The Colour of Money in Multiracial Jamaica

On a flight from Miami several years ago, I sat next to a little girl who seemed to about 10 or so years of age.  She was looking through a magazine and came across a picture of three little girls – black, white and brown.  I mischievously asked her, “Which one of them looks like you?”  She picked the black child.

I then asked her, “Which one do you look like?”  And, believe it or not, she chose the brown child.  Mi nearly dead.  I wondered if she had misunderstood.  After all, it was a kind of trick question I was asking her about racial identity.  But no, she did understand.  As far as she was concerned, the black girl looked like her but she did not look like the black girl.  And, in a funny way, it made perfectly good sense.  It’s OK for the black girl to look like her; but not for her to look like the black girl.

  So who is responsible for this crazy conundrum?  Was this just an exceptional case of a little child confused by the fool-fool questions of a nosy adult? Or were the little girl’s curious answers a sign of our collective paranoia about race in Jamaica?  How does our national motto complexify the problem, as the Americans say?  Oh, yes!  If you can simplify, it’s perfectly logical to complexify.

Skewed against blackness

In 1969, a two-dollar bill was issued when Jamaica changed from sterling currency.  Two Jamaican dollars then had real value, worthy of the paper on which the note was printed.  These days, two dala kyaan buy notn.  The bill is no longer in circulation.  It’s been replaced by practically worthless coins.

On the back of the two-dollar bank note, there was a now-famous photograph of 11 children who were supposed to illustrate the national motto.  These same children, frozen in time, have reappeared to grace the back of the 2012 commemorative bank notes.  Of course, I have nothing against these innocent children, now hard-back adults.  What fascinates me is the racial ideology of the times that resulted in a distorted representation of the face of Jamaica. Regrettably, that legacy lives on.

The obvious problem with that lingering ‘Out of Many, One People’ photograph is that it’s skewed against blackness.  If you were to stage a photograph today that accurately represents the distribution of the races in Jamaica, you would have to have at least one hundred children in the sample. That’s the only way you could get a whole Chinese, Indian and white child in the frame. You would end up with 90 black children, 7 mixed-race, 1 Chinese, 1 Indian and 1 white.  Quite a different picture!

Randomly selected?

A Flair Magazine article published on August 7, 2000 tells the story of the snapshot of the ‘two-dollar’ children:  “Eleven boys and girls from Central Branch Primary on Slipe Pen Road, were randomly selected for the picture.

Of the eleven, four are Blacks, one Chinese and one of Chinese and Black mixture. Three are Indians or of Indian and Black ancestry and two appear to be White or Syrian in descent”.

Randomly selected?  Hardly likely.  Jamaica is not Trinidad and Tobago.  I would bet my last dollar that a random selection of students at the Central Branch Primary School, even in 1961 when the photo was taken, would look quite different from this colour-coordinated cluster.  They would be much more uniformly black, as in the photograph of the children on the huge commemorative banner now outside the gates of Jamaica House.

The anonymous author of the Flair article does disclose that the students were not randomly selected after all: “Former principal of the school, Mrs. Elorine Walker said that when she got the request for the students, she had no idea what the picture would be used for, but had hand-picked a few students for the occasion”.

Passing for Black

Hand-picking continues today in our advertising industry.  But it really doesn’t bother me too much if private-sector firms handpick exclusively ‘Out of Many, One’ models to advertise their products and services.  All that means is that they don’t expect me to patronise them.  But when public-sector entities discriminate against black people in their advertising, that’s a whole other business.

Almost 17 years ago, I wrote a column on Air Jamaica’s infamous ‘Out of Many, One People’ billboard which featured a grouping of eight children who looked even less representative than those on the two-dollar note. My immediate reaction was, ‘But them don’t have any black children in this picture!’  I called Air Jamaica’s public-relations department and got the name of the agency that had developed the ad.

