When I saw the picture of Grace Jones on the cover of last Sunday’s Outlook magazine, I did a double take. Grace wouldn’t have even batted an eyelid, I suppose. She’s a superstar fashion model, singer and actress who is accustomed to having her image manipulated by the media. It comes with the territory.
What struck me forcibly, though, is that Ms Jones is so much darker in the flesh than in that cover photo. The ‘high colour’ image was a vivid reminder of an unsettling fact. Many Jamaicans have long discovered that there really is a safe and easy way to bleach: just leave it up to the photographer. Clever con artists have been selling their clients a false image of themselves: several shades lighter.
In the long-ago days before digital photography became commonplace, we used to be held hostage by specialist shops that charged an arm and a leg to develop pictures. Most of them have now gone out of business. These shops usually determined how your image would turn out.
I once got into quite an amusing conversation at a photo shop in Kingston when I saw the print of what was supposed to be my face. It was obvious that I had been robbed of much of my melanin. So I insisted that the print be done over and made darker.
When I went back to collect the new and improved version, I heard a staff member loudly declaring as soon as I got through the door, “See di uman deh who want to be blacker dan she is.” Words to that effect: I can’t remember exactly what she said.
In any case, I had become a spectacle. Having refused to wear the distorting spectacles that were designed to ‘improve’ my look, I was obviously a kind of circus exhibit. I foolishly didn’t seem to understand that the norm in the photography business was skin lightening. Wanting to look like my own black self was pure vanity.
Of course, the problem with photographic bleaching is that it’s a ‘face card.’ Its benefit is largely psychological. You can deceive yourself into thinking that you really do look like the picture. But you really won’t fool anybody else. That’s why these days so many people are going for the real thing. With the help of ‘cake soap,’ the face of the nation is being magically transformed.
Our most celebrated example of ‘successful’ skin bleaching is, of course, the notorious Vybz Kartel. Just take a look at the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. Last month, on a visit to Montserrat, I had a chat with a young man on his way to high school. He was listening to dancehall music on his phone. It turned out to be Kartel’s ‘Look pon me.’
The lyrics are quite alarming especially since Kartel makes ‘di gyal dem’ look rather foolish:
‘Di gyal dem love off mi brown cute face!
Di gyal dem love off mi bleach out face.’
That value judgment is bad enough. But it gets worse:
‘Gyal a ask if mi a American citizen!!
An she tell mi fi dash weh di condom because
She tell mi she wah get a pretty son!!’
Any sensible woman would know that skin bleaching cannot alter a man’s genetic structure. No matter how brown and cute Kartel’s face supposedly now is, there’s no guarantee he will father a ‘pretty’ son. It’s all in the genes; not the cake soap. And as for the assumption that the DJ must be an American! Another sad case of ‘foreign mind’ and ‘local body’, as the singer Little John put it so wittily.
Incidentally, there’s a radio station in New York that has banned Kartel’s songs for Black History month. It’s nothing but a gimmick. This is such a good example of what’s wrong with a single month of black history. Is it OK for Kartel to celebrate skin bleaching for the rest of the year?
‘Browning a come through’
More than a decade ago, students at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) at the University of West Indies, Mona did a research project on skin bleaching and produced a video with the theme “Love the Skin You’re In.”
The students hosted a screening in one of the communities they had investigated. In the lively panel discussion that followed, a DJ who had participated in the study conceded that bleaching was harmful and said he was planning to stop. But not right away: “Christmas a come an mi ha fi look good. Mi a go gwaan bleach. An when yu see mi ready fi go out, mi a go put on one long sleeve ganzie and wear mi cap. An dem wi tink a one browning a come through.” Not his exact words but close.
I was fascinated by this young man’s rather practical sense of seasonal brownness. He knew that being brown, however achieved, was not really an essential part of his identity. Like the bright lights that decorate the Christmas landscape, light skin was just a ‘bling’ fashion accessory that would give him added visibility.
If we really want to control the spread of the skin-bleaching virus, we first have to admit that there’s an epidemic of colour prejudice in our society. And we have to recognise the role of the media in maintaining lines of privilege and exclusion. Just look at the social pages!
That striking image of coming through reveals the DJ’s clear perception of the colour line as a barrier that he has to literally burst so that he can become socially visible. Like it or not, that’s a true picture of Jamaican society.