The Ambivalence of Race in Jamaica
Your Excellency, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good evening. I consider it an honour to have been asked by Doctor Carolyn Cooper to give the inaugural lecture at the launch of the Global Reggae Studies Centre.
When I am in Jamaica I sometimes listen To Perkins On Line on the radio. A few days before Christmas I tuned in just in time to hear a caller berate a previous caller for talking nonsense about Africans. I have no idea what the previous caller had said. The programme’s host, Joan Williams, who was sitting in for Mr. Perkins, defended the previous caller, saying that the Africans she had met didn’t like Jamaicans who they regarded as mere descendants of slaves. The caller talked about Jamaica’s African heritage, invoked the name of Marcus Garvey, and mentioned a recent visit to Jamaica by an African head of state. Ms. Williams was having none of it. She declared that she was Jamaican, not African (as if ethnicity and nationality were the same thing); that she could not say what race she belonged to as she was too ‘mix-up’; and, furthermore, that Africans had sold us into slavery. And that was that. I must say that I was a little taken aback by how tersely the caller was dealt with by Ms. Williams.
Around the same time, just before Christmas, my sister gave me a Scotia Bank calendar for 2010, with a nice picture of on the cover of a handsome blonde-haired, blue-eyed white boy and a pretty black girl with their arms around each other. The calendar is beautifully presented with lovely photographs which attempt to visually portray Jamaica’s national motto: ‘out of many one people’. The English, Irish, German, Jew, Portuguese, Taino, African, Syrian, Lebanese, Indian, Chinese and Spanish are all represented. But the Welsh are not. After leafing through the calendar, the thought crossed my mind that if I was an outsider who knew nothing of Jamaica I would not have guessed that the country is over 90 percent black.
While I have been here in Jamaica, I have been reading Andrea Levy’s brilliant new novel, ‘The Long Song’. Set in Jamaica in the period preceding and after the abolition of slavery, ‘The Long Song’ chronicles the life of July, a girl born into slavery. I would like to share two brief extracts with you.
“ The tar brush, reader, is quick to lick. For a mulatto with a negro, or a quadroon with a sambo, will produce the misfortune of a retrograde child. And that dusky offspring will be sent nowhere but spinning back down to sup with the niggers in the fields. A mulatto with a mulatto, or a quadroon with a quadroon, will find you suckling a ‘Tente-en-el-aire’ – a suspended child. They will neither lift forward to white, nor drop back to negro.
Only a with a white can, can there be guarantee that the colour of your pickney will be raised. For a mulatto who breeds with a white man will bring forth a quadroon; and the quadroon that enjoys white relations will give to this world a mustee; the mustee; the mustee will beget a mustiphino; and themustiphino … oh, the mustiphino’s child with a white man for a papa, will find each day greets them no longer with a frown, but welcomes them with a smile, as they stride within this world as a cherished white person.” (pages 186 & 187)
“ When the watchman’s stone hut at the gate of Amity appeared in the near distance, July longed to assure this white man, before they parted that she was not a rough negro. No. She was a mulatto. Even though he may see her skin to be a shade too dusky, she wished him the comfort of knowing that she was not a nigger’s pickney, nut a white man’s child. So she breached that silence she had so hard determined to keep by saying, ‘Massa, you ever been Scotch Land?’ ‘Scotland?’ Robert Goodwin enquired with some puzzlement. ‘No, but I’ve heard it is very beautiful. But why do you ask?’ ‘Me papa be from Scotch Land’, July was pleased to be able to inform him. ‘Your father was a Scotch man?’ ‘Oh yes, he be from Scotch Land’ ‘Your father was a white man?’ ‘Oh yes. Me be a mulatto, not a negro.’ ‘A mulatto?’ ‘Yes, mulatto. You must not think me a nigger, for me is mulatto.’” (page 198)
Rigorously researched, ‘The Long Song’ credibly depicts a period of turbulence in Jamaica’s troubled history, and its impact on plantation life in this historical novel. And although Levy’s book is fiction, it nevertheless offers historical context to the Perkins On Line conversation and the Scotia Bank calendar for 2010. Ms. Williams clearly has a point about being racially mixed; and the Scotia Bank calendar accurately represents the multi- racial nature of Jamaican society. But both point to a persistent ambivalence about race in Jamaica which Andrea Levy’s novel dissects.
Notwithstanding useful sociological concepts like pluralism with notions of compartmentalisation, concepts like creolisation and hybridity, the fact is that race is an important dimension of Jamaican society and culture. It could be argued that our national motto is but a fig-leaf masking unpalatable truths – what Rex Nettleford would probably dub ‘obscenities’- about the nature of social relations in this country. It seems to me that official society is in denial about the politics of race in Jamaica, a denial that Mervyn Morris would probably describe as ‘almost pathological’. Moreover, it seems to me that although Jamaica has come a long way in coming to terms with the multi-faceted nature of our historical heritage, we still have a long way to go in the decolonisation of the mind.
However, ladies and gentlemen, that is not the topic of my talk per se. My topic is African Consciousness in Reggae Music and I intend to focus on lyrical expressions.
(Opening remarks to a lecture on January 3rd 2010 at the Global Reggae Studies launch at Villa Ronai, Stony Hill, Jamaica.)