Ms Black (the 3rd of 3 essay-stories on race in Jamaica)
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 alright.’
‘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 the 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 then….’
‘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 learnt 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 wings, 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 learnt. 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 is 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 way and in her own language and with its own incredible 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-Boy’s Club. But she did not go to any of the island’s top Boy schools – not to Wolmer’s or St Georges or Jamaica College or Kingston College, and that has been its own hurdle. 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 wings 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 ‘bhuttoo’ 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 had 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 was in parliament. ‘Here is the thing! Here is the thing!’ he slurred, ‘You see 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 bhuttu – and all these things that we say every goddamn day is really the way that we have learnt 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 often times 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 learnt 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 Mr Black thinks that everything is ready, the intercom rings. It is from 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.’