Strategies to Escape the Eyes of the State

Gervais Marsh

A note on Dub (read out loud and take care)

It’s

                        all 

                                                about

                                                                                    the

                                                                                                            space

                                                                                                                                    in-between

What do you hear? Listen. Dub is a reading practice and a technology of opacity skillfully crafted to catch you in its gaps. It is a methodology that presents expansive viewpoints, constantly interrogating the limits of the mind…let your thoughts run in every direction. Listen to Lee “Scratch” Perry mek him tell yuh seh the Black Ark is the motherboard, tuning into the frequencies below that can be heard when you put your ear to the ground. Give yourself the gift of quiet so you can get out of sync, relinquish control as you inhabit different rhythms and let them lead you. Black geographies have always been formed through the vertigo of perpetual distortion and dub is an exploration of the negative space often overlooked. It constructs new temporalities of drum and bass, reverberating between bodies. Listening to “Zion Blood”, my legs give in to the tremble, and right when I let go, I get caught in the rise of the beat. Engulfed in vibration, I trust the streams of energy flowing through my limbs. Dub distorts the system, a glitch for those whose ears are not attuned to its sounds. Some get lost in its excess, but I think that’s the point. Even if it’s not, things always happen in ways we do not intend. Dub reminds me that Black people will always be the cog in the machine. 

Note Well:

  • Opacity disrupts hierarchies between the viewer and viewed. 
  • Transparency is not the only way to see.

Sifting through clothes at the Salvation Army on Tower Street in Downtown Kingston, my ears make out the comments of a radio broadcaster discussing skin bleaching in Jamaica. “And people can’t identify them, the police can’t find them.” He frames skin bleaching as a way to make oneself unrecognizable, interrogating the plasticity[1] of Blackness. He narrates skin bleaching beyond the confines of an aspiration to some ideal whiteness, regarding it as a strategic aesthetic choice, a camouflage that allows one to go undetected by the State apparatus known as the police. The police force (or slave catchers), particularly in countries that were (are) a part of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, was created firstly as a mechanism to control and discipline enslaved Black and Indigenous peoples. The conception of the police is rooted in anti-Blackness, and by extension, actively targets poor people, since Black people experiencing poverty is a continued effect of the after-life of slavery.[2] Jamaica is 92.1% Black. Jamaica is deeply anti-Black. Negotiating the plasticity of Blackness to gain momentary breath away from the violence of an anti-Black society is a survival strategy. Though skin tones have the potential to shift through alchemy, the materiality of being racialized as Black is fundamental, its psychic imprints remain even when the skin lightens. I do not wish to create a moral hierarchy in which bleaching has more value when understood as a tool to negotiate anti-Blackness, because Black people are allowed to make aesthetic choices for whatever reason, just like everyone else. My engagement of skin bleaching is not a rejection or judgement of Blackness, but rather an acknowledgement of the multifaceted experiences and dynamics of Black life in this world.

“True mi born Black mi wah get brown cuz mi like di colour”[3]. And in Jamaica, mi love mi brownin’ is a mantra of the State, played out across all platforms. Those with darker skin must always be centered in this conversation, for they bear the brunt of social violence. Changing one’s melanin composition is a rearrangement on micro and macro levels, an embodied opacity dubbing on the track of socially constructed notions of race. A recognition of the crevices that hold alternative realities. Maybe I am speculating, but imagine it same way, because envisioning otherwise worlds may be the only way to project beyond the apocalypse.

Let’s not pretend that only poor people bleach because Uptown Susan looking browner these days too, using dermatologist approved creams to “brighten” her skin. But middle-class Black people build glass houses of respectability and everyone, my Uptown self included, benefits from the cultural production of poor Black people, freely adopting language, style and gestures. Dancehall was made by poor Black people. Reggae was made by poor Black people. Jamaican culture, or at least what the country capitalizes on, is created through the complex lives and theories of poor Black people. Everyone shames poor Black people but suit and tie nah save nobody.

