A Short Drop

March 30, 2009

It seems like wherever enclaves of people from different cultures are found, vestiges of our home and the culture from whence we came soon follow. Like roti shops and mini-buses. When I was an undergrad, you could take a ride from my campus in North Miami, all the way to downtown Miami (and back) for one dollar each way on the local jitney. The benefits meant that you weren’t limited to the schedule of the Miami-Dade city transport system, nor limited to their routes which didn’t necessarily go everywhere that people might want to go. The jitney ride in North Miami functioned as a main source of transportation (as well as supplemental to other public transport ) for large numbers of people including college students within the area. Here was where you were summoned onto an already full mini-bus by a nodding driver assuring you that there is room, while you scanned the darkly tinted windows with slight skepticism.

The thing is, you never really knew until you actually got on. Then you did, only to survey the hodge-podge of arms and knees, tightly folded legs, rapid fire kreyol over the sounds of kompa–with increasing doubt; while from his perch behind the steering wheel, you were solidly assured by the driver, that there was indeed a place for you, deep in the belly of the mini-bus. You just had to keep going. Eventually you’d find the space, sandwiched between two strangers, tightly squeezed on either side. When I was riding the jitney, there were still mini-buses with no buzzer, so you had to holler from the back over the din and once in a while, between the animated conversations and the music, the driver did miss your stop. But these people beside you, these people you only knew from this ride, would always help, passing on the call for “stop!” from person to person and mouth-to-mouth, like a verbal smoke signal until we came to rest. Even people that did not know English well, knew how to yell stop on the jitney.

Throughout the developing world, you can find versions of the mini-bus as a cultural variation of the government created transportation system. There is always something subversive about the way in which they function as a means of getting people around. These small mini-buses cramming as many people inside as they can, undercutting the cost of other transport in some places and/or providing flexibility of routes in others. They are privately owned and in many cases, this mysterious individual (s) is sometimes not even the person who is doing all the driving. In many parts of the developing world, mini-buses are part of a larger cultural representation of everyday life, in a way that other modes of transport supposedly are not. Or at least they are, in a different way.

In a large Western metropolis like New York city for example, city buses and other kinds of public state transport don’t function in the exact same way as the mini-bus, since you would find a successful mortgage broker riding next to a blue-collar worker, on the same train on any given day. In the developing world, mini-bus culture (and there usually is one), especially in the Caribbean (and Africa) is indicative of the other social and socio-economic forces at play as well. So much so that you can find people in Trinidad, who proudly declare that “they never take public transport” before (specifically maxis, and least of all a PTSC bus) because this fact is representative of being in a certain socio-economic class that is not dependent (or never has been) on public transport. Which means you are one of those people who has your own car and when you didn’t, you’re used to get dropped around all the time.

I want to feel like in 2009, you would still be hard-pressed to find someone who has never taken a maxi before but from what I’ve heard, that’s not true. Never taken a maxi? And okay with that? Never experienced the hustle of an ambitious tout in City Gate saying he had a special seat, just for you. Never been privy to the random conversational encounters on a maxi. Never been in the front seat of a maxi, music blaring loudly while barreling down the priority bus route at break-neck speed, with the breeze whipping at your face. Never had to dodge a bottom in yuh face after shuffling yuh own bottom around for seats on a maxi. In Trinidad, there are more and more cars on the road and we’re building more and more walls, around ourselves (literal and otherwise) to shut undesirables out, so there’s a whole section of people for whom, maxi taking just will not do. As to safety concerns, I would reckon that hopping a maxi from somewhere to town and back in the day, would still be somewhat safer than doing so in a flashy car. Plus in actuality if you ask certain kinds of people who don’t take maxis, why they don’t, it has less to do with being safe, than the notion of being cheek-on-jowl with the masses. The problem is being in close quarters, like, say a “bread van” maxi, with de marrish and de parrish.

In Trini we have our maxi taxis and in Guyana you can find the “mini bus” as well. In fact, throughout the Caribbean they exist, all over Africa, as well as regions in South and Central America. In South Africa they’re called “combis.” A friend informed me that in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto-Rico, they’re called “guaguas.” In the Vanity Fair 2007 Africa issue, I read Binyavanya Wainaina’s description of the Kenyan “matatus” as “anarchic public transport vehicles,” embodying the “edgy and beautiful” enterprising spirit of a transforming African country economy. These “Isuzu mini-buses,” these “loud, aggressive vehicles” reminded me of the red, yellow, green and maroon-band maxi taxis on the streets of Trinidad in their heyday. Nowadays, maxi drivers and owners in Trinidad have their own association or representative body, which is very active in attempting to regulate the ply of drivers and conductors. The rides themselves are relatively tamed down, compared to the excess of the earlier years where you might find a fuzzy, faux fur interior detailing inside on the roof, black lights in a maxi and more than enough bass to feel it reverberating deep inside your chest.

