Sun | Jan 19, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Damned bewitching beauty contests

Published:Sunday | December 15, 2019 | 12:46 AM

Many black women in Jamaica are under the spell of beauty contests. They keep wishing and hoping that someone who looks like them will be selected to wear the crown of Miss Jamaica. Our fraudulent national motto, ‘Out of many, one people’, appears to be a promise that all types of women have an equal chance of being chosen as Miss Jamaica.

Once in a blue moon, a black woman will win these contests. Most times, it’s a brown or near-white contestant who claims the coveted crown. And every year, despite the usual disappointment, persistent black women still make a huge emotional investment in these competitions. Why do they do it? Hope springs eternal in the human breast. But, at some point, irrationally optimistic black women just need to acknowledge the fact that these contests are not really for them. It’s the mixed-race, out-of-many-one type that is the ideal beauty in Jamaica.

There is always some controversy about who gets selected to represent Jamaica on the international stage. This year, the contention is much more noisy than usual. The ill-considered decision to make Annie Palmer, the legendary white witch of Rose Hall, the role model for Miss Universe Jamaica has provoked a huge backlash.

Some naïve souls are quite undisturbed by the revival of the white witch in the 21st century. It’s just a story and it’s all in the past. But perceptive people who can quite clearly see the legacy of slavery in the present are understandably alarmed.

The memes are wicked: Miss Universe Jamaica on the steps of a Great House standing next to that infamous photograph of ‘Whipped Peter’ who was enslaved in the US. He was so badly beaten that his back was terribly disfigured. That image of abuse became a powerful weapon in the fight against slavery. There’s another meme of a smiling Miss Universe Jamaica on-board a ship that is transporting enslaved Africans. The striking contrast between the half-naked captives and the impeccable beauty queen in her spotless white evening gown makes a powerful political statement.

NO NATIONAL COSTUME

Jamaica has no national costume. The bandana fashion statement made popular by the Hon Louise Bennett-Coverley doesn’t count as a national costume. At Independence in 1962, national symbols and emblems were established. Our black, green, and gold flag is the dominant emblem. Our national tree is the blue mahoe; our national flower is the lignum vitae; our national fruit is the ackee; and our national bird is the doctor bird. Not KFC! And ackee and salt fish is not our national dish. It’s popular but it has no official status.

Uzuri International, franchise holders of the Miss Universe Jamaica pageant, had the opportunity to create a truly visionary costume that would send a positive message about Jamaican culture across the world. They blew it.

According to a statement published on social media, “The Miss Universe Jamaica Organisation chose to highlight a tourism icon and national treasure from the tourism capital as the theme for the National Costume and decided that the Rose Hall Great House and its legend of Annie Palmer would be the fitting story, as Rose Hall Developments was also Iana’s sponsors.”

Purely commercial considerations seem to have determined the choice of a bogus ‘national costume’ for this year’s Miss Universe Jamaica. Is sponsorship the most important factor in the decision about how Jamaican culture is to be positioned internationally? And, regretfully, tourism is still the primary driver of the Jamaican economy. But do we really have to sanitise the depravity of slavery and turn our terrible history into entertainment for tourists?

ENCHANTING STORIES

The Rose Hall Developments’ website advertises its ‘Great House & Garden’ tour in this way: “Experience the heritage of Jamaica at this beautifully restored colonial mansion that will transport you to another era and enchant you with stories of witches and power and love and death!” What, exactly, is the heritage of Jamaica that the tour promotes?

Is our history really an enchanting tale about witches? Who was able to actually wield power in the era of slavery? Who was able to choose how to love? Who had the right to life? Who was forced to choose between death and enslavement? The answers to these questions are, presumably, not included in the story told on the tour.

The description of the ‘Haunted Night Tour’ is even more sensational: “At night, Rose Hall is not for the faint of heart! Experience the Rose Hall Plantation’s dramatic past as you venture into the world of the White Witch as she roams this Eighteenth Century sugar plantation seeking the love and fortune that first lured her here. But be warned, legend upholds that no one who crossed her survived to tell the tale!! This promises to be the encounter of a lifetime.”

These melodramatic narratives do not take into account the true stories of resistance to enslavement and colonialism. Recalling the lessons of history, black women must now break the spell of enchanting beauty contests for white witches. Instead of seeking validation from others, we must claim our own distinctive beauty.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com