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Coppertone and Disenchantment

The author in her father's garden as a teenager

By Grace Virtue

An online photo of a woman caught my attention late last year. Beyond the undefined ethnicity, perfectly coiffed hair, and flawless bronze skin, she seemed like someone I should know.

It was Barbara Lewars, I soon found out, second wife of the late Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley and mother of their daughter, Sarah. Lewars died from cancer in the late sixties when I was a toddler in rural Manchester but I knew Sarah from CARIMAC, which explained the vague sense of familiarity. The shiny black hair, the deep expressive eyes and luminous smile, were all the same.

CARIMAC – Caribbean Institute of Mass Communication, then – was a small place. We all knew each other, even if we didn’t talk. Sarah and I didn’t talk but we took several classes together. Plus, as the daughter of the 1970s fire-brand socialist prime minister, and grand-daughter of the late Premier Norman Manley and celebrated sculptress Edna Manley, she was in a class by herself. Everyone knew who she was

Lewars image anchored Sarah’s essay “Coppertone,” a first-person narrative of her experience with race and class in Jamaica in the online magazine, Pree. The photo first appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in 1959 as part of a feature article about Jamaica’s tourism potential.

With almost irritating deliberateness, Sarah juxtaposes the love and good intentions of her family for her against the insidious  bigotry that was also a part of who they were, and that they tried to pass on to her. She rejected it early on, but it was a rejection defined by confusion – about why so many people perceived blackness as something to be ashamed of; something to be shunned. Sarah’s father, meanwhile, encouraged love for humanity, and love of herself, where no part of her was defined by any sense of superiority or inferiority of one ethnic component over another. He drew no such distinction and he taught her to do the same.

As the protagonist of her own work, Sarah respects her father’s wisdom and the grace of her black stepmother, who would be the target of much of the bigotry. But the tensions between her father’s world and that of her light-skinned maternal family, particularly her grandmother, created pain for her– aided by a larger superstructure that communicated to her that there is no value in being black; that what is inherently valuable, and what she should cling to above all else, are the things that make her non-black, like the fair skin of her English ancestry and “proper” English norms and mores metaphorized as Enid Blyton stories and afternoon teas. Ultimately, Sarah parses all sides of the issues and in middle-age is finally able to claim her identity as a black woman, albeit one still in pain.

Only those who truly understand Jamaica’s history of mistreating its black citizens can fully appreciate the courage it takes to choose a marginalized identity over integration into a structure where social superiority would be taken for granted. Of course, one could argue that there is so much that is implicit in who Sarah is, that, like her father and grandfather before her,  she can  never truly know what it means to be black, poor and dispossessed, with no connection to the  structures of power granted by history, wealth or whiteness. While this is likely so, she clearly understands how and why the lines of demarcation are drawn, and she acknowledges the result as not merely unjust and destructive, but profoundly foolish.

While the essay is elegantly written, its power is in its point of view. The writer tells her story through the rare prism of privilege brutally examining itself, admitting its role in the demeaning of those less privileged, and being outraged by the injustice of it all. By skillfully and honestly illustrating how bigotry is actively taught by the privileged class, Sarah addresses the lie,  the counter -narrative of Jamaica’s non-black minority and their surrogates, that racial discrimination against the majority exists only in the minds of a few troublemakers bent on spreading discord. These would be people who choose to be unapologetically black or who tell their stories from the perspective of the marginalized majority.

Without even addressing the issue directly, “Coppertone” explains why, increasingly, so many Jamaican women (and men) chemically change the color of their skin, at the risk of cancer or serious organ damage. While the practice is a go-to subject to sell tabloids locally, or for circular conversations on radio talk- shows, few, in positions of influence, ever admit that it is a call for validation from a society that has historically rejected their blackness, and everything associated with it, in favor of mindlessly aping British colonial or contemporary American values, which, by definition, marginalizes the black person.

