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Kristen Gyles | Not popularity that makes a hero

Published:Friday | April 19, 2024 | 12:06 AM
Bob Marley
Bob Marley

Something of interest that came out of the budget debate last month was the Opposition leader’s commitment to conferring the Order of National Hero on world-renowned music icon Bob Marley. Among other achievements, the Opposition leader said the honour should be bestowed upon him for advancing Jamaican culture and for his global impact as a “liberating and inspirational force for oppressed people”.

That certainly wasn’t the first time Jamaicans were being introduced to the idea of an eighth national hero. In fact, at the Bob Marley: One Love film première held in January, the prime minister also hinted at consideration being given to the naming of Bob Marley as a national hero.

For context, in 1999 the BBC named Bob Marley’s song One Love as the ‘anthem of the millennium’. That same year, Time Magazine named his 1977 Exodus, ‘Album of the Century’. In 1978, he was also given the United Nation’s Peace Medal of the Third World for his unwavering calls for peace during a time of political unrest in Jamaica.

Others have been considered for the title of National Hero, as well.

In July of 2022, pollster Don Anderson gleaned the opinions of 1,113 Jamaicans on the question of who could possibly take the title of Jamaica’s next national hero. The survey found that 29 per cent of Jamaicans were in support of Bob Marley being named a national hero. The same percentage thought Miss Lou should be named a national heroine and nine per cent thought the honour should be given to Usain Bolt. Twenty-seven per cent said they couldn’t think of anyone fitting for the award.

NO CAP

There is no cap on the number of national heroes that can be named by the country. If we genuinely feel that all the above-mentioned icons should be conferred with the title of National Hero, there is no need to play “eenie meenie miney mo” to narrow down the selection to just one.

With that said, let me throw in my two cents on the attributes that define a hero. A hero is someone who brings some form of deliverance to their people in the face of dire circumstances. Outside of circumstances that necessitate some form of intervention or deliverance, it is unclear what would make an individual a hero.

One can be an icon and not be a hero.

Let’s look at Jamaica’s current seven national heroes. George William Gordon, Paul Bogle and Sam Sharpe were all martyred in the fight against what was perhaps the most barbaric period of oppression against black people. They all helped to bring deliverance to the country from systemic abuse and racial discrimination and paid the ultimate price for their efforts.

The other national heroes might not have died in the cause of justice, but went to great sacrifice in many cases to oppose the system of colonial rule and to stand in defence of the most vulnerable of their time. Partly owing to the actions of these seven freedom-fighters, Jamaica is the free and sovereign state it is today, enjoying the freedoms it enjoys today.

Some have argued that Jamaica needs a modern-day national hero that can represent the good that exists in 21st-century Jamaica. Since we are no longer under slavery and no longer fighting colonial rule, the argument is that we should be searching for national heroes relevant to our time, perhaps within the realm of arts, culture and sports.

TRYING TO UPDATE

Counter to that, one could say we are trying hard to update our (aged) list of national heroes when perhaps there is no need.

Let’s be honest, the most widely repeated reason for some of Jamaica’s icons to be named national heroes is the imprint they have made on the world – in other words – their global popularity. The fact is that while these icons have reaped success, of which Jamaicans are direct beneficiaries, their success is a result of global acceptance and recognition. We are inadvertently admitting that the basis of our pride in them is the international community’s admiration of their talent. Talent and popularity, however rewarding, do not make one a national hero.

If we do decide on updating our slate of national heroes, let’s at least get our priorities right.

The legislation which currently names our national heroes sets no clear criteria for the conferment of the award. The National Honours and Awards Act says the governor general may “confer the honour of National Hero upon any person who … rendered to Jamaica service of the most distinguished nature.”

To say someone has offered “service of the most distinguished nature” is a little less than clear, and frankly, can be construed to mean many things. But what do we want as a people?

Is the objective to award the most talented people who have reached peak success in their respective fields or is the objective to reward those whose lives have been dedicated to nation-building?

Kristen Gyles is a free-thinking public affairs opinionator. Send feedback to kristengyles@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com