Ugly, Poor, Ignorant and Black!

On Christmas day, I got a blistering email from a man who was angered by my column, ‘Psssst! Hi Sexy!’ He wasn’t vexed because I’d written off out-of-order men who call out to women on the street. It was my “ugly message” coming the day before Kwanzaa. I hadn’t paid any attention to what he called the internalised racism of the fictional female character I’d quoted.

KwanzaaHighlighting colour and class, the woman dissed the gardener who pssssted her. As far as she was concerned, he was too ugly, poor, ignorant and black to be ‘looking’ her. Of course, I was not endorsing the woman’s words. As I said in the column, if the man hadn’t provoked her, she wouldn’t have had the chance to list what she considered to be all his limitations.

When I repeated that point in response to the email, I got a multiple-choice exam. Suppose the “general public” overheard this interrogation: “You have colour, you have education, you smart”? What assumption would be made about the person being questioned? It’s “A. a black person; B. a white person; C. a browning”.

I mischievously replied to say that some of my white friends tell me that white is not the ideal colour in Jamaica; it’s brown. So we could eliminate white right away. But I did take the man’s point: a black woman really should not be dissing a black man in this way. And I should have said that. So I decided to write a conciliatory column this week.

STEPPING UP IN LIFE

But I kept wondering if that angry woman was actually suffering from internalised racism. What if she simply knew the right buttons to push to let her unwanted suitor know how much she despised him? And, notice, she didn’t say ‘black and ugly’. The man’s ugliness was independent of his blackness.

change-and-planning-in-education-systems-and-social-mobility-25-638

And one could make a fairly good case for his ignorance. He didn’t know how the woman would react and he foolishly risked rejection by propositioning her. And why shouldn’t this woman want a man who is not poor? It’s about stepping up in life. And why can’t she express a preference for a man who is not black?

So many black men of all social classes in Jamaica have a clear preference for women who are not black. Do we automatically assume that they are suffering from “internalised racism”? Or is it that they always happen to fall in love with a particular woman who just happens to be not black?

What is good for the goose should be good for the gander. But I know my angry male reader would not buy that argument. In fact, this is what he said in another email: “No wonder the yute dem a bleach out if a ‘cultured’ person like yourself indirectly participate[s] in the transference of self-denigration”.

Let’s assume that this presumably black woman has, in fact, internalised racism. Where does this racism come from? Did she learn it in the womb? At home? At school? From the media? Where are the positive images of blackness in Jamaican society? Do a little experiment today and look at the pictures of the ideal Jamaican family in advertisements. It’s almost always a black man, a light-skinned woman, a black boy and a light-skinned girl.

There was a brief moment in the 1970s when black women were in fashion. White and near-white men married black women. It was a new style of trophy wife who proved that her husband was ‘right on’. Later in life, many of these men reverted to type, choosing wives that looked just like them. And some black men didn’t even pretend that they wanted black women as ‘trophy’ wives.

ON THE SHELF

Then there was a very facety response to the column posted on The Gleaner‘s website: “Most women your age have been on the shelf for years without any takers. They would give their eye tooth to have a man acknowledge them. Relish the attention my dear, it means that you still ‘got it goin on’.”

ageismTalk about ageism! So if you are an old woman you must feel flattered by the attention of strangers on the street. No matter what they say? I posted back, “Me have use fi my eye tooth”. Most women, on the shelf or not, don’t object on principle to a compliment from a well-intentioned man. We certainly know how to distinguish between a compliment and an insult.

The most elaborate compliment I’ve got on the street came from a security guard who was full of lyrics. He said to me, “Yu don’t have no sister”. It was more a statement than a question. I do have sisters but since there’s no law that says you must tell the truth to nosy strangers, I said no.

So here’s his response: “Mi know! Yu have di whole of dem shape”. Mi nearly dead wid laugh. All of the shapeliness of my potential sisters was compounded in me. How could you get vexed with a piece of lyrics like that? I thanked the nice gentleman for his compliment and kept moving. He graciously made no effort to detain me. Knowing how to compliment a woman has nothing to do with looks, social class, colour or education. It’s a gift!

