Eve was framed. Or, how I learned to stop worrying & trust Anansi.
A few months ago, last year, I was embroiled in a storm in the teacup of my beloved island home of Jamaica. It is a complex, magnetic, captivating space to navigate, and moreso, to emerge from. Equal parts beautiful and wretched, its size-to-infamy ratio is no accident.
Professor Barry Chevannes, an intellectual luminary and one I had the privilege of being personally influenced by in the last year he taught at the UWI before his passing in 2010, wrote & spoke poetically with his forceful brand of anthropological research of the permanent cultural state of profound ambiguity endemic to Afro-Caribbean cultures. To him, the most important cultural parts of Africa that survived intact after their passage to the ‘new world,’ were the cache of deliberately inexact, open-ended moral tales — which would go a long way in accounting for Jamaica’s seemingly endless spring of intrigue & magnetism; for its chaotic creativity.
His book, Betwixt and Between: Explorations in an Afro-Caribbean Mindscape in the chapter, ‘Ambiguity and the Search for Knowledge’ (a chapter that is IMO required reading for anyone hoping to understand the ‘whys’ of Jamaica) he points out how Afro-Caribbean people are heir to a very mature, advanced and sophisticated morally relativist cosmology. Replete with a spider trickster-god to ‘govern’ this philosophical universe, the primarily West-African, praxis-driven worldview that dealt with paradoxes in pragmatic and uniquely internally consistent ways, suffered arguably the most ill fated encounter in human history with the rapacious, misogynistic, heteronormative, capitalistic European colonial project that continues into the present.
Chevannes’ work — and I can’t recommend enough that you find it and embed it into any worthwhile analytical context you want to have RE Jamaica — speaks in iron-clad argumentation of how the unequal, oppressive contact between these worlds and world views under the colonial project caused this “ambiguity” to become at once dysfunctional in pertinent ways that persist doggedly to this day — but also, (ambiguously) in parallel became the philosophical equipment that armed the Afro-Caribbean people with endlessly resilient forms of culture to not only survive, but to contribute new forms of culture that are now crucial and globally beloved parts of the human story. It’s a paradox but don’t panic just yet — Stay with me.
The kerfuffle that involved me, an ex-participant/finalist in the national institution of the Miss Jamaica World 2007 beauty pageant when I was 18, all began when I made some passing, un-contextualised comments for the social media arm of an international TV station in the middle-east where I currently live and work (see vid below). The comments, some said, were an all too cavalier take on the dissonance between the ‘official story’ of Jamaica, that has been whittled down to a palatable package for tourist consumption (according to our limitless pain threshold for dependency on these interests) and edited of the realities of living in a third world country ravaged by imperial/neo-imperial interests.
It is very difficult to address these realities (e.g. health pandemics, crime and poverty) directly at the best of times, and even more untenable, apparently, to casually — nay “recklessly” mention them (though one could not hope to be as reckless with these realities as the Jamaica government is) — esp. on a medium that receives foreign attention. I won’t even mention that if you are a woman and wish to have an opinion on any matter, at any given time, on any topic — you will be swiftly reminded in overt/covertly misogynist language, by the ‘educated’ and uneducated alike that hey lady ‘opinions’ are not a goddamned free for all. If you happen to laugh at a clearly absurd state of affairs aspersions will be cast on your competence with glee, much like confetti enthusiasts at a wedding.
Compounding the mini-furore was that I seemed to be further departing from The National Script by choosing not to speak of our beloved Reggae Jesus, Bob Marley — but preferred to speak on what (to me) is the more currently interesting art form of Dancehall music: its irreverent, unapologetic humour about taboo subjects like sex for e.g. and general extreme enjoyability. Jamaican Dancehall, with all its casual profanity which influences and is mutally influenced by our sacred-Reggae, BTW might even be the natural, unperturbed domain of that tricky Anansi spider-gad — but I digress. Apparently you cannot love Reggae Jesus and Kartel at the same time and with the same fervour- like how, right?!! Wdvr. #ambiguity
The worry seemed to be, almost uniformly as far as I can tell, that alerting the world to the wretched realities that many Jamaicans endure, may “turn off” the tourists that supposedly ‘contribute’ to our economy. The rationalisation for this fear is that every little bit counts, and anything threatening that income will tighten Jamaicans inside the whimsically clenching fist of these external economic forces we are at the mercy of.
