“Colour and the Tourist Trade”

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Gleaner column 21/4/18

In an interesting postscript to my last column “Modern Day Plantations”, I was sent a response from tourism mogul John Issa saying that my account of Evon Blake’s plunge into the Myrtle Bank Hotel’s pool was “not quite accurate”.

Apparently the story as told to John Issa by Evon Blake himself, went as follows.

“After my grandfather, father and uncle purchased the Myrtle Bank hotel in 1943, Evan (sic) Blake wanted to test if it still discouraged black guests, which it had done when it was owned by the United Fruit Co, now that it was owned by Jamaicans. He went to the front desk to buy a pool ticket and it was sold to him, he then proceeded to the swimming pool and was given a changing room and towel. He then proceeded to dive into the pool. He told me at all times he was welcomed.

“He however added, with a smile on his face, that when he dived into the pool it was like watching a movie in reverse as all the foreign guests who were in the pool came out.”

Issa went on to say that he was proud that his family had “removed racism” from the Myrtle Bank. He had also personally appointed the first black General Manager of a major Jamaican resort hotel when he appointed Willard Samms as General Manager of the Tower Isle Hotel in the early 1960s.

These details are interesting and also a perfect illustration of how deceiving appearances can be when they are decontextualized. On the face of it we might be inclined to buy this narrative of benign racial inclusiveness yet the incident involving Blake occurred in 1948, when Jamaica was still a colonial society and racism was even more pronounced than it is today. Thus you could very well have no explicit colour or race bar and still control the entry of Black people to your property. Heck, their entry is still being discouraged today, which was the point of my column.

Issa himself says that Blake told him as soon as he plunged into the pool all the foreign guests jumped out, a clear indication that it was NOT the norm, stated policy or not, for Blacks to swim in the Myrtle Bank’s famous pool. Likewise we might note that the appointment of a black general manager in the 60s while admirable, likely made no difference to the treatment of black guests, as indeed continues to be the case, more than 60 years later when it is the norm for hotels to have black managers.

Despite being managed and staffed by Blacks in 2018 too many Jamaicans who attempt to sample their country’s world-renowned hospitality find that it doesn’t necessarily extend to them. That was the gravamen of my column last week. So the fact that Evon Blake bought a ticket to the Myrtle Bank pool without hindrance is neither here nor there. The list of black guests I quoted complaining about their treatment had also paid for their stays at the hotels in question, yet it didn’t insulate them from the racial profiling they suffered. I’m sure those hotels have no explicit policy barring the entry of dark-skinned folk either. They don’t have to. Centuries of racial ‘grooming’ so to speak, cannot be undone overnight; the racism is internalized and practised by Blacks against Blacks.

Add to this the potent poison of class prejudice, something we all systematically practice in this day and age and you realize how complex the situation is. If you’re black and poor there are hardly any pools or beaches available for you in Jamaica.

As art historian Krista Thompson notes in “An Eye for the Tropics” Evon Blake was very concerned also about how Jamaicans were portrayed in tourism campaigns. He deplored the fact that in these representations black Jamaicans always appeared in menial positions, or as boys climbing coconut palms or diving into the sea to retrieve coins. Middle class Blacks were rarely featured. Blake pointed out that in contrast, neighbouring Haiti emphasized the fact that tourists would be visiting a ‘Black Republic’ where you would be expected to fraternize with ‘Negroes’.

According to Blake the unwritten message in Haitian tourist publicity went something like this: “If you object to associating with Negroes go somewhere else.” Americans who went to Haiti forgot the colour prejudice practised back home:

“They chin and chum with Negroes, and they appear to love it. They sit next to Negroes in swank hotels and clubs, bathe in swimming pools with Negroes, dance with Negro men and women, and consider themselves privileged when offered the opportunity to pay their respects to officials of the ‘Black Republic.’”

And while this was going on in Haiti, in Jamaica tourism interests were assiduously keeping tourists from meeting locals, on the grounds that they wouldn’t like to hobnob with black folk, a belief apparently alive and well today. Clearly a sea change is needed in how tourism is practised in this Black country.

