And because high school boys had learned the habit of addressing each other and identifying themselves by their surnames, he has carried this into adulthood. He will often introduce himself simply as ‘Brown’. ‘Good evening,’ he might say, ‘I am Brown.’ And this has become a sort of unwitting joke – for the word ‘brown’ on the island signified something more than just a name, but a sort of ethnicity, a mulatto-ness if you will. ‘Brown by name and nature, I see!’ is a rejoinder with which Sebastian Brown has become all too familiar. These days he even anticipates it, but is generous enough to smile each time, as if he is hearing the witticism for the first time.
When he is alone, as he is now, Mr Brown likes to think about his ‘brownness’ though he does not share these thoughts with anyone. He learned a long time ago – from his days in college – that to share one’s thoughts can be dangerous. And in any case he is not an argumentative man, nor the kind who takes much pleasure in bringing people around to his way of seeing things. It is satisfaction enough for him to live with a thought, even for years, slowly peeling away at its levels of complexity. Many evenings you will find him here – silent on the verandah that overlooks the city of Kingston, sitting with a bottle of Red Stripe, and with his thoughts.
Having travelled around the world, Mr Brown has come to the conclusion that he is a man of indeterminable race. He has seen the look of confusion on people’s faces – a confusion that gives way even to an annoyance. It is as if people believe it is his own duplicitousness, his own guile and cunning that make him not reveal his true racial self to them. He wonders if such people believe that if they only knew what exactly he was, that they would then know everything about him? He knows too well the furrowed brow and how the lips of a person will part slowly, carefully, before asking him the same old question: What exactly are you?
When he travels through Miami he has learned to say very quickly, ‘No entiendo español.’ before they take him as Latino. In Spain he is taken as Spanish, and in Trinidad as well, though ‘Spanish’ in Trinidad means something else. In Greece he is taken as Greek, and in Egypt and Morocco and Algeria he is taken as Arab. It is impossible for him to learn how to say ‘I do not understand’ in every language, or ‘I am not this thing you think I am.’ In Jamaica, however, he is simply ‘brown’ and it is a strange comfort to Sebastian, to be so placed and in a category that he knows, and understands, and accepts.
It is true, though, that some days Mr Brown thinks he may as well be Arab, or Latino, or Spanish or whatever the hell it is people think he might be. For what is race anyway but a decision that other people make about you – an assignment that has been given to you? Race, it seems to Mr Brown, is not so much what you are, as it is what people have decided that you are – what it is they see in you, how they make sense of you. Race and ethnicity are not the same things. Ethnicity is what is in your actual DNA, your genes, your ancestry and all of that. Race, on the other hand, is how society constructs you – and it does not matter whether they see wrongly or not. What they see does not need your approval, or to be corroborated by facts. For most people in the world, their ethnicity and their racial assignments are one and the same thing, so it is easy to confuse the two. For people like Mr Brown, however, things are more complicated. As Mr Brown has travelled around the world he has also travelled in and out of races.
Sebastian Brown is not always a fan of academic language, though he was once a member of the academe. He left that life many years ago and has not looked back. But sometimes, he must confess, that oh-so-turgid language actually gets things right. He is therefore a fan of the word ‘racialised’. He believes it is altogether more accurate to say that ‘So-and-So is racialised as black’, than to say ‘So-and-So is black’. Or it is better to say, ‘So-and-So is racialised as white’, than to say, ‘So and So is white’. Sebastian Brown’s mother, for instance, had always been racialised as black, though this was not the entire truth of her ethnicity, of her very mixed heritage. Her physiognomy and complexion showed little evidence of the Lebanese/Chinese/Scottish mix that was also part of her family’s story and which her siblings (to her great resentment) showed off generously in the olive colour of their skin and the curly bounce of their hair. In the presence of her siblings people would ask incredulously, ‘Then you really have the same mother and father?’ and then to themselves exclaim, ‘Then is how she come out so black?’ In vain, Sebastian’s mother had lived her life trying to insist she was more than what her skin suggested. ‘I’m not really black you know! On my mother’s side, my grandfather did come to Jamaica straight from Lebanon – set up shop right there on King’s Street, and my father’s mother was a woman who did mix with Chinese and white – no nayga was in her at all!’ It didn’t matter – this useless insisting on genealogy. She came out looking the way she did and was always racialised as black.
