Mark Wignall | The power and the perils of skin shade in Jamaica
A little after midnight on a day in 1974, my one-year-old son, Mark Jr, became ill with what turned out to be gastroenteritis. I had been out late that Friday and I was in a bit of panic as I arrived home and the live-in helper gave me the news that my wife had rushed off to children’s hospital.
As I arrived there the pandemonium had not yet died down. My wife, a small woman with brown skin shade, had pushed away the hands of the security guard, brushed his body aside and made her way in to see the admitting medical personnel. Shouts of ‘red gal’ by the black security guard and many of the poor Jamaican, black-skinned women with their sick babies hurling well-known epithets at her and citing her colour brought me a moment’s confusion.
The baby had taken my looks but my wife’s skin shade. The nurses were paying little attention to restiveness in the outer waiting area. Instead they were gushing over the child with, ‘What a pretty baby, eh’.
Coming out of the notional support for Black Power issues of the late 1960s, I just stood there watching that complex human moment playing out. My wife, a brown-skinned, woman had used her aggressiveness in support of her sick child as any other black-skinned woman could do, and she was being cussed out and her skin colour being cited in negative terms.
The black nurses were quick on attaching an IV unit to the child and It appeared that my ‘pretty brown-skin baby’ and the aggressiveness of my wife had somehow given us an edge in a country mostly made up of black-skinned people where open expressions of racial animus are largely absent.
Three years before when I was first introduced to her and a bolt of lust and love had claimed me, what was it did I see in her? Was her skin colour important or was it the entire woman? In the decade before that, as the Black Power age spilled out of the United States and radically charismatic persons like Malcolm X became more relevant, there were subtle resentments building up.
Rasta was coming into itself and as ‘black is beautiful’ hit the airwaves and the psyche of poor black Jamaicans, some even overacted and openly called brown-skin Jamaicans ‘pork’ on the roadways. These pesky little details are, of course, of little importance in Black History Month in Jamaica. Indeed, it seems that Black history has long fallen to the lowest rung in terms of matters deeply affecting Jamaicans at this time.
Recent polls have shown us that in excess of 80 per cent of our people are in support of the states of emergency which were recently scrapped. I doubt that at any time in the duration of the states of emergency any single one of the detainees matched the profile of white, brown-skinned and wavy-haired.
For one to see the usefulness of such a profile one would have to visit the rare air at the very top of the society where real power in this country is still held.
Many believe that successive governments have been quite willing to hold the hands of the new Chinese and Spanish investors while consortiums made up of black-skinned Jamaicans are conveniently ignored, or worse, red tape and humbugs are deliberately placed in their paths with the ultimate aim of frustrating them.
“It’s even bigger than colour,” said a well-known Jamaican business mogul to me. “If there is nothing in it for the minister he will keep it dead.”