Modern Day Plantations

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Gleaner column 14/2/18

The story is told in hushed tones of well-known journalist Evon Blake who jumped into the pool at Myrtle Bank Hotel, a whites-only facility in downtown Kingston.

“One summer day in 1948, as tourists and elites casually colonized the poolside deckchairs of Jamaica’s premier hotel, the Myrtle Bank, a black Jamaican journalist, Evon Blake, suddenly burst onto the brochure-promised scene. He hastily disrobed and plunged into the waters of the hotel’s unofficially racially segregated pool. The staff quickly congregated at its edges, hurling threats at the intruder. Taking advantage of the protection of the water, which prohibited security from entering the pool, Blake defiantly challenged,”Call the police. Call the army. Call the owner. Call God. And let’s have one helluva big story.”

The quote above is from a chapter titled “Diving into the Racial Waters of Beach Space in Jamaica” in Bahamian art historian Krista Thompson’s groundbreaking book

You might think that the Myrtle Bank’s covert racism in Jamaica was symptomatic of colonial times, it was 1948 after all. But I have news for you. Racial profiling is alive and well in Jamaica today, and raised its ugly head in Port Antonio recently. A video making the rounds on social media features a woman who has been visiting Jamaica for many years talking about a distressing experience. The caption below the video sums up what happened.

“CAUCASIAN tourist vacationing/visiting ERROL FLYNN MARINA IN PORT ANTONIO JAMAICA, claims her BLACK JAMAICAN FRIEND WAS discriminated against !!! Her local black Jamaican friend was warned not to swim with the TOURISTS!!! Classism.”

In my opinion the incident is a toxic mix of classism and racism. The video attracted a slew of responses many of them retailing similar stories of racism suffered by black, Jamaican visitors and tourists returning to their beloved country for vacations. I quote some of them below:

Venus Jack I can relate. While checking into the resort in Montego Bay the young lady serving drinks to the arriving guests excluded us and didn’t offer us anything to drink. She just ignored us like we did not belong there. What a welcome home! Previously at another resort we had guests and the security guards were rude to them because they were locals. Wouldn’t let them visit us in peace… they were under constant scrutiny and treated them like thieves even though they had to stay in the lobby area only. It was very upsetting.

Donna Rose Omg Venus Jack I experienced the very same thing at RIU in Ocho Rios. That hotel chain would never ever get another penny from me. When I arrived at the hotel to check in, they asked us, whey uno a go? They would not allow my local friends to park on the property. Jamaicans I tell you.

Steve Shers I’m used to being treated as a second class tourist/visitor when I visit the Caribbean although I’m from there.

Beverley Ranglin This happened to me and my family at the holiday inn in montego bay 2 years ago.

Tanya Weise That’s happened to us at Ibero Stars too.

They just pass and offered all white guest the cocktails and we were among everyone else waiting to be checked in.

Amanda Scott Venus Jack that very same thing happened to me at Grand Bahia in Ochi with the guests. I was so ready to leave by the 3rd day. Never again.

Almarie Davis She is so right. I wanted to rent a beach chair at a particular beach in Portland and was told I can’t. They are saving them for the cruise shippers.

Christine Creary-taylor My family and I went to an all inclusive resort in Montego Bay and they were serving drinks to all the new arrivals that just walked pass us. Colour not light enough I guess.

Clearly blatant racial discrimination is still being practiced in Jamaica’s world-renowned tourism enclaves. Yet in November last year when  Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Taleb Rifai, “strongly urged Caribbean tourism stakeholders to stop promoting modern-day plantations called exclusive resorts” at a Montego Bay conference on jobs and inclusive growth he was raked over the coals by tourism interests.

Rifai went on to  warn against the practice of building five-star resorts in three-star communities, where the citizens were not part of the transformation. The backlash he suffered from Jamaica’s tourist industry forced him to tone down his statements the next day.

The case of the Errol Flynn Marina places the subject raised by Mr. Rifai on the table once again. Let’s not sweep this ugly intersection of racism and classism under the carpet yet again. Racism in a black country should simply not be tolerated in this day and age. Neither should classism. Do we have to send for Evon Blake’s duppy to finish the job?

