypso "under the tents." During this time, thousands of glittering costumed celebrants revel and dance through the streets in a festive mood. The National Mento Yard is kicked off in Manchester in October with a potpourri of traditional and cultural folk forms which have contributed to Jamaica's rich cultural heritage. Many of these cultural events are observed by Jamaican Americans in local public celebrations or in the privacy of their homes.


Jamaica is known worldwide for its African folk dances, Jan Canoe and Accompong. Jamaica's carnival Jump-up is now very popular in Kingston and Ocho Rios. The National Dance Theater (NDTC), established temporarily in 1962, is a world-renowned troupe that celebrates the unique traditional dance and rich musical heritage of Jamaica and the other Caribbean islands. Under the distinguished leadership of Professor Rex Nettleford, NDTC has made many tours to the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries.

Jamaica also has many other musical forms. Calypso and soca music sway the body of festive dancers to a mixture of Afro-Caribbean rhythms with witty lyrics and heavy metal or finely tuned steel drums. There is also "dub poetry" or chanted verses, "dance hall" music (with rap rhythms, reggae beat, and rude or suggestive lyrics), and Ska, with its emotionally charged, celebrative beat. Jamaican Americans listen to a great variety of music: jazz, reggae, calypso, soca, ska, rap, classical music, gospel, and "high-church" choirs.


The national dish in Jamaica is ackee and saltfish (codfish), but curried goat and rice, and fried fish and barnrny (a flat, baked cassava bread) are just as popular and delicious. A large variety of dishes are known for their spicy nature. Patties, which are hot and spicy, turtle soup, and pepper pot may contain meats such as pork and beef, as well as greens such as okra and kale. Spices such as pimento or allspice, ginger, and peppers are used commonly in a number of dishes. Other Jamaican American foods are: plantain, rice and peas, cow-foot, goat head, jerk chicken, pork, oxtail soup, stew peas and rice, rundown, liver and green bananas, calaloo and dumplings, mannish water from goat's intestine, and hard dough bread and pastries.

Dessert is usually fruit or a dish containing fruit. An example is matrimony, which is a mixture of orange sections, star apples, or guavas in coconut cream with guava cheese melted over it. Other desserts are cornmeal pudding, sweet potato pudding, totoes, plantain tarts, and many other "sweet-tooth" favorites. Coffee and tea are popular nonalcoholic beverages, as are carrot juice, roots, and Irish or sea moss, while rum, Red Stripe Beer, Dragon and Guinness stouts are the national alcoholic beverages. In Miami and New York City, especially Flatbush, Nostrand, Utica, and Church Avenues, one sees groceries filled with a variety of other Caribbean foods, including sugar cane, jelly coconut, and yarns, and black American foods that Jamaicans use for supplementary dishes.


Jamaica's traditional folk costume for women is a bandana skirt worn with a white blouse with a ruffled neck and sleeves, adorned with embroidery depicting various Jamaican images. A head tie made of the same bandana material is also worn. Men wear a shirt that is also made of the same fabric. The colors of the national flag are black, green, and gold. However, because of the popularity of the clothes and colors of Rastafari, many people mistake Rastas' colors (red, green, and gold) as Jamaica's national colors. Jamaicans wear their costumes on Independence Day, National Heroes Day, and other national celebrations. In New York, Jamaican Americans participate in the Caribbean Carnival Jamboree and dress in lavish and colorful costumes during the festive celebration.


Jamaica's primary sports are cricket and soccer. Cricket is more than a sport in Jamaica; it is like a religion, a rallying point for the spirit of patriotism, Caribbean unity and pride, and an occasion for national and individual heroism. Other national sports include horse racing, tennis, basketball, net-ball, track and field, and triathlon. Some local sports specifically designed for tourists are golf, boating, diving, fishing, and polo.


There are no documented medical problems that are unique to Jamaicans. In the 1950s and 1960s, polio appeared in some communities but was later contained by medical treatment. Since the 1980s, drug abuse, alcoholism, and AIDS have also plagued Jamaicans. Crime and economic hardship have taken a heavy toll on the health and life expectancy in Jamaica during the last two decades.