But during the late eighties and exploding in the early to mid-nineties, maxi culture flourished in a way that made them the scourge of everyone from school principals to middle-class parents. They represented a vehicular hustle, propelled by young brash men of color, driving and touting and jostling for passengers (and sex). From the school children liming late in town for subsequent runs of their favorite maxi, the branding of certain maxis as popular rides, to the epic pong of the bass line pulsating through the whole maxi and disturbing the peace, the dub, the dub lyrics, the school girls breaking biche to get whisked away by maxi men, the ambitious tout wetting some school girl’s ears with his own (or borrowed) lyrics, the tout shuffling through wads of cash to lure some teenager/s astray, the allegations of these big hard-back men being on the prowl, the tout who allegedly had HIV and was spreading it wantonly to school girls all over the place.

These stories and others like them are part of the maxi culture in our society, particularly ones exposing the seedy sexual underside of maxi culture. It’s Trini street culture. Trini urban culture. And just Trini culture–all stemming from a ride down the road in a red-band maxi. You can find similar sentiments and stories permeating all throughout our region of the supposed ills of mini-bus culture and the complaints about the drivers. What is it about these buses? That they are clearly indispensable is a fact. But also because of the way in which public transport, by its very design, forces the converging of different layers of people (even within the same socio-economic bracket) into a confined space. Everyone cannot have a car after all. So they do create an actual socio-cultural space while providing a real necessity and a service to the population.

red-band maxi

red-band maxi in Trinidad

Classic footage below of calypsonian Bally’s equally classic “Maxi Dub,” describing his dislike  of the youths’ maxi-culture and especially the loud dub music they play that he cannot decipher!

The tagline on Lily Allen’s myspace profile page currently says “most people don’t know how to make love” and let’s just say for the sake of this here blog, that she is right. As opposed to being prudish, as some people may have taken it, what she is really poking fun at, is the popular discourse on sex, commonly seen in today’s popular culture. “Making love” and all its inherent connotations is nowhere near as in vogue as, “fucking.”

Even Fifty Cent’s not into it and that’s saying a lot. (Insert irony here). For reference, see that oft-cited line from “In da Club,” which says, “I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love.” So, Lily as a pop artist herself and a young female operating in that world–well she probably understands this just as well as anyone. It’s quite interesting that she is a young female critiquing sex so brazenly and unabashedly. Yet also unsurprising. It seems that where heterosexual relations are concerned, it’s okay for women to do this. Men however, like Fifty, must never, ever bemoan the absence of “love-making” in their life. That’s just not cool. Right?

Now one of the problems with investigating the extent of pop cultural influences (or dancehall cultural influences for that matter), has to do with the fact that there’s a huge barrier to confront, when it comes to asking persons about their sexual attitudes and preferences. Then what they might actually be willing to admit about it. This versus what really goes on in the confines of anyone’s bedroom, which in actuality, is anyone’s guess. Then one must also consider the fact that young people (and/or the young at heart for that matter) form a large contingent of those very people who you want to ask about the relevance and impact of pop cultural definitions on their own bedroom behavior. And of course, no one wants to think about young people having sex, far less for discussing it (even though they clearly are). Worse yet, if we connect this all back to the pervasiveness of celebrities and pop cultural utterances. Wait, celebrities have influence?

So, what’s in a word anyway? Whether you make love, have sex, fuck or what have you? Plenty. Mainly because of the sub text and the meaning that we put behind the words. I suppose I am more concerned with what these terms mean for our attitudes toward sex and sexuality. We understand this too, so as a result, there is a distinct difference that we all attach to someone singing/saying, “so come make love to me” compared to “sit down pon it, sit down pon it.” The two being invitations/descriptions for the same activity nonetheless.

Along with music, dances today, can tell a lot about our attitudes toward sex and sexuality. As cultural norms shift and change, we can see a lot of these ideas reflected in the dances that we do. Dancing has long been linked to sex and for good reasons too. That’s why the local religious zealots flood the Trinidad and Tobago newspapers with letters after each Carnival season complaining about the display of wanton wining on tv and in pictorial spreads. That’s also why certain members of the so-called prestige convent schools in Trinidad have “no contact” dances. I mean, a sweet flex in a party can be one of the most sexually charged episodes in life! But we cannot have the convent girls getting all aroused now can we?