Don’t just meditate on Blackness when it’s easy if you do not have space to hold its complexity. It is color is texture is shade is nose is lips is voice is sound is movement. Bleaching is global because anti-Blackness permeates every culture (take a trip to India or South Korea), manifesting in the fear of being too dark, regardless of the physical presence of Black people. Are we all the same kind of Black? Is brown a type of Black?  That is still up for debate. And yet I can’t help but understand bleaching as an effort at claiming agency in a world that undermines bodily autonomy, even if I remain unsure on whether agency can ever exist under the conditions of capitalism. It is a recognition that anti-Blackness is economic oppression, that being brown-er means opportunities means desirability means fashion ova style means survival. (“As recently as 2011, local newspapers reported that Jamaica’s premier hospitality training agency, the Human Employment and Resource Training Trust (HEART), was receiving requests from clients for candidates who were “brownings”—particularly when looking to fill front-of-house roles”)[4]. In an anti-Black world, no state structure is made to care for the Black person’s body because you are a means of production. Imagine the world attempts to name you as Black and your response is no! The commodity speaks back and says, “THIS IS MY BODY. LET ME LIVE.” 

N    A     D     I      N    O    L      A 

N E O P R O S O N E                          D Y N A M I C L A I R

D I O R                               LANCÔME  

Bleaching is experimentation, likkle dis, likkle dat and see how it turn out. Black people have always been alchemists named obeah, bruja or babalawo. Lemon mix wid aloe vera mix wid citrus mix wid licorice root. This is ground knowledge, jus haffi know knowledge, learn as you go knowledge. The pictures they circulate look nothing like you. Hidden in plain sight, you adapt a form of marronage that has been used to undermine State control for centuries. Accompong is present with roots sunk deeper than we know.

“They transform their skin rationally to attempt to secure and maintain power, and destabilize understandings of race as naturally manifest on the body.”[5]

We are already living in the apocalypse and democracy does not exist. Period (Look from when Black womxn saying that). And because “democracy” is not a possibility, because modernity is structured on our unfreedom, Black people must create something else. The State aims to control us, so any attempt to thwart this bondage is revolutionary in some capacity. Pictures circulate…

 WANTED

                                    …with a reward for your capture. In this world poverty is a crime and the radio says that police cannot find suspects because dem a bleach. I say gwan tru. Sonjah Stanley Niaah calls it a “technology of the body”, a recognition of the bodily possibilities to subvert state surveillance, though it is never easy.[6] Though I believe Black people’s aesthetic choices and strategies must be engaged with nuance, or left alone, I am conflicted about the health impacts of skin bleaching, especially when so many are already gnawed away by capitalism. I am not sure if a line should be drawn, so I hold contrasting thoughts as the result of a world rooted in contradiction. 

“When you Black in Jamaica, nobody see you”[7]

Screenshot. “Passa Passa #30- Kingston, Jamaica pt.1.” June 8, 2018. 

Invisible and spectacular, attempts to fix definitions of Blackness crack at the seams. Opacity manifests both in darkness and light; transparency is a trap, so be careful. What is stealthier than being imperceptible in plain sight? Sometimes the lights are so blinding yuh cah see me even when mi a stan up right in front a yuh. Chemically modified, skin becomes a reflector. Krista Thompson recognizes bleaching as a tool of amplification, especially in the Dancehall video light: “The process of bleaching makes the body into a medium that absorbs, reflects, reproduces, and records the impressions of light” (2015:141)[8]. If the plasticity of Black skin becomes a conductor for light then step into it, for the shadows can’t hold everyone. 

YuhCahSeeMe                                                

Overexposure becomes a technique to guard Black interiority when it is always already expected to be available. Let us follow Lady Saw’s Black feminist declaration of refusal, chat to mi back, because I will not be consumed by the gaze. Mek yuh know! The sheen, the sweat when yuh buss a wine in di session reflects light cuz yuh bright an outta order…brighter than the flames that swallowed the Black Ark as Perry embraced disorder. Yuh wah see me, den yuh get jus a glimpse.

                          Overexposure

Elmina Castle, Ghana 2020

Light floods the image beyond illumination. Darker browns meet beige with hints of green, perhaps a moss. There are at least two oval openings, though that is not the source of the intense flash. Wooden rafters line the roof, I can count four. Something is strewn across the ground, though it is too bright to decipher with specificity. It has a brownish-reddish tinge. Perhaps it is not a thing, but someone; some were not given the right to that distinction. The blur disrupts the eye, the image cannot be fixed. 