I was invited to have a look at the artwork that had been sent to the manufacturer of the billboard.  To be fair, two of the eight children could pass for black.  Just barely.  But by the time the image got transferred to the billboard format, the melanin had been bleached out of them.  All eight children had blended into out-of-oneness.  And the problem was much bigger than Air Jamaica.

The original photograph had come from the Jamaica Tourist Board.  Whose conception of Jamaican identity resulted in the decision to market our country in this colour-coded way?  Why are we still rubbing out black people from the big picture?  Or, at best, downplaying blackness?  Which Jamaica are we selling?  And who to?

No wonder that little girl sitting next to me on the flight from Miami couldn’t see herself as black. Her self-concept was quite high in Jamaican terms, however delusional.  She had already learned that being brown was better than being black. And our advertising industry keeps on reinforcing that point. If we’re not careful, black identity in Jamaica will go the way of the two-dollar bill.

Men Who Sing While Women Take Charge

I try to keep reminding myself that Robert Mugabe was once a towering figure in the epic anti-colonial wars on the African continent.  These days, it’s so easy to dismiss him as a very senior citizen who really ought to withdraw from public life.  Mark you I’m not saying Mugabe is senile.  But we shouldn’t ‘nyam up’ ourselves so much over his provocative generalisations about gender politics in Jamaica.  After all, Mugabe today is not his finest self.

In the 1920s when Robert Mugabe was growing up in what was then Southern Rhodesia, he was destined to become an obedient Catholic.  His parents raised him in the faith and he attended Kutama College, an all-boys high school run by Jesuit priests.  But Mugabe did not take refuge in religion. He became a man of the world.

Kwame Nkrumah

After graduating in 1951 with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, he became a lecturer at a Teacher Training College in Zambia. Mugabe then went to teach in Ghana where the pPortian-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah was prime minister.

Fired up by the radicalism of the times, Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1960 and became a member of the National Democratic Party (NDP).  Led by Joshua Nkomo, the NDP was later rebranded as the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).

Mugabe and Nkomo

In 1963 a rival liberation movement emerged: the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).  Mugabe joined ZANU and was arrested in 1964 and detained indefinitely when both parties were banned by Prime Minister Ian Smith’s white racist regime.  While in prison, Mugabe took several correspondence courses, earning more degrees from London University. In 1974, shortly before he was released, he was elected as leader of ZANU.  By 1980, Mugabe was prime minister of the new nation Zimbabwe.

Mugabe sings a different tune

As is now well known, Bob Marley was invited to chant down Babylon at the independence celebrations.  His song Zimbabwe had inspired freedom fighters. I suppose Mugabe had no problems then with men who sing for a living.

Natty Dread it inna Zimbabwe

Set it up in Zimbabwe

Mash it up-a inna Zimbabwe

Africans a liberate (Zimbabwe), yeah.

No more internal power struggle;

We come together to overcome the little trouble.

Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary,

‘Cause I don’t want my people to be contrary.

Three decades later, contrary Mugabe is singing a quite different tune.  His irrational attack on Jamaican men who supposedly sing, smoke and drink themselves into unconsciousness seems completely childish.  And the charge can be easily dismissed.  It’s simply not true.  The vast majority of Jamaican men are not dysfunctional.

Yes, Bob Marley did sing and he smoked a considerable amount of ganja in his time, but the holy herb does not appear to have harmed him.  In fact, many artists claim that herb heightens their awareness and creativity, making them ‘sight’ wisdom that they might not ordinarily ‘vision’.  True, some people’s head cannot manage ganja and they go off the deep end.   In exactly the same way, some people’s head cannot manage alcohol – a legal drug – and they also lose their way.

Cooking books

Quite frankly, what is even more troubling is Mugabe’s attack on Jamaican women.  It’s the same old sankey.  High-achieving women are to be blamed for the failures of men.  We constantly conspire to make young women feel that their success is at the price of their male peers.  We do not focus on the many ways in which our school system consistently fails to address the learning styles of boys.

