A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings

by

Marlon James

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Themes and Colors
Violence vs. Peace Theme Icon
Masculinity, Sexuality, and Homophobia Theme Icon
Jamaican Culture and Identity Theme Icon
Politics, Power, and Corruption Theme Icon
Witness and Storytelling Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Brief History of Seven Killings, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Jamaican Culture and Identity Theme Icon

Jamaica achieved independence from the United Kingdom on August 6, 1962, and thus at the time the novel begins (1976) the country is still very much in the process of developing an independent national identity. This is presented as a difficult task, in part due to the country’s traumatic history of colonialism and slavery, issues which are in turn linked to questions of political power, racism, colorism, religion, class, and respectability. Some Jamaican characters remain triumphant in the post-independence period, embracing the messages of black power embodied by figures such as Marcus Garvey. Others, however, find little hope in the face of the poverty, violence, and corruption that afflicts post-independence Jamaica.

The book begins at a time in which Rastafari is gaining influence, in large part due to the popularity of the Singer (the character based on Bob Marley). The book describes the Singer’s worldwide fame, which attracts other stars, such as Mick Jagger, to Jamaica. However, there is a distinct contrast between the embrace of Rasta culture in the world at large and the strong backlash against Rastafari and reggae that takes place in Jamaica itself, particularly in the earlier stage of the Singer’s success. On one hand, middle- and upper-class Jamaicans, who were often fervently Christian, dislike Rastafarians because they are not Christian and are seen as undisciplined and dirty. For example, Nina’s father beats Nina when he finds out she had sex with the Singer, while her mother exclaims: “Down there not scratching you with all that lice? It not biting you down there? How can you even stand there. Dear Lord, what kind of nasty daughter me have?” On the other hand, men like Josey Wales dislike the Rastafarians’ emphasis on peace and the threat that they will take power from the existing political parties and gangs. This is, of course, what leads Josey to attempt to assassinate the Singer and everyone in his house. Later in the novel, Josey warns the JLP politician Peter Nasser that there is a new party forming, backed by the singer. He explains: “even if the Singer wasn’t going to be the voice of this new party, movement, whatever you want to call it, he was going to be something else far more important: the money.” Although different characters have different motivations for resenting the shift in Jamaican cultural identity caused by the rise of Rastafari and the success of the Singer, many are united in their negative reaction to these changes. 

Disagreements over Rastafari point to another issue at the center of the novel’s exploration of Jamaican culture and identity: the notion of authenticity. A Brief History of Seven Killings is characterized by a sense of uncertainty over what it means to be “authentically” Jamaican. Ironically, it is the white Americans living in the country––such as Alex Pierce and Barry Diflorio––who are most confident in their claims to know “the real Jamaica.” The Jamaican characters themselves are far less certain, and some of them strive to reject Jamaica altogether. Nina, for example, cannot wait to leave Jamaica; she romanticizes the US and goes to desperate lengths in order to secure an American visa. Similarly, characters like Eubie who have immigrated from Jamaica to the US take on American mannerisms and seem to be fully assimilated into the country.

At the same time, the novel’s depiction of Jamaicans living in the US suggests that many Jamaicans retain a strong sense of cultural identity despite living in a new country. The Jamaican drug gangs featured in the narrative, for example, still recruit from Kingston and maintain the same way of doing things as gangs back in Jamaica. The large population of Jamaicans in New York further complicates the idea of authentic Jamaican identity. Josey points to this sense of instability with his remark: “I hate when Jamaicans start to pick up American ways of talking, and when they flip back and forth it put my teeth on edge.” Another way in which this issue is explored is through food. When Josey arrives in New York, Weeper suggests taking him to the best Jamaican restaurant in the city, which is located in Flatbush, Brooklyn. However, both Josey and Weeper question why Josey would come all the way to New York to eat food that is probably inferior to what he is used to in Jamaica. The fact that the final major scene of the novel takes place in a Jamaican restaurant is similarly significant. “Millicent,” whom readers are led to believe is another one of Nina’s alter-egos, is ordering food when she sees a headline stating that Josey Wales has been burned alive in his cell. Despite Millicent/Nina’s continued attempts to leave Jamaica behind and reinvent herself as a new person in America, her trip to the Jamaican restaurant reinforces her inevitable tie to her home country. Although the notion of authentic Jamaican cultural identity may be contested and hard to pin down, Jamaican identity is also shown to be powerful and enduring in the face of both global change and shifts in the lives of individual characters.  

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Jamaican Culture and Identity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Jamaican Culture and Identity appears in each chapter of A Brief History of Seven Killings. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Jamaican Culture and Identity Quotes in A Brief History of Seven Killings

Below you will find the important quotes in A Brief History of Seven Killings related to the theme of Jamaican Culture and Identity.
Part 1, Sir Arthur George Jennings Quotes

That's what happens when you personify hopes and dreams in one person. He becomes nothing more than a literary device.