In 1994, the government of Jamaica admitted that most violent crimes committed in the country are drug related. Many of the Caribbean drug kingpins in New York City and Jamaica were trained in the slums of Kingston. The distribution and use of marijuana and crack cocaine accompany Jamaican gang members to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts, California, and West Virginia, thus perpetuating drug abuse problems.


English, Jamaica's official language, is spoken with many variations ranging from British English to Jamaican Patois, which is now a language of its own. Jamaicans adapt their speech to the social context of the moment. They speak English in formal discourse or political discussions and shift to Patois in informal conversation and gossip. A large number of people from rural Jamaica, however, experience great difficulty in switching to standard English in formal conversation. In addition, thousands of Jamaicans who live in Brooklyn, speak mainly Patois. In recent years, the Rastafarians have developed their own non-Western vocabulary and Afro-Jamaican way of speaking.


Before the 1960s, working-class Jamaicans used numerous Patois sayings and verbal expressions, which were usually scorned by the upperclass, and not easily understood by foreigners. In more recent years, the language and its proverbial expressions have been used by most Jamaicans. The use of animal characters is quite frequent in Jamaican proverbs: "When Jon Crow wan go a lowered, im sey a cool breeze tek im;" "When tiger wan' nyam, him seh him favor puss;" "Cow seh siddung nuh mean ress;" "Every dawg have im day;" "Yu see yu neighbor beard on fire, yu tek water an wet yu own;" "When man can't dance, him say music no good;" "One time nuh fool, but two times fool, him a damn fool;" "Mi t'row mi corn but mi nuh call nuh fowl;" "One one cocoa full basket."

There are many Anglicized African proverbs that are popular in Jamaica: When the mouse laughs at the cat there is a hole nearby; No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come; No one tests the depth of a river with both feet; He who is bitten by a snake fears a lizard; If you are greedy in conversation you lose the wisdom of your friend; When a fowl is eating your neighbor's corn, drive it away or someday it will eat yours. Often, the purpose of these sayings is to give caution, play with social and political conventions, make uncomplimentary remarks, crack smutty jokes, or give a new twist to a conversation. They are also used to teach morality, values, and modes of conduct.


Some casual colloquial Jamaican greetings are: "Cool man;" "Wah the man ah seh?" "How di dahta doin'?" "Me soon come man" (See you soon); "Likle more" (See you later); "How you doin' man?" "Wah 'appen man?" "Mawning Sah!" "How yu deh do?" Some Rastafari greetings are: "Hail the man," "I an I," "Selassi I," "Jah, Ras Tafari," and "Hey me bredren" (hello brother).

Family and Community Dynamics

First generation Jamaican Americans cherish traditional family values, such as practicing religion, respecting elders and marital vows, being with one's family in times of need, supporting one's family, and correcting and punishing one's disobedient children. The emotional bond between parents and children is very strong, often stronger than between spouses. Parents with legal status often are active in civic and political affairs and take an interest in their children's education by joining the PTA, attending open school board meetings, and participating in programs designed to address racism, crime, and poor SATs. Jamaica was once proud of its high literacy rate but the constant migration of teachers and other professionals has taken a heavy toll on the school system and educational achievement since the 1970s.

Unfortunately, the modern Jamaican immigrant family is plagued by many problems. Immigration restrictions and financial limitations make it difficult for an entire family to migrate to the United States simultaneously and to keep their family values intact. One parent often precedes the other family members by many years. Jamaican women are more likely than men to migrate to the United States first. The filing of papers for family members becomes a top priority five to ten years after one becomes a permanent citizen. In some cases, during such long periods of separation, parents, especially men, sever ties with their Jamaican family and begin new ones in the United States. Before they migrate, mothers are forced to leave their children with relatives, grandparents, or friends. These children are often left unsupervised in Jamaica and are introduced to drugs and crime at a young age. They rarely remain in school and others who do become very disruptive because they believe they are in the process of migrating and see no need to complete their studies. When they join their parents in innercity communities in the United States, Jamaican American children are often left on their own for many hours a day while their single parent, who lacks the family support that they had back home, works more than one job to make ends meet. The net result is that a significant number of Jamaican American families suffer a fair amount of dysfunction as part of the migration phenomenon. The situation is rather acute among blue-collar immigrants who migrate to the United States. Quite often, their children find it difficult to adjust to the new social setting and the resentment which they encounter from students and teachers in the American school environment.