All that complicated genealogy was only stored up inside her to be passed down to her children – her children whose brownness she would revel in, taking it as new evidence of her own superior pedigree. Over and over, his mother had said to her two children, ‘Look at your clear skin, and your good hair. We are people of a higher calibre. Remember that!’ And these were things said so matter-of-factly, and corroborated by everyone – by teachers, by friends, by security guards who dutifully opened every gate wide for them – that it was difficult for Sebastian Brown to unlearn these things. How does one unlearn privilege, especially the kind that is given to you daily and without question, so it does not seem like privilege at all but simply the everyday-ness of life?
At Harvard he had studied economics. He had even begun a PhD, though his heart had never been in it. He was clever enough and had won a scholarship. It was the 1990s. His group of friends were mostly international students and he had envied the way they were not only bright, but also eager. It was as if they all wanted to change the world. They truly believed that they would. Deconstruction theory was all the rage then, and having come from small corners of the world, they were also postcolonialists – in love with Said and Spivak and Bhabha. It was at dinner one evening that Prisha, a linguist from India, had asked him, ‘So, how does postcolonial theory inform your own work as an economist?’ The whole table had turned to him, for he had not really spoken about his work before, his research, his ideas. They were very curious. But Sebastian Brown was not like them. He did not believe in things in the way they did. He didn’t have the same kind of passion. He had raised his eyes querulously. ‘The postcolonial?’ he’d asked. ‘Is that a real thing? Isn’t it just a category of discrimination that rich kids from the third world like to claim when we find ourselves here, in America, in the academy, and we want tenure or something like that? It’s nice to feel oppressed. Then we don’t have to face the fact that back home we are actually the oppressors.’
You could have heard a mouse fart! He’d tried to take it back, to laugh awkwardly as if it was just a joke, but everyone could see it wasn’t a joke at all. It was a statement so profoundly unfair, and yet so profoundly true. He had betrayed them. In the silence that followed he could already feel the tenuous knots of friendship unravelling – people pulling away from him. He had revealed too much of their selves to their selves, and perhaps too much of himself – for there it was – what no one had been able to read in him before, because they had had no context to read it – his sense of his Jamaican brownness – a privilege which not even America could diminish in him.
He never finished the PhD. He left – ABD – All But Dissertation. He has never regretted that, though some days, back in Jamaica, he thinks maybe he should have studied something else – something like sociology, or even ethnography. Lord knows he spends enough of his spare time thinking about these things. He has collected old ‘casta’ charts from Mexico – read their explanations of mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, mestizo, mustee, zambo. When he hears new racial terms across the Caribbean, he writes these down as well – dougla, hawkwei, shabine. The distinctions within a single racial category also fascinate him: busha – a white native; whitey – a white tourist; red – which could just as easily be one of those Germandescended creoles from St Elizabeth, or a poor white who had been burned red from the sun.
Still, it is brownness that most fascinates Mr Brown – the way it both functions as a race – as its own distinct race – and yet is hidden as a racial category. Sometimes this is quite obvious, like when the brown woman down the road got herself into that great big deal of trouble. She had made a public complaint about her neighbour – her neighbour who happened to be a black man – her neighbour who was really just a country boy who had done well for himself, had come into money and moved himself into the well-heeled neighbourhood. She had complained, as uptown people will, that his music was too loud, and that his parties were too many and that they went on well into the morning. And even on Sundays there was no respite, for he would rev his motorbike along the once quiet street. It had all become too much for her. He was a terror. And how she wished and wished and wished (this is what she wrote) that he would just go back to where he came from.
Poor brown lady. She had taken him as just another country boy – the kind of boy she had learned her whole life that she should be able to talk down to and reprimand. She did not take him for who he had become, a man beloved around the world, the decorated Olympian, Usain Bolt. The backlash was tremendous. Some people thought she would have to migrate. It got worse as the story emerged from other neighbours that his parties were actually not that many, and his music not so loud, and though he did ride a motorbike, so did several others in the neighbourhood – but these other motorcycle riders looked very much like the woman who was complaining. They did not look like Usain Bolt. So why did she zero in on him? Why?
