linkthink re: hip-hop, reggae, the US, jamaica, and anything else wayne wants to wax on



i'm not sure, to be honest. i might call it "oranging," or something more true to hue. i didn't even get to "brown up" this past weekend--as parties until daybreak resulted in little time spent in the hottest sun and no trips to the beach. still, i get plenty of UV during the rest of the day. and the occasional spot caught on the road during the midday swelter is enough to singe my melanin-lacking skin. so, i guess i probably still am "browning up," as they like to say here--and, i imagine, as they like to say especially to folks who look like me.

i had to wonder for a minute the other day, though, when while walking around a halfway tree stripmall i heard to my left: "brown man! brown man! taxi!?" i turned, and looking directly into the taximan's eyes, immediately put up a waving hand that said "no, mon" as articulately as i could ever hope to pronounce it.  (actually, the whole "mon" thing is way overblown. although some people clearly pronounce "mun." others definitely say "man." but most use a [short] vowel sound that's a cross between an 'a' and an 'o'--and leaning toward the former.)

in the past, i have definitely been "white man" here. now, i'm "brown man." but i think it has to do with much more than my complexion. for one, i have by this point done a fair job of adopting my body language and clothing so that it is, more or less, indistinguishable from an "uptown" jamaican style, albeit much less designer than a number of chaps i've seen around town. moreover, uptown can refer to a wide swath of middle and upper-middle class folk.  a couple nights ago, i asked my friend and collaborator, dami d, and his mainstay, angie, what they thought of the taximan's perception? "was he just trying to get on my good side?" i guessed, wondering whether jamaicans too knew to pander/market to the cross-racial fantasies of many white americans. "no," they said. "you're dressed like the typical black man," dami said. "uptown black man," he added. my steve maddens definitely didn't give me away: i had passed a large display of the fashionable sneakers in a window just before being offered a ride. my jeans helped, too: shorts would give me away immediately as american. the simple, ungaudy polo shirt (e.g., no tropical prints or bob marley insignias) kept up the mirage. of course, this is how i dress back in cambridge. the "uptown" label--and access to the same commodities--confirms the cosmopolitan links between the two societies, in particular between those who are free to move and buy the same stuff.

one other important difference in my appearance, which dami noted, is my haircut, which is a jamaican haircut. marvin carried me to his barber the other day. before he made an appointment for me, i asked "can he cut my kind of hair?" "what kind of hair is that?" said marvin. "i dunno," i replied, stalling, "italian?" although i've had my hair cut in black barbershops in the united states many times, and a couple times in jamaica, i know that in the united states, barber shops remain rather segregated spots. some cut "black people's hair" and some cut "white people's hair" (though it is more about the clientele than the technique). growing up in a middle/working class community, where the stress of hand-to-mouth living and bourgeois accumulation could heighten older generations' ethnic competitivism, separate barbershops just made sense within the naturalized world of racial difference, a world that was paradoxically reified by multiculturalism's well-meaning attempt toward inclusion. (and trust me, during the 80s and 90s, going to public school in cambridge--the working laboratory for harvard ed.--meant a whole lotta multiculti curricula.) blacks and whites did seem to have different kinds of hair, after all. this is nonsense, of course. a professional barber can cut anyone's hair. still, something inside me made me want to ask, as if to try to finger marvin's race-reflex and sound him out on the issue.

in the end, marvin made an appointment for his friend with the italian hair, and the guy actually thought i was italian for several minutes before he asked me and i told him the truth: that i was part italian, but from the states. i added that i wanted to make sure he could cut my type of hair because back home the barber shops are "specialized." "no, man. i can cut any hair," he said.

he proceeded to give me a black haircut.

here's the pic again, but with a little colorizing for fun, and to highlight the hairline/skyline:

let me explain what i mean by black haircut (and know that i use such a phrase provocatively, not intending to stereotype but to subvert). for one, it's a tight fade, and though that's not necessarily a black thing, it's a very common black cut. (a spanish-kid--read, from PR, DR, etc.--who used to give me fades back in highschool once pointed out that, as witnessed in a history textbook, "hitler had a fade," which seems to add further resonance to paul gilroy's similar observation: hitler wore khakis.) perhaps most importantly: my "natural" hairline does not look as it does in this photo. after trimming the sides and fading them up, he took a further step that white-barbershop barbers never take: he took a small pair of clippers and "straightened out" the hairline, making the edges extra sharp. (of course, after a day or so, this starts to look less sharp than weird, but hey, i let him do it.) he also sharpened the goatee that i had started wearing (on the road back to beard--i like to start over now and again). all that said, i like the look. i think i look kinda sharp. maybe even "wicked shahp," as they say back home. still, i'll probably let it grow-out some again. and i think i'll lose the goatee. a goatee is kinda like the term "jiggy": it can work in jamaica, but it's kinda played up north. (no offense to goateers, including some dear friends of mine, who can pull it off. shit, plenty of people pull off moustaches every day, which astounds me.)

