I posted a picture to my Instagram (@riddim.writer) yesterday. The caption was a simple acknowledgment of my #booklife struggle: “organized. not. alphabatized.” When I looked back at the image, I smiled as I realized that my shirt kind of resembles a mesh marina. Moreover, I realized that here I was pouring over some of the Caribbean’s best fiction and non-fiction; but, if I tried to enter any of Jamaica’s libraries in this semi-netted top, I would have been barred! I would have been prohibited from accessing books because of my bare arms. But I wonder if I would suffer a double rejection for wearing a marina-style top, too?
The netted tank-top – known locally as a mesh marina – has, for decades, been a symbol of Jamaican culture. But what is it, what does it represent, and from where does it originate? This iconic Jamaican clothing item was designed and created in the 1930s by a Norwegian army captain. Intended as a “health vest” to keep troops both warm and dry, Norway’s Brynje company began manufacturing and supplying the netted, woolen undergarment that was first adopted by British and American soldiers. The mesh vest didn’t arrive in tropical Jamaica until the 1950s.
From the 1950s to the 1980s the British maintained a view of the vest as an unpleasant marker of working class status. This negative connotation was solidified by the Scottish comic series and character Rab C Nesbitt who brought the underwear to television in the late 1980s.
According to the Wikipedia entry for the Nesbitt character, he is a less than savory man: “[an] alcoholic without denial, deadbeat, self-styled ‘street philosopher’ and ‘sensitive big bastard.’ […] Described by his wife Mary as not ‘an unemployed person’ but ‘the original unemployed person”, Rab is very rarely seen in anything other than a pinstripe suit in very poor condition, rotting plimsolls, a filthy headband and a string vest.” Flagrantly exposing his underwear for all to see, Nesbitt’s low social standing is represented in his rude, indecent attire. It’s interesting to think about the ways that this Nesbitt character connects with Jamaica’s rudeboy, reggae, Rasta, and dancehall counter-culture.
A couple of years ago, when the mesh marina re-surfaced on the bodies of Jamaican artists and the holey undershirt began popping up on fashion runways in Europe and New York, Largeup.com featured an extensive article detailing the history of the underwear that became outerwear. But, as often happens in Jamaica, the Norwegian import took on new meaning and new purpose when it docked in the Caribbean.
The marina became symbolic of the rebellious nature of the “rude boy”, who wore his undergarment as outerwear, aligning the garment with street culture. Reggae music put this rebellious culture onto an international platform, further popularizing the mesh marina as it was frequently spotted under the button downs of iconic reggae artistes like Bob Marley and Gregory Isaacs. (Largeup.com)
While “rude boy” is a term that has fallen out of vogue, so to speak, wearing the mesh marina or “merino” undergarment as an outer garment is still considered to be rude and inappropriate. Moving through Jamaica, signs like this one (right) adorn many a shop, government agency, restaurant, and office park. With startling regularity, dress codes cycle in and out of public debate in Jamaica with the #RightToBareArms being the most recent. A lot of the recent discussion has surrounded women’s clothing, but what about the dear merino? This holey garment (pun intended) is not welcome in “proper” places of business. But, if we really think about the merino metaphorically, it is exactly what we need in “proper” Jamaican establishments because the mesh marina represents an insiding-out of expectations and, more obviously, transparency.
Transparency suggests openness, it signals a willingness to share information. By eliminating the secrecy, this kind of openness has the capacity to build trust. It’s useful to think of the mesh marina as a metaphor for transparency and openness as it does not obscure, it reveals. Unfortunately, in Jamaica, where colonial traditions still remain, transparency is as indecent as a mesh marina. Just try asking someone who holds a position of power either of these questions: “Why is this the way it is?” or “Why can’t this be this way instead?” The answer that Mr. or Ms. I-Have-The-Power will provide will reveal a resistance to transparency, to openness. But openness and a willingness to reveal oneself is what we need more than ever.
Sociologists Holzner and Holzner write in their book Transparency in Global Change: The Vanguard of the Open Society (2006), that “transparency is valued by people who seek freedom” (3). Citizens have greater trust of government if the government is transparent. Not naive, Holzner and Holzner also point out that “many fear openness, since it means the flow of ideas and people across borders, thus respect for human rights and tolerance.” The authors explain that “mastering openness requires learning and adaptation. The open information society is necessarily a learning society, and that is a condition for success, even survival, in this era of global transformations” (3). When I read these words, I paused. Just imagine the learning society that could be fostered here if Jamaica were more open, more transparent, kind of like a mesh marina?!
I’m taking a cue from the aforementioned sociologists and from one of my personal heroes, cultural theorist and sociologist, the late Stuart Hall, I have decided to open up this blog space not only to write pon di riddim of life in the places I call home, but I’m opening up this space to write pon di riddim of my classroom as well. As a way of practicing academic transparency, I’ll be pushing the boundaries of learning discourse. For years now old friends and new acquaintances have asked with wild curiosity, “What happens in your classroom?” and “What Caribbean books do you recommend?” Well, if you would like to join me, here is a bit of what I do.
This semester I have had students read a range of texts. From the foul-mouthed writing in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to the patwa writing in Miss Lou’s “Dutty Tough” to dancehall poet Vybz Kartel’s “Mhm Hmm” we have analyzed history, society, and culture. From classic rapper Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” to classic Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s “Harlem Dancer” and from a classic Anansi story to a classic tale like “How to Beat a Child the Right and Proper Way,” I’ve challenged students to write, speak, and think beyond the obvious. I’ve challenged students to analyze and not just observe the world that surrounds them. So why am I telling you this? Why am I granting this “access” to the critical engagements that have taken place in my university classroom? The reason is as simple as it is radical. These readings and these conversations foster dialogue and reinforce appreciation of Jamaica’s unique culture.
I am presenting this access because I have been asked to do so. Imagine if more of Jamaica’s institutions and establishments offered mesh marina transparency. Imagine if when you asked a “why” question you were no longer met with a cold “because that is the way it is” reply. Imagine if when you asked “why” you actually got a thoughtful, respectfully inclusive explanation.
Maybe more of us can wear mesh marinas, even if only metaphorically.