But here is what Mr Brown finds fascinating, here is the real rub of it – that when the brown lady was accused of being out of order, the entire country agreed, Oh yes! Yes! De woman was well outa order! And when she was accused of being unfair, and rude, and classist, everyone was hollering as if they were at a political rally, blowing their vuvuzelas to punctuate every point. Is true! Is true! She too raaas unfair, and she bloodclawt rude, and she look down pon poor people like she better dan we. But then, when someone introduced that big and contentious R word – when it was suggested that in addition to her general rudeness, and her classism, that as well her statement was racist, then all at once the same critics were sputtering out their cups of tea, turning to each other frantically, raising their hands and shouting together, ‘Stop! Stop! Stop! Now this thing is going too far!’
It was the same old Sankey after that: Yes, we have a class problem in Jamaica. Of course we do. And as well, there is a colour problem – so many people bleaching their skin. It is an issue. You might even go so far as to say we have a problem with shadeism or colourism, but no one can accuse us of having a race problem! And look at this case in particular. The lady is brown! Do you understand that? She is brown! That means there is some black in her. Somewhere. The point is, she cannot possibly be racist.
It seems to Mr Brown that brownness is like a magical cloak in Jamaica, how the person who wears it is allotted a kind of power and prestige but when push comes to shove, that same cloak can hide the wearer within blackness or even whiteness.
Mr Brown understands his island’s reluctance to use the big and contentious R word. It is a brutal word, uncouth even in the softness of its own sounds. And it is generally assumed that racism is a thing that only happens on TV, or in America, or in the distant past, and it is always tied to white supremacy. Mr Brown thinks differently. Mr Brown believes that to understand racism, the first thing you must understand is how race is constructed and how it functions in a specific place. ‘White’ is not the same thing everywhere, and ‘Black’ is not the same thing everywhere, and some countries have races that do not function at all in other countries – bodies that when they travel cause people to look at them curiously, and if the onlooker is brave enough they might ask, ‘But exactly what are you?’
Mr Brown believes that only then – only when we know how race works in a specific place – can we begin to think about the ways in which power and prestige are distributed unevenly based on those local ideas about race and colour and phenotypical features. If race works and behaves differently in different places, then the same is true for racism. Mr Brown does not believe that the brown lady who complained about Usain Bolt was a white supremacist, or that she didn’t have black friends, or black aunts and uncles and cousins. But he believes that she was participating in a kind of racism all the same – a kind of racism that is specific to Jamaica but for which the island does not yet have the language to talk about or examine.
But Mr Brown only thinks these thoughts. He would never share them with anyone, because these are the kinds of thoughts that implicate him. And why would he want to do that?
His phone buzzes. He glances at the screen and sees that it is an incoming WhatsApp message from his neighbour, Mrs Veronica White. Instinctively, he looks across to the property next door and sure enough there she is on her own verandah. She smiles and waves in his direction. He reads the message. ‘If you are walking over to no. 18 later, do knock on my gate. I will walk over with you.’ He had almost forgotten about the dinner party. He looks back over and gives Mrs White the thumbs up sign.
And because she has developed this kind of relationship with Marva, where the housekeeper is so at ease with her employer (or at least, so it would seem to Mrs White) that strange things occasionally fly out of her mouth, it is Marva who said to her one afternoon as she dusted the family photographs arranged on the wall of the living room, ‘But you know, what I really don’t understand, ma’am, is how oonoo manage fi stay white. For it don’t have so many white people in Jamaica like it did have one time, but is like oonoo still manage fi find each other, and oonoo manage fi stay as white as the driven snow itself, even here in this great big sea of black.’
