Let me first apologize, this was not the post that I had planned for today. I was going to be reviewing a debut YA novel but every time I’ve tried to write it, I couldn’t do it because my mind just couldn’t focus. For the past few weeks with the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Susan Bogle, I’ve been feeling a bit guilty for not writing and being more vocal publicly about race. Even though it’s Read Caribbean month and I had my entire post schedule planned down to the day and time, when it came to actually posting, the enthusiasm hasn’t been there. In the past, this has been kind of intentional on my part. It’s not that I don’t want to speak about race and racism, it’s just that I’ve found I do better with those conversations in person than I do in writing. I have these conversations with friends, co-workers, family and even with strangers when I’m in public spaces but online, I shy away from it because my thoughts don’t come out as clearly. I also foolishly thought that if I kept up with my Read Caribbean, positive posts that it would somehow make me feel better, that it would be a positive distraction from the bleakness, it would remain a hopeful space. That’s not going to work anymore so now it’s time for me to share how I’ve been feeling these past two weeks and to reach out to you all to see how you’ve been feeling and coping.
My earliest memory of encountering racism and colourism was an incident that happened when I was four years old. I was in kindergarten and I was playing with two other classmates, one White and one mixed race when another classmate of ours, a dark skinned Black girl came over and asked if she could play with us. The White girl said, “No, you can’t play with us because you’re Black”. I remember this weird feeling coming over me and just being very confused. I had never heard anyone say something like that before. I also remember so clearly thinking, but I’m Black, how come these girls let me play with them but won’t let our other classmate play with us? The dark skinned girl looked like she was going to cry and the mixed race girl began telling her, “no, come play with us”. Eventually, the dark skinned girl walked away and told a teacher about what had happened and the other two girls got in trouble. Of course, there was a meeting with all the students and the parents to talk to us about race and how that type of behaviour was wrong and unacceptable. The colourism aspect however was never discussed and life went on. I remember this day like it was yesterday, again, I was four years old.
Being a “light skinned” Black person in Jamaica and with the majority of my family in Jamaica being white, coupled with doing part of my schooling at an international school abroad, I have had to deal with blatant racism while also acknowledging my privilege. I’ve been called a nigger in at least 3 different languages, I’ve been the butt of racist jokes many of which were sexually explicit in nature because of the stereotypes that exist in other cultures about Black women, I’ve heard non Black men proudly say they’ll sleep with us but they’ll never marry us. I’ve had strangers feel it’s okay to just grab me and put their hands in my hair and have it called “negro hair” or “nappy hair”. I’ve been stared at and followed around airports as I was the only Black person in sight there. I’ve been followed around in Indian owned stores right here in Jamaica. These are just some of my personal experiences. If I were to include the ones my mother and siblings have dealt with, we’d be here all day. I also feel its important for them to tell their own stories in their own words when they’re ready.
On the flip side, I’ve had Black people in Jamaica tell me point blank I am not Black and therefore don’t get to speak on issues that affect Black people. I’ve been told by family members that I’m “not that Black” or “not that dark” as if those are compliments, as if that’s what I’ve been dying to hear. I’ve had waaay too many Black men say I could give them a pretty hair daughter and way too many Black women and mixed women tell me how lucky I am that my children (these hypothetical children, which I neither have nor want) will have my complexion and hair texture. I’ve had family members tell me that myself and other Black people need to “get over slavery”. I’ve had moments when I’ve wanted to speak on issues such as skin bleaching for example but I have to pull up (or my sister has to pull me up lol) and say no, you’re not the right person to give that message. I’ve had to learn what I can and can’t say as a “light skinned” Black woman, when to keep quiet and just listen. It’s not always easy because I get emotional and defensive, I feel like I have a personal responsibility to say something but I’ve had to learn, and I’m still learning that sometimes the best thing I can offer is silence, a listening ear and a willingness to learn.
When you’re too Black for some spaces and not Black enough for others, you learn to stay in your lane, at least, that’s what I did. Me being more vocal about race and racism is a fairly recent development and it came about mostly out of the books I was now reading, joining Rebel Women Lit, the people I was meeting and the friends I was making while becoming more immersed in the literary scene. Also, I am just really sick and tired of being quiet. I’ve had enough of the ignorance. I tried the “don’t get angry, educate” approach but honestly, I’m over that too.
Why did these memories come back to me? To be honest, they never really leave do they? When I heard that an uncle of mine had said, “Black people bring these things on themselves” and that a cousin about my age agreed with this stance, needless to say I was livid. When they insinuated that Black people are too defensive and make everything about race, using an example of a Black person being approached by a security guard about something and demanding to know “Is it because I’m Black?”, did my family member honestly never stop and think, why would that Black person ask that? No one comes out the womb yelling “Is it cuz I’m Black?” We learn that over time based on our life experiences. Did this really never cross my family member’s mind? Are they completely ignorant to the fact that racism and racist incidents are not felt in isolation of each other and can’t be treated as such? Every time someone experiences or sees racism, it adds to a collective, you remember previous experiences and that’s how it can tear you down mentally and physically. Of course they are ignorant of these things because in Jamaica, “We don’t have a race problem, we have a class problem”. Dutty Hiss Teet.
