Whenever there is an upsurge of violence in Jamaica there is always much talk about the “good old days” when people could walk in safety wherever they wished at any hour of the night and everyone slept with doors unlocked.
In 1955 there were less than 25 murders committed in Jamaica and our homicide rate was 1.2 per 100,000. By 2012 our homicide rate had skyrocketed to 39.3 per 100,000; more than a 30 fold increase. It is doubtful that any country not at war has seen such a comparable explosion of violence.
But not every aspect of the good old days was so good, as Valerie Dixon can testify.
“I was one of four children, and the only who was dark skinned. Luckily for my father’s peace of mind I had his features if not his complexion! I always knew I was different from my sisters but never knew how significant this difference was until my mother tried to get me and my younger sister into St. George’s Anglican primary school on Duke Street in Kingston in about 1956.
We went to the schoolyard where the headmistress of the infant school – a high brown almost white woman who ironically was named Miss Dixon – interviewed us. She was fairly young at the time and may well still be alive to hear my story which I can finally get off my chest after all these years.
My sister who was a year younger than me and much lighter in complexion – a browning as they say today – was immediately admitted into the school based strictly on her appearance. I was totally ignored. She did not interview any of the children that she admitted. I noticed that all the other brown skin children were readily let in while all us darker skinned children were left behind. At this point Miss Dixon declared that the classes were filled and she could take no more. My mother – who was middle brown and a little lighter than me – pointed out that she had brought her two daughters and that the brown skin child had been admitted but she wanted both her children to go to the same school.
Miss Dixon said I had to be tested and gave me a sum that no average five year old could possibly answer correctly. And I knew from looking at the sum that there was no way I could pass this test because we had not reached that stage at private school – what we call basic school today. I felt the lump growing in my throat. After a few minutes she came back to see what I had done and despite all my mother’s encouragement I could not do that sum. She then announced to all the mothers with children of my complexion that they were to go down John’s Lane and seek admission at “convent” – the Roman Catholic primary school, St. Joseph for girls and St. Aloysius for boys. It was really an ironic situation, with this small lane dividing the Anglican and Catholic schools, but this huge discriminatory divide.”
But, says Valerie, the headmistress had not reckoned with her mother.
“All the other women and their children walked across John’s Lane accepting the fact that their colour did not qualify them for St. George’s. But my mother took me to the school wall and we both sat down. She never said a word to me, but I realized she had some plan up her sleeve, because we did not move for about fifteen minutes. Then school bell rang for recess and the doors were thrown open and children poured out.
My mother swung into action. She put my little bag in my hand and very firmly said go find a seat and with that left. You can imagine Miss Dixon’s consternation when after recess she found me in her classroom well seated at a desk! I can see the expression on her face to this day. She looked me up, she looked me down. It was not till much later that I realized what a psychologist my mother had been. She must have reasoned out as we sat on that wall that if she disappeared no well thinking adult would turn a five year old child out on to busy Duke Street not knowing what might happen to her. She realized her arguments might have been ignored but no one was going to argue with a child my age. And of course she knew the time school was over so she could come for me and my sister.
As if in punishment Miss Dixon put me among the boys, the only girl to be placed there. And again it was not until many years later I realized the great favour she had done me. Because I learnt at this very early age to negotiate and make my way through difficult circumstances. By the end of the week the boys and I got along famously. I helped them with their work and in exchange they protected me and made certain I got extra rides on the swing and slides at lunchtime. And I never had to join the line to get snow cones. And by helping with their assignments I was getting extra practice at arithmetic and english, which later paid off handsomely for me.
Still it wasn’t easy at times. For instance I had lots of ribbons in my short hair and the long haired girls would jeeringly call me “pound of ribbon and penny worth of hair” and flash their pony tails from side to side to emphasize what I didn’t have. My sister at four was too young to realize what was happening.
Yet the moral of the story is to this blessed day I am ever grateful for all that happened there. Because no unusual circumstance throws me off for long, and it is a matter of time before I bounce back from difficult situations. I only have to remember my entrance into and my first week at St. George’s primary school. Which goes to prove the old Jamaican saying that what don’t kill fatten!”
This kind of blatant prejudice would of course be completely unacceptable today. Which is not to say, as Valerie points out, that we are now living in a colour blind paradise. There are still many situations in this country where lighter skinned persons are almost automatically given preference. And in some cases colour prejudice has been replaced by class bias, as when job or school applicants are rejected because they are from certain “bad” areas.
But no one can deny that Jamaica has made huge strides in this area – certainly few if any countries are more racially tolerant today. And hopefully we will continue to progress towards the blessed day when Martin Luther King’s ideal is achieved and every man, woman and child is judged not by the colour of their skin but solely by the content of their character.
Written by Kevin O’Brien Chang
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