From the American public’s furor over Elvis Presley’s hip gyrations to the “perreo” dances of Latino youth which have scandalized many an abuela I’ve heard—dancing and sex go hand in hand. The explosion of new dances to dancehall music is especially telling as well. Partner dancing with another person (or on them for that matter) is steadily falling away to increasingly popular independent dances, in unison with a group perhaps but essentially solitary acts of “raging bull,” “tek way yuhself” and anything more current that I don’t know the name of.

Long gone are our parents’ days of “rent-a-tile” or even the sweaty May fair flex of yesteryear when somebody had yuh on lock on a wall somewhere taking a wine. Sure, there have always been specific “dances” connected to certain dancehall songs but nowadays, the advent of dances seems to have exploded into epic proportions. Either they are coming out faster or I just couldn’t be bothered but they seem plentiful and awful hard to keep track of. Some of these new dances are hyper-sexualized beyond compare. On top of all this, the majority seem devoid of any contact with another human being with only a few exceptions. Most interestingly is watching the ways in which these “ravers clavers” affect the dynamics of a crowd in a party.

I mean you either know the new dance that came out in Jamaica like, that very morning, or you just don’t. This creates an interesting invisible boundary, with everybody else on one side and those who know the dance on the other. Those are the people who astutely execute the new dances plus it’s also a definite cultural marker. Sort of like Trinis in a party whenever “Trini to the bone” comes on. (Many other West Indians know and do these dances too but you catch my drift). People can do these new dances too for a very, very, very, long time before they decide to go hold on to another individual. Gone too are sessions filled with endlessly having to dance with another person and at least, maybe ask them for one dance. Either you do that or hold down somebody for the greater part of the night to save yourself the pressure.

Certainly, you can always find females holding their own in the midst of all this but most noticeably in the “passa-passa” type moves. As for where passa-passa is concerned, all this “hot fuck”-ing and simulated sex (bad sex at that) leaves me wondering how all these things are affecting male ideas of sex. So many young men see their dancing skills as representative of their virility. This being representative of their skill, an extension of their sexual self even. Thus they think it’s really cute to pick up a girl and ram her like a human jackhammer in a circle of people.

If you’re a female in or near that kind of dance circle, prepare to have your body swamped and owned. And you’d better be malleable like the dough of a pretzel. The sexual aggro of dancehall dejays’ lyrics today and their accompanying dances are at an all time high. I’ve heard many people I know say with regard to this issue, that dancing cannot possibly get any dirtier. We’ve all heard about porn and the impact it has in aiding in the objectification of women as purely sexual beings and what about these dances that form the basis of a kind of creative expression as well as sexual expression? What connections if any, can be drawn from young men who choose to wipe the floor with a female back for their dancing/pseudo sexual pleasure or those who think it’s cool to do so? What messages does this send to young women?

I like to consider myself an advocate for healthy, responsible, sexual behavior and attitudes (should one choose to go that route). As well as trying to empower people along the way while they’re at it. Yet, our patriarchal society makes it much easier for men to do so but unacceptable for women. Females are constantly oppressed by societal pressure and various conventions that make it difficult for sexually active (and or potentially sexually active) young women to become equipped with the tools: mentally, physically, emotionally and otherwise so that they might experience balanced, sexually fulfilled lives.

Codes of behavior reinforced by music and other forms of pop culture like some acted out in dances–make it difficult as well. “No gyal cah sit down pon mi head/ If a gyal try dat she dead” and all that stuff. Yet in hip-hop, it’s cool to “lick it like a lollipop.” Meanwhile girls in passa-passa type dances are supposed to “tek buddy” and “tek it” very well. They earn kudos for doing this well. Men are encouraged to give it–hard. Devoid of much of anything else. Somewhere along the lines of having someone “tump up yuh pussy like a punching bag” or “dug out (like) dirt.” Which might very well be someone’s preference but this should not by any means, completely presumptively define sexual expression nor should it by default, define some female’s sexual experience, just because she happens to be female. Female sexual organs do not need to be solely defined by how well they can (potentially) receive a hundred stabs (or less, or more). Just listening to that Aidonia song makes my vagina hurt.

