Jamaican WritersJamaicans on the EdgePoetry

Jamaican In Paris: Nationality on My Back

Thanks to YardEdge contributor, Opal Palmer Adisa, for this reflection on being a Jamaican in Paris…

Last August, while alternating between relaxing, meditating and writing in Luxembourg Garden in Paris, I was interrupted from my reverie by a stranger who asked if I were Parisian.

Without a moment’s hesitation I said, no Jamaican, and waited for the customary response, “Oh reggae music, Bob Marley. I love Jamaican culture.” I get this all the time no matter wherein the world I am. Often, to prove how much they know, which often is minuscule, they will hum or sing a bar from one of Marley’s song. It is all well intended, a gesture of commonality, to say, see I know something about where you are from.

But the Eastern European man had no such reference, and merely wanted to talk since he was visiting Paris alone, and like me was inspired by the beautiful garden and what it meant for the city to have such a place for its people. A similar thought had absorbed me earlier about what if there were more such places like this park in Jamaica. Would it help to make us gentler, more peaceful, more compassionate? Would the beauty of nature erode our anger and dispirited souls always on the look out, it seems, for some injustice?

Sitting in that tranquil park, in the cool summer air, far removed from my homeland I pondered the Jamaica that I carried on my back. When I say I am Jamaican in Paris, is it the same as when I say so in Brooklyn or in St Croix? How does the Jamaican that I am, the Jamaica that seems like a cloak affixed to my back show up in the world? And even more importantly do I still have a right to say I am Jamaican since I have not lived there full time for more years that I have lived there?

I remember my American born daughter once asking me if it were a lie to tell her friends that she was Jamaican. I said no because you are; you are raised by a Jamaican; you eat Jamaican food, you have been there many times, and in many ways you are culturally, more Jamaican than you are American.

Then I thought about my second trip to England in the 80’s, and meeting folks in Braxton, who sounded more Jamaican than many Jamaicans I knew, yet had never been to Jamaica, where not born there, but who as a result of parentage had fully embraced and claimed Jamaican heritage.

Then there are others, wannabe-Jamaicans, from different islands or countries in Africa who claim Jamaican heritage because of their identification with Rastafarian culture, or reggae music or that Jamaica is known or the pride and accomplishment they deem an important trait of Jamaicans. How do they carry Jamaica on their backs?

I have stood aside and listened, with amusement and indignation, as one or the other wannabe-Jamaicans, replete with fake accent, profess to others their Jamaicanness. In the past I would say or ask something that would blow their cover, but now I just look on amused.

Identity is a personal choice as well as a cultural cross owing to birth. While traveling through Europe last summer, as in the past, it was important that I was seen as a Jamaican. I often thought of myself as representing the island, and therefore, just like I tell my children, your actions reflect back on me, I wanted to project a positive Jamaica.

The Yugoslavian man in Luxembourg Garden learned about my Jamaica, the Jamaica of writers and artists, spectacular sites that serve as respite to me, the titillating aroma of steam fish and bammi at Port Royal, peppered shrimp in Black River and the soulful, positive vibes of Tarrus Riley and the culturally relevant rhythms, of Queen Ifrica.

As I bid him adieu and resumed by writing these words poured forth:

not cloak but skin

home that colors

the landscape of my knowing

all that i am and will ever be

the rolling-calf stories

from childhood still

cloud my head


green stains my hands

volcanic emerging

to form land and cane

brought people and rum

made us douens


but the yellowing hope


one people/one land


one voice intoning


this is fi me island

this is fi me land


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  9. July 20, 2015 at 9:59 pm — Reply

    For public information to help preserve lost lost Jamaican family history. The contribution of of my Jamaican grandfather Herbert Theodore Thomas 1856 to 1930. The true family story is now revealed in my autobiography “A Struggle to Walk with Dignity-The True story of a Jamaican-born Canadian”: 2008. Herbert T. Thomas was the first man to cross the John Crow Mountains, as an Explorer also he was the Author of two books on Jamaica & a Lecturer while being an Inspector of Police who had the courage to marry my black Jamaican grandmother Lenora Thomas, after his first Jamaican Jewish wife Gertrude (nee) Nunes died in the UK. All can be seen and downloaded for free from the “Digital Library of the Caribbean” when you enter his full name above. With my thanks. Gerald.

  10. Nicole
    June 8, 2014 at 7:17 am — Reply

    Hello! So glad I’ve found this blog, I’ve been rubbish at looking for other Jamaicans in the Parisian region! And I loved this blog entry.

    But I have to admit, I smirked at the suggestion that the beauty of parks like les JdL might make Jamaicans more peaceful and compassionate. What, like your average Parisian? The one that laughs when you fall over? Or barges past you to get on the metro? Or growls at and pushes past the blind person for not walking fast enough…? Or pretends not to understand you as soon as your accent slips and they realise you’re not French? Or pointedly ignores the pregnant woman/disabled person on public transport so they don’t have to give up their seat? Seriously???

    Paris is full of beautiful parks and stunning monuments but it certainly hasn’t helped with people’s attitudes! Thus far, I’ve found that the nicest people in Paris are those who come from elsewhere, be it other parts of France or abroad. Let’s not do ourselves down, yes Paris is much less violent than say, downtown Kingston but it’s not a Utopia either.

    But that doesn’t mean I loved this blog any less! And it’s especially nice to find that there are more people of Jamaican heritage in Paris than I ever realised! And bless those who immediately associate Jamaica with Bob Marley, funny cigarettes and rum. Props to you for taking on the mantle and telling them there’s more to it than that. As a second generation Jamaican who’s been lax at studying history I couldn’t do that. You’ve inspired me to find out more so I can show people there’s more to Jamaica than just that!

    Thank you!

  11. January 25, 2014 at 10:59 am — Reply

    Books that are still available today around the world from one Jamaican family, however they are not in Jamaica. “Untrodden Jamaica”1890,Pamphlet; “Something about Obeah”1891, The story of a West Indian Policeman-47 years in the Jamaica Constabulary”1927 & “A Struggle to Walk with Dignity-The True story of a Jamaican-born Canadian’2008. By authors Herbert T. Thomas and his grandson Gerald A. Archambeau. All the family fonds & info can be found in York University Toronto On. Canada, at Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, listed: “The Archambeau-Thomas family Collection” for lost history research.

  12. Charmaine
    May 18, 2012 at 12:36 pm — Reply

    Very interesting to note that our culture is known and appreciated worldwide. I wish our own people would see the greatness inside of them and stop wasting away on violence, immorality, corruption and just be themselves.

    Very nice poem…Thank you

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