Routes and Culture

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Cutting a cake for Marcus Garvey at the launch of Cinema Paradiso

Below is my Gleaner column of August 16.

Last weekend I found myself repeatedly being reminded of something the eminent social and cultural theorist Stuart Hall was fond of saying about identity and culture: “If you think of culture always as a return to roots — R-O-O-T-S — you’re missing the point. I think of culture as routes — R-O-U-T-E-S — the various routes by which people travel, culture travels, culture moves, culture develops, and culture changes, cultures migrate, etc.”

I found myself thinking this as I watched Rasta: A Soul’s Journey, a film starring Donisha Prendergast, that kicked off Cinema Paradise, the Portie film festival put on by Portland-based Great Huts Resort. Produced by Patricia Scarlett whose brainchild it was, Rasta tracked the routes taken by Rastafari as it traveled across the world, reincarnating itself in various locations from Ethiopia to South Africa to Canada to England.

Cultural identity, Hall said, is what you make with what you find. Thus Donisha Prendergast, found herself born in Jamaica into the family of Bob Marley, her maternal grandmother being Rita Marley, whose first child Sharon, Donisha’s mother, was adopted by the famous singer. Though not connected to Bob by blood, Donisha grew up identifying with him as her grandfather and Rastafari as her cultural heritage.

The film followed her travel to eight countries linking with those espousing the tenets of Rastafari far from the Caribbean island where it was born. Thus Prendergast was following the routes taken by the culture of Rastafari as it rooted itself in different parts of the world. The second film in the Portie Film Festival, screened the following night at Great Huts, was Shashamane by Giulia Amati, an in-depth look at Jamaican and Caribbean migrants to Ethiopia, who went there in enactment of the Back to Africa ideology so integral to Rastafari.

Theirs was an attempt to return to their roots, to the legendary promised land, “We’re leaving Babylon, We’re going to our Fatherland” as Bob Marley sang in Exodus. But it was a bittersweet experience for the few who survived and remained in Shashamane, especially after Emperor Haile Selassie who had donated the 500 acres of land in 1948 for descendants of the enslaved to repatriate to, was deposed in 1974. The communist government that followed reclaimed most of the land leaving just a little for the Rastafari who had been living there since the early 60s, to call their own.

As Ras Mweya Masimba, the protagonist of the film said: “After being so long in the Western world, it’s a joy to be back in Africa. But it’s a very great challenge. We are coming back here now as foreigners. People don’t remember who we are, or forget that they sold us into slavery, or how we left here. It is a hard task of re-integration with the people on all levels.”

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Dr. Paul Rhodes introducing the film Shashamane at Africana House

The film Shashamane captures exactly why thinking of culture exclusively in terms of one’s biological and ancestral roots is insufficient. The routes Masimba and his ancestors took or were taken on, from Western Africa to Jamaica to the UK, where he lived before migrating to Shashamane, defined his identity and made him who he is just as much as his ancestral origins. What comes across clearly in the film is how Jamaican/Caribbean and Rastafarian the culture of most of those who migrated from this region to Shashamane, has remained.

“I’ve got to go back home, This couldn’t be my home, It must be somewhere else…”, plaintively sang another Jamaican singer, Bob Andy, in his contribution to the back to Africa discourse. But going back is easier to sing about than to accomplish. In the words of Bro Trika, another resident of Shashamane, “It was a complete challenge to make it here to Ethiopia. And a lot of people couldn’t do it. So whenever you see people come from outside to Africa, you have to respect them. Because there are so many people who don′t have the guts to leave the developed countries to come here.”

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A chair by Gilbert Nicely

There was something poetic about viewing Shashamane at Great Huts in Boston Bay, an Afrocentric resort created by an American medical doctor, Paul Rhodes, who first visited Jamaica in 1973 as a medical student. In Brooklyn where he studied, his landlord, Edward Gentles, was a Jamaican. It was a Caribbean neighborhood and Rhodes, a secular Jew, felt a kinship with Rastafari, because of the common histories of persecution and longing for a promised land to call one’s own. “Many Jews would look upon the Rastafari as their brethren,” explained Dr. Paul, the name by which he’s popularly known.