Songs like, “She loves me” by Serani aptly set the contemporary dancehall love-song bar quite um, high, with his descriptions of sex without emotion, specifically to quote him, “fucking.” And this is with his girl. Lyrics infused with anger, bordering on violent because that just makes for better sex in the end for him and presumably, her:

“So baby girl I’m gonna get you undressed
I know you like it when I give you rough sex
bend over let me hold you from your neck, piss me off and let mi get upset
I bet you know what’s gonna come next
no fore play, no kiss, no caress upon mi shoulder a weh yuh gonna put your legs,
we gonna have the best make-up sex, t
he way that she fucks me,
The way that she carry on, she know that it turns me on
She knows that I love her ,
The way that I fuck her and I know that it turns her on
The way that I carry on.”

So…um yeah. That sounds simply, wonderful. Now how you choose to define and express your own sexual experience, is your own personal decision at the end of the day but I don’t think that any kind of absence of consideration for your partner is ever a good thing. Consideration in intimacy is never, ever a bad thing people. Or in life in general. Yet we see this expressed time and time again and encouraged repeatedly. Plus if you’re giving it to her hard, while you’re at it, that’s even more ideal. This seems to be the only acceptable form of sexual expression for men that we ever hear about frequently. Appropriations of bedroom activity from a male view often reference borderline violent imagery and violent metaphors where the phallus might be akin to a nine millimeter for example. Plus all the onomatopoeic sounds that we hear lyrically always allude to the hardness and severity of certain bedroom activities. The amount of times that you hear sexual references in dancehall in this manner are astounding. Whether it’s getting “beat, ram, fling, pump up, jack up, jab, dig, dagger, stab,” among others frequently used.

Many men and women out there easily transfer these reinforced ideas from the dancehall into the bedroom. It doesn’t help that the majority of rap and dancehall songs epitomize successful sex from the standpoint of a man (many times sung by a man as well). Thus a session is successful because of what a man gave and ideally how hard it was given. The biggest problem with all these men and djs singing about what they think a woman wants and likes is twofold: anyone who has ever browsed certain women’s magazines for example, can see how the pervasive discourse on sex, encourages women to do whatever it takes to keep her man happy first and foremost. Not necessarily because she enjoys doing whatever it may take.

Secondly, because many popular masculine expressions of male heterosexual sexuality do not make allowances for things like consideration, love, tenderness and vulnerability, I cannot help but think that the man’s point of view is a bit affected by this quandary. Is that what women really what or just what men are allowed to express that women want? So yes, sex sells in music as in everything else but despite our personal and private choices, we should all be conscientious of the ways in which sex and sexuality are presented, packaged, sold and consumed by us all. Inevitably I fear, certain ideas become internalized and burnt into the fabric of our consciousness. I am not too sure that we would all want that—or should want that.

 I’m not quite sure why I felt it necessary to hang one of those rear view mirror flags in my car broadcasting that I was from Trinidad and Tobago. But I did, as soon as I could get my hands on one. Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to be mistaken for someone else. No one wants to admit this out loud but as open-minded and well read as I like to think I am, subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I stopped short though, of hanging those painted TnT cd’s (you know the glare from the sun is killer), or getting the steering wheel covers or the car seat covers in the red, white and black. As tempting as they might all appear.

Now all this island representation is a far cry from those tales you heard of people’s experiences with painful 80s and early 90s migration stories where anyone with an accent was automatically a Jamaican (which was fine if you were actually one but you know island people, ever defensive about being cast as the wrong islander). Or people who tried in vain to hide being Haitian or Barbadian or whomever they were. It was not uncommon to hear tales of Haitian kids being singled out and beat up in New York public schools back then. Or like a good friend of mine who migrated with her family to Miami in the early nineties often tells me that you couldn’t find a person who knew where Trinidad was then in her high school. Or cared to know.

Assimilation for some people, seemed to be a forced necessity, especially if you ended up in a place with no community to connect to, as another friend of mine did leaving Trinidad for the mid-west of America with her family. Her little sister (who is a born Trini) consequently hates all things Trinidadian and blossomed into a proper American cheer-leader type who dates preppy boys with popped collars. Things were different then. There was rampant ethnic and cultural discord everywhere and just sounding different made you a target and you stuck out like a sore thumb. Even for my friend in South Miami; yes, it might have been Miami in the 90s but it’s not like they were Cuban.