Most Jamaican American weddings follow Christian tradition. an engagement period lasts a few months or years. Traditionally, in Jamaica the bride's parents were responsible for supplying the bridal gown and the reception; the groom and his parents provided the ring and the new home. In the United States, substantial variation in this practice exists due to changes in family structure and values. In many cases, the parties are already cohabiting and the wedding ceremony, often performed by a judge or Justice of the Peace, only legalizes the relationship. However, lovers who are practicing Christians do not live together before marriage and the wedding ceremony is performed in a chapel or church. Traditionally, the bride wears white as a sign of chastity, and large numbers of people are invited to observe the ceremony. In rural Jamaica, weddings are community eventsthe community feels that they are a part of the couple's life and they view a public invitation to observe the ceremony also as an invitation to attend the reception, which includes lots of food and a large supply of rum and other beverages. In the United States, however, the ceremony and reception are kept within a small circle of close friends and relatives.

The wedding menu usually includes traditional Jamaican cuisine. It starts off with mannish water a soup made from goat tripe (intestine). Guests are often given a choice of curry goat and white rice, rice and peas or kidney beans with fried chicken, or stewed chicken or beef for the main course. A light salad is served with the meal along with sorrel or rum punch. After the meal, the wedding cake is cut and served to the guests. It is usually a black cake with dried fruits presoaked in rum or wine and decorated with icing. Among the poorer people, port wine is used for toasting the couple. Some weddings include dancing by the bride and groom as well as guests and revelry, which can go into the wee hours of the morning.


Jamaicans practice two types of baptisms: infant baptism and adult baptism. Among Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and Methodists, an infant is baptized into the body of believers and of Christ by sprinkling water on its head. When the child reaches the age of accountability, a confirmation ceremony is performed. In other Protestant-Christian and Afro-Caribbean Christian traditions, the infant is blessed at "dedication" but baptized only after faith is confessed voluntarily in Christ. In this baptism by immersion, the "initiate" is submerged bodily under the water by a minister of religion or elder of the faith, in a river, the sea, or a baptismal font located near the sanctuary.


Jamaican funeral rituals and beliefs are influenced by African, Caribbean, and European-Christian traditions. The basic West African-Jamaican and Christian beliefs concerning death are as follows: the individual has three componentsbody, soul, and spirit; death marks the end of mortal life and the passage into immortality; at death, the spirit returns to the Supreme God where it joins other spirits; and the deceased's shadow or duppy wanders for several days, after which it is laid to rest through special rites. Consequently, Jamaican Christians and Afro-centric religions (Myalism, Pocomania, Shango) bury their dead after performing special rites or a formal church service. A Catholic priest gives the last rites to the dying and may offer a mass for a soul that departed to purgatory before making peace with God. In Jamaica, the high-church Protestants have stately funerals for their communicants who are prominent citizens. Around election time, these funerals are usually attended by high-ranking government officials and distinguished persons in the community. On the night before the funeral, there is a wake for the dead in which friends and family come to offer condolences, sing dirges, and "drink up."

A highlight of the funeral in Afro-centric religions is the "Nine Night" service, conducted to ensure that the shadow of the deceased does not return on the ninth evening after death to visit with family members. In most funerals, it is a custom for men to carry the corpse in a coffin on their shoulders. During the funeral, a phase of ritual mourning and howling in a sorrowful manner occurs. An offering of libation and sacrifices accompanies communication with the deceased at the gravesite. A phase of ritual joy mixed with mourning precedes and follows the interment, which is concluded with a second ceremony at the gravesite. Funeral rites involve dancing, singing, music, and grand incantations. There are often elaborate superstitious grave decorations to fend off evil spirits or bad omens from the deceased who lived a wicked life.


Working-class Jamaican Americans have certain characteristics that set them apart from other groups. They dress differently (especially the Rastas), speak with a different accent, favor certain types of foods, and in some parts of New York City and Miami live as a self-contained group with distinct social and economic habits. They use special verbal expressions and linguistic codes to communicate (mostly in Patois ). They are a hard-working and confident people, proud of their Jamaican heritage and the international reputation Jamaica receives from reggae and sports. Although often described as very assertive and not easily dominated, Jamaican immigrants generally establish good relations with other groups in their community. Jamaicans own or operate most of the successful Caribbean businesses in communities where they live. They are able to maintain strong friendly social, religious, economic, and political ties with both black and white American institutions and communities simultaneously. Many of the Caribbean nurses and nurses aides are Jamaican; and Jamaican American scholars and professionals establish collegial relations at American universities, colleges, and other institutions of learning.