The unspoken rule is to exist as carefully as a spider within this web of dissonance while never actually confronting it plainly. It is very important to note here that the objection is not THAT these casual injustices which I mentioned are happening but that “Surely, Rosina, there are ways to RESPECTABLY speak about these ludicrous situations — goddamn and blast!” (to my mind, a prime example of the way our cultural ambiguity can combine with imperial notions of respectability and become extremely dysfunctional and silencing.)
All institutions great and small are complicit in and allied with each other in this polite and eerily calm denial — and the Miss Jamaica pageant is no exception. Jamaican women voluntarily (as one is generally led to assume) parade and vie like so many rare and glittering tropical flowers come to life, to be the symbol, par excellence, of the bounty of our beauty and culture — and your consent to also represent our mostly fictitious feel-good insistence that “everything is alright” in Jamaica is erroneously presumed.
Natasha Barnes in Face of the Nation: Race, Nationalisms and Identities in Jamaican Beauty Pageants starkly observes that the Jamaican beauty pageants are a “viciously contested terrain of representative power.”
One can expect then, that the pageant has naturally been plagued by controversy and it has been (correctly) diagnosed too many times to count as upholding racism and classism (interchangeable terms in Jamaica) and to a worryingly lesser extent, accused of sexism. Much has (rightfully) been made of the routine exclusion of WOC as winners of the coveted titles, and yet there has been distinctly less railing against the patriarchal, objectifying structure of the pageant itself.
This order of priority is of course deeply interesting to me, and as it has involved me personally — especially as a woman deeply aligned with the current ‘wave’ of intersectional feminism coming to prominently to the fore via social media, no less.
I am a middle-class, or ‘uptown’ woman who, despite a biracial ethnicity, is considered more or less ‘white’ in the colour-convenient Jamaican context. Given the history of the pageant, my placement among the finalists nearly a decade ago probably came as a surprise to few — and given the symbolic importance of the pageant to the Jamaican people, you inevitably belong to Miss Jamaica in the hearts and minds of Jamaican people, for better or worse.
The confluence of circumstances that make us who we are have been puzzled over by poet and social scientist alike — and none can seem to account finally for the anomalies. My mother’s pragmatic take on my future at the time, for example, was that a high school education and excellent dental health was just about as much as I could ask of a hard-working woman with another child to provide the same for. So our family, contra to the understandable assumption that all light skinned Jamaicans have money, happened in this isolated(?) instance to be more like many other families who struggle to survive in third-world economies, at any given time facing either foreclosure or various debt collectors (or both).
Any socially aware woman will tell you, that under the current regime of globally institutionalised patriarchy and consequent systemic material disenfranchisement of women, which is alive and well in Jamaica, there is an understanding that an “option” (within small island, upper crust social circles and the working class alike) is to find support in the form of a boyfriend or similar style of male benefactor.
Given that that is an objectively terrifying non-option for myself and many others, and given that the Miss Jamaica prize money for the finalists could just about cover the first semester fees for our local uni, UWI — brash opportunism & a strategic deployment of my light-skinned privilege combined for a bid in the competition to finance a tertiary education. It was what it was & I deliberately choose to speak openly about these stark realities, because I do not think that the worlds we live in have to be what they are. I mean, I’m not seeing a great many competitions where men walk around in bathing suits to compete for scholarship money — surely there is a way around this for us, too.
So, the best possible outcome materialised when my plan worked, and I used a grand total of 30,000J$ (!!!) to enrol myself in my first semester and paid for the rest of the degree via an endorsement deal that came directly as a result of the public exposure afforded me by the pageant. Undoubtedly, it can and should be readily pointed out that this overall ‘lucky’ situation can hardly be compared to the struggles of the Jamaican underclass to eke out an existence in far more hostile economic positions relative to the position that my accident of birth afforded me.
