Judy Ann MacMillan’s accomplishment is that not only is her autobiography Born Ya eloquently written, it is also a portrayal of the existential dilemma of Jamaican whiteness. As Kei Miller puts it in his searing 2018 essay “The White Women and the Language of Bees, ”it is the pain of living in a body marked as not belonging even to the place to which it most profoundly belongs – marked as foreign even in its own home.” This dialectic, threaded through the book, underpins the narrative arc of MacMillan’s story.
Whether intentionally or not, Born Ya transcends a straightforward telling of her life story; it is also the staking of a claim to a place that more and more doesn’t want her. It. Embedded within the narrative, by my read, is MacMillan’s attempt to assert her Jamaican identity while also considering, both overtly and implicitly, the challenges of being a white person in a predominantly black country, where racial dynamics are in constant flux.
MacMillan’s autobiography unfolds chronologically. She starts by artfully narrating her childhood and eccentric family life, her emergence as an artist at a young age, her studies in a Scottish art school, her return to Jamaica and starting out as a painter, punctuated by a short-lived marriage and a stint in the United States. Most of the book, however, is taken up with her life in Jamaica — her career as an artist, raising her son, a decade-long love affair with a quixotic man, and other romantic exploits, perhaps most tellingly with a house named Rockfield. It is in MacMillan’s “relationship” with this house that the dilemma of white Jamaicanness reveals itself.
The context matters: MacMillan would have come of age in the heady decade following Independence (1962), when the economy was growing, and Jamaica seemed to be coming into its own. The architects of the Jamaican nation envisioned a multi-racial national identity, encapsulated in the motto, Out of Many, One People. Notwithstanding this idealistic notion, Jamaica was a racially stratified society, with the white and near-white (and pass-for-white, not-quite-white, and tink-dem-white) minority at the top, to which Judy-Ann’s family would have belonged. Up there with them or right below were the light and medium brown; and then the black majority, who were, for the most part, an underclass.
MacMillan would have been a living witness to the erosion of the creole ideal, beginning with Michael Manley, Black Power, and Democratic Socialism in the 1970s. She would have seen for herself the decimation of the mostly white, light brown, and Chinese as-good-as-white elite via migration in the mid- to late 1970s, and the ensuing rise of a black middle and wealthy class. This transformation conjured a Jamaica in which she was not only a minority, but a resented one. Since then, there has been a broadening of the colour spectrum of those who make up the Jamaican political and economic elite, in tandem with an increasingly racialized discourse over who is a “real” Jamaican, and, in some corners, the demonization of non-black presenting Jamaicans. Despite the rhetoric of the 1970s, no one was dispossessed of their property or wealth, but those white Jamaicans who didn’t leave the island were thenceforth subject to ongoing attempts to deprive them of their right to be Jamaican, as per Miller, to mark them as foreign, even in their own home.
The title of the book is the initial indication of MacMillan’s grappling with this trajectory, its outcomes, and her place in it. “Born Ya” encompasses several aspects of an assertion of Jamaicanness. First is the outright statement: “I am born here (Jamaica).” Second is her use of the Jamaican language, reinforcing this declaration. Third is the origin of the phrase, which is the title and chorus of a 1975 popular song, “I Man Born Ya” by Pluto Shervington. The lyrics directly reference the mass migration of the 1970s:
But I man on ya, I man born ya
I nah leave ya fi go a Canada
No way sir, pot a bwayl ya, belly full ya
The choice of the book’s title may even be an ironic wink to the political turmoil of the 1970s. Michael Manley’s PNP used ‘Born Ya’ as their own campaign theme song in the 1976 election, at least in part as a dig at the rival JLP’s pass-for-white leader Edward Seaga who was born in the United States to Jamaican parents and brought home to Jamaica as a baby.
From the first page of the book she affirms that she is Jamaican, recounting how her “navel string tugs” at her whenever she leaves Jamaica, “the humid island incubator that is my home.” This is followed by her showcasing her bona fides as a Jamaican who can stone a mango from a tree and catch it before it hits the ground.