Tsitsi Dangarembga

Robert Mugabe is the product of a fiercely patriarchal culture in which women still struggle to be educated.  One of the novels I’m teaching this semester is set in Zimbabwe.  It’s Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga.  Incidentally, I didn’t have to resort to sexy advertising to sell the African/Diaspora Women Writers course this year. It filled from the get go:  residual benefits of my marketing strategy.

Tambu, the central character in Nervous Conditions, is discouraged from going to school by her father.  He asks her a most vexing question:  “‘Can you cook books and feed them to your husband?  Stay at home with your mother.  Learn to cook and clean.  Grow vegetables.’”  With the reluctant support of her mother, Tambu plants maize in order to earn her school fees.

She describes her mother’s ambivalence in this way:  “I think my mother admired my tenacity, and also felt sorry for me because of it.  She began to prepare me for disappointment long before I would have been forced to face up to it.  To prepare me she began to discourage me. “‘And do you think you are so different, so much better than the rest of us?  Accept your lot and enjoy what you can of it’”.

Portia Simpson Miller

When Robert Mugabe looks at Jamaica what he sees is a woman who has taken charge as prime minister.  Portia Simpson Miller is a tenacious woman, like Tambu, who refused to accept her lot in life as a poor black girl destined for domestic service.  Cooking is a vital job, not to be dissed.  But men can cook just as well as women if they put their mind to it.  Just think of all those male chefs who have made a very good living from cooking up a storm.  Their meals are a great pleasure – just like a fine song.  Put that in your pipe, Mr. Mugabe, and smoke it!

Addicted to Salt Fish

One of my favourite calypsoes is the Mighty Sparrow’s pungent tribute to salt fish.  The distinctive flavour of this delicacy makes the calypsonian salivate in verse after tasty verse.  And we all know that the fleshy salt fish over which the singer’s sensitive tongue playfully lingers is not to be taken literally.  Well, not entirely so.  That’s what makes the salty lyrics so sweet.

I have no problems with Sparrow’s celebration of the pleasures of savouring figurative salt fish.  In fact, he must be applauded for bringing into the open, so to speak, a subject that is often concealed in the kitchen cabinet.  Caribbean men love to eat certain kinds of salt fish in private – though some of them would never admit it in public.

What does bother me is our cut and dried addiction to salt fish of the literal kind.  All through the Caribbean – Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, right around the arc of islands to Aruba – salt fish is in our blood.  And it’s a provoking irony of history that salted cod, which was brought to the Caribbean as cheap food for enslaved Africans, has now stepped up in life.

‘One People’ documentary

A couple of Saturdays ago, on my regular market run to Papine, I went to Ras Hopeton’s cookshop to see if he had any fritters that had just come out of the frying pan.  I like my fritters crisp and hot.  Ras Hopeton’s shop is beautifully decorated with Ethiopian/Rastafari flags.  There are pictures of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I and the equally imperial Marcus Garvey. Empress Mennen and Prince Immanuel are there, as well as Queen Ifrica.  On a more mundane level, Red Rose tea, Wrigley’s and Pepsi signs are very much in evidence.

Hellshire before sand erosion

I was quite disappointed when Ras Hopeton told me he’s stopped selling fritters.  At $450.00 per pound, salt fish is just too expensive.  So now he’s doing only dumplings.  I questioned his decision, pointing out the big difference between the price of the dumplings – $25.00 and the fritters – $70.00.  His profit margin would be much higher from throwing in a little salt fish.  In any case, I really couldn’t buy ‘so-so’ fried flour. It’s not as if I was at Hellshire eating festival, along with one of Aunt Merle’s fat parrot fish.

