on being a darkie

May 31, 2007

So, I’ve been thinking about language and the many ways we express our deeply imbued societal notions, through speech and popular colloquialisms. Specifically though, I’ve been thinking about those various instances while walking down the street in Trinidad and some random man at the side of the road hisses, “darkie” to me in a licentious tone as I walk on by. It usually brings a smile to my face these days and it’s not just nostalgic because I spend most of the year in school in the States. The contemporary usage of the word “darkie” fascinates me. Despite the scope of this blog, I am a feminist, so I believe that it is no where near as offensive as say, a man shouting, “yuh have REAL nice breasts!” (which has also happened. cringe.)

Funnily enough, it seems as though it’s not really me, or this female body that I possess, that is being objectified per se (though technically, it’s still a kind of catcall). It’s really largely attributed to the fact that I am a particular shade. While catcalls of darkie are still sexist to a certain extent; it is not reserved solely for women. Men can be darkies too. Women can also employ “darkie” towards other women. When someone says darkie to me, it’s not as overtly sexist as some other things one might say. Its contemporary usage here is also markedly different from the American “darky” (with or without a “y”) as well as the usage in other places, which is an old-termed racial slur rooted in the era of blackface and  epitomizing the negative stereotypes of dark-skinned people.

Which begs the question, are you a “darkie” because you are dark-skinned and perceived as attractive by the said individual or are you one just because of your dark skin tone? Depending on the context, the answer may fall somewhere between a combination of the two. And so I find myself contemplating the way in which the term “darkie” is used at home. I like the term darkie, in fact I am quite fond of the word itself because it is rooted entirely in skin color. But not just any skin color but a dark skin tone.

It’s more than just descriptive as well. More like a verbal sound-kiss against ebony skin. One that is not heard too often in many other places. Darkie is an offspring of the word dark and exists on the opposite end of the spectrum from “light.” It is talking specifically and entirely about a beautiful dark skin tone, in all its chocolate splendor. Especially in Trinidad, where it is frequently paired with an equally endearing qualitative adjective, “sweet.”

As in, “dat is one sweet darkie dere.” I love it. I cannot think of any other endearing descriptive term that is located entirely in a dark skin tone. “Black” people are all tones and it’s kind of a neutral term. “Darkie,” is full of warmth, at least when used by a Trini and even more complimentary when you place “sweet” before it.

I’ve had some Latinos call me a “morena,” and depending on who you ask, it either means a Dominican female, a black female from anywhere, a black Latina or any female with African ancestry mixed in there somewhere. My Trini friend studying in Brazil (who might be a few smidgens lighter than me) told me once about the Brazilian men referring to her on the street as “mocha.” I am not exactly sure if it was always positive or negative or mixed.

One term that comes to mind in correlation to “darkie” is “browning” and the two terms function differently in very distinct ways. Patricia Mohammed in her piece describes the usage of “browning” in Jamaican culture as connected to “a preference for ‘brown’ as opposed to black women or unmixed women.” Furthermore, a Trini friend who did her degree in Jamaica, complained to me once that everyone there thought that she was rolling in money only because she was “brown,” even though she was not, and this was always annoying to her. “Browning” then, functions in Jamaica as a kind of perceived socio-economic marker as well. It is class, color and status all rolled into one in a way that the term darkie is not.

The term “darkie” does not confer any particular social or economic status for the ascribed individual other than, well being a dark-skinned person. This need for a kind of induced othering (that is other than black that is), exists in many places to varying degrees. This comes as a result of slavery and the high value placed on white culture and by association, anything that was further from African-ness was closer to white and therefore better. Black was visibly other than white and therefore bad. Saying darkie is like calling attention to that which others fight to be other than.

Black Americans instituted the “paper bag test” which followed the same theory that the category of “browning” seems to allude. That is, browner is better, lighter is better, prettier, and more desirable. Probably “red-bone” in the States as it is used today particularly in urban culture is closer to “browning.” Just as Mohammed references the Buju Banton song “Love mi Browning,” in the States, the “red-bone” is almost always a desirable female of a particular shade.

She is the counterpart of the desirable brown skinned woman and the much sought after mulatta. It is interesting to note that it is always women who get color categorized the most by societal terminology. Colorism serves an important function of separating certain people from quote-on-quote ‘blackness.’ You know, if one happens to be so inclined that is. It allows people to safely attribute some ambiguous mixed heritage with just the right amount of African heritage.

