September 2, 2009
I sent a version of this to the Gleaner; I doubt they will publish it.
While I may be one of the few Jamaicans who do not care for the annual Miss Jamaica skin parades ie. “beauty pageants”, I find some of the criticisms about this year’s selection rather disingenuous and void of basic historical perspective. To suggest that a light-skinned woman is not authentically Jamaican – ie. is a foreigner – and therefore should not even be in competition with or selected over a dark-skinned (more authentic?) Jamaican woman makes absolutely no sense. While I agree with the basic critique concerning the everlasting lightness (with a few dark ones sprinkled in between) of the beauty queens, and agree that the judges’ choice reflects a pervasive racist notion that is rubbed in our face in an expensive and public way each year ie. that the closer one is to European-ness, the more beautiful one is considered. However, I want to deal with the “authentic vs. foreigner” issue which keeps coming up – “she look like a foreigner” – because I think this way of framing a legitimate issue is historically and socially inaccurate, really disrespectful and utterly divisive.
The ancestors of those of us of darker African phenotype came to these shores often on the same boats as many of those European traders, sailors, etc. who are the ancestors of many Jamaicans, including Kerrie Baylis. Their histories are intertwined with ours in a complicated, sometimes exploitative and violent way, but too often, the cultural nationalist impulse to brand Jamaica as “Black” allows us to choose to ignore or forget these details, and to call them “foreigners”.
True, far too many of the brown elite will happily retrace their history to the 16th and 17th centuries when their forebears came as traders, merchants, bankers, etc. to these shores, and carefully ignore the role those foreparents played in chattel slavery, indentureship and colonization.
And it is true that many of the brown elite do treat this country as if it is their playground and black Jamaicans their natural servants, all the while claiming Jamaican-ness while distancing themselves socially and culturally from those of us who are of African descent and phenotype.
However, it is a mark of the Jamaican-ness of this same light-skinned elite that they can be such a fixture in these beauty contests for decades, since the “Ten Types – One People” beauty contest was launched in 1955!
That *particular* women have been regarded as the icons of Jamaican beauty is hardly an accident, but one that is carefully structured into and replicated in our everyday lives. Indeed, our willful acceptance (and sometimes defense) of social hierarchies based on colour and class certainly helps us perpetuate what many are now railing against with the latest MJW decision. Just think about this the next time one accepts that the light-skinned woman\’s needs MUST be more important than yours when she talks over your head and gets service before you who has been waiting to be acknowledged in a respectful way. Many black Jamaicans have been very invested in the notion of brown women as somehow more desirable; those of us who can have altered our bodies to ally with this racist notion; others of us have resisted this idea by championing “black is beautiful.” But all of us are intimately aware that these ideas are built into the beauty contest.
What is of issue here – and which is not being addressed – is not whether or not light-skinned women should even be in the contest. I don’t think there should be a mandate – which is what many people are suggesting – that the Miss Jamaica contests should be reserved for dark-skinned women, or that light skinned women should never win. I certainly don’t see how a parade of dark-skinned women would be a more just version, or would make me feel like the winner was a more “authentic” representation of Jamaica.
But I do think that if they are going to keep this ridiculous contest going, the judges etc. ought to raise the bar quite a bit so that is not just light skin and rich relatives that will determine the outcome. They ought to know something (besides what they read in Wikipedia or the Gleaner) and stand for something (besides world peace and saving the children).
Frankly, it is quite frightening that the worth of young women is often assessed based on whether or not she “looks” like she could win a beauty contest or be a model. In this day and age, shouldn’t we be encouraging young women (of all hues) to ascribe more value to themselves than to specialize in “pageantry and aesthetics” i.e. parading up and down in bathing suits and expensive gowns before gawking audiences in a completely biased and ethically compromised beauty contest? Where’s the beauty in that experience? Can there really be a winner in this situation? I don’t watch or listen to these beauty contests because I believe that they consistently lower the standards by which girls/women are measured and measure themselves. I don’t want my daughter or any other girl child I know to aspire to be some man’s shoulder candy and to be applauded for making a basic statement that everyone already knows to be true. That’s humiliating and I won’t support it.
