Lennie Little-White | Is being black still a stigma in Jamaica?
When I came back to Jamaica in the 1970s, I was shocked to find out that de facto discrimination existed in local advertising in the print and electronic media. I came home ready to hang up my shingle as a filmmaker-cum-communications consultant, and what a rude awakening I got.
While a student at the undergraduate and graduate levels in Toronto and Chicago, I was immersed in the theology of African cultural retentions. Black Power became more than a clenched fist but an epistemology to be lived and not just an intellectual excursion. All this was cemented in Garveyism as taught to me by my mother.
Given my professional training as a filmmaker, I decided to find jobs in advertising, which was booming in Jamaica at the time. My rude awakening came when I was told by creative directors of advertising agencies that they did not want on-screen talent that looked like me with my melanin tones, broad nose and lips. Yes, this is the Jamaica I came back to in 1973 – 11 years after we became independent.
“If you are black, stay back,
If you are brown, stick around,
If you are white, you are all right.”
While advertising agencies at that time had a lot of foreign creative executives, the majority were native Jamaicans of colour. I was ready to pack my bags and return to North America – until I remembered the long, cold winters that I had endured for more than seven years. So, with quiet trepidation, I asked, “Why was there an embargo on on-screen talent that were black?” The lame, though plausible excuse was that commercials made in Jamaica were exported to Trinidad where people with light-skinned, Indian phenotype were the majority.
As a young entrepreneur trying to make a mark and earn a living in my native country, it led me to genuflect and bypass many attractive males and females with a darker hue at casting calls for television commercials. I did not want to be blacklisted by the powerful advertising agencies, so regrettably, I sold my soul for the filthy dollar.
At that time, I was a pioneer in the film industry because I was the first Jamaican of African profile and race to establish a full-fledged private film production house. All my major competitors were white Jamaicans or foreigners who found a comfortable resting place in Jamaica.
As my reputation grew and I proved my mettle as a good filmmaker, I managed to convince some agencies to include talent of a darker hue with kinky hair and broad nostrils in the talent pool. Even when they agreed, chosen talent who looked like me and my sister were relegated to doing advertisements for the C and D markets with products targeted towards the working class – e.g., washing soap and canned mackerel.
Small wonder that our much-revered beauty contests were peopled with ladies who became the epitome of ‘browning’. The few women with African ethnic retentions were selected as mere tokens to quiet those among us who saw this as blatant discrimination.
PREJUDICE IN PAGEANTS
One contest promoter told me, “Black girls can’t win Miss World or Miss Universe.” That was until Lisa Hanna won – but then her phenotype is Indian – not African. The myth was shattered when a Trinidadian black woman, Wendy Fitzwilliam, was chosen as Miss Universe in 1998.
A further contribution to the celebration of our black women and men came with the establishment of Pulse by Kingsley Cooper. Here was a selection of black models who were being acclaimed internationally for their virgin African looks. This was then enlarged by the emergence of the Saint posse that now has its own international profile with distinct African-Jamaican models.
Given the standard of beauty that was set on television and in local beauty contests, it is no wonder why a young Buju Banton could sing:
“Me love me car, me love me bike
Me love me money and ting
But most of all, me love me browning.”
Fortunately, today, advertisers have made a quantum leap in selecting Jamaicans who look like all the people who purchase their products. Trinidad’s racial mix is no longer an excuse for the discrimination that existed up to two decades ago.
Thankfully, most of us have slowly accepted that black is beautiful. This maturation was aided by the emergence of a black grass-roots woman who blossomed to become the first female prime minister of Jamaica, Portia Simpson Miller. At no time did she camouflage her African roots, in the same way that Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange wears her African profile proudly. For every young girl (or boy), these two women are living examples that your racial origin should not be barriers to reaching the pinnacle of the Jamaican society.
While Norman Manley, Hugh Shearer and P.J. Patterson were all of a darker hue, their rise to the top of the political heap was not as transformational as that of Portia Simpson Miller. She not only broke the racial barrier for women but also the class prejudices that women from the grass roots still have to face in today’s Jamaica.
The faded celluloid of television and cinema advertisements from the sixties and seventies are hieroglyphics that will be lessons to social commentators and anthropologists when they look back where we are coming from as Jamaicans, where the majority of us who were born here still have strong African roots and retentions. Never mind the rampant bleaching and imported false hair that are the new beauty symbols for some – if only a minority.
There are those still among us who are always anxious to tell you that their great-grandfather is Scottish, Irish, or English, but never African. We can all thank Peter Tosh for his seminal composition:
“So, don’t care where you come from
As long as you’re a black man, you’re an African
No mind your nationality
You have got the identity of an African.”
Is being black still a stigma in independent Jamaica?