And actually, the ways that class and race are inextricably bound up with each other in Jamaica creates pockets of far more extremely vulnerable groups which is indeed cause for alarm. One needs only to observe our barbaric treatment of/views on the gay and transgendered community that is present in BOTH Reggae and Dancehall FYI. Which is why I think this conversation is important.
I feel no obligation to explain my words to anyone, thank you very much — but I am also under no illusions that this is not a direct function of my class privilege; and why not explore what that means? It is no secret that an absolute PLANK of a human being can rise to great heights in Jamaica by virtue of unfair class and race advantages — and while it undoubtedly only reinforces my bourgeoise status to be more or less LITERALLY BORED TO DEATH BY UPTOWN PEOPLE (omg, GET over soca), and that my class position affords me a confidence to speak on what I see fit to speak (despite being lambasted with gender slurs at every turn from every class), I object to the assumption that this automatically makes one socially un-aware.
Yes, the only real condition of existing in and benefitting from this stream of light-skinned privilege or even uptown, middle class privilege (which are usually, but not always aligned) is that you can never admit to it — and it certainly must never be openly ventilated in discussion amongst UPT for longer than it is polite. Do you see the trend? Ultimately, this is how the colonial status quo prevails to this day. One can revolt, argue and install a new boss in the place of the old boss — but we cannot get rid of the institution of “boss” — or can we?
It is no secret that open, radical, loud and imperfect-but-self-correcting dialogue is the natural enemy to the god of “gradual change” which softens the loss of privilege for the privileged and appeases the rest until completely robbed of any revolutionary impetus — being sated & intoxicated by the Free Lunch in all its variations. So, consider this a declaration on all counts to turn my privilege on itself to see if I can get a whack at dismantling it .
Barnes describes us as a country drunk on the drama of beauty pageants — and I would add that we treat our chronic colonial hangover with the ‘hair of the dog’ method. We do not typically seek to dismantle colonial institutions, but fight to be included in and legitimised by them. This is not to say that there have not been stand-out WOC who have won that hard fought title — and have made their mark on the international stage — and more importantly, are extremely crucial representations of beauty for an island where self-hatred and rejection of ‘blackness’ has a far way to go until we are healed. This is not an advocacy of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, or a trivialisation of the accomplishments we have made thus far.
Terri-Karelle Reid, for example, who was the mentor for the pageant in my year, is an absolute icon of a Jamaican beauty fullstop, and has been incredibly successful in media, as a role model and a mentor for young women, & is dear to (mine) and the nation’s heart.
Likewise, Sara Lawrence is a legend at Kingston’s prestigious Catholic high school of ‘Immaculate Conception High’ where I attended school, and when these women get ‘elevated to symbolic status approaching that of a national hero’ there is a sense of national pride, patriotism, and um, fiercely protective ownership?
Ownership — funny how that keeps coming up in societies that were existentially founded on slavery, eh? CAN’T QUITE SEEM TO GET AWAY FROM IT.
Have we, as a nation, really questioned the fundamental danger of transforming individuals into pristine and inhuman symbols?
(Lol. It’s a rhetorical question.)
(Just to clarify we definitely have not, as a nation, genuinely questioned this danger.)
Can we not agree, in good-up Twenny-Fift that this is a surefire recipe for divesting people of the power of being responsible for themselves? Ceremonial empowerment and elevation of individuals — and women in particular sounds good, and is MAYBE KINDA (not really) useful to an extent — but it is often an arbitrary and precariously conditional elevation and I would encourage you to be deeply suspicious of this shining veneer as I have learnt to be.
*Tina Turner dance break*
Hello? What happens when your symbols decide to behave like human beings? When we “elevate” women to pedestals of public scrutiny, it begs to be acknowledged that a pedestal is just another small enclosed space — a more sophisticated, open air prison with a sheer drop from grace on all sides. What is ceremonial elevation to ‘Queen’ but an ingenious sublimation — what the walls lose in visibility, they gain in ubiquitous force. Why build obvious, forthright prisons, when you can make the world a prison? You can even make it out to be safer than true freedom — and market it as a place you should be “grateful” to have. This has the benefit of controlling the narrative to the point of vilifying critics who recognise and reject its patronising, sickeningly paternal and 90% ingenuine ‘but! but! We’re trying to honour you!!’ as “negative people” who are themselves jilted and jealous.