Related Characters: Sir Arthur George Jennings (speaker), The Singer
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation long mobile
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

I remember when that was the only place any man, no matter what side you on, could escape a bullet. The only place in Kingston where the only thing that hit you was music. But the fucking people soil it up with bad vibes, better if they did just go into the studio one morning and shit all over the console, me no going say who.

Related Characters: Papa-Lo (speaker), The Singer
Related Symbols: The Singer’s House, Guns
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Part 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

I hate politics. I hate that just because I live here I'm supposed to live politics. And there's nothing you can do. If you don't live politics, politics will live you.

Related Characters: Nina Burgess (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

Nobody who kill a police going to hell but is something else to kill the singer. I let Josey Wales tell me that the Singer is a hypocrite, and he playing both sides taking everybody for idiot. I let Josey Wales tell me that he have bigger plans and is high time we done be ghetto stooge for white man who live uptown and don’t care about we until election time. I let Josey Wales tell me that the Singer is a PNP stooge who bow for the Prime Minister. I let Josey Wales tell me to shoot up three more line and I won’t care who.

Related Characters: Demus (speaker), The Singer, Josey Wales, Michael Manley
Related Symbols: Guns, Cocaine
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Part 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

But who win West Kingston win Kingston and who win Kingston, win Jamaica and in 1974, the PNP unleash two beast from out of Jungle, a man called Buntin-Banton and another named Dishrag. PNP was never going win West Kingston, a fact then and a fact now, so they pull a jim-screachy, they create a whole new district and call it Central Kingston, and pile they people in it. Who they have run it? Buntin-Banton and Dishrag. Before them two, war in the ghetto was a war of knife. They gang did number thirty strong cutting through Kingston on red and black motorcycle, buzz buzz buzzing like an army of bees. Then the Buntin-Banton Dishrag gang attack we at a funeral me know right there that the game done have new rule now. People think it way past the time when anybody can remember who start things first, but don’t get the history of the ghetto twist up, decent people. Buntin-Banton and Dishrag start it first. And when PNP win the 1972 election all hell break loose.

Related Characters: Papa-Lo (speaker)
Page Number: 152-153
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Part 2, Chapter 9 Quotes

Today is the day we revoke the Singer's visa because he's suspected of trafficking drugs into the United States of America. Shouldn’t be hard to prove really, just check his back pocket. We're supposed to make a big, public
show of it, a sign that we, as a friend of Jamaica, will not sit by and allow lawlessness to take control of our gracious ally. I already wrote the press release, signed off by higher up. We also have proof that he has consorted with known drug traffickers in Miami and New York and has aligned himself with men of questionable character in Jamaica and abroad, including at least two local terrorists. This has already been documented. One of them, calling himself Shotta Sherrif twice tried for murder, is even closely linked to the present government.

Related Characters: Barry Diflorio (speaker), The Singer, Papa-Lo, Shotta Sherrif
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Part 2, Chapter 11 Quotes

In Jamaica people have a way of saying that if shit didn't go down a certain way, then the truth is probably not far from it. If it no go so it go near so.

Related Characters: Alex Pierce (speaker)
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Part 3, Chapter 4 Quotes

The second you say peace this and peace that, and let's talk about peace, is the second gunman put down their guns. But guess what, white boy. As soon as you put down your gun the policeman pull out his gun. Dangerous thing, peace. Peace make you stupid. You forget that not everybody sign peace treaty. Good times bad for somebody.

Related Characters: Josey Wales (speaker), Alex Pierce
Page Number: 387
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Part 4, Chapter 3 Quotes

Even my Rasta brethren laugh 'bout it, saying when the Black Star Liner finally come to take us to Africa, they going have to chop me in half. Man, what you know about the Jamaica runnings? Sometimes I think being a half coolie worse than being a battyman. This brown skin girl look 'pon me one time and say how it sad that after all God go through to give me pretty hair him curse me with that skin. The bitch say to me all my dark skin do is remind her that me forefather was a slave. So me say me have pity for you too. Because all your light skin do is remind me that your great-great-grandmother get rape.

Related Characters: Tristan Phillips (speaker), Alex Pierce
Page Number: 453
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Part 4, Chapter 20 Quotes

Me don’t see Copenhagen City since '79 but me hear 'bout it. Brethren, is like them communist country you see 'pon the news. Poster and mural and painting of Papa-Lo and Josey all over the community. Woman naming them pickney Josey One and Josey Two, even though he not fucking nobody but him wife, no, they not married for real. In him own way, you could call him a classy brother. But still, you want to get Josey you have to mow down the entire Copenhagen City first, and even then. You also have to tear down this government too. What you mean, government? Come, man, Alex Pierce, who you think give this party the 1980 election?

Related Characters: Tristan Phillips (speaker), Alex Pierce, Papa-Lo, Josey Wales, Winifred
Page Number: 567
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

It is a shit hole. It's hot like hell, traffic is always slow, and the people not all smiling and shit, and nobody waiting to tell you no problem, man. It is shitty, and sexy and dangerous and also really, really, really boring.

Related Characters: Tristan Phillips (speaker)
Page Number: 567-568
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile