Jamaica: A Queer Place

An aerial view of the city of Kingston, Jamaica. Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.

An aerial view of the city of Kingston, Jamaica. Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.

The dump in Riverton has started burning again. A stinking heap of tires, plastic, chemicals, and other run-off, piled high as if an altar to the consumptive labors of residents of Kingston and its surrounding parishes, has confounded slack-handed and resourced-challenged responses to this now familiar but more ferocious blaze sending children to hospital, forcing school closures, and driving up the sale of face masks. In the capital city of this resource-rich, formerly-colonized Caribbean island, social and economic opportunity is almost always crudely telegraphed from birth, demarcating life outcomes and human possibility in boundary-laden language—uptown and downtown are dense and meaningful coordinates in this place. But fire and smoke recognize no such order and take direction from the wind and their own raging interiority. There is something democratizing and oddly egalitarian in this recent calamity. In near equal measure, the smoke burns the throats and frustrates the respiratory systems of the brown and “high-colored” perched in the still segregated hills, panicked tourists scrabbling to find a way out of this recently sooty paradise, or the khaki-clad or poorly shod child making a way in downtown Kingston.

I want to be clear that this news is second hand. I haven’t lived in Kingston for three decades. I was among the many children in this city, and all over the post-colonial world, who stood fuzzy-eyed and baking on those interminable early morning embassy lines in the late 1970s and early 80s trying to make sense of the palpable thicket of anxiety, dread, and desperate expectancy that never failed to confuse the air. In my dreamy and already imperious imagination, it was odd, peculiar, queer, even, that in order to leave this place one would petition, assemble and offer all manner of evidence of one’s worthiness, one’s declaration not to be a burden on the adopted state, and summon the patience of Job, in repeated acts of supplication before contemptuous and often hostile functionaries. And many left with heads bowed in refusal. Shame ah nuh load, but it bruk neck.

Do not misunderstand me. I was not immune to the glossy representations of ‘merica or “foreign” whether on TV in the many Westerns; or in the ostentatious, melodramatic parading of wealth on Dallas and Dynasty; or in the high energy, masculine fiction of The Dukes of Hazzard, although that last one rarely held my attention. And I was just as excited greeting a newly returned family member or friend from London or the US, scanning the traveled body for signs of sophistication and gifts even if the magical appearance of an ill-fitting and hastily acquired accent more than grated my young nerves. Why one would trade or outright discard the witty ingenuity, respect for metaphor, and devastating, grown-up pointedness required of Jamaican patois, for the stuffy, furtive, linguistic affections of the British, or the nasal and frenetic twang of Americans, often struck me as strange. But busy as I was trying on this new slang, myself, I could not and would not have known how to say this then. The barrels of flour, corn flakes, rice, clothes, and other goodies was the cause of much excitement upon arrival having always seemingly thwarted repeated attempts against its safe and nourishing landing in our home in Waterloo Road—not the uptown Waterloo Road, but the one just south. There is still something about that unmistakable perfume of a shipped wheat or walnut-colored barrel of American goods (edible and otherwise) being opened in the heat of Kingston. It has some of that gloss and sheen that one finds on the television screen: polished, shiny, price-marked, and overly fragrant.

But much of the association grew out of real and imagined privation. It is true that rice and other goods were rationed during a period of contraction during or after the Manley/Seaga years (there must have been overlap), for it seemed like an eternity when the delicious rice and peas that routinely accompanied usually roasted or divinely stewed chicken at Sunday dinners was replaced with the novelty of french fries. Our fries were freshly cut and fried, but it didn’t soften the blow. For me, that rice was scarce registered as a new and frightful proposition, then, joining power cuts (despite those ingenious candles sustained and submerged in water), gun shots in Wareika Hills or somewhere around that infamous McGregor gulley always in the papers, and instructions on what colors to wear and where not to walk for fear of triggering any association with the warring devotees of rival political parties. So the barrels from my father, who had left for New York after doing his time at the Notary public, and in those embassy, passport, and customs lines, were associated with his and my mother’s sacrifice and right choosing.

