A few times in my environmental activist life, I went to a tiny fishing village called White House just outside the tourist town of Montego Bay where Jamaican poet and memoirist, Safiya Sinclair, was born in 1984. I know this because I just finished her incendiary memoir, How to Say Babylon, about her upbringing in a strict Rastafari home. I went to White House to meet a fisherman concerned about expulsion from fishing beaches by resort development along the north coast of Jamaica. Let’s call him Swimma. On the day we went to sea, I was with friend and independent filmmaker, Esther Figueroa, to get footage of the coastline under threat from a wave of large hotels for Esther’s film Jamaica for Sale. On the fishing beach, I felt the heat of the gaze of the people on my skin although Swimma’s presence made me welcome. Sinclair writes the epithets directed at white people by her Rasta father: Bloodsucker, baldhead, mongrel, devil. Add: Slavemaster, oppressor.
Swimma and his crew launched an open canoe and we paralleled the seashore, up and down, through quartering swells. From the boat I could barely see the half-completed tiny homes of White House, appearing as part of the seashore, permanent as rocks. More obvious was the nearby hotel superstructure, some completed, others half-built. The airport. The stone barriers to keep the manmade beaches in place. These were constructions of the land, of our new monarch: the economy.
One of the men donned mask and fins and chucked overboard backways to check their fish pots. Then, in the mid 2000s, I could still sit in the sun for long periods, but the corkscrew motion of the canoe was making me nauseous. I bowed my head and waited. The men pulled one pot and we saw it rising from the clear blue depths. There were few food fish, at least from the standpoint of the table I was used to, and all were way too small, but there was also a large conger eel, coiling and uncoiling. I had been afraid of eels as a seagoing child well versed with fins, mask and snorkel. The story was that once an eel bit you they would die with their jaws locked into your flesh. Swimma reached into the pot, pulled the eel out and beat it to death in the bottom of the boat. Esther, a vegan, said nothing. Nor did I.
Seabirds followed the canoe and took small fishes from Swimma’s hands.
Names tend to persist in Jamaica, though many places have multiple ones – inscribed on Seventh Day Adventist Churches, maps and surveys, private sector sponsored ‘welcome to’ signs, and the real names, spoken by the people who live there. There are many white places in Jamaica – White River, White Sands – now Doctor’s Cave Beach – White Hill, White Horses, White Shop, Whiteford, Whitehaven and many Whitehalls. What did the names once mean? Is it your skin colour that allows you here?
White House. I’d been to two other places called White House in childhood. One is on the south coast, near the fishing village of White House, which I only know about because my father took home movies of us as children there; me, short-haired, dressed in overalls, looking for shame-old-ladies to step on so they would close for us. Decades later, I, the environmental activist, went to this White House, now a community of returning residents, promised a private beach for their investment. The old house in my father’s movies still stood, available for holiday rentals and I wondered which name came first, the house or the fishing beach.
The other White House is on the north coast, near to the Shaw Park Beach Hotel, just where the White River joins the sea. This place I remember because I got an awful childhood sunburn, and also because one morning, paddling in the icy waters of the river, a tree branch laden with guineps floated down the river and I ate the chilled fruit, not having to worry about staining my clothes because I was wearing shorts, standing knee-deep in the water. It has been the only time in my life I ate cold guineps. A family story has my light-skinned, grey-eyed father, climbing through a second floor window, hoping for a tryst with another women in the house party, and falling off the verandah roof. He wasn’t injured, and I don’t know what he told my mother as to why he was on the roof, but she ministered to him, as Sinclair’s mother did to her father during his dictates, silencings and cruelties.
I like it that the White House fishing beach was named after Safiya Sinclair’s grandfather’s house for nothing more complex than the colour of the paint.