With its ingenious architecture and design, furniture by master carver Gilbert Nicely, statuary by master potter Sylvester Stephens, artworks by Mazola, Alicia Brown and others, Great Huts occupies the land with a lightness of being that’s bracing. If you’re ever in the area you should check it out, it’s a serious hat tip to African roots/routes and culture right here in Jamaica.

Evening Sun Can’t Dry Clothes…

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My Gleaner column of April 12, 2017

Reparation begins at home and last week’s unprecedented government apology to Rastafari for the Coral Gardens ‘incident’—really an attempted pogrom or ethnic cleansing by the state—is a good beginning. In the years just before independence there was a worry that Marxist extremists, emboldened by Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Batista in Cuba in 1959, might influence militant Rastas to do the same in Jamaica.

It might seem preposterous today but in 1960 a Rastafarian elder named Reverend Claudius Henry wrote a letter to Castro asking for help in overthrowing the “oppressors” in Jamaica. This was followed by his son, a Black nationalist activist from the USA, Ronald Henry, and members of his First Afrika Corps who had established a military training camp in a remote area in the Red Hills, ambushing and killing two Royal Hampshire Marines. In an interview I did with Professor Robert Hill some years ago he said that for the next six days they were hunted down in the largest search operation that Jamaica had ever witnessed with close to a thousand military and police taking part in the search.

Norman Manley was then the Premier of Jamaica and his security adviser was the noted anthropologist MG Smith. According to Hill Smith viewed the Rastafari as a serious security threat, describing the situation thus in a letter: “Revolution becomes Redemption with Repatriation as the issue provoking bloodshed. The Marxist vanguard wears a Niyabingi cloak.”

Of course anyone who knows Rastafari today realizes how remote such an eventuality really was. But in those days Rastas were seen as disreputable, dangerous thieves and murderers both by the PNP, the JLP and the middle and upper classes generally, mainly because with their dreadlocks, their vernacular speech and smoking of ganja the brethren violated every aspect of the codes of respectability and faux gentility the upper crust lived by.

The persecution of Rastafari by the state started way back in the 30s when according to the Observer: “For preaching against the British monarchy and pledging open allegiance to the Ethiopian Emperor, Howell and Hinds were arrested and charged in January 1934 in St Thomas for sedition. The trial of those early Rastafari preachers was heavily reported in the Daily Gleaner and followed by the general populace, as Jamaicans became exposed to public anti-Rastafari sentiment. The Rastafari doctrine and community were on trial and under scrutiny…The police attended at Howell’s camp in St Thomas and smashed it. Between 1934 and 1935 other early Rastafari leaders were also targeted and prosecuted, including Archibald Dunkley in 1934 and 1935 and Joseph Hibbert in 1935.”

By the time of the Coral Gardens events in 1963, the Jamaica Labour Party was in power and plans were afoot to develop prime St James properties into exclusive enclaves for tourists.The problem was that these were areas co-inhabited by Rastas and it was feared tourists might be alarmed by sightings of the unshorn bredren. On April 11, 1963, there was a series of incidents in Coral Gardens resulting in the burning down of a gas station and the death of 8 people, including two policemen. According to Professor Horace Campbell the Jamaican state used the altercation at Coral Gardens, to mount a violent campaign against the Rastafarian community in Western Jamaica.

“The brethren had claimed freedom of movement for themselves and for other oppressed Jamaicans. They were being prevented from walking along the areas of the Coast close to the Half Moon Bay Hotel. These areas were being segregated in order to make the Montego Bay area ready for international investments in tourism.”

The biggest landowner in St James in those days was Sir Francis Moncrieff Kerr-Jarrett. “He continuously petitioned the Governor and the colonial office to clamp down on the Rastafari who he described as ‘an undesirable sect’ saying that the governor should do everything to discourage their activities During the latter years of the fifties, Kerr Jarrett was behind one of the conservative movements to appear in Jamaica under the guise of Moral Rearmament. In the years 1951-1960 he was the principal patron of this conservative cold war pseudo-religious movement. Through the activism of Kerr Jarrett, the colonial special branch police had placed numerous Rastafari camps under surveillance and had used the Vagrancy laws of the period of enslavement against the camps of the Rastafari.”