And because it was not really a question, and because even if it had been, there was no real answer that Mrs White could have given (this freedom to speak openly not being accorded as equally to the employer as it was to the employee) all Mrs White could say was ‘Hm,’ the smallest sound of acknowledgement. A part of her wanted to laugh, though. What the hell did Marva know about ‘driven snow’, and was she as white as all that? This is the first part of the answer she might have given Marva – that in fact her whole family had not stayed white, and some had never been white to begin with. But if Mrs White had said anything of the sort, Marva would have immediately re-examined the pictures on the walls; she would have flipped through the family albums – she would have observed all the fair shades of skin, all the straight or curly hair on top of everyone’s heads, their grey, and blue and light-brown eyes, and she would have sucked her teeth loudly. ‘Which one of dem not white, ma’am?’ ‘Jamaican White’, after all, was its own thing. Mrs White understands this much.
And so, over time, she has thought about it. Really – how had her family managed to stay white? Was it, as Marva seemed to think, that they had some inner radar, some beacon that sought out the few other white people on the island? No. It wasn’t that exactly. Mrs White thinks of the men and women who have married into her family and how they have come from everywhere – not just Jamaica. They have come from Barbados, and Trinidad, and St Vincent, and quite a few from the United States. It was not so much whiteness that they were drawn to but, ironically, its opposite – the ability to not see whiteness at all. In her early days, Mrs White found she could only ever be intimate with a man who was able to see beyond her colour and race – a man who could see her simply as a person. The truth is, it usually took a white man to do that.
She cannot say to Marva the truth – that it is so very hard to be a white person in Jamaica. Marva would simply say, ‘Hm,’ the smallest of sounds, but in that smallness would have been a world of rebuke. Hard, ma’am? You know bout hard life? You think you really know nothing bout what is hard, living as you do way up on this hill? Mrs White would not have been able to compete, so she keeps these thoughts to herself. There are so many truths she has had to keep to herself.
But the truth is, it was hard being white. It is hard for Mrs White to walk into every goddamn room and have every goddamn person decide immediately that they understood everything there was to understand about her – and more than that, they would have decided that she in turn could not possibly understand anything about them, and about their lives.
It was in high school that Mrs White had become truly white. It was a traumatic experience. Back then, before she was Mrs Veronica White – she had been Veronica Levy – a shy young thing in love with Nancy Drew books. She had attended a very good high school in Kingston. They were all such privileged children at that school – not a one of them wanting for money. Their parents were doctors, lawyers, High Court judges, owners of stores in the Half Way Tree plazas. Race wasn’t a big thing until the history classes started. It wasn’t that anyone had been ignorant of the history of Jamaica – the whole terrible lot of it – chattel slavery, English landlords, Scottish overseers, the brutal labour it took to work the sugarcane fields, the whips, the great houses, the rebellions, the indentured Indians and Chinese. Veronica at least had known it all before, but never before had she sat in a class with someone like Bobby McKenzie.
Now that she is a grown woman, Mrs White can look back at that time and dismiss Bobby McKenzie as just another cruel child, the way that children in school are so often cruel. He was a boy who took special pleasure in tormenting other students – and possibly, he was infatuated with her but knew no other way to show it. He started calling her Missus, or M’Lady, or even Buckra. The other students squealed with laughter at these jibes, and then took them up as well. These were her new names – never Veronica, but Buckra, Missus, or M’Lady, as if suddenly she was nothing more than the colour of her skin.
When Bobby McKenzie sat behind her in class, he would flick rubber bands at her. They stung. When she cried out or complained, he would say wickedly, ‘That’s nothing compared to the whip, M’Lady.’ Bobby McKenzie was a bully, and it had not occurred to Veronica in those days that all he could accuse her of being was white. He could not accuse her of having money because his family had more. His father owned one of the biggest haberdashery stores on the island, and she had heard it from reliable sources that in their backyard the McKenzies had a swimming pool the size of a small lake.
Those were hard days for Veronica. She often took the hurt from school home with her. Mr Levy had tried to comfort his daughter. ‘Look, this is the country you were born to, and you will just have to learn how to survive it. It isn’t easy for anybody here. It not easy for black people, and despite what people will tell you it, it not so easy for white people either. But you just have to find your own way to survive it.’
‘And if you don’t find a way to survive it?’ she had asked.