I also wonder whether we have the courage to publicly acknowledge the social handicap that darker-hued women have had since the beginning, and to even call for an end the farce of the “beauty pageant” once and for all. Indeed, it is only when this competition gains some integrity and moves beyond being the skin parade that it is, that it will be less of lightning rod when it comes to dealing with the entrenched antipathies about Blackness in Jamaica, as reflected in this particular cultural event.
Until these shifts in our thinking take place, many dark-skinned Jamaicans will continue to feel that history has been vindicated when a Black woman wins the competition, and denigrated when a light-skinned woman – who can only be distinguished from a “foreign” European woman by the “place of birth” on her or her parents’ birth certificate – wins. And in a way, they will be right.
November 17, 2008
Crowd o’ people! Spread the word widely! Do show up at the march/vigil and then come back and tell me how it was for you. I’ll reserve my comments for after the event. Check out Nicholas Laughlin’s post as well.
A message from Aloun Ndombet-Assamba:
A group of us have gotten together to do something about this frightening situation that we find ourselves in as a country. With the support of my Lions club, the Lions Club of New Kingston, Blossom Anglin Brown and I have joined a group of women and men to begin to take responsibility for our country. We have a diverse group who have met, including the Kiwanis Club of New Kingston, Hear the Children Cry, the former President of the JMA and other individuals and have arranged for a MARCH on Wednesday NOV 19th,2008 which is the International Day for Prevention of Child Abuse.
We will begin our MARCH from the POLICE OFFICER’S CLUB on Hope Road at 4.00pm.
We will go down Hope Road to Half Way Tree
Turn left on to Half Way Tree Road; march to Chelsea Ave
Turn left on Chelsea Ave; march to Trafalgar Road
Turn right on Trafalgar Road; march to Knutsford Boulevard
Turn right on to Knutsford Boulevard; march to Emancipation Park.
Once in Emancipation Park we will join the CHILD DEVELOPMENT AGENCY in their Candle Light Vigil which has been planned for this special Day.
Our march is not a public relations event nor is it intended to be a feel good event.It is also not a party political event. We will have no speeches. This is a serious attempt to bring attention to the situation we are in as a country and to have citizens take personal responsibility for doing something about it. We believe this is just a start and will symbolize the forging of a social partnership where people from all walks of life can come together and take a stand.
We are not calling on the Government or the Police to do anything. We are calling on individual private citizens to stop being crippled by fear and consider it our duty to do what he or she can to make Jamaica, once again a safe place to be.
Bring pictures of children and women who have been abducted and or killed to show on the march. We are not providing any tee shirts or other paraphenalia. Just our bodies. If you can’t join us at the start of the march join us along the way. Allow your staff to leave work early so they can join us. Get your friend and neighbours to join us and share this email with others so they can choose to join us.
We pray fervently for God’s Spirit to be with us and to guide our footsteps in this terrible time.
Well, I didn’t like the answers I found in yesterday and today’s Gleaner, so I wrote the following letter:
To the Editor:
It is deeply problematic that the violence against Christopher Sukra in Westmoreland would provoke a need for Gleaner editors to call for “draw[ing] the line against sexual depravity”, despite the numbers of women’s and girls’ who have been similarly brutalized and used as fodder for newspaper and tv reportage over the past several months.
Similarly, the sexism and deep-seated and destructive hatred of homosexuality that pervades this society, and which drove many in 2006 to argue against changing the definition of rape in order to prevent the recognition of homosexual sex between men, are the same social prejudices that Orville Taylor invokes in his column, telling us to see the crime against this and other boy children as different from and more serious than rape because it was “capped by the awful act of sodomy.” Even after that 2006 debate, we have people pandering to the notion that some kinds of sexual violence are more important than others, based on which sexual acts were deemed acceptable. Apparently, rape is about sex after all.