Oh, it’s clever.
To stay with the beauty pageant example, to qualify to enter, you must be young, single and in other words radiate the super weird (not to mention seriously boring) (also slightly pedophilic) male fantasy of “sexual purity” that has been with us for a couple thousand years. The Jamaican public’s consumption of the pageant, of course, has had a long and sordid history with candidates’ pregnancy — and Jamaicans generally waste no time carrying on public conversations rife with the despicable sub-text of the Desecrated Virgin with nothing short of absolute gusto.
I don’t see it, but allegedly there is an appeal to insinuate into every facet of thought the ridiculous idea that women do not have sex, eat, defecate or give birth to all human life in puddles of blood, sweat, tears and sometimes even our own feaces. This erasure of basic human behaviour from the stories of symbols (i.e. their DEHUMANIZATION) are also why we don’t generally have sculptures of Christ on the toilet. It seems that generating symbols, after all, involves a violently sanitised retelling of human stories.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully respect that many women were so far below human status that they required elevation and dignification as Empresses and Queens and Godesses — but I am speaking now of the next, futuristic and even more liberated era. We must be able to see how a lot of this deification has resulted in institutionalised, pathologically neurotic treatment of women as symbol/property/Madonna/virgin/whore who can, btw, parade half naked on stage provided you keep to the proscribed choreography— or its opposite, but exactly the same, fully clothed wind-up-doll impersonation which ironically, in both cases, invokes this “leave something to the imagination” tripe. Pardon me, whose imagination are we performing for again? Perhaps, my country and the world may need to exercise their imaginations a little more rigorously, and cast a wider net RE things to “imagine” about. (What the hell are you imagining is under my clothes anyway? Narnia? Hint: FUNDAMENTALLY THE SAME across all of womanhood.)
So about that ‘well-you-wanted-to-represent-Jamaica-so-shaddap-and-sing-One-Love’ — No. and also #BBHMM #MuLaLa #IfItAintAboutADollarImaHollaAtYouLater
Consider me an openly flamboyant traitor to the beloved pageant-institution (with love to all our awesome Miss Jamaicas past and future said way). A traitor who also welcomes new and more imaginative suggestions for betraying these systems so that a space can be carved out for fuller expressions of womanhood wherever I find myself able to carve them. Inbox me.
I owe much of this flamboyant disregard for hallowed colonial institutions to the aesthetic of dancehall itself and the persistently intriguing ambiguity that it is borne of. The form of carefree, at times primal movement and wildly experimental sound is valued the world over but perhaps most contentiously reviled and blamed for a host of ridiculous evils that have been around long before dancehall. This is surely fuelled too, by the careful class and race segregations that as Jamaicans we have been suffering from for an indecent amount of time. Indeed, there are people, women — specifically women of colour in Jamaica who have been carving out a space in a parallel, undercelebrated pageantry of dancehall that has, to my ever growing disappointment, received far less official coverage at least over the years — unless it is the focus of the literati’s delight in it’s many spectacular failings.
It doesn’t mean we have to be apologists for same but CAN WE JUST please write ‘respectable,’ ‘vulgar’ (i.e. the coded racial language of classism) on little pieces of paper and then kill them with fire?
Reggae and dancehall are not mutually exclusive either, nor should they be. The irony is I am a huge, obsessive fan of Reggae Jesus Bab, if not the residual marketing stunt he has since been turned in[his grave]to. Some of the best ‘reggae’ coming out of Jamaica right now is a fusion of these cultural forms that is long overdue. It is itself an emerging dialogue with powerful implications for reach and public discourse — and an all too rare opportunity for Jamaica’s carefully segregated classes to meet.
If there is a ‘right’ way to start this kind of conversation, why not with a publicity stunt such as these blithe little videos we get so riled up by? Why not? It’s 2015. I shall.
Perhaps we are only really under obligation to begin it, and to be unafriad of being held accountable within it.
This is the dialogue I am committed to sustaining — here, but also primarily elsewhere, in the real time conversations that are slouching their way towards Kingston to be born.