On the other hand, Jamaican immigrants and native-born African Americans often misunderstand each other as a result of stereotypes and misconceptions, which often leads to intraracial conflict. For example, some Jamaicans believe that their attitudes of hard work, community building, and family values are superior to that of African Americans. Jamaicans see themselves as more ambitious and greater achievers than African Americans. Caribbean people also believe that they have healthier relations with whites than that of their counterparts because they do not carry anti-white rhetoric into all social, political, and economic discussions. Some American blacks see Jamaicans as interlopers who are making it more difficult for African Americans to find jobs and live peacefully in their neighborhoods. The fact that Jamaican Americans have dual national allegiance and, as a result, often pursue a different social and political agenda from other African Americans, adds to the misunderstanding.

Evidence shows that with time, many of the differences between African Americans and Jamaican Americans will become less distinct. Marriage patterns, for example, demonstrate that first-generation Jamaicans marry and have relations with other Jamaicans, while second and third generations tend to marry African Americans as well. This is due to their contact in school, interaction in their living environments, and that the second and third generation Jamaican Americans have lived in the United States all their lives and share very similar life experiences with African Americans. The combined efforts of Jamaicans and African Americans to deal with racial incidences and injustice in their neighborhoods also helps to improve relations.


The majority of Jamaica's population is Christian with small Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Bahai communities. The older, established Christian denominations are Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Moravian, and the United Church (Presbyterian and Congregationalist). Jamaica's most vibrant religious experience comes from the less formal or liturgical Protestant religious confessions: the Pentecostals, Church of God, Associated Gospel Assembly, Open Bible Standard Churches, Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah Witnesses, the Missionary church, and a number of independent churches all of which are called "Evangelical."

A number of African Caribbean revivalist religious groups also exist in Jamaica, which survived under slavery. Among these are Myalism, Bedwardism (founded by Alexander Bedward in 1920), Pocomania Kurnina, Nativism or the Native Baptist church, and Rastafarianism. Myalism is a religion with African origins. It is one of the oldest religions from Africa and involves the practice of magic and spirit possession. It is community-centered and refuses to accept negatives in life such as sickness, failure, and oppression. Kumina, which is related to Mayalism, began around 1730. Membership into Kumina "bands" is inherited at birth rather than by conversion or voluntary membership. The Native Baptist church began as an indigenous church among black American slaves who were taken to Jamaica by their owners when they migrated to the island as Baptist loyalists. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Native Baptist church is immersion baptism.

Rastafari is Jamaica's most famous Afro-Caribbean religion. It was founded in 1930 by wandering Jamaican preachers who were inspired by the teachings of Marcus Garvey, a political activist. Rastas established their beliefs on messianic interpretations of Christian scripture and the idea that Haile Selassie, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, is divine. Distinguishing features of Rastafari are the wearing of dreadlocks and loose-fitting clothes. The movement has made its presence felt on every continent. There are about 800,000 Rastas and Rasta supporters in the United States, about 80,000 of whom live in Brooklyn.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Jamaican American employment is quite diverse. A large number of older Jamaican women work for low wages taking care of predominantly white senior citizens in American metropolitan cities. However, many Jamaican Americans bring technical and professional skills with them to the United States, which often allow them to secure better paying jobs than other blacks. Before 1970, white-owned institutions and corporations tended to hire skilled and highly educated Jamaicans in preference to black Americans. This gave American blacks the distinct impression that Jamaicans were specially favored in the job market.

Both Caribbean and American blacks suffer job discrimination in the United States. Jamaican immigrants who are illegal aliens or who are in a transitional stage of residency are particularly vulnerable to injustice and exploitation. Often, unskilled immigrants work for long hours in two or three part-time low-paying jobs in order to survive. However, a significant number of Jamaican Americans are successful in entrepreneurial enterprises. In New York City, many have benefited from affirmative action policies in housing and jobs in Flatbush, Crown Heights, Bedford Stuyvesant, and elsewhere. Some Jamaicans have used the open enrollment at the City University of New York to improve their skills in order to obtain higher paying jobs and upward mobility.

