Mrs White (the 2nd of 3 essay-stories on race in Jamaica)
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 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 are 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 it 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 Mackenzies 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 question 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 gun fights 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 now 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 that strange thought. She wonders though if Marva would have loved her children any more or any less if they had been any another 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:AM 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 anymore. He used just one of his hands to hold on to 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 till it was bleeding. Marva was now shouting for the whole neighbourhood to hear. ‘Get yu nasty black hand dem off of Ms 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 still 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.