Skin Bleaching Easy As Cheese

Grace Jones Outlook magazine

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.

Face card

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.

From Urban Islandz site

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.


Whose Black History Month?

So we’re celebrating Black History Month again. Like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, Black History Month is yet another commodity we’ve imported from the United States. As Saundrie-Kay, a graduate student in history at the University of the West Indies, Mona, puts it so passionately, “From Black History Month start, a pure Martin Luther King mi a si pan my TV, enuh. Mi nah si nuh Marcus Garvey. Mi wanda a wah a gwaan enuh.”

What is ‘gwaaning’ is that it’s much easier for Jamaican society to acknowledge black history at a distance than close up. If we were really serious about excavating our own history, we would start asking ourselves all kinds of difficult questions like, “How come Jamaica’s national motto is ‘Out of Many, One People’?” On the face of it, we’re a nation of black people with a small percentage of ethnic minorities. But not in the eyes of those who conceived the motto.

You see how ‘real-real’ Jamaican black history would get us ‘inna prekeh!’ Certain ‘Out of Many, One’ people might get vexed and start demanding to know if they are not genuine Jamaicans too. Of course, they are. But they are not all that many.

They Came Before Columbus

A single month of black history is certainly not an adequate substitute for what we really need: the integration of black people’s history into the official narratives of the societies in which we find ourselves all across the globe. Indeed, black history is not just for black people. It’s world history.

Many of us still don’t know, for example, that Africans came to the Americas before Columbus. Ivan Van Sertima, a linguist and anthropologist from Guyana, wrote a brilliant book on the subject, which was published in 1976. Its subtitle is ‘The African Presence in Ancient America’. In the introduction, he tells an exciting story:

“I came across three volumes in the private library of a Princeton professor. They had been published half a century ago and their title fascinated me – ‘Africa and the Discovery of the Americas’. They represented a lifetime of dedicated scholarship by Harvard linguist Leo Wiener. Professor Wiener had been working on a grammar of American languages in the early years of this century when he stumbled upon a body of linguistic phenomena that indicated clearly to him the presence of an African and Arabic influence on some medieval Mexican and South American languages before the European contact period.”

‘Whole heap a mix-up mix-up’

But it’s not only academics who contest the myth of European ‘discovery’ of the Americas. The singers and players of instruments also tell their musical version of the truth. This semester, I’m teaching an innovative course, ‘Reggae Poetry’, in which we analyse song lyrics as literary texts.

We go right back to the roots of poetry in song. The word ‘lyric’ comes from the Greek word ‘lyre’, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a stringed instrument of the harp kind, used by the Greeks for accompanying song and recitation”. Over time, the medium became the message and the name of the instrument was transferred to words of song.

One of the songwriters we’re studying is Winston ‘Burning Spear’ Rodney. A recurring theme in his repertoire is revisionist history. In ‘Columbus’, Spear rewrites the grand narrative of European conquest in a few vivid lines:

I and I all I know

I and I all I say

I and I reconsider

I and I see upfully that

Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar

Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar

Ah, yes, Jah, he’s a liar

He say that he is the first one

Who discover Jamaica

I and I say that

What about the Arawak Indians and the few black man

Who were down here, before him?

Burning Spear knows that Africans explored the Americas before Columbus. Having reconsidered the fraudulent colonialist history he’s been taught, Spear comes to this logical conclusion:

“A wat a whole heap a mix-up mix-up

A whole heap a ben-up, ben-up

Go ha fi straighten out!”


What difference could it make to African-Jamaican children to discover that their ancestors came to the Americas not only as enslaved beasts of burden but as mapmakers, explorers, engineers, architects, linguists, poets – the whole range of human capacities? Could it mean that they would no longer need to bleach their skin, vainly trying to erase the marks of servitude?

Last week, a talented young singer and songwriter, Cen’C Love, launched her first CD, Love Letters. She’s the daughter of Bunny Wailer and Afrocentric fashion designer Millie ‘Sequoia’ David. In the spirit of the black-heart man, Cen’C chants down the lies the media tell our children and she bewails the failure of parents to teach self-love:

Cen'C Love

The girl skin black and pretty ’til she reach sixteen

Find out bout the magic of the bleaching cream

Mama never teach her seh black is power

The system always show her seh black man lower

And the tell-lie-vision – pure light skin and horse hair

So she buy the weave and try fi get her skin more fair

You’re so much more than that.

Black history is so much more than a month of Martin Luther King. In Jamaica, it must mean emancipation from the twisted lies we tell ourselves about our society. And parents can’t leave it to the media to teach the children the truth. Our entire educational system must take on the responsibility of straightening out the ‘ben-up ben-up’ history we have inherited from our colonisers.