Culture can be all relative though, because one of the best friends I met in college is a half-Trini, half-Mexican girl, fluent in Spanish, Trini dialect and wining, raised in America all her life. Our undergrad days found us trading old Lord Kitchener records (hers not even mine) and huddled over discussions about the legacy of colonialism, C.L.R James, Michael Anthony and the rampant West Indian connections in Black American history. (For the record, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan among others, all have West Indian connections). She is one of the most Trini people I know of and it goes way past book smarts or the taste of a chubby (which might just be our most world famous culinary export according to some public opinion). She understands our culture, really understands it and embodies it in the way that any “true” Trini (if you will) does.

I have come to the conclusion though that now is a pretty good time to be from another culture in the United States. I have decided that there is a link between this and the emergence of all this flag waving West Indian national pride that you see everywhere in recent times. Even from people who have not even set foot on any island. Maybe though, their mom or their grandma is from somewhere and they really like to eat roti. But it’s not just West Indians. I live in Florida and you don’t have to listen for the hard pong of a reggaeton base rhythm to know that a boricua is passing by. Why? Cause there’s the decal of the Puerto-Rican boy pissing at the back of the tinted glass.

Furthermore, those people I run into who enthusiastically tell me that they have been to Trinidad for Carnival every year but have never gone at any other time of year. Doesn’t impress me much and yes, there’s more to TnT than Carnival. No shit. I realize that I am at the risk of sounding like one of those culture nazis and I might end up accosting random people at North American Caribbean carnivals in a surly voice going, “excuse me, but I need to check if you are properly qualified to rep the red, white and black. What kind of passport do you hold? Can you recite the National Pledge?” How exactly does one qualify Trinbagonian-ness, you think? Does any of this matter?

So my Dad was visiting me and noticed a girl who has a Trinidad and Tobago flag draped on her banister in my building and proceeded to ask me if I didn’t lime with her. I had to let him know that she wasn’t really from Trinidad and we had this exchange one day in the parking lot along the lines of, “oh so you’re from Trinidad?” (Me, excitedly) “No, but my mother is, I really want to go there one day though,” (her, somewhat subdued). Insert awkward pause here. The thing is I was so excited initially when I saw her in her car with her flag next to mine on her rear view mirror and I felt bothered because I was passing judgements of authenticity on people silently in my head and I try not to ever do that but–it happens.

Plus with the emergence of a slew of articles, polls and studies done on the rising concern of “intra-cultural” conflict within the changing face of American society (do some looking around and I am sure you will easily find stuff), I’ve been thinking about it a lot more. The fact that there is underlying tension slowly building in intensity between the different groups of the people of the African Diaspora in the US and less unity. I’ve said it already to some friends of mine and I predict that it will be the next big “race issue.” It’s funny too because this visible West Indian national pride comes hot on the heels of accusations that West Indians are soaking up opportunities meant for African-Americans while subconsciously (or quite obviously) being condescending toward them. And since you can’t tell by looking at us what kind of non-white person we might be, isn’t all the flag waving and culture propagation just another way of setting ourselves apart from them?

And I’m here to admit, that people do think like that and it sucks. But lots of things suck in life sometimes. Like when I run into Trinis of a certain ilk shall we say, happily attending HBCUs here in the States, I think it’s funny and sad cause these are people who do not even consider themselves “black” in Trinidad but what the hell, it’s a full ride scholarship right? You know, the kinds of Trinis who groan and fret about how all the Black Americans in their school are so preoccupied with race. Well I would be too if I was them (hell, I am most days). Institutionalized racism is very much alive and kicking in America. I have a problem with that. Ultimately though, we’re all a lot more alike than different. It would be nice to bridge the growing gulf between the many kinds of black people and we should all be concerned with the plight of others within this global village in which we live.

But back to my flag, yeah I liked the idea of showing off my cultural otherness. People on the road know that I’m not just another American negro, I’m a Trini one so they better recognize. Yes I realize that negro is no longer pc. But really, I realize that on some level, that is what happens with us, because me hanging a flag in my car has about as much to do with Trinidad and Tobago as eating spaghetti does with being Italian. It’s so much more complicated and multi-faceted than that. I also hear a lot of the things that West Indians of color say about African-Americans and vice verse and there are a lot of issues and rifts that need to be addressed on both sides. Sometimes I cringe at the way my people think (on both sides) and as for myself, I am constantly trying to shift my thinking and rearrange my thoughts on the issues of culture and identity within the United States and what this all means. In the meantime, I think I will hold off on the “I love Trinidad and Tobago” bumper sticker that I actually pondered about putting at the back of my car. I don’t really need it cause trust me, my car is Trinified enough as it is already.

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.