so, all things considered, maybe i am browning up. but i know i'll never pass as a true browning--i.e., a jamaican of (light) brown complexion, demonstrating an ancestry that is in some part white. (brownings can range in color from the very fair to the fairly dark. [isn't it amazing how such conversations make even terms like "fair" and "dark" seem sordid, corrupted?]) the label "browning" in jamaica, and the use of terms like "browning up" instead of "tanning," shed light on some subtle yet significant differences between american and jamaican racial realities and ideologies (the two are, of course, inextricable). as intertwined as they are--rex nettleford, in mirror mirror, refers to black power as a "re-export" (1998:vii)--the ideologies that underlie racial distinction in the US and jamaica do differ, in particular, i think, when informing perceptions of self and other.

in the united states, for all our immense cross-racial experience and cross-racial "breeding" (to use the jamaican term--as in, "him breed another girl"--which is used so commonly here that it seems often to escape, through such naturalization, the resonances of slavery that it evokes elsewhere), we still uphold a set of american myths about division, about black and white difference, about one-drop rules (i.e., either/or definitions). and we give credence to a host of stereotypes that fall along these lines. in jamaica, on the other hand, the vast majority of the population is black, which affects the dominant perception. this is not to say that concepts like "good-hair" and products like "skin-bleach" aren't popular on the island, or that lighter skin does not tend to correlate--almost perfectly--to greater wealth. still, most jamaicans have embraced their cross-racial heritage at this point, and enshrined it in their own national myth ("out of many people, one"), so that even jamaicans who look rather "caucasian" (though i have always thought that to be a terribly misleading term) are called brownings. in the end--save for the bleach and ting--jamaica may have healthier attitudes about body and beauty and a more entrenched system of race and class. while the US, with its large black middle class and increasing ranks of wealthy african-americans, may have more entrenched, and socially harmful, notions of racial character as something that determines one's self and defines one's community. clearly, both places have serious problems on both sides of the fence. and although it might sound crazy, i often think that if enough people gained experience in both places, it would change their minds about race, class, and identity/community--and probably in a productive way. at the least, such experiences should de-naturalize or demystify certain ideas about race and class and self and other that tend to become all too commonsensical if one never has the chance to confront different realities.

to get back to my point, though, i don't think i'll ever really pass as brown. in fact, just yesterday as dami and i took a cab through halfway tree, i was interpellated as a "whiteman" by none other than a "madman." ["madman" is the general name here for the deranged, homeless characters wandering the streets--yes, they empty their mental hospitals here too!] as we sat in heavy traffic, the man walked past our cab and started ranting about white men. he was the second to do so in two days.

could you blame him?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a black chic, from parents from the West Indies, your accounts are interesting but expected.

Cultural identity is a complicated issue in the islands.

3:32 PM  
Blogger wayne&wax said...

no doubt on that last count, though we might say that cultural identity is a complicated issue anywhere. "the islands" have long been a place of many cultural intersections, though we find such plurality and hybridity nearly everywhere now.

what did you expect?

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I posted the earlier comment about cultural identity. Unfortunately I expected there to be issues with complexion, hair texture etc.... The 'racial hierarchy' is a slippery slope.

I am currenty writing a paper about my experiences growing up in a family that is so 'complexion' and hair texture conscious'.... and the larger implications.

Skin bleaching is of specfic interest to me.

2:54 PM  
Anonymous nated28542@yahoo.com said...

Hey, I just happened upon your blog searching "dark fade haircut white" on google images. It's a small world, I'm from Cambridge, too (porter sq.) living in San Diego now. I know this post is over 6 years old, but if you still check this, I hope you're still having a good time living in Jamaica.
You're right about Cambridge public schools; I went to Peabody and we had A LOT of cross-cultural curriculum, but I wouldn't trade it for the world!

4:26 PM  

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