When I was a child I was not allowed to suntan. My grandmother told me it would make me throw up. It’s true I did throw up a lot. If I ate pork or went for a long car drive in the back seat of her 1974 Triumph with the sticky hot brown seats. The smell of liquid Gravol still makes me retch, I so closely associate it with waves of sick. The sun tanning thing though was a bone of contention. Before I went outside to the saltwater pool at our country house in Discovery Bay, she would lather me in Coppertone lotion from the green top bottle. It was my bottle. The lotion was thick and white. The other kids would already have chosen sides in Marco Polo by the time I got to the pool. They didn’t need lotion, weren’t forced to use it by their own mothers who were covered in the oily orange top Coppertone. Hell, they could use baby oil if they wanted, but not me. I stamped impatiently while the cream was rubbed into every exposed inch of flesh. At 11 am sharp I had to come out of the sun. The midday sun was the worst so between eleven and three I was not allowed in the pool or on the beach. I accepted this all as fact for a long time although I wondered why the other kids did not have such strict rules. It was the throwing up, apparently.
She loved me and I never once doubted it. She demonstrated it every night brushing out my long black hair that could be unruly, but was generally good as long as it was brushed and coiled into a bun before bed. I did not know then, and still work to unravel now, how these small rituals taught me from childhood about good and bad skin, good and bad hair, worth and worthlessness. She was, with each layer of Coppertone green, with each brush stroke, both creating and preserving my power, as an act of kindness and motherly love, not an act of cruelty. It was what she knew to be true of her world. My pale yellow skin, my hair without kinks, was my power.
In sharp contrast to my grandmother’s careful world of Enid Blyton stories and four pm tea was my father’s world, the world that existed to destroy those aspects of my Coppertone fantasy that did not suit him. It did suit him to listen to classical music and eat smelly cheeses and cold tongue. It did not suit him to maintain whiteness as a virtue or hair texture as a blessing. So, in his electric chaotic world of nationalism and helicopters, I could abandon the Coppertone green top in my suitcase and leave the brush for days at a time. I could sit in the midday sun and turn brown as a tamarind seed. Sometimes, to be fair, I did throw up after a day of unsupervised sun. Certainly, after a summer holiday week with him, I would be returned to my grandmother in a state of complete “dishevelment”, her word. Hair basically locked, skin a deep brown and often peeling in huge sheets on my back. I would need a deep condition with Crème Rinse, she declared. They don’t take care of you there, she stated outright. The implication of this was that my “dark” stepmother at the time either didn’t know how or didn’t care to raise me properly. She wanted to drag me down with her (she was a leader of a women’s movement at the time and the wife of a head of State). The down she was dragging me into was Blackness. A robbing of my birthright, my power, so traitorous, that my grandmother died never forgiving her for what she did to me.
Of course, this has all been rehashed and hashtagged ad nauseum by actual intellectuals and actual writers, in long conversation threads on Facebook that I often partake in, sometimes provoke, and sometimes just read with increasing wonder. Painstaking explanations of what privilege is and what its impacts are on those without it’s benchmarks: penises or white skin in the clearly divided world of the North, tall hair or high colour here on the acrid corpse of the plantation. I have gone on my own long journey of recollection and deconstruction to arrive uncertainly at this place of dismay.
It’s my mother’s family that shaped me at my earliest. I’m not really speaking to most of them today. We don’t speak the same language. I can’t listen to them trash talk gays or bhuttus anymore. I’ve moved past the stage of polite or willful denial or silent complicity. I can’t argue with them because it’s pointless. A man’s character is not defined by where he places the emphasis on that word: CHAracter or charRACter, but they can’t hear me. It’s ironic that it is these same cousins who were allowed to roam lotion-less in the sweltering noon sun that maintain their certainty of privilege today, while I face my own, trembling. It’s the black wife who one cousin eloped with because his mother could not accept her that hoists the accouterment of superiority high; the style, the table manners, and home décor, the careful public presence in “society”. And this she does without even the good hair. In these ways, I have betrayed them. I have not capitalized on something. I have failed at something and in doing so called into question its validity (or my own sanity). As they predicted, I do suffer, financially, emotionally, and I have brought that suffering on myself.
I’m still soothed by English things. Accents, royalty, sentences, humour, novels from the 1840s, a time during which some of my ancestors were slaves and others were their masters. The irony within irony appalls me, galls me, as I wake up to watch Harry marry Meg. So Andrew could have married me then, I sicken myself by thinking. Meg is brown like me. So I pass. The tragedy of this thought depresses me for weeks. After so much unbecoming the insidiousness of racism astounds me.
And you reading this, those from the Caribbean, those with similar backgrounds to mine, I know you feel me. That is one of its pillars, this power; its commonality within a closed group. It is how we distinguish each other from the mass, the common man, these belief systems and silver tea services. Its exclusivity is core. I can’t write from a vantage point of Caribbean poverty and blackness. I don’t have that right. I can only speak from my certain knowledge, and that is from the position of privilege. I can say what that has done to me, how it has warped my vision, has made me cruel, dismissive, arrogant, patronizing and contemptuous. These truths shame me, but I can’t not face them. I can’t not stand and face the helper, gardener, ghetto yout, gunman-murderer pointing his Glock.
Something monstrous is between us. It’s ship length and soiled on every level, bow to stern, below deck and above. It roils on a midnight ocean covered in throw-up and shit-out and blood. My ancestors are on it. But every trace of that in me must be erased, denied, submerged under layers of Coppertone and patient stokes of a green handled brush. My grandmother was trying to save me from this moment of reckoning. But she couldn’t. The unruliness won. The vomiting won.
At the time of this writing I have a job, an uncertain thing as I respond poorly to authority, passive aggression, power structures, and all the things that come with jobs. I’ve cut off all the hair. I’m too tired to keep it in check anymore. Recently I spent a day at a pool and took on a little tan.
At work the next day they said, “Sarah! You’re so dark! What happened?”
“I’m black,” I answered.
A quiet tittering and side eye ensued.
It’s just that I’m black.
Image Info: In 1959, Life magazine featured Sarah Manley’s mother Barbara Lewars, on its cover. Barbara later married Sarah’s father Michael Manley, but died of cancer in 1968, a year after Sarah was born.
I was born in Kingston Jamaica in 1967 and I have lived there for most of my life. I have worked for 25 years in the film and television industry and am currently the studio production manager at Television Jamaica. Writing mostly for a limited audience on social media, writing for Pree is my first deliberate attempt at publication to a wider audience.