Her father had only said, ‘Hm,’ the smallest of sounds. He had made the sound because he thought there was no need to answer the question; they already knew the answer. It was the 1970s. White families were leaving Jamaica week after week to settle in countries where they could simply be people – where no one looked on their whiteness as the be-all and end-all of who they were. Veronica had been going with her father and mother to Norman Manley Airport almost every other week, standing on the waving gallery to bid goodbye to some aunt, some cousin, some neighbour, climbing the metal stairs and into the belly of the beast, never to be seen again. If you didn’t find a way to survive, this is who you would become. You would become someone who left. Mr Levy did not want his daughter to leave. He did not want his white Jamaican family to be that kind of white Jamaican family. So he looked his daughter in the eyes, deciding that she deserved more than just a ‘Hm’.
‘I will say it again: this is your country too. And every one of us have to reckon with how it became our country – this messed-up little island. But is your country all the same. You don’t have any other but this. So don’t make nobody take that from you. You hear me?’
Sometimes Marva has responded to one of Mrs White’s questions with: ‘Ma’am, story deh fi talk, but bench nuh deya fi siddung pon.’ She says this when Mrs White has tried to use her as a sort of native informant and Marva has decided that the answer – the story – is too long, too complex, and she doubts that Mrs White will ever understand it. Mrs White might ask, ‘Marva, why so much gunfights happen in your old neighbourhood?’ or ‘Marva, why all those boys on the street corner bleaching their good good skin?’ And Marva says, ‘Ma’am, story deh fi talk, but bench nuh deya fi siddung pon.’ Well, this is exactly how Mrs White feels about Marva’s comment, ‘How oonoo manage fi stay white?’ Marva, she wants to say, there is a story I could tell you, but there is no bench long enough for us to sit down together.
But if there existed such a bench – such a place of understanding between the two women – then Mrs White would have told Marva about all the Bobby McKenzies she has met in her life, men who seemed to make it their duty to make her feel bad about herself, who sometimes with just a look, a sneer, dismissed her or accused her of such terrible things. Although she knew she wanted to marry a Jamaican man, she knew it could never be that kind of man – a man who would notice her whiteness and make her feel bad about it. She thought she had been lucky to find such a man, but she is old enough now to know that it wasn’t luck at all. It was simply what she thought she needed from the world and the world had provided. Mr White is the father of her children; for this she will always be thankful. But that dirty, skirt-chasing infidel is long gone out of her life. Divorced. She is thankful for that as well.
And if there was a bench long enough, Mrs White might have risked another truth with Marva. She might have said: Marva, to tell you the God’s honest truth, some days I think it would have been better if I had had my children with a black man. At least then they would have come out brown, and life could have been a little easier for them.
Oh the 70s! All those trips to the airport. All that waving people off from the waving gallery. Black Power had changed so many things on the island; white people no longer sat comfortably on top of the totem pole, but black people hadn’t replaced them. That was the sad thing. Brown people had.
Mrs White loves her children as they are. Of course she does. But she would be lying if she didn’t admit to having entertained this strange thought – wishing them a little darker. She wonders though if Marva would have loved her children any more or any less if they had been any other colour? Sometimes it has seemed that Marva loves the two children the way a little black girl might love her white dolly. It concerns Mrs White how fiercely protective Marva has been of the two children, but she does not want to seem ungrateful. It’s just that some days the fierceness of Marva’s love seems to echo the exact history that Mrs White does not like to consider. Still, she has benefited from Marva’s love in ways she will never be able to repay.
