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  It’s been replaced by practically worthless coins.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.

Flying on the ‘Duppy’ Airline

Once upon a time, our national airline was branded as ‘the little piece of Jamaica that flies’. These days, it’s the piece of Jamaica that has flown into the eager arms of Caribbean Airlines. Yes, I know we’re supposed to be celebrating the merger as a happy marriage. This is regional integration at its best, we’re told.

But I can’t help feeling that this arranged marriage is not an act of pure love. Air Jamaica appears to have been sold off as an unattractive, pauperised bride. And her father – not ‘Butch’ Stewart, but all of us taxpayers – have had to fork over a rather high dowry to Caribbean Airlines for the privilege of taking her off our hands.

I used to be a devoted Air Jamaica customer. The airline completely understood the Jamaican psyche. It accommodated all of our bag and baggage. Air Jamaica is the only airline I know that took head luggage and finger luggage. I once saw a woman on a flight with about five hats on her head. And so many of us took on-board so many more bags than the regulation one piece of hand luggage! We obviously had decided that these extra bags were quite legitimate finger luggage.

My loyalty to Air Jamaica didn’t blind me to the many failures of the carrier – though I must say straight off that the airline’s safety record has been impeccable. That’s the most important thing. And no other pilot in the world can land a plane more gently than an Air Jamaica aviator.  The recent crash of the Caribbean Airlines plane in Guyana is instructive:

It was the hauling and pulling, particularly during peak holiday seasons, that taxed the loyalty of even the most faithful Air Jamaica passenger. One Christmas, after being ‘batter-bruised’ by excruciatingly long delays, my sister, Donnette, came up with a wicked analogy to vent her frustration.

Flying with Air Jamaica was like being in a relationship with an abusive man. You stay because you are so committed to the idea of commitment. You become a co-dependent. Now that Air Jamaica no longer flies to Baltimore/Washington, my sister has been unwillingly emancipated.

‘Dig-out-eye’ season

Last month, as I tried to get a flight to DC, I was forced to consider the alternative carriers. My first ‘choice’ was American Airlines. They now have the monopoly on the best routes out of Kingston.  But they do not have a monopoly on safety.  Like that Caribbean Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane that overshot the runway, an American Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash-landed in Kingston almost two years ago in similar rainy circumstances:

Because I was booking late, the American Airlines fares were extortionate. I hadn’t realised that summer is ‘dig-out-eye’ season and I was not prepared to pay over US$1,200 for an economy-class ticket. So I was forced to contemplate the brave new world of ‘cheap’ air travel.

I first tried AirTran and got a quite decent fare from MoBay to DC and back to Miami. But I couldn’t understand why the fare from Miami to MoBay was almost double that of the entire outward route. Guess why? The return flight was via Chicago! So that was the end of that.

I next checked out Spirit, the notoriously cheap airline. I had never flown with them, but I knew their reputation. One of my friends, who owns a nursing agency in Maryland, tried to get a Jamaican employee to take a flight on Spirit. The woman turned up her nose and imperiously declared, “Mi naa fly pon no duppy airline.” The casual wit of so-called ‘ordinary’ Jamaican people is remarkable.

I decided to take my chance on the ‘duppy’ airline. I was going to DC for several reasons. Indigo, a seductive book written by one of my former students, Catherine McKinley, was going to be launched at the Smithsonian and I wanted to be there to celebrate the occasion. Catherine had come to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, in 1987 as an exchange student from Sarah Lawrence College and her talent was obvious even then. Catherine lovingly documents the meandering story of one of the world’s most valued pigments, the bluest of blues.

My friend Beverley East, who offers creative-writing workshops in her ‘Writer’s Lounge’ in DC, was hosting a book party for Catherine and asked me to introduce her. Beverley is a much-in-demand graphologist who wrote the best-selling Finding Mr Write: A New Slant on Selecting the Perfect Mate. She’s also the author of Reaper of Souls, a novel based on the Kendal crash in which several members of her family perished.

Discovering Rastafari

I was also going to participate in a round-table discussion on ‘Discovering Rastafari!’, an exhibition which has been mounted at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum for the last four years.

Curated by resident anthropologist Jake Homiak, the Discovering Rastafari! exhibition has attracted huge crowds. Dr Jahlani Niaah, a UWI colleague who is on a fellowship at the Smithsonian, completing his book on Rastafari masculinities, had invited me to the round table.

Quite frankly, I was one of the naysayers who had objected to the curator’s use of the exclamatory ‘discovering’. It imaged that presumptuous fiction of finding the peoples of the Americas who were not lost, like Columbus. It also turned Rastafari into exotic creatures on display. We didn’t manage to have the formal conversation Jahlani had planned; but I did revisit the exhibition.

I also wanted to stop over in Fort Lauderdale for a family reunion. My paternal grandmother was a Dowdie, and the clan was gathering there. So I needed to make a multi-city booking. But because Spirit doesn’t offer that option online, I had to speak to an agent. I discovered that some of them specialise in misinformation. And that’s just the start of a rather long tale of woe. Suffice it to say, I took my maiden voyage on the ‘duppy’ airline and the spirits rode me all night.