In Trinidad, Aisha Khan in her piece notes that the term “Spanish” functions in that way, where “‘Spanish’ is used in part to affirm an ethnic hierarchy where ‘softened’ or ambiguous ‘African’ or ‘black’ convey and confer a higher status that modifies the perceived stronger or more clear-cut expression of ‘African’ or ‘black’ attributes.”  The thing is in the West Indies, significant amounts of people are in fact mixed.

However, what concerns me though is the ease with which we tend to steer away from an African connection as though this is bad. All these terms in effect serve as ‘ethnic modifiers’ of blackness. That is to say, this is where they are historically rooted. As though being black is something dirty, that we’d rather not be tarnished with. So let’s move away from any linkage to that. That’s kind of sad, the fact that people are so deathly afraid of being linked to blackness.

And what of the desirable dark-skinned woman one might wonder? The counterpart to the esteemed “browning,” “red-bone,” “spanish,” “dougs,” and the “red-woman.” Except for “darkie,” it’s like she doesn’t exist anywhere in the lexicon. For many young black girls, this is problematic. Color is important in lots of places apparently. We categorize it, qualify it and compartmentalize definitions of color. We rank shades and attach the appropriate social meanings that go along with them. I wouldn’t care so much about what people call me if it wasn’t all entrenched in such a painful legacy that continues to affect future generations. A legacy that is important to recognize and understand.

The fact is that slavery and colorism are directly connected to one another and we all need to recognise that. I personally don’t care about color that much other than the way it functions in particular societies and the crazy things that people see attached to a shade. Sometimes it’s funny when people say, “so-and-so is this shade so they must be that way.” It’s strange too. Like measuring the “quality” of hair. And sad. It’s only color people. As fleeting and as transient as the flesh within which it is housed. One day it will all decompose into nothingness…

The only thing I am concerned with doing here is making sure that the glorious dark-skinned hue of my ancestors and that of little black kids drowning in self-hatred is uplifted. Someone needs to shine a light on it–that color, that deep mahogany color and say, see, you are beautiful. And certainly everyone is, in their own way.

Related references: Khan, Aisha. “What is a ‘Spanish’?: Ambiguity and ‘mixed’ ethnicity in Trinidad.”

Mohammed, Patricia. “But Most of all Mi love me Browning: The Emergence in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Jamaica of the Mulatto Woman as the Desired.”

Yelvington, Kevin. Trinidad Ethnicity.

2008 update: I really liked what Orlando Octave said in relation to his song “Darkie.” In an Abstract magazine interview, he noted that, “I sang about ‘Darkie’ because darkies don’t have a song. In a country like Trinidad where there are lots of red women [and they] always get the ‘rate-up’ and I just wanted to bring something for the darkie dem.”

*grin* Thanks! Speaking for all de sweet Trini darkies–I think it’s safe to say, we likey.

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jumpin for joy

May 23, 2007

i’m so tired lately. can’t catch a break with this work, teach, work, work, junction, teach, work schedule. it’s a weird feeling you know. doing so much and feeling like your hard work isn’t really taking you anywhere fast. and now there’s one more great creative project on the table. my old dance school, caribbean school of dancing in port-of-spain, is having it’s 50th anniversary gala performance in december and me and two of my girlfriends will be collaborating on a piece together. now mind you, i live in new york and they both live in d.c. i’m not sure how we’re going to make this ‘collaboration’ thing work. nevertheless, i am excited that i’ll have the opportunity to be a part of something so special and even more excited that i’ll be working with two of the sassiest and most talented dancers i know. rehearsals are yet to begin but as soon as they do i’ll be sure to give you a blow by blow. who knows…maybe i’ll even youtube the whole thing and post some video of us jumping around and acting like little girls again. stay tuned.

30-Year-Old Children’s Theatre Annual Production Tackles Pollution

Port of Spain, Trinidad… Lilliput Theatre will stage its original production of Smelly on Friday May 18, 2007 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday May 19, 2007 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday May 20, 2007 at 5:30 p.m. at Queens Hall. Smelly is a commentary on the quantity and quality of the development in the country and globally.