When Alexandria was just sixteen years old, a boy had driven her home from a party. They were just there – in his car at the gate – and it was Marva who roused herself from sleep and heard the girl whimpering for help. But how had Marva heard that? Were her ears more attuned to the sound of a woman in trouble? Mrs White doesn’t know. She only feels guilty, as if that night she had failed as a mother. Marva’s room was at the back of the house, not even facing the gate as Mrs White’s room was. And yet, for whatever reason, Marva woke up at 2 a.m. that morning and knew that little Miss Alexandria was out there at the gate and in need of help. The boy who had dropped the young girl home had seemed so nice at first, but soon he was getting very handsy, very quickly. They had just been sitting in his car, there at the gate, talking. She was already home. He had dropped her home, so what could be dangerous now? And then his hand was on her knee which wasn’t so bad until the hand began to go up her legs, and then it was pulling at her panties, and his rough fingers were trying to go inside her. She was telling him no and no and no and Kevin! Stop that! She was trying to pull the wayward hand away, and then he wasn’t so nice any more. He used just one of his hands to hold onto her two, and with the other hand he went back up her legs and towards her panties and she couldn’t stop him or twist away from him. And then there was Marva, like some kind of maroon warrior, like Nanny herself – wonderful Marva standing on the outside of the car with a cutlass in her hand. The boy didn’t see her until Marva used the flat side of the cutlass and slapped the car window with such a ferocity one was surprised the glass didn’t break. Two other car alarms went off on the street, the way the very road had shook, and the boy who was not so nice after all was suddenly screaming and jumping about the car and hit his nose against the windscreen and made it bleed. Marva was now shouting for the whole neighbourhood to hear. ‘Get yu nasty black hand dem off of Miss Alexandria this minute!’ and then some other things, other things about his nastiness, and about his blackness, as if the two things depended on each other.
Mrs White is grateful. She is so very grateful. But weeks after, when she thinks about that night, she cannot help but think about the things that Marva said. And why did she say those things? On that night the boy had opened the car and let Alexandria out; Alexandria had run towards Marva. Mrs White who was finally awake was running towards the gate. Marva wielded her cutlass against the car a second time and it banged. The boy cowered. ‘Drive!’ Marva shouted. ‘Drive yu bloodclawt car and never come back here or else a swear a kill yu mi own self. Renk and nasty lickle johncrow!’
And there it was – the fierceness of Marva’s love, and her protection, but beneath it all something strange, like the sour aftertaste of history. That was some years ago. Alexandria has now gone abroad to school. On the phone Alexandria tells her mother, ‘Mom, here people are always telling me that I am white, and I just tell them no, I am Jamaican.’ And Mrs White laughs at this, though she doesn’t quite understand it. Still, she takes a deep satisfaction in the way that her daughter is claiming the island as her own. Mrs White secretly hopes that Alexandria will come back one day, and that her daughter would not turn into the kind of young woman that she was – afraid and annoyed by what people saw in her, afraid to breach the gap and tell them the most important things, and to have the most important things said back to her.
There is a pinging at the gate and Mrs White remembers, oh of course, it is Mr Sebastian Brown from next door come to accompany her. She opens the door. ‘I’m coming!’ she calls out, and throws a scarf around her shoulders. They will only be walking three houses down the road, to no. 18 – to Ms Black’s house – but recently things have been so unsafe on the island that Mrs White feels much safer walking those few metres in the company of a man.
And because tonight she is hosting a dinner party for the neighbours, Ms Black’s nightly conversation with her mother – a conversation that usually goes on for half an hour at least – is cut short. ‘Yes Mama,’ she says on the phone, ‘I can’t talk tonight because people coming over any minute. I just checking in to make sure everything all right.’
‘Yes chile,’ her mother says, and Ms Black smiles at the way in which she will always be a ‘child’ to her mother, despite the fact that she is sixty years old. A sixty-year-old child – what a thing! ‘Everyting awrite,’ her mother continues, ‘though de nurse woman she just come een and gimme dem set o pink tablets that you know mi don’t like. It always do something terrible to mi tummy. Now gas going to fill me up all day tomorrow. And den . . .’
‘Awrite Mama,’ Ms Black interrupts, knowing that if she doesn’t the conversation will stretch to its usual half hour. ‘Like I say, I can’t really talk now. But make sure that you take whatever tablets it is Miss Johnson give you to take. I feel better knowing that you have gas than to think you might fall down and dead. Tomorrow we will talk more proper, OK?’
‘Awrite chile. Tomorrow.’