Such is the extent of the problem in contemporary Jamaica that prominent global media entities like Marie Claire Magazine, the Associated Press and the Washington Post have highlighted it in recent times. When asked why she bleached her skin, Jody Cooper, a subject in the Marie Claire article, published June 2017, responded simply, “When you black in Jamaica, nobody sees you.” In case anyone is confused, this is not about sight but about the perceived absence of “weight,” worth, and value, among large swathes of the black population on account of their experience with racism and classism.

To the extent that “Coppertone” connects to the broader social deconstructive work begun by Michael Manley, it triggered my reflections on how his policies helped lift my family out of poverty by providing opportunities and a pathway to access them, as well as the continuing and urgent need for a cultural and psychological environment built on respect and inclusivity rather than the rigid exclusivity that continues to define life in Jamaica.

Manley established the National Housing Trust in the 1970s. My father got a loan and completed the bungalow he started to build, mostly with his own masonry and carpentry skills. The house still stands on the property he named Hibiscus Place, a nod to the blossoming shrubs he planted on the border facing the road. They were red double- puffed hibiscus and they bloomed all the time.

The shrubs are mostly gone now and the house seems so tiny, dwarfed by the grander edifices erected nearby since, but it will always be home to me – the first place that gave me a sense of permanence – and freedom from the abuse my family experienced when other people owned the roof over our heads.

Before the housing trust loan, Douglas Manley, Michael’s older brother and our member of parliament helped my father get a merit-based position in the civil service; he had to sit and pass a written exam. He spent the next twenty years working with the Public Works Department, which later became the National Works Agency. A regular salary, even if it was never enough, and a place to be safe and we were all on our way.

The farming community where we lived also got a new school. I walked there every day for five years, did a little more than just eat my lunch and prepared myself for a life of relative self-sufficiency. This is true of my ten siblings, eight of whom acquired tertiary education with two choosing other paths.

Michael Manley, unlike many of his ilk, did not glorify whiteness, didn’t care whether his own child was black or not; whether her hair was straight or dreadlocked, and didn’t care what my hair looked like either. That unconditional respect and acceptance at the highest level of national leadership, taught me to believe I was somebody without having to bleach my skin or otherwise reject my blackness.

The same message he communicated to his daughter, he did to me through his policies and the philosophy of human dignity and self-worth underpinning them.

Just about a decade and a half after Manley’s raft of social policies, I wound up in the same place as his daughter. This, to me, is the embodiment of what can be achieved when leaders set goals that go beyond preserving spaces of privilege for themselves, their family, or for just certain kinds of people. It goes as well to the ability of those who simply need opportunity to grab it and run with it as soon as it presents itself.

There should be no doubt that these are the kinds of social policies that are needed at a far more aggressive and accelerated rate on an even grander scale, to unlock Jamaica’s potential. Without the liberation of the masses from the death-grip of narrow self-interest, and of racism and elitism, there is little hope for a truly productive, peaceful, and cohesive society.

“Coppertone” hits many touch points. It reflects Manley’s influence on his daughter, and it speaks truths about the harmful effect of racism and classism in Jamaica few are willing to accept even in the face of mountains of evidence. More than two decades after his death, though, the choice now to be openly vulnerable and to live from an honest place, is all Sarah’s.

She would do well to embrace another truth; that there is no “healing” or erasure of the chronic pain caused by toxic relationships or oppressive societal structures. The only solution is to use it as motivation to live every day in opposition to the sham and folly of it all.

Grace is a social scientist and social justice advocate who works as a public professional in Washington, D.C. Her work is heavily influenced by her lived experience, the philosophies of Jesus Christ, Michael Manley and Marcus Garvey, and the protest themes of Caribbean and other African Diaspora writers whose work she absorbed during her studies at Church Teachers’ College (Dip. Ed), The University of the West Indies (B.A.), and Howard University (Ph.D., M.A). She lives in Montgomery County, Maryland. 

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