on the Commercialization of Black Excellence

 

This past week I’ve been ruminating.

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Corporate U, a networking company based in Western Jamaica, is hosting a red carpet style affair for the premiere of the Black Panther movie, and charging $3000 for admission (roughly twice the cost of a regular movie ticket). Though it claims to be giving the profits to charity and though I love dressing up for fancy tête-à-têtes, the high-priced ticket is giving me pause.

The revolution will not be televised

My mind keeps turning over, uncomfortable and questioning. Black Panther has become so much more than a superhero movie, has evolved into a political statement: a blanket, a balm, a battle cry. Just look at Twitter, where the hashtag #whatblackpanthermeanstome has generated an outpouring of emotional and hilarious observations on the realities of black life. It feels cheap to take this movement and capitalize on it for material gain. Because charity or not, profits will be made and someone’s pockets will end up fatter.

The revolution will be . . . commercialized?

The second question, of exclusivity. That the celebration of black excellence somehow comes with a discriminatory price tag. “You must be this wealthy to attend this premiere”. I elected to skip the red carpet experience, with the distinct and discomforting awareness that this only deepens the divide between the haves and the have nots. Between the bawdy bandwagonist half price movie goers, and the tawdry trend-setting full price movie lovers. Further, between the curly-haired light-skinned BMW driver and the kinky-haired dark-skinned pedestrian. Drives home the distinction between ‘State of Emergency’ and ‘enhanced security measures’. The ropes around the red carpet isolate us ironically, at a time when we should be celebrating the things that make us the same.

The last question, of overthinking. Black Panther is just a movie, after all, not some kind of altar call for black power. No matter how poignant the timing is. Corporate U is just another business, doing what businesses do: making money. And the red carpet affair isn’t driving wedges between the hearts of Jamaicans any more than the latest all-inclusive party or ZOSO. My perceived discomfort is exactly that: perception. The people who want the full ‘African Royalty’ experience will go, and enjoy the many scheduled after-parties. And the people who don’t want or can’t afford it will watch the movie on discount night, same as always.

The world keeps turning
and only time will tell
which side of history we stand on

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Jamaicans Dream, Just Not the Way You Think

Recently the Gleaner ran an article reporting the results of their own self-commissioned poll on ‘the Jamaican dream’ at 55 years post-Independence. The entire (horribly subjective, barely factual) piece can be found here; what follows is my summary.

The results of the poll were quickly dispensed – 51% of respondents had “no real Jamaican dream” – and the rest of the article focused on dissecting the results in great detail. The Gleaner seems to be taking itself way too seriously. Writer Syranno Baines pulled quotes from pollster Bill Johnson (never heard of him) and psychologist Dr Leachim Semaj (of whom I remain decidedly skeptical) who gave their strangely misdirected opinions on the outcome. The piece raised more questions than answers, leaving itself open for criticism and ridicule.

To start with, the article is poorly written (Syranno, this isn’t completely your fault; you’re also a victim here. Our journalistic training is sorely lacking). There are unnecessary and frankly lazy repetitions, and it suffers from biased reporting (both sources essentially said the same thing. Also reporting on your own poll just seems uninspired).

For the opening statement Baines makes an example of the American dream, but the choice of words leaves the reader feeling like Jamaicans are deficient for not sharing those aspirations. Why use the adjective ‘real’ when you describe the Jamaican dream, is there a fake one? Why say “Not so for Jamaicans” after detailing the American dream? Last I checked, we aren’t Americans.

Still in the introduction, the article relays some sample dreams from the 49% of respondents whose dreams counted: variations on a theme of national development and personal security. Why use the American dream (marriage, two children, a house and a dog) as the gold standard (which is what the Gleaner seems to be doing) if you’re only interested in dreams about the country? The American dream isn’t about America, it’s about Americans. A better quote would have been Martin Luther King Jr’s infamous speech during the March on Washington. You know, the one that goes “I have a dream…”

I think it’s a shame that more than 50 per cent of Jamaicans are dreamless in terms of the nation’s dream
–Bill Johnson

The timing and purpose of the poll suggest the Gleaner was trying to elicit Jamaican opinions on national affairs since independence. Both Johnson and Semaj seem to be discussing a national dream – the Vision 2030 goal, for instance. But Johnson’s tone suggests that the average Jamaican should literally be sitting down and meditating on this goal of national development. Who does that?