Ms Black presses ‘end call’ and sighs with an emotion that is something like relief. Sometimes talking to her mother is dangerous business. It is a joy, but it is also a danger. Ms Black finds that she relaxes too much when she talks to her mother. She relaxes into the person she once was but cannot be again – maybe even the person she still is but cannot show to anyone. With her mother, her voice slips into a more comfortable register. Though maybe ‘register’ is not the right word; the right word would be ‘language’. But Ms Black has worked very hard to never use the language in which she is most comfortable. Ms Black is known to speak slowly and carefully. It is worry that causes this. She worries over her syntax, and about how words ought to be pronounced, even simple words. She has to make sure that an unnecessary H does not slip in front of her vowels, and that she doesn’t take away the H from where it in fact belongs. It is very hard – all this work, all this effort. When what she really wants to say is ‘Mi si de bwoy a guh dung i road,’ in one fluid go, with almost no pauses between the words, she has learned to say with ridiculous formality, ‘I saw the young man proceeding along the road.’
With her mother, things are different. Her speech is different. Her mother allows her a space to relax into herself, but once relaxed, it is difficult for her to come back to the person people expect her to be. Tonight, if she speaks at length to her mother, it would be too difficult for her to return to being the kind of person who could receive her well-to-do neighbours for a dinner party.
Ms Black thinks of herself as a simple woman. This is the story she tells of herself – that she was born in a simple place and to simple people. But the world she now lives and moves in is not simple at all. She is a politician. She is a Member of Parliament and a Minister of Government. It is especially strange to Ms Black when she goes into her constituency – a constituency in which she is greatly loved and admired. She thinks of her constituency as a simple place full of simple people. She thinks of them as her people. She knows them, and their lives, and most of all, their language. But even here, amongst her people, she cannot speak their language back to them. They expect more from her. Their love and admiration of her is contingent on the fact that she was once from them, but is no longer. They love her because she has been elevated beyond them.
When Ms Black had just joined the Party, she had felt so out of place. She had not gone to university. She did not speak well. The kind brown man who was then the leader, had taken her under his wing, and had said to her, ‘Ms Black, if you’re going to get anywhere with these people, you will have to do elocution lessons. You will have to learn to speak better.’ He had said that – ‘these people’ – as if the uptown Jamaicans who surrounded them were not his people after all, as if he and Ms Black belonged to the same group. It was his special charm as a politician, to speak as if he was an outsider to the very group that shaped him. The brown man had used his own money to sign Ms Black up for the classes he promised would help her with ‘these people’ and she is very grateful to the brown man. Over the years she has tried hard not to disappoint him, to make use of his investment, to remember the lessons she had learned. Now she speaks slowly and carefully. And yet still, they mock her.
About her neighbour, Mr Sebastian Brown, she has heard the comment – ‘Brown by name and nature.’ About herself, she has heard a variation – ‘Black by name, but dark by nature’ – the word ‘dark’ on the island being a synonym for ‘ignorant’. When the island’s comedians have imitated her, or when she has watched plays where a character is clearly based on her, it is always this very slow and deliberate way of speaking that they mock. The very strategy that she has used to hide what she has been told are the worst aspects of herself is the very thing that seems to expose her as a fraud.
All over the internet, there are YouTube clips of herself saying one thing or the other – saying it wrongly, or saying it in the wrong register, the wrong language, and people fall over themselves laughing. During elections it is especially difficult for Ms Black. They call her a disgrace, an embarrassment, an intellectual lightweight. Black by name, but dark by nature. It is not that Ms Black does not understand things, and their complexity, but it is not always easy for her to attach the right words to that complexity. She has to take such care and such effort with her words and sometimes that makes her thoughts seem jumbled. It is different at nights when she speaks to her mother. When she allows herself the simple joy of talking in her own language and with its own fluency, and she finds herself able to think in that vocabulary, then everything is clear to her, and she thinks she could explain the world to itself. But during the day, she is not allowed the use of this language – the language of her thoughts.
If you asked Ms Black to tell you honestly about what she has had to endure as a politician – what she has had to overcome – she will almost certainly tell you about sexism – the way in which the world she now lives and moves in has always been an all-boys’ club. But she did not go to any of the island’s top boys’ schools – not to Wolmer’s or St George’s or Jamaica College or Kingston College. And also, she would tell you about classism – how being a simple woman born to simple people in a simple place was a disadvantage she had to conquer every day. But the big and contentious R word – Racism? No no no no! Ms Black would never mention it. No way. That was never part of the dynamic as she understood it. More than half of her fellow cabinet members are black. And when the brown leader who took her under his wing died, it was a black man who took over, and Jamaica loved him. And most of the women who had looked down on her her whole life – women who called her ‘bhutu’ and ‘tegareg’ and ‘virago’ – most of them were black women. This was Jamaica after all. Blackness was no hurdle that you had to overcome. Blackness could not stop you from rising. But class! Oh dear lord, class! It meant everything here. This is what Ms Black believes and this is what she would tell you.