I am left wonder how many dead and dismembered girls and women will it take for that symbolic line in the sand to be crossed, where what is done to them is not registered as normal and acceptable, but rather a form of violence as well? Both Taylor’s column and the editorial tell us, albeit not in so many words. When the crime is committed against girls and women, the problem is too “complex” to sort out. On the other hand, the rape and murder of a boy is as an issue of “sexual propriety”, the violence being that a man was the perpetrator and a boy the victim. Furthermore, the problem is not related to diffuse social types called “monsters” but have nameable perpetrators and actionable behaviours. We can now focus on “big men, middle-aged and elderly” who commit sexual violence against children. Isn’t it amazing what it takes to get beyond the emotionality, moral outrage and speechifying about “our children”, and directly to issues of public policy?
Contrary to the editors’ backhanded defense of their claim, it is absolutely true that there is carte blanche permission for men to violate women and girls in Jamaican society. The evidence is in how girls and women move in this society. We know this violence and experience this everyday, to the extent that many of us don’t interpret what is done to us as violence; it is jus’ an everyday ting, as ordinary as buying a Mother’s patty.
And yet, for many of us, it is not entirely surprising that denial of the real motivations and consequences of violence against women and girls would rears its head in how opinion-makers choose to interpret similar victimization of boys as somehow worse and therefore cause for action. These stances confirm what Jamaican women and girls know intuitively: that we are not [ever?] going to get justice through the courts; and that the men who violate the little-known rules know that they will almost always get away with rape and murder; and that our silence will not protect us from being victimized all over again. Just look at the history of rape trials in this society, and even in the past few months, for amazingly powerful evidence that shows how the sexism regularly enables and endorse rape and violence against women and girls.
The deep-seated sexism and hatred of homosexuality are closely related, and we should not take comfort in one or the other; both do us a disservice, from how we make sense of these cases, to how we act to protect our children. Perhaps if our political leaders had demonstrated the moral leadership and courage necessary to draw the lines against those social prejudices, Keturah Bennett, Nordia Campbell and many would still have their children.
August 4, 2008
June 9, 2008
I’ve been thinking about sex a lot these days. And I’ve come up with the 5 Commandments that women are asked to follow here in Jamaica:
1. Have as much sex as you want.
2. Hide what you are doing at all costs.
3. Tell one ‘hole ‘eap a lie when yuh buck yuh toe an mek dem see seh yuh fall dung.
4. Expect all k’i'na fiyah fi bun fi yuh when backra fine out.
5. Lie dung an beg fi mercy like sey yuh a ‘ungry belly mongrel dog.
And those of us who, for all kinds of reasons, decide not to abide by all of these commandments – well, a pyere problems, yes? Kwame Dawes just wrote a really insightful piece in the Washington Post about Annesha Taylor, who was the poster girl for the Ministry of Health’s public education campaign about HIV/AIDS. Just like Sara Lawrence, the Miss Jamaica World 2006 who was the target of public scorn and hypocrisy when she disclosed that she was pregnant last year, Annesha was immediately disappeared by MOH when she disclosed that she too was bearing a child.
The swirl of concern and debate around these women has not really been about them at all. Rather, it’s about the naive and dangerously simplistic story that was built up around them, and which these young 20-something women implictly agreed to by their participation: the story that these vibrant and beautiful women are mere “symbols” not people with active sex lives, who can speak without uttering a cliche, and who want companionship and pleasure the same way most of us do. It is telling that, no matter that their choices are much more closely aligned with the lives of many other 20-something women in similar circumstances, the MOH and the other cultural gatekeepers cannot come up with any other strategy but to punish them by demonizing them and making them objects of public ridicule. Wouldn’t this a great opportunity to talk about the reality of abstinence — namely, that it doesn’t work, and surely not for most people? Wouldn’t this be a good time to begin addressing that other reality that 20-somethings know only too well ie. that sexual intercourse between (and among) men and women is already risky, and that maybe harm reduction and more frank, open, informed dialogue about the complexities of sex might be more in line with what we need right now.