Social Science Isn’t an Art

Objectively speaking, a poll isn’t any kind of valid scientific report. It is highly subjective, often deliberately leading and results are usually poorly representative of the wider society. There’s no way of guaranteeing that everyone interprets the question the same way, and that greatly confounds the results. Not to mention the paltry sample size of 1500 people. The results should be taken with a grain of salt, not treated like some peer-reviewed randomized controlled trial. Certainly, it shouldn’t be touted in a national newspaper with the implication that Jamaicans lack direction.

In his commentary pollster Bill Johnson (is this his only qualification?) suggested that Jamaicans have “no time to dream” because they are “too busy working hard to put food on the table”. He was eager to point out that the upper and middle class (people with “‘high-level education”) were better at “dreaming”.

For his part, Dr. Semaj blamed the media for reporting too much crime and violence and not enough national development. His contention is that Vision 2030 is the Jamaican dream but Jamaicans are too depressed by the news to notice the development that is already underway.

I might be paraphrasing.

We are not dreamless

I am disappointed in the Gleaner for perpetuating the class divide by publishing these bogus statistics. I am disappointed in Mr. Johnson for trying to back up his bogus statistics with illegitimate claims about the lives of lower class. I am doubly and triply disappointed in Dr. Semaj for trying to deflect attention from the national crisis of rampant violence and terror to talk more about ‘development’. The print and digital media are bedecked with stories of national development, but that trickle of good news is outmatched by the flood of social unrest. I appreciate Dr. Semaj’s concern for the awareness of the average Jamaican but I doubt the media is conspiring to block all mention of Vision 2030.

But what I am most disappointed in and irked by is the idea that even our dreams are owned, dictated and rented out by the (not so) great U. S. of A. If it doesn’t look like the whitewashed Hollywood-packaged caricature we’ve been force-fed our whole lives then it can’t possibly be right.

There is no way Jamaicans could survive our day to day existence without dreams, without believing and hoping that one day things will be different, will be better. We are a nation of dreamers, ambitious survivors, and rising fucking stars.

This may come as news to you Syranno Baines, Bill Johnson and Leachim Semaj, but Jamaicans are not dreamless.

We dream about stepping/clawing/digging our way out of the poverty being reinforced by a corruption so entrenched it strips us down to our bones.
We dream about honest politicians and come-unities that don’t have a murder every two days.
We dream about having children and grandchildren and building a legacy that time and death cannot erase.
We dream about putting food on the table and sending our children to ‘high-level education’.
Our dream is a better life for our children than the life we had and all now that dream caan bloodclaat come tru.
We dream about safety, we dream about love and we dream about stability.
And we have had that dream about marriage and two kids and that goddamn house with the white picket fence and the dog. But wedding expensive, people love plenty pickney and some ah wi fraid ah dog.

Don’t tell the people they’re wrong just because they aren’t white.

Check Yourself (before you wreck yourself)

Walking past a beach full of cavorting young people and wondering why everyone is in underwear instead of swimsuits is privilege. Getting annoyed by having to walk/take the bus because you don’t own a car (yet) is privilege. Being able to pay your bills, pay your rent and put food on the table is privilege. Speaking English fluently is a privilege.

Like an off-the-rack blouse, privilege comes in many colours.

privilege (n): a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

 

I imagine it as a series of tiers, starting all the way at the tipitty top with the straight, white, rich, cis, able-bodied, Christian male and deviating as far down the ladder as the internet can imagine. And no one is immune to this ranking system, not even on this little island. Society forces you into boxes for ease of definition. (cue The Breakfast Club theme).

Privilege in Jamaica takes on many shades – it separates us along lines of class, colour, community, wealth, ethnicity, educational achievement, gender, sexuality and religion. For a population so small (less than half the size of New York or London), we try really hard to divide ourselves into even smaller groups.

In Jamaica, the most privileged group is the heterosexual (or apparently heterosexual), Christian, light-skinned upper class. You know at least one family that fits the description: mixed ethnicity and ‘good Christian character’ who can afford a house in Upper Snaandrew, and afford to send all their children to school a farrin.

By contrast the least privileged groups are from the inner city: girls with majority African features who dropped out of high school and struggle to afford basic amenities. I say girls, because even though young men are often sympathized with for their (self-inflicted) marginalization they have the privilege of physical autonomy – their bodies are their own.

But there are always exceptions to the rule, personalities who exist pon de baadaline. Scammers are envied for their lavish lifestyles (secured from ill-gotten gains) while living in communities on the wrong side of the tracks. Homosexual characters entertain the masses in grassroots plays, despite the overwhelmingly homophobic national atmosphere.