After the late 1970s, Jamaican businesses in New York City proliferated, including grocery stores, parlors, and shops, restaurants, travel agencies, realtor brokerages, bakeries, bars, beauty salons, music and record shops, and disco and dance clubs. A number of Jamaicans are subcontractors in building construction, masonry, carpentry, woodwork and cabinet making, electrical wiring, plumbing, heating and central air installations, printing, typing and stenographic services. Jamaican professional businesses include computer consulting and training in word processing, law firms, private medical practices, immigration agents or counselors.

Crime has become such a way of life in Jamaica that in the post independence period, both of the ruling parties, the JLP and the PNP, recruited gangsters to "eliminate" opponents in electoral districts, stuff ballot boxes to control election results, hand pick the tenants for scarce housing, launder money, and funnel government jobs to supporters. Since the late 1970s, the gangs have had almost unlimited power in Jamaica and are now bodyguards for government officials. They prey on the defenseless and vulnerable and compete with rivals for turf, both in Jamaica and the United States. In recent years, the U.S. government has adopted a policy of deporting violent Jamaican criminals who are now a serious menace to national security.

Politics and Government

Jamaicans have been involved in issues of political significance in the United States since the early 1800s. In 1827, Jamaican-born John B. Russwurm co-founded and co-edited the first black press in America, Freedom's Journal. Russwurm's vocal political views and anti-slavery criticism forced him to leave the paper under pressure from contributors and his own colleagues. After slavery was abolished in the British West Indies in 1834, a number of Jamaicans supported the Back to Africa movement and worked for the abolition of American slavery in collaboration with their black counterparts in the United States.

This political activity led to the founding of the Pan-African Movement, which Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois championed. Garvey attracted the largest single political gathering in American history prior to the Civil Rights March on Washington. He spurred blacks in Harlem into political action with self-confidence and black pride. He established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which helped to cement the bonds of racial consciousness between American and Caribbean blacks. The majority of Garvey's UNIA in the United States comprised West Indians, especially from Jamaica. Garvey's movement intimidated the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which envied the power and support that Garvey enjoyed before he was arrested on charges of alleged embezzlement and later incarcerated in Atlanta, Georgia. After Garvey was deported in the late 1920s, he established the Peoples' Political Party (PPP), which called for many reforms, including minimum wages, guaranteed employment, social security benefits, workers' compensation, the expropriation of private lands for public use, land reform, and the creation of a Jamaican university. While working in the American political context, W. A. Domingo, a Jamaican-born Harlem Renaissance figure and writer, supported black rights and advocated Jamaican independence in the Caribbean. Domingo did not want to emphasize the differences between African Americans and West Indian Americans, because both are black and experience some of the same effects of racial oppression and discrimination.

The influences of Jamaican politics and culture on places like New York City, East Orange, Miami, and elsewhere extend beyond the mere establishment of cultural enclaves. Jamaicans were very vocal and assertive during the early twentieth century black struggle, often paving the way for new black professional opportunities not previously open to blacks. Jamaican Americans who experience racial discrimination in the work-place, in their neighborhoods, and in their communities, combine political efforts to address the concerns of the entire black population. In the 1930s, Jamaican-U.S. political activity reached a new level as Jamaican, Trinidadians, Guyanese, and other Caribbean immigrants began playing an important role in the Democratic Party in New York City. Years later, Una Clarke, a Jamaican-born educator who won one of New York's predominantly Caribbean districts, rose to be one of the prominent Jamaican American politicians in New York.


Jamaica and the United States have never engaged in a major military confrontation. U.S. involvement in Jamaica includes little intervention. There has never been a need for a "Bay of Pigs" invasion, as in Cuba, a "vertical insertion," as in Grenada, or a military occupation as in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The United States did not contemplate annexing Jamaica as it did with Puerto Rico and Cuba in the Spanish Cuban American War of 1898. The United States also did not have military bases in Jamaica as it did in Trinidad. The relationship between Kingston and Washington has been very cordial, except for a period under Michael Manley's administration. Today, American tourists frequently visit the island in large numbers, adding substantially to the economy. A busy flow of air traffic exists between Jamaica and United States as Jamaicans make frequent business trips to the United States. Immigrants make regular remittances to family and relatives in Jamaica and visit their "land of origin" regularly. Many of them maintain dual residence and vote in local elections.

