Since returning to Jamaica from the US a couple of years ago, I have been keenly aware of race and the positioning of whiteness in the Caribbean broadly and in Jamaica more specifically. A few months ago I found myself in the area of New Kingston at Emancipation Park. Located between the Jamaica Pegasus hotel and the Courtyard by Marriott in Kingston, this well-trafficked park and thorough-fare boasts two 11-foot-tall bronze statues (see picture below). To quote the park’s website, “This prominent sculpture comprises of two naked black male and female statues gazing to the skies – symbolic of their triumphant rise from the horrors of slavery.”
When I paused to observe the statues, a dread-locked man who was already near the statues, stepped back and moved towards me. After a quiet good afternoon he said: “Yuh know seh ah one white ooman mek dat?” As he asked, he gestured, and his hand seemed to be pointing to the foot-long penis. I side-eyed his apparent comment on the hyper-sexualization of the black man by the white woman; but he quickly clarified his point: “Ah one white ooman mek di statue dem. Eeen all ah Jamaica ah no black man and no black ooman dem could find mek big-big statue?” I did not have a ready answer for his question. While the sculptures have been in New Kingston since 2003, I had paid greater attention to their immense nude presence than to their creator. And, to some extent, I wonder if I had presumed the sculptor to be of the Afro-Jamaican majority. After a bit of silence, I finally replied, “You make a good point, my friend. And I’m sure, nuff black people it tek to set this big-big statue in place.” He nodded, we both looked on for a few more seconds, then he went his way, and I mine.
“Nuff black people it tek to set this big-big statue in place” — I’m realizing now — was double-speak. The park’s website says that more than 100 people were called in to install the works in Emancipation Park. But how many hundreds of thousands of black men and women lived, worked, and died under a British slave system only to have their emancipatory moment cast in bronze by a white Jamaican artist or, as my dread-locked friend said “one white ooman”?
What does it mean for white Caribbean people to produce art that tells the stories of Afro-Caribbean people? What does it mean for white Americans to tell the stories of black Americans? And what does it mean when white people are questioned for their choice to tell these stories? In no way supporting Kanye West’s recent comments that “slavery was a choice,” I will say that the history and legacy of slavery does not belong only to African-descendants in the New World. Slavery belongs to Europe’s descendants in the New World, too. After all, we are both recipients of this colonial history, and depending on where we fall on the racialization scale, slavery willed us either a burden or bequeathed to us a gift.
As I think about the questions that public art and public discourse can provoke, I too am provoked by the conversation I shared with a stranger while we both stood before two enormous black-bronze nudes in a public park. Accessible public art like Laura Facey’s “Redemption Song” installation in Emancipation Park should regularly invite discourse about society. It is meant to remind passersby that black people in Jamaica are both redeemed and emancipated. But do these conversations frequently take place and have white Jamaicans been made aware that they too were freed by abolitionist legislation? That is to say that when the enslaved were freed during the 19th century, so too were massa and miss. But, even though I have tried, I cannot think of any monuments that were erected to remind the descendants of masters that they are emancipated now and that they no longer need to subjugate the descendants of Africans. Without reminders, how will massa and miss understand that slavery has been over and that they have been free to be without prejudice for more than a century? How will the white West Indian know that he or she no longer has to play the role of oppressor?
What do monuments actually want us to remember? Are we meant to remember that we are free or that we are enslaved when we look at Facey’s sculpted “Redemption Song”? There are so many mixed messages residing in our memories. Allow me to recall just a few. Remember when Jean-Jacques Dessalines ordered a massacre of the white people who remained in Haiti following the success of the 1804 Haitian Revolution? Remember the 1950s when “Massa Day Done” became a successful campaign slogan for Trinidad’s first prime minister, Eric Williams? Remember the 1970s when Michael Manley’s democratic socialism in Jamaica spread the fear of murder and rape throughout white Jamaica? Remember the hemispheric War on Drugs? Remember the global War on Terror? Remember trans-Atlantic and hemispheric trade embargoes? Remember international travel restrictions? Remember economic inequality and how it mirrors racial hierarchy from here to anywhere to everywhere? Remember unequal policing, unequal charges, and unequal jail time? Remember a few years ago when white masculinist studies programs and clubs started surfacing at US universities? But we thought massa day was done? And while Black activism held the media spotlight on the abuses sustained by Black American bodies, the introduction of last year’s #metoo trended public attention away from Black bodies and towards “white women’s tears.” Massa may be under pressure, but only because miss is doing the threatening. Many of the predatory men who trespassed against these women still maintain their civil liberty, wealth, and freedom to oppress others.
Maybe this is why Childish Gambino recently invited both miss and massa to experience the video monument that is “This is America” (see below).
And as I saw the rich, pained layers that went into the conceptualization of this visual project, I wondered if miss and massa would see it too? I thought also of the Caribbean and race inequality, class disparity, prejudice, willful blindness, and willful silence here. “This Is America” led my memory to recall Rihanna’s layered club-banger and recent Howard University protest song, “BBHMM” from 2015. Remember? This was the song that think-piece writers said was about colonial reparations? Watch it again post-“This is America” and you may read Rihanna anew. Watch it again knowing that Rihanna owns her masters (double-speak intended). Watch it again knowing that Rihanna named the first album she made on her own independent label Anti? (Read Erin MacLeod’s 2016 piece in NPR here.) Watch “Bitch Better Have My Money” again knowing that Rihanna has done for the epithet “savage” what Black Americans have done for “nigger.” What more clever way to re-appropriate the colonizer’s negative perceptions of the indigenous Taino and the imported African cargo, than to name her new lingerie line Savage?
As white West Indians negotiate the nuances of these distinct national spaces that make up the Caribbean, do they think introspectively of privilege or its consequences like white Jamaican writer Anthony Winkler did? I wonder. And when a white woman dresses up, powders her face with a perfectly-matched Fenty bronzer (carefully created for all shades), and props up her bust with a Savage bra, will she think of how black women’s beauty was denied for centuries? I wonder. And as white Americans sway to Atlanta’s best trap music, will they think of the war on drugs and how it further crippled and criminalized America’s Black communities into dangerous trap neighborhoods? Nicole Arbour’s quick to YouTube adaptation of Childish Gambino’s video monument, “This Is America: Women’s Edit,” tells me the answer is likely no. While Lil Dicky and Chris Brown’s “Freaky Friday” just leaves me speechless.
Massa day not done. And miss isn’t vacating her seat of colonial privilege yet either. If only they knew or could be reminded that like their enslaved counterparts, they have been emancipated and are free. But the funny thing is, emancipation and abolition are not synonymous. Emancipation is a process, while abolition is an action. The 1834 proclamation of emancipation only presented freedom to the youngest of the enslaved people in the British colonies. From 1834 to 1838, enslaved Africans over the age of six years were emancipated from the title slave only to become “apprentices” who provided the same unpaid labor, suffered the same tortures of violence and oppression, and faced fatal punishments if they chose to attempt an escape. Under the Emancipation Proclamation’s apprenticeship system, the former colonial slave masters ceased being slave masters only to become violent and oppressive apprentice masters instead. Emancipation presented freedom for very few.
As I think about my day in the park, I wonder how might we relate to each other in Jamaica differently today, if Emancipation Park were actually called Abolition Park?