The River is in Spate and the Bridge is Inundated

That statement was made by my grandfather to my mother when she was a child. 

They were driving to the country after a period of heavy rain, and my mother got excited when she saw the water lapping at the edges of Flat Bridge. She cried out, “Daddy! Daddy! The water come down and it cover the bridge!” 

His response was swift and stern. “Cilla, we don’t speak like that! We say, the river is in spate and the bridge is inundated.”

She told me that story many times. I remember it now during this global BLM unveiling. Why, as Jamaicans, do we see things through such different lenses? Why does institutionalized racism exist and why does it persist? Why is it upheld consciously and unconsciously by Jamaicans of all shades?

You see, my grandfather knew that my mother, who was dark-skinned, needed to speak “perfect” English; needed to conduct herself — through her dress and behaviour — in ways that reassured those in the power structure. If he had any hopes of his children succeeding, then they would be “good” black people. 

My mother was elegant and graceful; and exercised a kind of self-control that became so much a part of her that she did it at home with us. Because “good” black people also did not have the luxury of forgetting themselves.

We should be grateful; we could still be in Africa. 

I have nothing in common with black Americans. 

Old man 
(insert any merchant’s name) had nothing when he came here, you know? He went from house to house peddling shirts and look where they are now…

Don’t you know that the Irish were slaves here too? Look at them now? 

At least we were colonized by the British…

Black people are like crabs in a barrel…

How do we teach our population the real story of our history — the real, unvarnished truth about the plantation society of our collective ancestors?

If we dreamed when we were young, we wanted to be lucky enough to be part of that Great House.  The light-skinned imagined themselves as owners; the dark-skinned aspired no further than imagining that somehow our ancestor was lucky enough to have been in the House. 

Seriously. How many house slaves would any planter really need? 

Slavery was about power and subjugation of property. All lives born on or sold to the plantation were property to do with as one pleased. That kind of power over human beings, over hundreds of years, passed down by birth, is unimaginable. How could it possibly have been sanitized? It seems inconceivable, but our colonial masters perfected the story and we became complicit in the telling of it for centuries after.

In that system you can’t help but have paedophiles, rapists, tortures, hunters; men selling their own children…But, somehow, we don’t talk about the horror.

When slavery was finally over, they needed to find a way to control people. 

They quickly realised that they had to let a few people into the inner circle who would be so grateful to be there that they had no trouble keeping their boot on the neck of the rest. You educate the population that “we” are civilized – “they” were saved from the Dark Continent and a life of savagery.

Colourism becomes your weapon. Anything is better than being dark-skinned. 

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but somehow Jamaicans have come to believe that only black people were really slaves — I mean dark-skinned Jamaicans like me. Anyone with dark skin in uptown Jamaica has had this happen: the topic of slavery comes up and light skinned people look at you — because this really only relates to you, not them. 

Macintosh HD:Users:alisonirvine-sobers:Desktop:5182M73GF7L.jpgIt becomes the norm that all slaves in books have dark skin, even when the story is about someone else. Several years ago, when the manuscript of Busha’s Mistress was republished, a woman looking like me was used on the cover.  The artist was supposed to be depicting “a quadroon of prepossessing appearance with a dignity in her demeanour”. As anyone who knows me could predict, I googled quadroon and saw a picture of a “near white” woman. 

So why wasn’t one of our standard Miss Jamaica’s (perhaps Miss Golden Apple) used as the model for the cover? It simply wouldn’t, for us, fit the image of a slave.

Slavery is fed to us as the story of people who were “black as the shoes on your feet”, sold into slavery by “their own people” (this one is always delivered in the tones of someone who is about to tell you some great untold truth…). We are told there were classes of slaves: field and house. We hear about good masters and bad ones. We sell the Romance. The Gracious living.  

After a few years of “schooling”, people who are fair-skinned begin to distance themselves. They never imagine slavery in any other way than as being part of the perceived grandeur of the Great House. 

They are so enthralled that they see nothing wrong with marrying their children on the lawns of Rose Hall. 

I can’t wholly blame people. They have had a lifetime of the sanitized story, choking any rational contemplation.  When a pale-skinned person does try to own the story, they get laughed at or scorned. A small voice inside, that is oh so grateful, says, “Thank God I’m not dark. Thank God I have good hair.” 

On the other hand, a dark-skinned person tries to talk and people are tired of the story, or they say you have a chip on your shoulder, or not everything is about race, or give it a rest, get over it already! 

In the 150 years between 1655 and the abolition of the slave trade — the British trafficked more than a million Africans into Jamaica — the death rate in Jamaica was enormous. In 1832, there were just under 320,000 survivors. 

We decided to forget this.

We downplay the horror and market Annie Palmer. 

We glide over European brutality…

Each year as I teach this topic to my Grade 5 students, I begin by asking, “Who would you rather be? Slave or planter?” I am aware that most people have both in their DNA. They always want to be planters. There’s discomfort at the start of the topic until we quickly get to understand that human beings with power — any human beings — become evil. They relax. It’s no longer about black and white because that’s stupid. It’s all of them, us, being a part of a brutal system. 

I tell them about the Morant Bay Massacre; I refuse to use the name we seem to prefer, the Morant Bay Rebellion. Nearly 700 people lost their lives in 1865 because they had the temerity to demand better treatment. They come to understand the resilience and courage of their collective forefathers, and also, the brutality of their collective forefathers.

They begin to understand that Emancipation wasn’t actually about “mental slavery” — as is inscribed on the statue in Emancipation Park. It was about ending a system — physically brutal – under which life expectancy was only about 10 years!

Unfortunately, our society waters down my lessons with the beauty contests and the bleaching and the disparities they see. The uptown Jamaica mind-fuck.

Stay out of the sun or they’ll call you darkie when you go back to school

My hair is like this because my mother took antibiotics 
(or was it iron?) when she was pregnant 

She’s really dating that little gorilla?

The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice

We need to educate better, we need to tell the reality of our story. We, of any skin colour, are free to dress and speak in any way we please. We should no longer be inundated with “their” story about our collective ancestors.

We will want to do this if we understand that it’s not a story that belongs to black skin. It’s our story.

Carol Levy is a fifth-grade teacher in Jamaica and Alison Irvine-Sobers is at the University of the West Indies Open Campus in the field of Sociolinguistics.