Sound Clash In Uptown Ghetto

There was a time when dancehall DJs lived in downtown ghettoes. And they knew their place. No moving uptown into supposedly exclusive neighbourhoods and bringing their blasted noise to upset nice and decent people.

e9e42f745308002e26eb68a124cd5e2b-1Bob Marley was not a DJ but he was one of the first concrete-jungle musicians to break the ‘sound’ barrier. In 1975 he moved from Trench Town to 56 Hope Road, thanks to Chris Blackwell’s marketing savvy. Bob Marley was a star and needed an appropriate address. But he never abandoned Trench Town.

Four decades ago, Kingston 6 was definitely uptown. It wasn’t Norbrook. But still. These days, Norbrook is the preferred address for dancehall DJs. Some, like Sean-Paul, were born uptown. Others, like Mavado, the Gully God, made the big move, both physical and psychological, from the gullyside to the hillside.n

There’s a picture of Mavado’s house on the Internet with this freestyle caption: “This is what you called hard work first thing I just want to say thanks to the true and living God for my blessings and thanks to all my fans and please to keep supporting my music Gullyside one love”.

One man’s divine blessing is another’s demonic curse. Just imagine the outrage: “Lord, mi dear! Yu don’t see who just move in up the road? Nuh that DJ from across the gully bank! Is where him get money to buy house up here? I just don’t want the children exposed to that mentality”. Never mind that the children already know every single line of the DJ’s lyrics.

TOWNHOUSE SYNDROME

Once upon a time, you could buy protection from unwanted neighbours. Not anymore. Bob Marley completely understood the dicey nature of the real estate market. In “Bad Card”, he declares lyrical war:

“Oh, man, you said I’m in your place

And then you draw bad card

Ah mek you draw bad card”.

Marley launches a full-scale sonic assault:

“I want to disturb my neighbour

Cause I’m feeling so right

I want to turn up my disco

Blow them to full watts tonight

Inna rub-a-dub style”.

images-2If Marley’s neighbours on Hope Road wanted him to go back to where he came from, it wouldn’t be Trench Town. His origins were the wide, open spaces of rural Jamaica where noise is usually less of a nuisance than in congested cities. The same is true for Usain Bolt. And though he’s not a DJ, he seems just as unwelcome in Norbrook. Townhouses, unlike country houses, don’t give neighbours much breathing space.

It was the formidable journalist, Mrs. Barbara Gloudon, who first made the point about the way in which language reinforces social divisions between uptown and downtown. High-density housing in the inner city is scornfully described as ‘tenement yards’. Uptown, these yards become ‘gated communities’.

Obviously, there are differences between uptown and downtown tenement yards. Many uptown units are owned by residents, not rented as is usually the case in downtown yards. And uptown income levels uare much higher than downtown. There’s also more space between units in uptown tenement yards than downtown.

But conflict between neighbours, even in upscale communities, is sometimes caused by overcrowding.  You see it all the time. A single-family house on a big piece of land is knocked down. Soon, ten townhouses spring up. And that’s a conservative estimate.

Instead of say five people living in one house, there are now sixty or more squeezed up on what has become a relatively small lot. Uptown tenement yard! Or, ghetto, if you prefer. I don’t know how we got caught in the townhouse trap. I suppose it was the need for ‘security’. Proverbial wisdom promises that there’s safety in numbers. But there’s also a lot of contention.

I must admit I do have some sympathy for Jodi Stewart-Henriques. She’s suffering from townhouse syndrome. It’s a condition brought on by living so close to your neighbours that every little sound starts to get louder and louder. It gradually gets on your nerves. Eventually, even the flush of a toilet enrages you. Let alone loud music and dirt bikes. And you end up making unfortunate statements on social media about who should go back to where they came from.

NIGHT WORK

Jodi and Sean-Paul Henriques

Jodi and Sean-Paul Henriques

Fun and joke aside, I really do sympathise with Jodi. One of the serious noise issues that we’re not addressing is all-night construction work in residential neighbourhoods.

A couple of years ago, a house quite close to where I live was being renovated. Twenty-four hours, non-stop! There was the constant noise of drilling and hammering right through the night. One morning, at about 1:00 a.m., I just couldn’t take any more. So I went to speak to the workmen.

I got a good and proper tracing. One of them told me he was doing honest work and if he had come to beg me money I would have run him. He was right. He was an able-bodied man. I appealed to the architect, begging him to talk to the owners. They all acted as if they didn’t know night work was being done. And it continued without relief.

I complained to the police. That was a complete waste of time. Noise is a weapon that causes bodily harm. But that’s how it’s usually seen. We have to protect ourselves against invasive noise, no matter in which kind of tenement yard we live.