Have you ever wondered about the historical basis for our fascination and pre-occupation with colour in Jamaica? I don’t mean as in race relations such as black vs. white. Nope. I mean our pre-occupation with shades of skin colour.
Obviously we have to start with slavery and colonialism. I saw you rolling your eyes and see that unvoiced question on your faces: Why does everything have to do with slavery? Because, believe it or not, slavery does matter.
Lillian Guerra (2014), professor of Cuban and Caribbean history and director of the Cuba programme at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, argues that:
Caribbean history matters for the same reason everyone in the Caribbean “remembers” slavery: the legacies of slavery, imperialism, and historical responses to it are, in the Caribbean, immediately evident in all the “weightier” concepts we associate with modernity: notions of citizenship, individual freedom, collective liberation, and nation. Caribbean history is not merely about the “colonial origins of poverty”; it addresses the most fundamental questions of who we are, what we believe, and how we got that way.
Defining Skin Colour During Jamaica’s Colonial Past
Petra Alaine Robinson (2011, pg. 8), in her Ph.D thesis “Skin Bleaching in Jamaica: a Colonial Legacy” notes that: “Complexion was a symbol of position within society and skin color could be seen as a marker of social class and condition, where slave labor was designated to blackness and the darker shade of color moving downwards to squalor.”
Take, for instance, this conversation between two characters from Andrea Levy’s historical fiction, The Long Song (2010, pp. 253-254), set in Jamaica: July, the house slave and protagonist of the story, and Robert Goodwin, the new estate overseer:
“Your father was a white man?”
“Oh yes. Me be a mulatto, not a negro.”
“Yes, a mulatto. You must not think me a nigger, for me is a mulatto.” July then waited to witness his esteem.
July was referring to mulatto, a grade of skin colour in Jamaica that brought more status than being black, or a negro.
Barry Higman, in his book Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807-1834 (1976) – an excellent historical examination of the topic! – describes the grades of colour that existed in the Jamaican society during the period of slavery. There were at least seven grades of colour within the society back then, as shown in the diagram below from his book (Higman 1976, pg. 139):
So in addition to black and white there were five other grades of colour:
- Mulatto (Negro/Black + White
- Sambo (Negro/Black + Mulattto)
- Quadroon (Mulatto + White)
- Mustee (Quadroon + White)
- Musteephino (Mustee + White)
But it doesn’t stop there. If a negro/black and a sambo person had a child together then the result would be a negro/black child. If a musteephino and a white person had a child together then the result would be a white child.
Amazed as yet? Yep I see your eyes widening in disbelief and your eyebrows slowing getting lost in your hairlines! The situation got even more complex in the French-speaking Caribbean and Spanish territories (there were 16 grades of colour in Mexico, for instance!).
So has the situation gotten any better today? Well, I can’t recall hearing anyone being publicly referred to as a sambo, mulatto or musteephino; but there is definitely a near obsession with lightening skin colour. On June 19, 2013, Dionne Jackson-Miller’s All Angles programme on Television Jamaica (TVJ) examined the bleaching phenomenon in Jamaica to document what is happening and why. After watching the programme from my tiny Beijing apartment (oh the marvels of 21st century technology!), I came to the conclusion that while the terms above are hardly, if ever, used, the mentality still exists. As Dr Donna P. Hope, one of the interviewers, put it: “Yuh black stick a back, yuh brown stay around, yuh white it’s alright.” In other words: anyting black nuh good (or so they think!).
We have a long way to go; but our history must always be our learning ground!
Until next time…
Guerra, Lillian (2014). Why Caribbean History Matters. Perspectives on History, March 2014.
Higman, Barry W. (1976). Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807-1834. UK: Cambridge University Press.
Robinson, Petra Alaine (2011). Skin Bleaching in Jamaica: a Colonial Legacy. Ph.D Thesis, Texas A&M University.