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.
Politics, Power, and Corruption Theme Icon

Much of the novel centers around the political history of Jamaica in the post-independence period, and two general elections serve as major climaxes in the plot. The first takes place in 1976, won by the People’s National Party (PNP), and the second in 1980, in which the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) is victorious. Both elections involve a surge in violence, emphasizing that politics is an extremely charged issue in Jamaica. This is in part due to the fact that the neighborhoods in the Kingston ghetto are defined not only by gang affiliation, but support for a particular political party. This makes electoral politics a more personal issue for ordinary Jamaicans than we might assume, and also emphasizes a fundamental similarity between political parties and gangs, which are both shaped by backstabbing, corruption, and a merciless desire for power.

The residents of the Kingston ghetto show a level of loyalty for both gangsters and politicians that can seem surprising, considering they are shown to be ill-served by both. Extreme levels of gang violence mean that life in the Kingston ghetto is very dangerous, and the power of the gangs means that everyone is implicated in this violence, even those who attempt to keep to themselves or escape the ghetto (such as the promising high school student killed by Papa-Lo). Meanwhile, politicians make paltry efforts to court the loyalty of the Kingston poor, such as by distributing packets of Uncle Ben’s rice in the lead up to elections. Because the residents of the Kingston ghetto are so impoverished and disenfranchised, even this small gesture is persuasive. However, once they are elected, politicians do not truly work to serve the people. As Josey Wales observes of Peter Nasser, politicians tend to confuse representing people with owning them. On the other hand, the fact that Josey is the one to make this remark is ironic, considering that the same could be said of dons like himself. 

The cooperation between the political parties and gangs who effectively co-run the country is a striking example of corruption. While politicians and gang members might seem different on the surface, the novel makes clear that they are in fact united by a main shared characteristic: the desire for authority, control, and power, seemingly at any cost. Seven Killings portrays Jamaica as rampantly corrupt, but this corruption is not limited to the realm of politics. Like politicians, the police are also under the control of the gangs that run Kingston. In one of the most disturbing passages of the novel, Josey Wales crashes into a bus, and without realizing who Josey is, the bus driver begins loudly fuming. When a woman screams that the man is Josey Wales, the bus driver speeds off toward a police station, but when Josey arrives, the police refuse to do anything and simply watch as Josey kills the driver at the station’s doorstep. This incident reveals the extent of Josey’s power, which at this point exceeds the power of the police and government. The government’s allegiance to Josey, and the police force’s fear of him, mean that they both fail to perform their duty to protect ordinary people from gang violence.

Yet while the novel depicts Jamaican society as being overrun by corruption, it also makes clear that corruption is hardly confined to the island. Throughout the narrative, the presence of the “the Company,” (i.e., the CIA) lingers ominously in the background, evidence of the American effort to steer Jamaica away from socialism after the election of the socialist PNP Prime Minister Michael Manley. Various characters, including Barry Diflorio, Louis Johnson, and Doctor Love, have been sent to Jamaica by the CIA, and it is clear that their actions do not make Jamaica a safer or better place; Louis and Doctor Love supply guns to Josey’s gang so they can kill the Singer, and Doctor Love sets off bombs in the Eight Lanes.

Similarly, when the setting of the novel shifts to New York City, the pervasive drug-related gang violence suggests that the same problems of corruption plaguing Jamaica exist in the US, and that the American political system is similarly ineffective in bringing about positive change. For example, Tristan mentions to Alex that Josey likely won’t kill him because killing a white person would draw the attention of the American authorities, whereas the deaths of black people are largely met with disinterest. Furthermore, when Josey is finally imprisoned and set to be extradited to the United States, he is confident that he will get a light sentence in exchange for giving the American government information that will help them make further arrests. Although it is debatable whether or not such a bargain is justifiable, it highlights the extent to which Josey continues to exercise a kind of power over governmental authorities even after being incarcerated. Indeed, the notion that gangs have more power than the government is further confirmed when Josey is killed by the Medellín cartel, thereby robbing the American government of an informant and overstepping their ability to carry out justice. Ultimately, Josey’s death reinforces a sense of similarity between gangs and governmental authorities, emphasizing the corruption and betrayal that characterize all struggles for power.

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Politics, Power, and Corruption ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Politics, Power, and Corruption 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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Politics, Power, and Corruption 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 Politics, Power, and Corruption.
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 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 3, Chapter 5 Quotes

No future for no dark girl in Jamaica, despite black power bullshit. I mean, look who just win Miss World.

Related Characters: Josey Wales (speaker)
Page Number: 423
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 17 Quotes

- Like how your boy Weeper is a user.

- Weeper sniffing coke from as early as '75, that not nothing new.

- But new it is, Josey. Now him smoking crack and you and me know that crack is not coke. Can a man do good business even when him deh pon coke? Of course. Every man me know in the music biz a lick coke. Hookers and blow them call it, my youth. Back then the biz did even have a sort of class. But crack is different business. Every single dealer who switch from coke to crack mash up. You can’t hold a single thought on crack. You can't do no fucking business. Crack is you business.

Related Characters: Josey Wales (speaker), Eubie (speaker), Weeper
Related Symbols: Cocaine
Page Number: 551
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