“Truth is powerful and it prevails.” ~ Sojourner Truth.
I was submerged in diversity from an early age. Plucked from the rainy, grey city of Manchester in the UK, I was exposed to the natural beauty and colorful environment of rural Jamaica. They talk about culture shock, for those who move from one part of the world to another, but I have no recollection of any trauma. Perhaps because I was young, but also because of the warmth and welcome of the people of the community. In no time I was absorbed into family life, feeling comfortable walking into several homes and becoming just another child. The only time I realized I was different (white girl amid the variety of skin tones to be found in Jamaica) was when I was called ‘white girl’, or even more troubling to me ‘dolly baby’. I had always hated being called ‘baby’, even though I was the youngest (not the baby!!).
The society was rich in variety, both in its people (descended from Africans, Indians, Chinese and Europeans, and of course an admixture of any and all of the above) and in its landscape. Saturday market was a feast of fruits; a rainbow of bright colors; a wide palette of smells; and a cacophony of sounds, with the braying of the donkeys a constant backdrop. Ground produce would be piled up on the ground (or on stalls if you could afford one), with fruits and spices in abundance.
When I went to a primary (elementary) school a five-mile bus drive down the winding, narrow, bumpy, country road, I was introduced to the ‘bush’. During our recess we would go down into the untamed scrub, and I was taught how to make a ‘dolly house’ the old-fashioned way, by weaving sticks into walls. Wattle and daub was the name for it, though we didn’t have time to ‘daub’ the mud over our frame before the bell sounded to return to class. I learned which large leaves could be used as an umbrella in the sudden tropical downpours (ok, we still got wet, but we tried). I also visited the distant caves with the stalactites and stalagmites that echoed like a drum when struck. I ran with everyone else when the ‘rat bats’ were disturbed, and flew out at us in wafting flaps of their eerie wings.
In later years I would join in with friends in a trip to the river, and enjoy a day of swimming and eating, as part of the day would be a huge pot of tasty, spicy soup cooked over an open fire. Groves of bamboo would click in the breeze; clouds would gather overhead and threaten rain, causing an early end to a relaxed day.
Since white people are in the minority in Jamaica, I was fortunate to also experience inclusion, very rarely being made to feel as ‘other’. Yet there did exist colorism and classism in that society. It is definitely a product of colonialization, the British having left behind its class structure to ensure that those at the upper levels would maintain the power, and keep the teeming masses in their place. Black Power movements in the seventies helped to challenge those traditions and it was no longer only those with lighter complexions who were seen in positions of prominence.
Having heard the term ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ in several forums recently, I have been thinking about what that really means. In my professional life, I had to write a report for accreditation, and one of the 2023 standards now requires that the curriculum address ‘diversity, equity, inclusion, and/or social determinants of health’. It has long been known that racism has an impact on health from many different angles. In women of color, maternal health is negatively impacted by racism, both from the direct effects on the health of the mother, and from the systemic racism that is inherent in the healthcare system. Our recent experience with COVID 19 exposed the great disparity in outcomes, with people of color dying at rates almost twice as high as white people. We may be making grounds on the diversity aspect of our society, we may even be doing better with inclusion, but equity has a long way to go.
I have been reading about environmental justice, the concepts that the benefits of a clean environment should be enjoyed by all, regardless of race or identity. Last weekend we took a drive out to Big Cypress Swamp, one of Florida’s wild areas. It differs somewhat from the Everglades in the landscape, with more of the cypress and other hardwood trees. The wading birds were not much on display, but instead we were treated to a wild display of alligator machismo. One alligator tried to sneak up on another, obviously hoping to take over his patch of water. It got ugly, with thrashing and splashing, and showing of teeth. One clamped his jaws behind the hind legs of the other (it was hard to know who was who in the twirling fight), and the other tried to do the same. The audience was spell bound, knowing that this was nature in action, not a contrived made-for-video moment.
Later we walked along a boardwalk and saw gator trails (at the time we couldn’t figure out what the wide track with footprints on either side was, thinking it could have been a bike track). At the end of the boardwalk, overlooking shallow water, we saw snakes and turtles and tiny birds, including a bright yellow palm warbler (maybe). Fellow nature lovers pointed out treasures, explained those tracks, strangers sharing freely, oohing and aahing in delight.
I have friends who are advocates for environmental justice, seeing the need for diversity in our wide open spaces, and attention to the health of our planet. If we recognized the reality, that our disregard of our planet’s health will lead to our own demise, perhaps we would work harder for change. We need to be involved and support those activists who are fighting and lobbying for more responsible regulations; for more accountable politicians. We need to work hard to ensure that our children and grandchildren can enjoy the wilds of the Everglades; clean water; clean air.
On this Friday morning I hope that we can all strive to make this society one where diversity, equity and inclusion abound. And if you can, get out and enjoy our wide open spaces. It will do you a world of good! Have a wonderful weekend, Family!
Thank you for this lovely piece – memories of Jamaica and more. I envy you your trip to the swamp, I would love to have seen those alligators in action from a safe distance! This is such a divided world these days…We have to keep striving…