Directed by 3 Canal’s Wendell Manwarren, the project came out of the creative mind of designer and artist Merylle Mahabir. Her conceptual costume designs were displayed during Lilliput’s 2007 Junior Carnival portrayal and brought to life by the children’s drama class, who authored the script. The class was initially introduced to environmental issues during a seminar conducted by Mode Alive owner and environmental activist Gary Aboud, when he asked students to describe their immediate surroundings.

The final product is a play incorporating several dance pieces addressing local issues such as the smelter projects and Vision 20/20. While Smelly is meant to give audiences a look into how the world is changing and the human influence, it has also deeply affected members of the cast and crew. Noble Douglas, the theatre’s artistic director, producer and choreographer, says she saw a change in the students. “Some of the teens were saying that they felt very guilty about how they have been contributing to pollution. They became more aware about the little things they could do to help the environmental situation,” she said.

This is not the first time Lilliput has approached a serious topic in its productions. The veteran company is known for staging published plays such as Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Derek Walcott’s Ti Jean and His Brothers, but also staged its own original production Eye Eye Eye, which chronicled the plight of street children. The students readily accepted the reality of its content, but Douglas felt people were still in denial about the topic. “The children never had a problem with Eye Eye Eye, it was the parents and John public who had a problem,” she said.

Because the environment is a topic that is growing in popularity and urgency, audiences are primed to accept and enjoy what Lilliput players are eager to present next weekend.

Lilliput Theatre teaches theatre to children aged 7 to 18 and dance to children aged 3 to 18. It was founded in 1975 and encourages self confidence through the challenge of theatre, game play and imagination. In its production of Smelly, the theatre also uses the strong element of robber talk, showcasing that the heritage of the oral tradition is still alive. According to Manwarren, “Over the years the theatre has come full circle through the evolution of its own style of storytelling.”

