‘The Harder They Come: colonial and postcolonial narratives of resilience in urban Jamaica’ By Dr David Howard, MSc course director and lecturer

BBC World Service (c)The urban Caribbean, and particularly downtown neighbourhoods of the Jamaican capital city, Kingston, have generated contrasting, and iconic, images for local, diasporic and global audiences: localised artistic, sporting and entrepreneurial creativity shape contemporary global tastes; strong state and neighbourhood leaderships brought communities through the political liberation of independence to the brink of civil war, and emerging urban swathes of planned, vernacular cityscapes rest charred by economic frailties and external debt repayments. I am currently exploring a comparative viewpoint of postcolonial Kingston, incorporating ethnographic, newspaper archival, film, literary and lyrical analysis to explore the ordering of the city, from the 1940s, just as full adult suffrage was introduced to a colony heading towards independence, to the present day, when the island presents complex societal messages of idyllic tropical stereotypes; a capital with one of the highest murder rates in the world, and a ‘brand Jamaica’ that has been carefully nurtured from recording studios to sport fields. Such images resonate equally between local and global scales, and provide narratives of resilience and redemption which form the thread for the key themes of urban leadership, violence and poverty addressed in my current research.

The city and portside of Kingston provide the main setting for Perry Henzell’s cinematic account of urban poverty, crime and everyday livelihoods during the first decade of Jamaican independence. The Harder They Come (1972), and subsequent novel by Michael Thelwell (1980) and stage play (2005) are based on the ‘celebrated’ 1940s criminal Rhyging, and forms the basis for a chronological, visual and sonic comparative analysis which I am writing up. The film and following works provide a creative temporal fusion of the emerging Jamaican state from the 1940s to 1970s. Legacies of colonial governance and a societal structure jarred by political resistance and growing forms of informal leadership are represented in the controversial figures of ‘rude boys’ such as Rhyging, and maverick politicians like Alexander Bustamente, the Mayor of Kingston who placed a bounty on the head of Rhyging, and who later became the first Prime Minister of the new state. I am interested in exploring the roots of urban poverty and governance, reflecting on the recent, arguably similar, popular status of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. Dudus, known as ‘The President’ and debatably once the most powerful individuals in Jamaica, governed the downtown communities of Kingston, creating parallel extra-legal courts, a hospital, housing, extortion and taxation systems, even operating his own wharfside and port operations, until a military and police ‘incursion’ into his urban fiefdom during 2010 ended his reign.

Following the themes of urban leadership and poverty, my ethnographic research in Rose Town, Jamaica, on the ‘post’ gang-violence landscapes of downtown Kingston today addresses the legacy of Dudus and his associates. Until recently, the neighbourhood was informally governed by the Discipline Gang, led by the community don ‘Rooksie’, a close lieutenant and confidante of Dudus. Despite intense police and military intervention, many would suggest that the gang structures and informal governance and leadership networks are proving to be notably resilient. ‘Resilience’ is a much used and repeated phrase in policy documents and academic debate. The notion of resilience and vulnerability are widely promoted as being inherent to ideas of sustainable urban development, yet are often uncritically used to refer to a built environment or urban society, without exploring the notions that low-income populations may not be resilient and remain vulnerable under current neoliberal economic policies and forms of governance. But was does it mean to be ‘resilient’ and to what, and why is that deemed to be always useful or ‘good’, or a goal for which to aim? Resilience to environmental shocks and climate change may help save lives and livelihoods, but is resilience to an economic system that perhaps serves to impoverish the many for the benefit of the few also a relevant goal? I am looking forward to reading further and combining recent critiques of resilience (Ernstson 2014, Evans and Reid 2014, Slater 2014) with theoretical frameworks of the ‘right to the city’ (Lefebvre 1968, Harvey 2008). Part of this process will be to bring together previous and current oral histories from Rose Town residents with media commentary on contemporary urban issues of leadership, community dons and poverty, while using these narratives, media archives and the cinematic influence of The Harder They Come to reflect on conflicting urban pasts and the present in Kingston today.

Dr David Howard is is a University Lecturer in Sustainable Urban Development, Fellow of Kellogg College and Course Director for the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development.  His principal research has concentrated on the contemporary urban societies of the Caribbean and Latin America, with a specific focus on urban livelihoods, social sustainability and identity politics.

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