The scent that drifted up contained within it his labor as a security guard in the cold and heat of New York at an Upper East Side Gristedes firing cans of tomato sauce at a gunman in a failed robbery attempt when his baton was not in range—or so the story keeps going. It spoke of reward for an acute rupture in the family that however ubiquitous still seems remarkable to me now. I do not mean to be romantic, but the barrels did and do smell, to my memory, of my mother’s and aunt’s efforts in and outside the home working as an intermittent proctor and an office worker, respectively, all the while attending PTA meetings, working school barbecues (one of us went to this private, preparatory school for free) and pressing or ironing, if you will, our school uniforms and cleaning the entire house every Saturday the Lord sent despite of the atmosphere of void left by my father’s going. Again, I do not wish to be dramatic, but those barrels with American shampoo and deodorant packed (I imagine carefully) among other provisions spoke of a future full of possibility. They promised no more worry of finding school fees or anything else that required money.

If the difference between what I saw crossing the Triborough Bridge on October 24, 1984, and what was told to us in gripping stories on that freshly cleaned verandah about an elegant and prosperous New York by my loving mother before she left to join my father is to be believed, then un-coerced propaganda is real. Or we might say prop-your-gander. In that apartment in the Bronx at the height of the rage in cockroaches and crack cocaine, I wondered why the water tasted so funny and the fruit so bland, to say nothing of the chicken. I had left my twin, my brother and other sister, and my aunt crying in that clichéd, but so painful choreography at the waving gallery before flying here by myself with a mild case of Bell’s palsy—a condition my family spent months at fancy clinics in uptown Kingston trying to get rid of, which the North Central Hospital in the Bronx got rid of in two weeks. One wonders why. Cooped up in this large but still box of an apartment depleted of the sun and my yard, I wait to be told I am to be left behind in school, despite the fact that you went to one of the best colonial pubic schools on the island and are way ahead of your peers. The smell of the barrel is gone replaced by the reality of this concrete jungle.

So although the smoke from Riverton does not make it all the way here to the city that I’ve called home for three decades, I wonder without a damp rag to my face at my alienation from that place. I don’t mean this as some facile nostalgia indulgence from the safety of my hard won apartment in New York, but puzzle at the queerness of it all. That is, what accident of time and place situates me here and not in the streets of Kingston as a gay man fending off smoke and the seemingly everyday contempt of my co-citizens? It is true that one can say this about any asymmetrical arrangement in the world. But I was born and spent the first twelve years of my life in that place. I am speaking here of queerness as a place to hold the contradiction of feeling connected to a place one is meant to leave behind, especially given one’s sexuality and the cloud of suffering and conservatism hanging over the island before the fire. Applied to the history of dislocation and rupture that characterizes so much of Caribbean life, queerness as theoretical tool and lived reality, offers a site not for disavowal or elsewhere embrace, but one keenly oriented to the constellation of desire and circumstance that has come to define the contemporary Caribbean. It functions for me as a revelatory, here, providing many ways to reconcile severance from cousins and uncles who one never really knows again and suggests the possibility of an alternate or future existence. In that queer reality, Kingston is neither feared nor banished from memory, but reimagined as a site for necessary sustenance. Or so the story keeps going.

*This article first appeared in sx visualities, a platform for thinking about Caribbean visual practice, as part of the project and symposium on Caribbean Queer Visualities in Spring 2015. Visit small axe for more work on the Caribbean.

Rich Blint:  A scholar and curator, Rich Blint is Associate Director of Columbia University School of the Arts Office of Community Outreach and Education and Research Affiliate and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Masters Program in the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia. He is co-editor (with Douglas Field) of a special issue of African American Review on James Baldwin (Winter 2013); contributing editor of The James Baldwin Review; co-curator (with Ian Cofre) of the exhibition Bigger Than Shadows; and curator of the exhibition series built environments, an initiative conceived to engage contemporary issues in fine art concerning aesthetics, value, difference, and public space. Prior to joining Columbia, Rich held positions at New York University’s Institute of African American Affairs, and the Center for Labor, Community, and Policy Studies at the Murphy Institute. Rich holds a B.A. in English and Honors from Hunter College, The City University of New York, and earned his Ph.D. in the Program in American Studies at NYU. A frequent interlocutor with artists across the genres, Rich has taught courses and guest lectured at Hunter College, Vassar College, and NYU. He sits on the boards of Vanderbilt University’s Issues in Critical Investigation: The African Diaspora, and CLAGS: The Center for LGBQT Studies at the Graduate and University Center, CUNY.

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