In recent decades, the U.S. government has used economic and diplomatic clout to influence political and fiscal direction in Jamaica. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. government used clandestine activities to destabilize Manley's democratic socialist government. Consequently, Washington came under heavy criticism from Jamaican political analysts and politicians for supporting political violence in Jamaica during elections.


Jamaican membership in the U.S. Armed Forces began during World War I and continued during World War II. Jamaicans both in America and on the island were recruited for service in Europe and some of them were stationed at U.S. bases in the region. Since then, Jamaican Americans have worked in many different wings of the Armed Forces. During the Gulf War, the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell (born in New York City in 1937) was recognized as the America's most eminent second-generation Jamaican American. He served his country in the Armed Forces with academic and political distinction. He became a household name under the Bush administration and earned the admiration and respect of the nation; Random House paid the retired four-star general $6.5 million to publish his memoirs.

Individual and Group Contributions

Jamaican immigrants contribute substantially to American political, cultural, religious, and educational life. Jamaican-born writers, athletes, teachers, musicians, poets, journalists, artists, professors, sports writers, actors, and other professionals who have lived in the United States have greatly enriched the American culture in many ways.


Jamaican-born John B. Russwurm was one of the first blacks to enter an American academy; he graduated with a B.A. from Baldwin College in 1826; Russwurm distinguished himself as the co-founder of Freedom's Journal, black America's first newspaper. Jamaican-born Leonard Barrett lived most of his adult life in the United States and taught at Temple University and other institutions for more than 30 years. Jamaican-born Orlando Patterson, professor of sociology at Harvard University, and economist George Beckford are recognized as leading social scientists in America.


Jamaicans have made contributions to the film and television industry in the United States. Louise Bennett-Coverly, better known as "Miss Lou," Jamaica's premier and world-renowned folklorist, has lived and performed in the United States for many years. She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1919 and became a performer of stories, songs, and rhymes. At the age of 14, she began to write and dramatize poems using patois rather than standard English. In 1996, she marked her sixtieth anniversary as a performer of poetry, story, and song. For her 50 years of contribution to Caribbean culture, she was named Jamaica's national poet and poet laureate in 1986. Her dramatic style, physical presence, and debonair theatrical equity have made her a legend in Jamaican and Jamaican American theater and has brought distinction to Jamaican patois on stage.

Other Jamaican American folklorists like Ranny Williams and Leonie Forbes have made a substantial contribution to the performing arts. Choreographer, scholar, literature laureate, and performer, Rex Nettleford, now vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies, has taken the Caribbean's premier National Dance Theater Company (NDTC) around the world and performed with distinction. The NDTC has won several awards and made several tours of the United States. The Sister Theater Group has also made several U.S. tours. The comedian Oliver Samuels has starred in Oliver At Large and Doctors in Paradise.


Modern Jamaican American journalists who have lived and studied in the United States are John Maxwell, John Heame, Barbara Gloudon (former editor of the Jamaica Gleaner and the Star ), Ronnie Thwaites, Adrian Robinson, Dennis Hall, and Morris Cargill (columnist). Carl Williams, editor and founder of Black Culture (1989), lives and works in the United States. Winston Smith, who lives in Brooklyn, works with The Paper.


A number of contemporary Jamaican American scholars are well known in the field of literature. Claude McKay migrated from Jamaica to the United States in 1912 and became an important voice in the Harlem Renaissance; he wrote many novels, among them Banana Bottom and This Island. Many Jamaican poets have distinguished themselves in the field of literature: Adriza Mandiela wrote Life of the Caribbean Immigrant, Living in America. Louise Bennett-Coverly, poet laureate, has written dozens of poems and books on Caribbean life. Two literature laureates and scholars, Rex Nettleford and Sir Arthur Lewis, are well known in the United States. Afoa Cooper, Lillian Allen, Oliver Senior, Mutabaruka, Linton Kwasii Johnson, Gene Binta, Breeze, Opaimer Adisa, D'Janette Sears, Michael Smith, and a-dziao Simba, who wrote 25.40 P.M. Past Morning, are only a few of the dozens of outstanding Jamaican American poets of modern times. Sheila Winter taught literature at Princeton University and Sir John Mordecai was a visiting professor at the same institution.