MacMillan continues to infuse Jamaican vernacular throughout the book, consistently attempting to assert her Jamaicanness. Each chapter is heralded by an epigraph containing a Jamaican aphorism. Additionally, an omniscient commentator interjects, in the vernacular, quips and remarks, giving their “two cents” to the story. In several scenes with dialogue between her and another person, her interlocutor often speaks to her in Patwa (as it is popularly known) or Jamaican Creole, and she responds in standard English.
‘But yu nevah seh dat yu want de two window de same size?’
‘Yes, my mistake.’
By using Jamaican language in this way throughout the narrative, MacMillan attempts to showcase her fluency in the essence of Jamaicanness – the language itself. But there is an inherent paradox in her endorsement of the notion that being able to speak Patwa legitimizes her as a Jamaican. In addition to the racialization of the political and social discourse in the 1970s Jamaica underwent a process of value inversion, within which Jamaican Creole, the language of the majority (in linguistic jargon the basilect), ascended the socio-linguistic hierarchy to be embraced as the country’s de facto national language. As such, speaking Jamaican Creole became a hallmark of Jamaican identity.
We are witnessing this phenomenon in real time in Jamaica right now with Mark Golding as the PNP’s leader. Golding was born in Jamaica to white parents (one Jamaican, one British), raised on the island except for studies in the UK, after which he returned to Jamaica where he has lived and work since. Golding and his party seem compelled to downplay his whiteness and in so doing, supposedly, enhance his Jamaicanness. They have attempted to do this through two principal methods: spotlighting his dark-skinned Jamaican wife, and having him speak in Patwa, typically at political events, and most often at those in poor communities. The latter effort is akin to MacMillan’s use of the Jamaican vernacular: it is an entreaty to the world to say, I can speak like most Jamaicans, and so I am truly a Jamaican.
This belief that speaking Jamaican is the essence of Jamaicanness, and therefore its use validates her — as it does Mark Golding — betrays a paradox central to the dialectic: the idea and movement to assert that Patwa is fundamental to Jamaicanness is also an assertion that the Jamaican black majority, whose dominant language it is, are the only authentic Jamaicans. That is the same logic that undergirds the zeitgeist that wishes to displace her for her whiteness.
MacMillan moves on to the unavoidable qualifier of Jamaicanness for any non-black presenting Jamaican: proclaiming that she isn’t 100 percent white. She is careful to note that though she presents as white, and later in the book states that she considered herself white growing up in Jamaica and into her adulthood, her grandfather was a “morose looking, dark man.” The omniscient commentator’s interjection of “Hear dat? And shi tink shi white you know,” ensures that the reader picks up MacMillan’s signal that she has dark-skinned ancestors, even if she doesn’t look like them. The underlying, almost certainly unintended, signal that MacMillan transmits here, however, is that she has bought into the notion that a connection to blackness legitimizes her; in this way, she is participating in the very construct that leads to her own marginalization. Again, Mark Golding’s endeavour parallels MacMillan’s: his marriage to a black woman endows him with a connection to blackness, and thus to Jamaicanness.
MacMillan also shows her awareness of the privilege that comes with presenting as white in a society organized by a racial hierarchy. She describes her father earning more money than his darker skinned counterpart for the same job. The quip — Fyah! Powah! All dat foolish-nis stop when Black Man Time come — signals that this privilege will soon be challenged. Here MacMillan is referring, though she never spells it out, to the seed of racial resentment that began germinating in the 1970s and was then watered and nurtured by the policies and postures of the PNP government that governed Jamaica from 1989 to 2007.
What happened was more than a redrawing of class and colour lines in Jamaica; it uncorked a maleficent djinn of bitterness directed at white, near-white, and light brown Jamaicans. This fueled a mounting sentiment, whether expressed openly or indirectly, particularly in the new town square of social media, asserting that only black Jamaicans should be considered “real” Jamaicans. It cultivated an atmosphere in which white, near white, and light brown Jamaicans were made to feel that they did not belong.
