“The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.” ~ Aristotle.
When I think about it, I had the childhood that an anthropologist would have paid money for. Being plunged into the Jamaican countryside was an immersion experience for this eight-year-old English girl. In typical Jamaican style I was welcomed into the homes of my new friends and made a part of several families. I helped with chores; I shelled peas and climbed trees; I was treated by so many loving mothers as if I was a mere (white) addition to their crew.
In primary school I looked, listened and learned to try to fit in as much as possible. The school I went to was a few miles down a winding, pot-holed road, a country bus-ride away. The community was a little less exposed to foreigners than Chapelton (where my home was), so the school children were part curious, part horrified by my white skin and red blood (when I fell down and skinned my knees on the marl playing ground). I was at the right age, I was just as curious about them as they were about me. Thanks to my upbringing, I had no awareness of white privilege. It was only recently that I discovered that my white skin had saved my group of friends from receiving corporal punishment when we lingered too long in the bushes (playing ‘dolly-house’ during recess)! The teachers couldn’t use the strap on me, so my friends couldn’t get the strap either!
While reciting my three, four, five, six, seven through twelve times table in the singy-songy way of all Jamaican school-children, I also was learning the habits, mannerisms and language of Jamaica. I practiced my patois; I learned how to ‘clap my fingers’ in the unique way of getting the teacher’s attention in class. I studied long and hard how to ‘kiss’ my teeth authentically (you use your side teeth, and try to make it last as long as possible to be the most indicative of disdain).
I was not conscious of what I was doing. I was not trying to study a culture, to walk a mile in their shoes, all I wanted was to fit in, to blend into the environment. The years spent hanging out in the homes of my friends allowed me to bridge two worlds. At home my parents still spoke with English accents, they still kept me connected to my UK roots, while I remained immersed in the Jamaican culture, the Jamaican reality.
My education was continued when I married my Jamaican schoolmate who expected me to be a typical Jamaican wife (not an easy role to fill!). But beyond the tricks of seasoning and marinating meat, beyond the concept of never going out and leaving dishes in the sink, I married a man who was profoundly conscious of his African roots, of the history of the black man and the long-lasting effects of slavery, colonialism and oppression. I also learnt what it meant to be black in America which was a different experience from growing up in an island whose motto is ‘Out of many, one people’.
They say the term ‘woke’ as it is used to represent consciousness of the injustice of the world, of the inherent racism which continues to permeate every layer of society, was first used by the author William Melvin Kelley. An African American, he lived for a while in Paris and in Jamaica. It has become very popular recently, with the injunction to ‘Stay woke’ being a caution, a reminder that progress made can be ripped away in an instant. I was interested to see that the term was (possibly) first used in a play (Garvey Lives!) in the early 70’s, associated with Jamaica’s original prophet Marcus Garvey. “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke.”
My version of white privilege is to have been educated, coached and ‘awoken’ into the realities of life for people of color. I find it interesting to see how many otherwise well-meaning white folk (particularly politicians) keep making the same mistake. They believe that because individually they treat all people with respect, that is enough. It has been interesting watching people like Joe Biden stumble as he tries to show how enlightened he is. At this particular point in history, where white supremacists can march with nazi insignias and confederate flags to a rally for the president, merely being enlightened is not enough. We need to root out the systemic and institutionalized racism that continues to ensure that people of color will never have the same opportunities that exist for white people in this country. So long as black families can be arrested at gun point for the crime of a 4 year old walking out of a store with a doll, words will never be enough.
As we pull out our hair at the truly scary things that are taking place today (war with Iran? Environmental protection going up in smoke? Corruption in high places?) it is good to turn our gaze upwards and outwards. The (polluted) oceans keep washing our shores; the moon continues to wax and wane; the mountains stand guard over us; trees continue to soak up Carbon Dioxide and give out life affirming Oxygen; and clouds continue to draw ever changing works of art on our skies.
This Friday morning I hope you can stay woke! I hope you have time to look out at nature, to remind yourself that sure as tomorrow’s sun will rise there will be those who do not appreciate it. And I hope that you will challenge yourself to learn something about someone who does not share your culture or your beliefs, and do so in a way that widens your horizons, that allows you to be a little more informed about our amazing human race.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!