Robbed of my fritters fix, I started to contemplate the culinary legacy of transatlantic slavery.  If that sounds too highfalutin, let me put it another way.  Why is ackee and saltfish our unofficial national dish?  On Independence day, as I watched the One People documentary, produced by Justine Henzell and Zachary Harding, I was amused to see how many people said their favourite Jamaican dish is ackee and saltfish: Donald Quarrie, Beverly Anderson Duncan, Mutabaruka, General Colin Powell, Sean Paul, Ainsley Henriques, Romain Virgo, Jack Scorpio, Constance White and Cliff Hughes.  Elephant Man was one of the exceptions with his mouth-watering description of roasted yam cut in two, pasted with chiffon butter and topped with roasted salt fish.  For Michael Lee Chin, it’s mackerel run down.

Import substitution

The ackee in the popular national dish is an appropriate enough symbol.  According to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, the ackee plant “was brought here in a Slave Ship from the Coast of Africa, and now grows very luxuriant, producing every year large quantities of fruit”.  The ackee was introduced around 1778 and it has certainly taken root in Jamaica.  Ackee also migrated to the Eastern Caribbean but it’s not usually eaten there.

The salt fish in our unofficial national dish is another story.  Unlike the ackee which has become totally Jamaican, imported saltfish is a symbol of our continued dependence on foreign goods and services.  Surrounded by a sea of fish, we still believe that Canadian cod or, more recently, Norwegian salt fish is the ideal complement to ackee.

One of the best policies advocated by the democratic socialists of the 1970s was import substitution.  I know I’m going to be accused of glamourising a period of Jamaican history that so many people feel was the closest thing to hell, thanks to Michael Manley.  Supermarkets practically empty of foreign foods!

But import substitution wasn’t just a matter of deprivation.  It was an opportunity for us to experiment with local raw materials and create new products.  Since we’re so stuck on ackee and saltfish, why haven’t we come up with a high quality local alternative to imported cod?

Culinary slavery

Just like our CARICOM partners in the Eastern Caribbean who don’t eat ackee, we are missing out on perfectly good local foods simply because we’re afraid to experiment. For example, the purple flower of the banana plant is edible.  I’ve seen it on sale in Asian grocery stores in London.  And the leaves of the sweet potato plant can be cooked down like calaloo.  Quite a few years ago, on a research visit to the Fiji campus of the University of the South Pacific, I discovered curried green jackfruit.  It’s absolutely delicious.

I think the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI) needs to do a global audit of food items from other tropical countries that are readily available in Jamaica and which we’re wasting simply because we don’t know their full value. I know it’s a real challenge to re-educate one’s taste buds.  Food culture is harder to change than ideology.  I get vexed with myself every time I buy an expensive piece of imported salt fish.  Fresh fish is just about the same price, if not a bit cheaper.  But I’m a victim of history.  Still, I’m trying to emancipate myself from culinary slavery.

Honouring Queen Mother Mariamne Samad

Mariamne Samad named herself after a woman who was stoned to death. As a child, she’d read a book of Bible stories which told the tale of Mariamne, the second wife of King Herod. As she remembers it, Herod’s son by his first wife, Doris, accused his stepmother of adultery. Confronted by Herod, Mariamne fearlessly stood her ground, proclaiming her innocence. She was put to death all the same.

Wikipedia gives a much more elaborate version of the story in which men fighting for power used women as pawns. Herod married Mariamne, the niece of his rival Antigonus, “in an attempt to secure a claim to the throne”. He banished his first wife and their three-year-old son. No wonder the boy was ‘carrying feelings’ against his stepmother.

King Herod

To cut a very long story short, Herod was so obsessed with Mariamne’s beauty he gave instructions that if his wife outlived him, she was to be killed. He did not want her to remarry. Naturally, Mariamne was not amused. Once she discovered Herod’s madness, which she certainly did not see as love, she refused to have sex with him. Herod’s mother and sister saw the falling out as opportunity to get rid of Mariamne. They accused her of plotting to poison her husband. She was convicted and executed.