Still, sometimes she thinks about another dinner party she had hosted some years ago when her neighbour, Sebastian Brown, had had one too many glasses of red wine and he had begun speaking in a way that Ms Black had never heard him speak before. She thought it was as if he was on the phone talking to his own mother, as if he had suddenly relaxed into himself. How the conversation had gotten around to the topic of class, she doesn’t quite remember, but then all intellectual and animated conversations in Jamaica eventually get around to the topic of class. Mr Brown was suddenly banging the table as if he were in parliament. ‘Here is the thing! Here is the thing!’ he slurred, ‘When it comes to racism in Jamaica, it’s like the most sophisticated racism in the fucking world. You could almost not see it at all. Listen man, no teacher in Jamaica is going to tell a little girl in school: come on little miss, you need to start behaving like white people. No sah! The teacher is going to say instead: you need to start behaving like a young lady. And the teacher will tell a little boy: you need to start behaving like a gentleman. And then we cuss people how them talk bad, or them look unkempt, or them acting like a bhutu – and all these things that we say every goddamn day is really the way that we have learned to say something else – that we not acting or looking or behaving white enough. You see this thing that you all calling classism – all it is, is one of the most sophisticated examples of racism in this world! The racism that we have here in Jamaica, is a racism that knows how to hide itself.’
Everyone had rushed in after that to say something, and the conversation had lurched this way and that way and then sailed into a different ocean. But days after Ms Black had thought about Mr Brown’s little speech. She thought about her life as a politician and all these little things she was required to do – to speak properly, to dress properly, to act properly. But what did ‘properly’ mean? What was it based on? Or better yet, who was it based on? And Ms Black thought maybe Mr Brown was really onto something. Yet, it wasn’t a thought that she could entertain for very long. That kind of thought was dangerous thinking for a politician – for a woman in her position. She was a black woman in a black country, and that had worked to her advantage. That worked especially during elections. But when the election was over, then she would have other work to do. The people who elected her were black people, but the circles she had to move in after were oftentimes white circles or brown circles, and she could not afford to have any opinion or to share any kind of thought that accused these people – these people whose patronage she needed. She could not risk upsetting them. It was not worth it. So as quickly as she had decided that there was some merit to what Mr Brown had said was as quickly as she had dismissed it.
Ms Black considers herself a simple woman, but the food she will be serving tonight is anything but simple.
She has learned the trick of serving a kind of food that gestures towards simplicity and yet isn’t. Ms Black hasn’t cooked anything herself – her work days are too long – but she has supervised the menu. They will start out with a cream of red peas soup, and in the middle of the table will be a fresh, hot loaf of duck bread that she has sourced from a bakery in Linstead that still does them. The main course will be steamed snapper. She has ordered them to be filleted, but has steamed them in coconut milk and with pimento and okra and Excelsior water crackers. The water crackers is something she insists on. Her guests love these rustic flourishes. Dessert will be a mango sorbet. There will be plenty of wine, and beer, and eventually her guests will retire to her large verandah that overlooks the city of Kingston, and they will talk well into the night – hopefully nothing that gets too heated. Hopefully, nothing about race. This is a dinner party for her neighbours after all. They all live together on this hill – in the top echelons of the island society. Surely race is not part of the texture of their lives.
Just at the point where Ms Black thinks that everything is ready, the intercom rings. It is the security detail posted at her front gate. ‘Yes, Ms Black. Mrs White and Mr Brown have arrived.’ ‘Wonderful, wonderful!’ Ms Black enthuses. ‘They are the first. Send them in.’
This essay is taken from the collection Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller, out with Canongate.
Image © Mark Chadwick.