Judy Ann MacMillan is not the first white Jamaican to grapple with these issues. Diana McCaulay, a self-described “white-ish” Jamaican novelist, addressed this in a 2015 essay. McCaulay articulates what I sense is MacMillan’s own position: “It has been alienating and painful to have my Jamaicanness called into question, but I know it’s not nearly as painful as the racism and inequality that still permeates our society.” To resolve this, McCaulay advocates exactly what Judy does: “Claim it; that is what we have to do, I think, claim our place, claim our history, our home. Jamaica is yaad for all of us.” Kei Miller echoes this in his 2021 essay, “Mr. Brown, Mrs. White and Ms. Black,” through the words of his white Jamaican character, who tells his daughter: “This is your country too. And every one of us have to reckon with how it became our country — this messed-up little island. But is your country all the same. You don’t have any other but this. So don’t make nobody take that from you.”
Then there is Rockfield, the decrepit house in the St. Ann hills where MacMillan finds refuge and does her best work. It is her sanctuary. But it is also the place where her personal safety is constantly at risk. The vagaries of her “relationship” with Rockfield, by my reading, mirror her shifting and tenuous place in Jamaica itself.
When she first meets Rockfield, MacMillan falls in love at first sight, even though her father deems it “a nightmare on the face of the earth,” foreshadowing the looming and ever-present violence there. On her first night, she sets up booby traps throughout the house “by placing, on top of doorways, things that would collapse on intruding heads if anyone tried to push the door.” It won’t be romantic, her partner says, “if somebody comes up here and chops us up.” Guests get a machete to go under their mattress.
Her place in the community — a poor, rural village — exacerbates her vulnerability. Initially she finds “all the country characters enchanting.” But from the outset she is victimized. Before she even takes possession of Rockfield it is ransacked by the man hired to watch over it. But she couldn’t fire an employee as she had “no desire to get my head chopped off.” Eventually she learns the rules: “You must never employ anyone from the village. You must always be courteous and kind but from a distance; no involvement.”
Hurricane Gilbert, which laid waste to the island in 1988, draws a further dividing line between MacMillan and the people around her: “what had blown away along with the roof at Rockfield were my illusions.” As she attempts to repair her house, she is robbed by two girls she knows from the village, girls whose portraits she had painted. “I realized that the village people, whom I had found so lovable, did not return my emotions… they didn’t see me as a human being.”
It gets worse. People occupy the land next to hers, and “everything left outside the house that could be lifted disappeared. Even the pumpkins on the vine were stabbed so they would spoil.” The “exquisite surroundings” became the “setting for so much rage.” They insult her and try to intimidate her. In return she asserts herself: “I have a legal right to live without abuse on this piece of land that I have paid for.”
And then, an absolution: terrified she was turning into a racist, she confides in a former black radical that “the rural people had become snakes in her paradise.” Her confessor responds, inter alia, that she used to consider poor black people sacred, until she moved to the countryside, and was herself a frequent victim of theft. “It didn’t matter how black I was, to them I was a white woman living in a big house…I applied for a gun license.” One’s skin colour, it seems, is incidental. It is simply a case of resentment by the have nots against the haves. Judy Ann is relieved of the sin of her whiteness.
An ultimatum comes with a break in: thieves get into the house, and valuable paintings are stolen. “The real loss was my peace of mind. I became afraid at Rockfield. I even thought of selling the house.” However, instead of selling it, she renovates the property, and changes the way she lives there. She adapts.
That is the choice that white Jamaicans face in early 21st century Jamaica: leave, or adapt; accept the precarity of one’s existence, and the rejection of the right to be here, or go. In its portrayal of latent violence and racial animosity, Rockfield is a leitmotif for the contradictions and insecurities encountered by white Jamaicans living in and through a changing societal context. MacMillan’s determination to remain at Rockfield, and her decision to change herself to accommodate its danger, signify her acceptance of the inherent tensions in this complex reality. In this way, Born Ya goes beyond MacMillan’s personal story, providing insight into Jamaica’s evolving racial dynamics and the complexities of the ongoing shifts of power, from the vantage point of the former power-holders.