WHAT: Smelly

WHO: Lilliput Theatre

WHEN: Friday May 18, 2007 at 7:30

Saturday May 19, at 7:30

Sunday May 20, 2007 at 5:30

WHERE: Queens Hall, St. Anns, Port of Spain

TICKETS: $60 adults/ $40 children

Crosby’s Music Centre, St. James or students of Lilliput Theatre

in spite of being an actor, i hate makeup. i only ever wear it onstage and even then, it’s minimal, unless i can avoid it altogether. so when i ran into afrobella (sidebar) i checked it out because i know her from highschool, but didn’t expect to become a regular reader, since beauty products and cosmetics in general are not my thing and i don’t care enough to spend time reading about them. but my girl is excellent- the blog covers more than just products (music, interviews, organic remedies, things-trini) and i find myself reading every post, whether it’s about makeup or not. so when i decided to get caught up i went all the way back to her november 2006 archives because i didn’t want to miss anything- needless to say, she’s also very prolific, so i’ve been catching up on her blog for days. literally. and am only up to february…
but so worthwhile.
today i big-up and link
this afrobella post (3months old, to the date) addressing an aspect of trini music that i’ve had a hard time explaining in dc- religious party music. after you read here, i suggest you take the time to watch all the videos she’s linked.
now i’m completely irreligious, myself. i’d call myself a lapsed catholic, but wouldn’t want to give my mother hope of my return to the church. so let’s say i don’t care about god(s)- i try to do the right thing and enjoy the gift of life, and assume that any deity in charge of shit will respect my good life in its aftermath, regardless of beliefs or lack thereof. so i don’t really think about anything but energy- cannot be created or destroyed but only changed from one form into another- sounds pretty omnipotent to me.
but trinis are a traditionally religious people, in the way that every post-slavery society i know of is, except that we’re more encompassing and don’t stick to variations on christianity because of our very mixed culture. much of the music i listen and dance to references jah, right alongside deities considered part of the orisa/shango/hindu/other canons because of our multireligious nature- the country gets public holidays for not just christmas, but divali, eid-ul-fitr, shouter baptist day, etc. and many of us celebrate them all. religious content is often heard in the dancehall to varying degrees, and the phenomenon afrobella mentions, of a whole crowd at a huge, loud concert with drinks in hands swaying to david rudder’s high mas in a seemingly religious experience is something i experienced (and still do) @ every rudder show i went to (and i went to every one i possibly could), every
andre tanker show (not leaving out contraband who i hope to find still playing, in spite of our losing tanker), every time i heard ella andall’s voice live- it’s the closest i ever feel to any god of any sort, which brings me to the featured video in her post: isaac blackman.
isaac is the younger brother of
sheldon blackman (also on left sidebar) and their family is near+dear to my heart- wife (claudette) and children of the late great ras shorty i, who left the carnality of soca to make music dedicated to jah.
i’m pausing for a second to apologise for any disjointedness in this post- i often forget how just thoughts of
shorty bring tears, and i feel them rising (we lost him the same year that we lost lord kitchener and john isaacs) so i cannot vouch for the coherence of the rest of this post but it’s important to me to post it before tonight, which i’ll explain shortly, so i’ll come back tomorrow and fix anything that’s a mess.
in bishops, scrawn briefly called me ras shorty i because i’m short with glasses and dreadlocks, but that was well behind me by the time i met him. i actually met sheldon 1st and he took me home to piparo (in the bush, as we say- we’d also say “behind god back” but in this case it seems inappropriate) where i met the rest of the family (23 kids; i know about 10, i think) who immediately adopted me- ironically, i look like i could be part of their family; when i go anywhere with them, others assume that i am. they brought me home, fed me, let me sit in while they rehearsed and created music, and i became a fan+friend for life. i don’t know anybody like them (their family stage name is the love circle and most of the youths also make their own music- each of them sings hauntingly, writes and plays at least 1 instrument, some play many)- they’re beautiful, amazing, welcoming, strong, god-loving people and their almost-entirely-religious music (called jamoo, for jah music) is always on my favourites-list. i know every single lyric and sing along with them about god’s love and how important it is in their lives and i come so close to believing- the part of me that doesn’t cross the line into religious belief is still rewarded and made to feel loved as i dance. my lack of belief does nothing to dilute the impact the lyrics have, i never feel left out, and quite frankly, i’m happy to consider the music itself my religion. they’re so good live, too, i dance from start to stop. when i met isaac (the baby) he was making bamboo jewellery (which i still wear) as well as music, and way too cute for one still underage, but like i said, they’re all beautiful- if i could look like mom claudette after having that many children…but i digress- i’ve watched isaac grow into a confident and successful young man and his music has grown with him.
the last time i saw him in trini my jaw dropped at how mannish he’d become while i was in dc, and i love knowing that he’s making a name for himself the way sheldon did (you should use the sidebar to listen to sheldon’s album- he’s incredible and deserves a post of his own) while being pleased to see him stay true to his roots- most of the people in that video are his family, and the black+white shirt you see in some shots is part of the jamoo clothing line started by older sister and bass player avion. (my jamoo dress is about 10years old, and still every time i wear it people ask where they can get one. while in parentheses, another aside: i noticed the name “rembunction” @ the bottom of the video screen and swear i saw my boy remy in the video, so big-up remy for working with the best and bringing our talent into the open for others to see/hear.)
there are few things that move me the way ras shorty i’s who god bless does, except perhaps hearing sheldon/love circle sing it, or mavis john sing it, or ataklan’s rapso remake featuring sheldon singing it…
i wanted to link afrobella’s post and throw in my few words about the idea that music can be religious and still be partied to because tonight i go to the stephen+damian “jr.gong” marley concert, where i will dance for personal deities.
the workers of iniquity
dig a pit for me
now they waiting for me to fall in
trying to take mih bread an butter
with lies and propaganda
but they foolin
they only foolin
i shall not be afraid of what man can do to me
man you see is only vanity
who god bless no man curse
he shall never hunger or thirst
who god bless no man shall ever curse
he shall be first…
who god bless, ras shorty i
walk good.
ps: afrobella also mentions that david rudder is often considered the trini bob marley, which is true, but in keeping with the theme, i admit that i call him by his other title, the high priest of calypso/soca. the sound on the high mas video (her post) isn’t great, but i recommend listening to (if you can find) hallelujah, the ganges and the nile, the hammer, haiti, song for a lonely soul, calypso rising, 1990, another day in paradise, trini 2 de bone– and anything else he’s done- they’re not all jah-referential, but all amazing tunes.
and on that tip, anything by andre tanker (check out the youthful photo of him with that link) especially bassment party, forward home– actually, there’s way too many to list, but anything by tanker will make you dance and bring you closer to that supreme energy. trust.

(this post is also @ sweet trini’s urban folk tales, and all references to the sidebar are for that blog, not the junction blog)