We experience the world through the lenses of our respective socialization, through the blinds of our privilege.

The way we observe and absorb privilege depends on which rung of the social ladder we cling to. Higher up, the status quo is fine – privilege is a myth, something amorphous and unrecognizable. Lower down, the disparities are glaringly, infuriatingly obvious. These frictions of willful ignorance and misplaced anger are the catalyst behind our sociopolitical unrest.

Even though privilege is the film through which we view society and ourselves, we don’t pay a lot of attention to it. But imagine if everyone acknowledged their advantages (and disadvantages), if the people with influence actively worked to empower the disenfranchised. Or if the marginalized and underprivileged populous united to overthrow the inequalities of a hugely biased system. What could we accomplish?

Socialism, probably. But what’s wrong with that?

UWI: Bastion of Upper Class Academia

The University of the West Indies Mona is building yet another new hall, a third post graduate residence right beside the first post-graduate residence on Gerald Lalor flats. The multiple high rise buildings are in the same style of Towers (Elsa Leo Rhynie) and New Postgrad (Marlene Hamilton): 6 floors apiece with central staircase. Cookie-cutter condos, I call them, but without the grandeur.

But this isn’t news. September last year, UWI signed a deal with K Limited (parent company of 138 Student Living which is building the behemoths) which would see the university providing land for the company to build housing accommodations on. After a period of time (unspecified) the company would then hand over the buildings to the UWI ‘free of cost’ in ‘good condition’.

This business is disturbing on a number of levels.

First, Professor Archibald, Princpal of UWI, has said that this partnership represents a new direction in tertiary education funding. He’s expecting an increase in the enrollment of international students who can ‘pay their own fees’, hence the gung-ho enthusiasm about ‘world class accommodations’. These international students will offset the burden so that the university can offer grants and scholarships to Jamaican students who cannot afford university.

So he says.

It sounds nice, but how realistic is this pipe dream? How many international students are willing to come to a Caribbean university with very little clout in the global workforce? Is our accreditation valuable when they return home or go further abroad in search of business opportunities? Aside from housing, what else is the university doing to entice international students? I’m not seeing much going on.

Then, will an increase in international students really translate to an increase in the financial resources available to Jamaican students? Maybe I’m jaded by Jamaican bureaucracy but I don’t see that happening. Our academic and political leaders have glib tongues; so good at soothing our ears and lining their pockets.

Third, while the property belongs to UWI the buildings belong to 138 Student Living who will reap returns on the rent paid over. Not that I’m concerned about the state of the university’s coffers (except as it relates to them justifying yet another outrageous hike in tuition fees), but how much of the rent will the university get from this arrangement? Then when the buildings are turned over to the university after an unspecified length of time I doubt they will be in anything resembling ‘good condition’. This just means more financial losses for the university.

(Memba when Rex did jus buil? Only ten years later, it start to look jus as pop dung as the rest of them. There is no building in the world that can withstand the natural disaster that is the University Student).

One thing that reinforces my distrust is the price tag attached to these new halls. According to Aldeam Facey from Life as a Jamaican, the cost of rent per month is touted as $395 U.S. dollars (~$46,000 JMD). Not even our tuition is quoted in Jamaican dollars these days, sadly. How is the average Jamaican student supposed to afford this cost of living? Those grants and scholarships Professor Archibald was going on about rarely cover accommodation costs and will only help a select few.

According to Aldeam (again), the residence is being marketed to ‘graduate students, medical interns, residents and Norman Manley Law School students’. With a setup painfully reminiscent of hall life (check out the Virtual Tour on their website), I don’t see anyone who’s already been through university clamoring to sign up. Unlike Marlene Hamilton hall (new Post Grad), kitchen and dining room facilities are shared. You only get your own bathroom (a tiny one, it looks like) and the list of prohibited items is extensive. Sounds like undergrad all over again.

And 138 Student Living isn’t stopping at one new hall of residence. They have their sights set on demolishing and rebuilding Irvine hall (notorious for being one of the more affordable halls on campus). And when the Gleaner asked about similar plans for the other traditional halls (Chancellor, Seacole, Taylor), the chairman said he would wait and see.

All this is leading me to conclude that the university is starting on a path of exclusion and exclusivity. Once, not so long ago, tertiary education was the domain of the upper class because of the prohibitive costs. Is history repeating itself? Are we going to reach a point where the ever expanding lower class will be barred from getting higher education (and thus launching themselves out of poverty)?

Tell you what. I’ll wait and see.