Well-known Rasta artists are: The Wailers, Big Youth, We the People, Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Peter Tosh, The I Threes, Light of Saba, and United Africa. Reggae rhythms are so popular and powerful that jazz musicians in Jamaica and the United StatesHerbie Mann, Sonny Rollins, Roberta Flack, Johnny Nash, Eric Clapton, and Lennie Hibbertare exploiting the potential of Rasta music with huge financial success. Other well-known Jamaican music stars are: Marjorie Wiley, a Jamaican folklorist, musician, and dancer; Marcia Griffiths, Tiger, Shine Head, and Freddie McGregor.


A number of Jamaicans and Jamaican Americans have excelled in international competition and carried home many trophies. Sir Herbert McDonald was an Olympian; Donald Quarrie won the 200 and the 4 X 100 meters Olympic Gold Medal; Marlene Ottey won the 200 and the 4 X 100 meters. Some of the world's most outstanding cricketers were Jamaicans; they include: O. J. Collier Smith, Alfred Valentine, Roy Gilcrist, Michael Holding, Easton McMorris, Franze Alexander, and George Headley, who was born in Panama in 1909, transported to Cuba, grew up in Jamaica and lived in the United States.



Caribbean Newsletter.

First published October 1, 1980, as "Friends for Jamaica," this quarterly acts as the voice of Friends for Jamaica, "a small collective of New York City residents" which supports the struggles of Jamaican workers and peasants. Also concerned with "the struggles of people in other countries in the English-speaking Caribbean." Contains articles on political, economic, social, and agricultural issues.

Address: Friends for Jamaica, Box 20392, Cathedral Finance Station, New York, New York 10025.

There are many other newspapers and tabloids in the United States that cater to the Jamaican population in America. The journal Cimmarron, published by the City University of New York, discusses a variety of Caribbean issues, as does the Afro-centric magazine, Black Culture. Everybody's Magazine has a very wide readership, as does New York Carib News, founded in 1981 by Karl Rodney, the former president of the Jamaican Progressive Party. Additional publications include Viewpoint and The Paper. These publications provide news about different aspects of Jamaican life such as politics, current events, sports, and other issues of importance to the Caribbean. Newspapers also cover issues and concerns facing Caribbean Americans in the United States. The Jamaican Gleaner and The Star are favorite daily papers in Miami and New York City.


Jamaicans in the United States and Jamaica also receive up-to-the-minute news on CNN, C-Span, and other television stations in the international network. At the same time, the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) and Jamaican radio stations (like RJR) supply Jamaican Americans with current news of the island.

Organizations and Associations

Various organizations and funds exist to help Jamaican Americans. These include the St. Vincent Benefit and Education Fund, Jamaican Nurses Association and the Jamaican Policemen's School Alumni Association of New York. The Brooklyn Council on the Arts, Caribbean Festival, The Jamaican Association of Greater Cleveland, The Cleveland Cricket Club, The New York Cricket Club (of Brooklyn), and The Third World Foundation located in Chicago are additional Jamaican organizations. Several Jamaican American clubs and organizations comprise alumni of several high schools in Jamaica, including MICA Old Student Association (MOSA), Cornwall College Association (CCA), St. Hughes High School Alumni Association (SHHAA), and the Montego Bay Boys Alumni Association (MBBAA).

Sources for Additional Study

Alleyne, Mervyn C. Roots of Jamaican Culture. London: Pluto Press, 1988.

Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

Campbell, Marvis C. The Maroons of Jamaica 1655-1796: A History of Resistance, Collaboration and Betrayal. Massachusetts: Bergin & Publishers Inc., 1988.

Carty, Hilary S. Folk Dances of Jamaica: An Insight. London: Dance Books, 1988.

Kessner, Thomas, and Betty Boyd Caroli. Today's Immigrants: Their Stories; A New Look at the Newest Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Luntta, Karl. Jamaica Handbook. California: Moon Publications, 1991.