Annesha’s case, as reported by Kwame, reveals the immoral trades that Black (esp. working class) women are still being asked to make: their bodies for their children’s lives. Access to drugs, to companionship, to a structured environment to raise her children, to income, is dependent on her making a variety of trades, that only marginally benefit her. We learn that access to the life-saving candy from Big Pharma comes at a cost, to all of us women: our government is asked to push a bankrupt policy of abstinence and monogamy, which doesn’t even work in their country, much less in ours. Monogamy, from the perspective of the religious and political conservatives who are the decisionmakers at Big Pharma, means a particular thing: marriage. No common law foolishness fi dem. Of course, if anybody has cared to pay attention to our history through lenses not tainted by Victorianism, we might see that women in Jamaica generally do (serial) monogamy; marriage is not the be-all and end-all for most. Of course, this unintentional boycott of the shackles of marriage in Jamaica is taking place, despite our being told that we are moral reprobates for not marrying the pathetic men who often come our way.
So how about the MOH tailoring a message that speaks to our realities as women? Oh no! Because the MOH (like most of our society) are really stuck in the 17th century, and really do believe that it is still a “problem” that women are not married (via church and govt) to the men who are the sperm donors to their children. Annesha clearly recognizes that she was caught in this double bind, and that the code of respectability still reigns as ever before. However, its not marriage campaigns doing that ideological work in the 21st century, its “reproductive health” and “family planning” policies.
Annesha and Sara, as black Jamaican women, are finding out that there’s no half-way about becoming the paragon of [rehabilitated] virtue these days in Jamdung. So you feel like you’re informed, educated and respected enough, and therefore have the authority to do your own thing ie. live in ways that entirely normal within this cultural milieu? That’s nice. But, my dears, you must remember that its not enough that you get to be poster-child; there was some fine print that you didn’t read. Stepping up as poster children for black women also means that you have agreed to be even more constrained by the morality debates enshrined in the 5 Commandments. Past “sins” of black women over the past 4 centuries are most certainly not going to be forgiven or forgotten; for that reason, it is even more necessary that you pretend to change your ways, as if you are “born-again”; and to act as if your entire life and framework have changed, while you continue to do what you always have done. Accommodation to the rules and acquiescence to being gatekeepers is what was expected of you. And that’s where you fucked up, my pretties.
For me, beyond the implications I have pointed out or alluded to above, is an urgent need to disregard the 5 Commandments entirely, and to rewrite the rules by which women can make decisions about their sexual lives without the overbearing hand of governmental or religious mandates. While Sara and Annesha are aware of the ideas embedded in the 5 Commandments, it would be too much to assume that they would reject these rules. They too, remain beholden to the systems which regulate the most intimate aspects of our lives. And so, even with first-hand knowledge of how utterly bankrupt and destructive that system can be for individuals, they may still emerge as its biggest supporters. That would be a pity, but certainly not unexpected.
Its the rest of us that I am looking to for inspiration and change: to be sexual renegades within a moral framework that is built on mutual respect for each other’s humanity, a sense of loyalty to each other, a commitment to standing up for each other’s health and wellbeing, and an ever-present awareness that our sexuality is not the beginning or essence of who we are, just another source of creative possibility and means to better living. I don’t think those ideas will be broadcast on any MOH billboard or ad anytime soon.
So, where do we start? Well, while we’re collecting dollar coins to make our own public education campaign, we adults should start practicing ethical sex right now: not just in terms of who you do whatever wtih, but also how we talk about sex to our children, co-workers, clients, etc. Sex isn’t just about biology, risk and problems. Its also – more importantly – about social interaction, pleasure, making babies (these are not mutually exclusive at all).