I’m not going to pretend I’m a scholar on race relations in Jamaica or in the Caribbean. I get my knowledge from listening to others, from reading and Google is free.99. Just like in the U.S. & U.K., heck, the whole world at this point, we need to to be honest about racism in Jamaica and the Caribbean, face it head on, stop acting like it doesn’t exist, stop making excuses and making meaningless and empty symbolic gestures that are great for a photo op but really carry no weight. Education, education, education is key and not just in schools, but for adults too. I truly believe in peoples’ capacity to learn, grow and change, no more of this “dun bruk bad already” approach. We need to read more and read widely so we can become less limited in our thinking. For this to happen though, access and especially affordable access to a wider variety of reading material is needed which brings me to my next point, the importance of Read Caribbean.
With the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the worldwide increase in support for the Black Lives Matter movement, one thing I’ve enjoyed seeing is Black people calling everybody out and I mean EVERYBODY. Who fi get drag, ah get drag and I love to see it. Book subscription boxes, publishers, sponsors, di whole a dem ah get call out. Were you following #publishingpaidme? I love that Black people are saying enough is enough, I’m not working with you anymore until you pay me what I’m worth, keep your scraps and your meaningless blackout Tuesday Instagram posts. I also truly appreciate that the focus is including Black people from all over the world including the Caribbean.
If you’ve been following my friend Akilah of Ifthisisparadise, Decentred Lit, Rebel Women Lit, Kerine of Kayyyreads just to name a few, these call outs of publishers and their foolishness aren’t new, these ladies have been doing the work. Having these call outs happen in Read Caribbean is just icing on the cake. Cindy of BookofCinz this week shared in her Instagram stories the experiences she has had with publishers and bwoy… The struggle that Caribbean bookstagrammers and bloggers have getting books written by Caribbean authors and/or set in the Caribbean is unreal. Publishers with their talk of “We don’t ship to the Caribbean (or Spain? wtf). Physical advance copies of books going to White bookstagrammers and bloggers while we get asked if we can make do with a digital copy? Authors themselves are the ones sending physical copies at their own expense just to get their books into the hands of Caribbean readers. Wah can go suh? How dat mek sense? Don’t these publishers want these authors work to do well and sell or are the Caribbean authors and BIPOC authors just there on their lists as a way to say “we believe in diversity and inclusivity” (the corporate version of thoughts and prayers). I don’t know about you, but I’m more likely to buy a book by a Caribbean author or one set in the Caribbean if it has Own Voices reviews. Those reviews are so important. I’m sorry, she could be the nicest person on the planet but Susie in Minnesota is not going to get me to buy Maisy Card’s, These Ghosts are Family. (You can see my take on the importance of own voices reviews here).
Another thing I’m happy to see happening during Read Caribbean is the author interviews where the hosts like author, Bree McIvor speak to authors such as Nicole Dennis-Benn openly about race in the Caribbean and how racism is systemic, how it rears its head in everyday life, in our politics even at the highest level. Bree spoke about the colourism and xenophobia that exists in Trinidad and Tobago and Nicole shared how that was similar to situations in Jamaica. Nicole’s interview with Rebel Women Lit brought up the experience of being a Black, queer woman in Jamaica (these interviews were brilliant, go watch them). I’m looking forward to hearing Maisy Card’s words on the topic in her interview with Akilah later on today, I just know it’s going to be good.
The point is, the work is being done, the stories are being written and told and they need to be read and heard. I don’t think one can read novels like Nicole Dennis-Benn’s, Patsy and Here Comes the Sun, Maisy Card’s, These Ghosts are Family, Zalika Reid-Benta’s, Frying Plantain, Olive Senior’s, Boonoonoonous Hair, Rachel Thwaites-Williams’s, Charlotte & the Two Puffs (shameless plug) Kacen Callander’s, Queen of the Conquered, Elizabeth Acevedo’s, The Poet X (I could go on and on here) and not become more aware of race, racism and colourism in the Caribbean and how ingrained it is in our societies. We need to read these books, see ourselves in these books and learn not only about our history, but how we can change things for the better in the present and future. Awareness leads to change. And to those publisher’s whose job it is to get these stories out to a wider audience, who have a duty to those authors whose work they commission, to the bookstores who need to learn of these book’s existence and get them out to the population, to the White bloggers and bookstagrammers that say they want to be allies, in the words of an example of Caribbean excellence:
The year is 2020, do better and demand better.
Stay safe everyone. Til next time 🙂
For suggestions on Caribbean titles you should read, see:
Book of Cinz – My Favourite Collection of Caribbean Short Stories
Rebel Women Lit – Listen to the Like a Real Book Club Podcast episode on 100 Caribbean Books That Shaped Our World
For insight on how racism affects the health of Black people, see this interview of Dr. David Williams, Harvard Professor on MSNBC this week earlier this week.
Please feel free to share resources you’ve found helpful or think should be required reading in the comments 🙂