Reading How to Say Babylon, I’m back on that roiling, swooping canoe offshore the MoBay White House. Unsteady, a bit sick, out of my element, although I had thought the sea was my element. Now I know there is more than one sea. Other times I’m a wild girl child like her, right there in the Jamaican bush, feeling the scratch of guinea grass on my bare legs, climbing the Bombay mango trees in our garden, stoning common mangoes from the street, floating with starfish arms in the warm, shallow homeplace sea, climbing through barbed wire fences, gorging on redcoat plums and mouth-puckering tamarinds, hunting lizards with nooses made from coconut fronds, firing slingshots at tree trunks and small birds. Then, as I turn the pages, I am Babylon, eating a lobster cocktail on a hotel balcony, passing through red and white barriers (they lift) and striding by deferential security guards (who turn away), I’m a member of the after dinner audience at Hedonism II, with only the dimmest understanding that the lyrics of the dreadlocked musician on stage are aimed at us. That my white skin belongs only in certain kinds of white houses.
The vertigo vanishes and I’m walking in Kingston, a teenaged schoolgirl in uniform, and some of the same words Sinclair writes are flung at me: Psst. Sketel. Jezebel. Babes. Some new ones: White gyal. Fat gyal. Fat batty white gyal. Dundus. Pork. Whitey. Later: Red gyal. Uptown gyal. Topanaris. And: Racist.
In Fifth Form at my all-girls high school, a teacher goes around the room deploring the grooming of the class, especially our hair. Except, she says, Diana. See how neat her hair is? My hair is kept short because it is coarse and unruly. Not ‘good’ hair. My hairdresser cousin says it is like chewed saltfish. Me, I long for the straight blonde hair fashionable at the time, I want bangs in my eyes, hair that swishes, so like Sinclair and still, so many women, I suffer the scalp and neck burns of relaxing chemicals. At least for a while.
Just before I graduate, a girl arrives with a short Afro and is sent to the Headmistress. But shorn hair is not so easily remedied, and she completes her education.
Sinclair writes of the strictures of a Rastafari household, the way the male creates his own set of rules and all in the house must abide by them, and although the rules in my house were not the same, they too were created by my father and could not be flouted or even discussed. He did not want my mother chaste and covered up – he wanted her corseted and revealed, curated to suit him – and until I left my parents’ house, I was inspected head to toe by my father, my attire critiqued and even, on occasion, banned. Yet he gave me books and encouraged me to write, and it was he who took me into bird bush, and swam just ahead of my skinny body, light as a fallen leaf, skimming over reefs not yet dying, over lush seagrass meadows, over deep blue holes where anything could lurk. It was he who taught me how to fish. to wrench the hook from the mouth of the gasping fish, how to hold its dorsal fins flat, how to hand over the dead fish to a woman called Cook when we returned to land.
Fish can be scaled and gutted alive on Jamaican beaches.
It is easy to understand how you are oppressed, but not how you oppress others.
I loved my father regardless, and I burned with resentment and rage at the unfairness of his kingdom, while I never failed to find comfort in the island he showed me, where nothing was off limits to me, nothing denied.
Just conform, Diana, my mother said to me when I fought with my father. Conform.
When at sixteen I declared my writerly ambitions, having come third in a writing competition, my father said I could not make a living writing and, in any event, women could not write great books, because they did not go to war.
I wrote in secret until I was 40, when another short story won a local competition. By then I was estranged from my father, as we had had our confrontation about the rules I refused to live by. I wrote a dedication to the printed story and took the magazine to him where he still lived in the Kingston house of my childhood and teen years. He put it on a table and went inside. I left.
Last year, my father’s house, also painted white, was demolished for townhouses. Only one of seven Bombay mango trees remain.
It is the women who stay with me after I have finished How to Say Babylon. Sinclair’s mother, her sisters, the teachers who saw her, gave her a notebook, encouraged her to write. I cry when she cuts her dreadlocks, although I feel the lightness too, the vanquishing of obedience, the setting down of burdens. Then I’m sad she relaxes her hair, three decades after I did, and wonder when those expectations and conformances will finally be behind us all.
Sinclair leaves Jamaica, her ‘first and truest love’ and she shines silver in Foreign. Me, I stay. Last year, after a major fish kill in the Rio Cobre, I go to a town hall meeting, invited by a community member. Waiting outside the church with a group of men, all strangers, someone describes another individual as a Black man. You nuh ‘ave to say dat, his friend objects. A Jamaican man is a Black man. All eyes turn to me. The men shuffle their feet and murmur. Not all Jamaicans are Black, someone says, softly. The men nod and drift away.