We also need fi start organize wi pickney dem fi aks question an’ tell di odder parents dem fi demand better discussions bout sex a’ school. Dem deh morality foolishness wha dem a teach n’ah go mek nobody feel sweet or hug yuh up a night time, so mek dem gwa’an bout dem bizness. If yuh an dem whe’n deh tell di pickney dem ów much a clock, dem wouldn’a sex off one anneder inna some nasty bathroom and stairwell like seh a sports day dem deh (well, dem prob’ly woulda use di teacha desk instead…).
June 5, 2008
The Observer recently published a seemingly frivolous article exploring whether vaginal fluids betray women’s (other) eating habits.
I know what you are thinking. I am not making up these news items; they were published in the newspaper, and since I read a wide range of material, its entirely natural that this one would come to my attention.
While the kindly doctor staunchly denies having ever heard that vaginal fluids might bear traces of women’s gustatory preferences – I can practically see the look of thinly veiled disgust on her face – I wonder why the reporter never bothered to ask those of us who are pumpum connoisseurs what we think about the question.
I already know the answer to that, of course: to do so is to validate a certain kind of body knowledge that does exist in Jamaica and is not to be found in medical books or among the so-called authorities on all things related to our bodies. Such knowledge only comes through the kind of intimate encounters that some of us actually find pleasurable and educational, while still being curious about how it all works. Too bad the article didn’t take the opportunity to encourage such curiosity.
The kindly doctor doesn’t seem to think this is a useful topic, and knows what to do about men’s smell issues – why am I not surprised? – but doesn’t offer a prescription for what to do if punaany juice taste more like vinegar than honey. I suspect that’s caused by douching one too many times, by the way. My recommendation: stop douching and using all dem chemicals (its bad for you and your pumpum; besides real pumpums don’t smell like ‘spring bouquet’ or ‘rain’) and go to the doctor just to make sure all is well. Yes, every woman (and person) has a unique smell and taste. Women’s genitals do not have any strong odours except when cloistered and marinated in sweat for hours or is suffering from some ailment. You would smell funky too if you lock up in the dark in polyester and spandex inna di hot sun! However, whatever our penchant for exaggeration, claims about similarities with essence of saltfish, mackerel and herring really doesn’t come close to describing what most women’s genitals taste and smell like, even under such stressful conditions. If we were less prone to anxiety, we would recognize those claims – made by women and men – that women’s genitals are nasty, disgusting and polluting as stupid and steeped in woman-hating (yep, that’s what I said..). And of course, such attitudes will only continue to spread if nobody, including women themselves, puts up a decent defense of their pumpum.
By now, we know that intimate knowledge of the kind that we seek and desire is not readily forthcoming in this sexophobic society. So, Jamaican women will have work a lot harder to know their bodies, including finding out the normal taste and smell of their own cocobread, and coming up with ways to sweeten the deal if their partners aren’t too enthusiastic about going into new sexual territory.
There are really only two ways for a woman to figure out what she tastes and smells like: the direct (your hand to your mouth) or the indirect (your mouth to your partner’s after s/he takes a dip) methods work equally well. I recommend that women do this before and after the menstrual period and when they are relaxed so they can figure out whether hormonal changes have any effect. Of course, you can always ask an opinion of whoever you give permission to explore your porkie, but I really think women should be the experts on their own bodies. I received that bit of advice in 2nd form from the Libresse lady, and I have never forgotten it.
Some remedies women and their partners might consider – look, there’s often a lot riding on getting this part of the performance down – include flavored creams and jellies designed for sex play, food items that are mushy and spreadable including fruits, ice cream, jams, chocolate (just don’t shove them in too far), and dental dams (barriers between the tongue and the porkie made of latex, silicone or even ordinary plastic wrap). This is one of those few times when you can indeed change the flavour as many times as you want, and not spoil a wonderful meal.