Like her formidable namesake, Queen Mother Mariamne Samad is a fearless woman who has long stood her ground. On the 1st of September, she celebrated her 90th birthday. Earlier that week, we had a very long chat as she related some of the high points of her life. I was amazed at the ease with which she can recall events from more than half a century ago. Her short-term memory is just as intact.

Mariamne Samad, formerly Muriel Allman, was born in Harlem Hospital in 1922 to Alice Allman, née Brooks, and George Allman, a gold miner from Guyana. Her parents met while listening to Marcus Garvey speaking on a street corner in Harlem. Muriel’s parents became ardent Garveyites and raised their daughter in keeping with Garvey’s philosophy and practice of self-reliance.

Muriel met her husband-to-be, Clarence Thomas, when she was only 14 years of age. She was a member of the Garvey Legion and he was a stern leader of the children. Three years later, they were married. As she put it, “Most of my peers went into factory work, but I went into marriage.” Some cynics may not see the difference as clearly as Muriel did.


Three months after their marriage, Muriel discovered that Clarence was a Muslim. She was an agnostic, like her father. Clarence wanted them to change their names, but Muriel refused. She didn’t want “all that foreign stuff”. Clarence, to his credit, didn’t insist. By then, he must have realised that Muriel was no walkover. In fact, she was quite feisty.  She once teasingly accused him of being a ‘predator’ for snatching her from the proverbial cradle.

It was a near-death experience that forced Muriel to agree that the whole family should adopt Muslim names. In a case of mistaken identity, their son Teddy was almost murdered by a gang of youth who came looking for another Teddy Thomas. It was a five-year-old boy who persuaded them that they had the wrong Teddy Thomas. Teddy soon became Sayeed.

The imam who was presiding over the renaming ceremony had recommended Maryam for Muriel. But she didn’t like the Mary bit and chose Mariamne instead. And Clarence Thomas became Abdul Samad. Reborn in America, Clarence had been born in Jamaica. In 1965, Mariamne Samad came to see what her husband’s country was all about.

Commodore Hotel

The Samads had been part of the Federation movement in New York. Mariamne remembers meeting Norman Manley at a grand reception at the Commodore hotel on 42nd Street. He touched her Garvey button, which she always wore, and said, “He was a great man.” Surprised, she responded, “What? From you?” To which Manley replied, “I was just doing my job.”


When Independence followed the collapse of the West Indies Federation, Mariamne welcomed the birth of ‘a new black nation in the West’. But Jamaicans weren’t ready to be black. Mariamne’s daughter, Sayeeda, came to Jamaica to take part in the Independence celebrations. She had a Miriam Makeba hairstyle and people just laughed at her. It was Sonny Bradshaw and his Big Band who embraced her, giving her an opportunity to perform with them.

SEs Mariamne Samad’s own mother-in-law, Imogene, was quite upset by her son’s choice of wife. She is alleged to have said, “I don’t mind Clarence marrying an American. But why he has to marry this black one and she don’t have tall hair?”

When she found out what ‘tall’ hair meant, Mariamne was quite unfazed. At the time, she had an Afro, dyed a beautiful rust colour. And she always wore African clothes. In fact, she’s credited for introducing the dashiki as an African-American fashion statement.

Sister Samad has spent most of her life as a Black Power activist. In New York, she established the Sankore Nubian Study School on Garveyism and was frequently invited to teach African history and Garveyism in the New York public-school system.

Now resident in Jamaica for more than three decades, Sister Samad still continues to teach and live Garveyism. During Heritage Week in October 1999, she was installed as Queen Mother in a grand ceremony that acknowledged her role as an exemplary female elder. Much earlier, in the 1970s, she was similarly honoured in Ghana.

Regretfully, Sister Mariamne Samad has long outlived her husband. Unlike Herod, Brother Abdul was not foolish enough to have plotted his wife’s death. He knew better than that. His Mariamne had to stay alive to sustain their life work: honouring the legacy of Marcus Garvey.