This is the background to the explosion that took place at Coral Gardens that fateful day in April 1963. It is surely one of the finest ironies that 55 years later the Jamaican tourist product is inconceivable without the accompanying image and sound of Rastafari. We have lived long enough to see Bob Marley’s words come true: “the stone that the builder refused, shall be the head cornerstone.”

The government’s apology comes not a moment too late but the accompanying offer of reparation in the sum of $10 million dollars seems paltry. It is too little, too late and exemplifies that wonderful saying “Evening sun can’t dry clothes.”

As Bunny Wailer exclaimed on Facebook:

“AFTER RASTAFARI CREATE BILLIONS OF WEALTH FOR BRAND JAMAICA, THEM WANT OFFER RASTA $10,000,000 DOLLARS? $10,000,000 DOLLARS is what its costing just to produce my One Love Tribute Show! Its A Disgrace When I First Heard It & It’s No Less Now!”

What the Rastafari always wanted was land to live and grow on. If money is in short supply, why can’t the Government make up the shortfall by apportioning land to them? There’s certainly plenty of land lying idle all around the island; this would go much further toward repairing the wounds of yesterday and also prove that the apology is sincere.

Jamaica Get All Right…??

What’s the Jamaica Tourist Board up to with its new slogan?

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The UK Guardian carried a story on the  Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) and its new slogan which doesn’t immediately resonate either with them or me–Jamaica Get All Right. As the Guardian points out its a slightly dodgy slogan grammatically speaking. Reminds me of the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission’s  Transitioning Digital campaign; I don’t actually remember the slogan correctly anymore merely that it was fundamentally ungrammatical. Mercifully the powers that be seem to have realized this belatedly and ditched it. Anyhow here’s what the Guardian had to say on the new JTB slogan:

Earlier this month the Jamaican tourist board unveiled a new brand identity, ditching its previous slogan, “Jamaica – Once you go, you know”, and replacing it with the far more succinct, albeit grammatically obtuse, “Jamaica – Get All Right”. The new slogan is currently being launched around the world; last week the tourist board rolled the world’s largest stress ball into New York’s Times Square and on Tuesday a twitter campaign ran to the tune of #getallright.

For more click here.

As an exhortation to the country itself it might work…for the Lord knows Jamaica does need to ‘get all right’. It seems to be suffering from a malingering degenerative disease that we would all like it to snap out of. But as a slogan for tourists? Do you think it works?

Smiley Jamaica…

Featuring Super Smiley…the giant stress ball advertising Jamaica in NYC…

WIN! Jamaica Tourist Board’s giant stress ball in NYC. Did you see it by any chance? I’d say JTB should use Draftfcb Agency more often. They clearly know what creativity means and how to apply it.

Apparently Gyptian was on location too…read about all about it in this Adweek story  (thanks to @Gordonswaby for drawing my attention to it with his tweet).

Like Diamonds and Glass: The Barbados Tourism Authority vs The Jamaica Tourist Board

The Barbados Tourism Authority vs The Jamaica Tourist Board. A comparison of two advertising strategies….

The above ad featuring the ‘Minnesotan Jamaican’ of VW ad fame was produced by the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB).

And this one featuring Rihanna was produced by Barbados’s tourism entity–the Barbados Tourism Authority.

Do you see a difference in strategy, production values, script and use of each island’s natural assets? Why does the Jamaican ad seem lame, insipid and bereft of imagination? why is the Barbadian ad on the contrary so perfect that it could be a global model on how to sell yourselves? And contrastingly how and why does the JTB ad sell the country short?

After 50 years of Independence is this the best our creative class can do? or is JTB hiring friends and relatives and not the pros that we need and have?

Discuss.

PS: This post came out of a discussion on Twitter and is indebted to @Gordonswaby, Erin MacLeod @touchofallright for drawing my attention to the Rihanna ad and @drewonline.