I embrace a refusal to fix the image

I am learning that rationality is a devious trick to delegitimize what is not known, when so much can be left without definition. I was taught to grasp for the edges of logic even as I tumbled further out of control. Now I affirm the unknowable, that which exists yet cannot be named, for if I am meant to understand, I will. Elmina Castle is a site of violence that exceeds my capacity to comprehend and I let it be so. As quiet creeps into the dungeon, breath catches in my throat. I am afraid that if I inhale too deeply, I will become overwhelmed by the feelings I have trained myself for years to keep at bay. Though I am told what happened in these rooms, it does not seem real, and maybe that is a coping mechanism. My emotional responses are overdetermined, so steeped in the trauma of repetition that it seems more like what is expected rather than visceral. That is what happens when narratives of gratuitous violence become the norm, framed as a “historical fact”. Perhaps it is a symptom of the melancholia Hartman describes feeling as she walked through Elmina, emerging from a mixture of dispossession and longing.[9]

I spend hours in the castle, seeking some form of communion with the life around me without reproducing violence. I know this desire is fraught, and it also seems worthwhile as a way to sit with the gravity of loss. In doing so, I turn to overexposure as I take photos and contemplate what exceeds the containment of the image, asking, what does the blur of light make possible? I am not sure if opacity is a form of reverence for loss, but it may usher me in that direction. Overexposure embraces the deluge of light that overtakes the image, elucidating other ways of seeing. It forges a space of meditation without relying on the immediate reaction that may follow acts of seeing. To live in a world of immeasurable violence is to recognize that the impacts will never be grasped and so I turn to overexposure as a strategy to care for Black life by keeping some aspects just out of view. 

For whom violence is intimately known, there is no need to reproduce its image, for it is already embedded in the hieroglyphics of the flesh that Hortense Spillers so aptly describes.[10]In “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”, and through her discussions on the difficulties of touch, Spillers grapples with these markings, while also offering a reminder to give ourselves grace to hold the complexity of our interior lives.[11] It is less about reconciliation and rather forging an existence despite continued violence.

I lean into what Hartman terms critical fabulation to hold space to be with the complex lives of those who were kidnapped into, passed through and still remain in the dungeon.[12] And yet, I still grapple with what it means to be with, especially when theoretical and bodily knowledge are profoundly different. In my reading practice, overexposure facilitates the process of critical fabulation, shifting away from a focus solely on representation towards other stories images may tell if one has the patience to listen. Each visit to the image may present different details that could be missed if it is confronted solely in its entirety. For sites of violence, the opacity created through overexposure can also establish a distance from the image that may minimize triggering responses, allowing me to return to view it several times, and for that possibility I am deeply grateful. Some things become clearer when transparency is not the primary mode of seeing and I am invested in multiple ways of sensing. So I accept opacity, and recognize its manifestations through dub, through video light, through overexposure and through skin bleaching, because not everything, or everyone, has to be seen. 


[1]  The quality of being easily shaped or molded; the adaptability of an organism to change in its environment.

[2] Saidiya Hartman. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008.

[3] Interview with Monica. “Skin Bleaching in Jamaica: The Shame of Dark Skin.” All Angles, 2014. 

[4] Rebekah Kebede. “Why Black Women in a Predominantly Black Culture Are Still Bleaching Their Skin: Investigating deep-rooted ideals in Jamaica.” Marie Claire, June 21, 2017. 

[5] Krista Thompson. “Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice.” Duke University Press, 2015, pp.141.

[6] Sonjah Stanley Niaah interview with Krista Thompson. August 15, 2011. 

 [7] Rebekah Kebede. “Why Black Women in a Predominantly Black Culture Are Still Bleaching Their Skin: Investigating deep-rooted ideals in Jamaica.” Marie Claire, June 21, 2017. 

[8] Krista Thompson. “Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice.” Duke University Press, 2015

[9] Saidiya Hartman. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

[10] Hortense Spillers. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, vol. 17, no.2, 1987. 

[11] Hortense Spillers. Lecture at Northwestern University, “To the Bone: Some Speculations on the Problem of Touch” (2018).

[12] Saidiya Hartman. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe, no.26, vol.12 (2) , June 2008. 

Image credit: @KrystalBallartist

Gervais Marsh is a writer.maker.scholar whose work is invested in holding space and caring for Black life. Born in Barbados, raised in Jamaica, he is currently based in Chicago, completing his PhD in Performance Studies at Northwestern University. Grounded in transnational Black feminisms, his research and practice meditates on questions of intimacy in all its forms, and his dissertation engages the work of visual and performance artists from Jamaica, the UK, South Africa and the U.S. Feel free to reach out and connect with him at gervaismarsh@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.