Last Sunday, I had a most peculiar conversation on the beach in Negril. I had gone to the Reggae Marathon as a spectator. As I was taking my early-morning walk, a man called out, “Hello! Good morning!” I returned the greeting. And kept walking. That was my first mistake. I should have stopped.
When I didn’t, the man followed me and aggressively said he was talking to me. So I paused. I wondered what he was selling. After all, this was Negril. He then asked if I wanted to go on boat ride. I politely refused his offer. As he walked away, he said, “Black people!”
I didn’t even bother to ask what he meant. It was such a lovely morning on that beautiful stretch of beach, I decided not to prolong the conversation. It could have got very ugly. The man’s angry body language suggested that “black people” was definitely intended as a term of abuse. And since he himself was black, I would have ended up in a big kas-kas about mental slavery.
As I moved on, I did start to wonder if, perhaps, I’d jumped to the wrong conclusion. Suppose all he’d meant was that he knows many black people can’t swim. And so I wouldn’t want to be going out on any boat ride with him. In my case, he would have been quite right. And, funnily enough, if he had said “Jamaican people”, I would have sympathised with him. We don’t always do well as dry-land tourists.
All the same, I felt I was trying too hard to give this man the benefit of the doubt. His “black people” throw-word seemed to compress a whole heap of frustration. And there was an implied contrast with “white people”. Unlike some black tourists, many white people are very adventurous. They go for boat rides even without life vests. And they know it’s their civic duty to patronise all the self-employed people who proposition them.
Black people, especially if we are not real-real tourists, don’t hand over our money easily. I got into idle conversation with another man on the beach who was selling fruit. A tiny sweetsop was US$2, a baby pineapple was US$6, and a very thin slice of melon was US$4. I told him those prices were very high. He patiently explained that none of the fruit was local. He had to pay a lot to bring them in. And he was very nice to me. He didn’t say, “Black people.”
KABAKA PYRAMID & VYBZ KARTEL
At the awards party after the marathon, as I was enjoying Kabaka Pyramid’s cool performance in the broiling sun, a man approached me from behind. He didn’t want to dance. He had come to reprimand me. I can’t remember his exact words, but it was something like this: “Is artistes like that you should promote instead of Vybz Kartel.”
Yu see mi dying trial! Why do Jamaican men feel entitled to tell women what to do? In any case, this man was not informed. I had invited Kabaka to speak at the University of the West Indies. He gave an excellent talk in a series earlier this year that opened with Jimmy Cliff and closed with King Jammy. In-between, there was IbaMahr, Notis (Wayne ‘Unga’ Thompson and Jason ‘Big Bass’ Welsh) and Chronixx.
When I asked my disciplinarian if he had listened to any of Kartel’s lyrics, his response was, “I can’t get past the bleaching.” The man’s mind was closed. He couldn’t distinguish between the message and the messenger. I suppose he would have dismissed Kartel’s intriguing explanation for his skin bleaching which he gave at his infamous UWI lecture:
“Many people talk about Garveyism, black pride, etc. I have no problem with black pride and I can assure you that my skin alteration has nothing to do with self-hate or opposition to blackness and Garveyism … . I maintain that bleaching now doesn’t mean the same as bleaching 25 years ago. Today, we are a much prouder race who know that we can do what we want as far as style is concerned. We dictate styles and regard them as just that. Styles.”
Not everyone will be persuaded by Kartel’s argument about style. But it is true that people do all sorts of dangerous things in the name of style and fashion. And bleaching comes in all shades.
Uptown bleachers call it toning, brightening, clarifying, etc. Their products may be different from what’s downtown. But the intention and effect are more or less the same. And, for all he knows, that man who couldn’t bring himself to listen to Kartel’s lyrics because of the bleaching may very well be living with a woman who is toning.
Dr Petra Robinson, a Jamaican educator, completed her PhD dissertation on ‘Skin Bleaching In Jamaica: A Colonial Legacy’ at Texas A&M University in 2011. She highlights the fact that skin bleaching is a global issue. She quotes a Japanese proverb, “White skin makes up for seven defects.”
Dr Robinson’s brilliant dissertation should be published. And it ought to be required reading in all Jamaican schools. The conversation about colour and identity in Jamaica must be continued in the home, in school and in the media. It can’t be left on the beach in Negril.