It seemed like the year was getting off to a good start for everybody in the romance department! Adrianne had met a guy at Kevin’s party that she’d had some good dates with, and even Jomo and Arlene had started spending more time together recently. I was sure one of them would make a move soon enough.
In the midst of all the romance though, and all the other constant campus excitement, I was still able to keep my mind focused on my studies. Thankfully, the things I was learning were just too interesting for me not to study hard. It helped that Kevin was so diligent about his studies as well. We spent a lot of our time together studying; with him being in medicine, we didn’t have a choice. He always humoured me when I got really into my work and talked his ear off about it, which I had to admit happened a lot.
“You should have heard the story the professor told us today, I couldn’t believe it!”, I was ranting to him one evening while we were studying together at his place. “We were talking about classism and shadism in Jamaica. So, the professor, who’s brilliant by the way, is really dark-skinned, right?”
“And apparently, just a few weeks ago, not decades ago, Kevin, but just a few weeks ago…”
“…he said someone in his own family commented to him that, now that he has this education and prestige, that he needs to go marry a white woman so that his children won’t come out as dark as him! Can you believe that?”
Luckily, Kevin knew his go-to response wouldn’t suffice here. “Unfortunately, Nadiya, yes, I can. Some legacies from slavery days are still here.”
As I shook my head in disgust, I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, complaining about the reaction that my parents had gotten as a young couple: “Nadiya, I remember one of my best friends at the time telling me how lucky I was to have found a brown-skinned man. Can you imagine? Before she tell me how lucky I am to have found a nice man or a caring man. Or before she say how lucky he is to have found me!” My father had told me similar stories. Some of his friends had been mystified as to why he would want to marry my mother, even though she was “so pretty for a black girl.” People had said to him, “But your children gwine come out so dark!”, as if that was a horrible fate. They hadn’t understood how he could purposely darken his family tree.
“But I’d thought that, for the most part, the race issues that affected Jamaica in the past were gone, you know?” I continued. “OK, so as a country that’s endured the enslavement of black Africans by white Europeans, it’s inevitable that its history is going to include a class system based on colour. I’ve been learning all about it in school and I’ve heard about it from my parents, how the lighter one’s skin, the higher one would be in society. And I know that there was a time when all of the positions of power and prestige here were held only by white Jamaicans or mixed Jamaicans.
“As I think about it now though, I guess it was naïve of me to think it was just a historical issue. I mean, things are obviously much better than they’ve been in the past, but they’re still far from perfect. I know what the typical Miss Jamaica winner looked like, and it’s not like Arlene. Even though there are plenty of dark-skinned girls like her who are beautiful enough to hold the title! The women considered the most beautiful here always seem to be the ‘brownings’. And although I can look at your family and my family and see that the middle and upper classes of Jamaica don’t just consist of light-skinned people, the fact remains that Jamaican poor people are almost universally black. I mean, the concepts of ‘good hair’ and ‘bad hair’ are still prevalent here, and you know what? I’ve even heard the term ‘black and ugly’ while I’ve been here! As if the two terms go hand in hand or something.” I frowned. “Yeah, Jamaica is still a very classist and status-oriented society, and unfortunately, class and status often seem to go hand in hand with skin tone. No wonder some people here end up bleaching their skin!”
And it wasn’t just that the different classes were separated. I thought about the dismissive and arrogant way that I had often heard middle- and upper-class Jamaicans speak to helpers, gardeners, and vendors in the street, as if they were somehow intrinsically superior to them because of education and occupation. Is it any wonder then that so many people here commit crime, trying to get rich? If I lived in Jamaica, was dirt-poor, and was thought of as inferior, wouldn’t it be tempting for me to do whatever I could to get some money and get out of that situation? I could only imagine how people probably treated Arlene’s parents, a taxi driver and a supermarket cashier, compared to how they would treat Arlene herself one day when she was a lawyer.
Kevin was nodding his head in agreement. “You’re absolutely right, Nadiya. Shadism is pervasive here, and I really don’t know when it’s going to go away completely.”
“Yeah. It’s just terrible that those attitudes would exist here!”
“But you know, experiences I’ve had here are nothing compared to experiences I’ve had abroad. I remember walking down a street in London with cousins I have there, and having someone across the street throw a beer bottle at us and call us niggers. Luckily, the friends he was with dragged him off. If they’d all had similar mentalities, it could have been really bad. One time I was in DC visiting my brothers, and we were pulled over by a police officer who told us straight out that he knows all Jamaicans driving nice cars are drug dealers. He let us go because he obviously didn’t find anything, but what if he had decided to hit us a few times with his baton for good measure? Jamaica has its race problems, but the fact that I don’t feel like an outsider here is very important to me.”
“No, you’re absolutely right. And I know just what you mean. I didn’t even really realize I was black until I moved to Canada. Here, I was just me. But when I got to Canada, I became a minority. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve experienced very little racism in Toronto, but I had kids ask to touch my hair when I was young and had people make rude remarks about Jamaicans in front of me. There are issues everywhere.”
Kevin flashed a beautiful smile at me.
“What is it?” I asked, grinning back.
“I just love how enthusiastic you are about your schoolwork. It’s cute! Now speaking of which, come on, let’s get back to the books.”
The following Sunday evening, Jeremy and I went to his parents’ place for dinner. It was always a welcome treat to have a nice, home cooked meal, and I never turned down an invitation. I wasn’t a bad cook, but my food couldn’t compare to my aunt’s.
“Is there any sound more soothing than that?” I asked Jeremy dreamily. We were sitting on the veranda after dinner was over, and the sound of tree frogs was all around us. “I swear, anyone suffering from insomnia just needs to put a tree frog outside their window and they’ll be cured that night.”
He raised an eyebrow and didn’t answer.
“You’re used to it, so you don’t know what it’s like not to have it!” I protested. “Trust me, you’re very lucky to get to hear that noise every night.”
“If you say so. I don’t even notice it. I guess I would notice if I wasn’t hearing it though.”
“You would. So anyway, how are things going with Cassie?”
He grinned widely. “Really good! It’s still early, but I must admit, I really like her. Usually, I’m dating a few girls at a time. Just to keep my options open, you know? But right now, it’s just her.”
“Wow! She may have ended Jeremy’s playboy era?!”
“Calm down, calm down. I’m just saying that I like her. We’re not at the level of you and Kevin yet.”
Now it was my turn to grin. “Yeah, we’ve gotten pretty serious pretty fast. He’s talking about us going away somewhere for the weekend coming up. Maybe Oracabessa.”
“Must be nice to have rich parents!” Jeremy snorted. “Or should I say, must be nice to date someone with rich parents. No wonder you want to move back to Jamaica, if you’re going to be living a life of luxury!”
I swatted his arm. “I’d like Kevin no matter what his parents did, thank you very much. And I’d want to come back to Jamaica no matter what Kevin’s parents did. Give me some credit! Anyway,” I continued, “we’re very happy.”
“Well, I will give you that, you are definitely one of the happiest people I know. You even make me look at Jamaica in a different light.”
“Yeh! You’re always talking about how great it is, and to see that you live in Canada, yet you’re talking about moving here…I guess that means Jamaica must be a pretty cool place, don’t?”
“It is. It most definitely is. I love the weather, the people, the culture, being at the university…” We were both silent for a second, in our own thoughts, then I added, “You know, I don’t think I ever felt completely at home in Canada.”
“Really? Although you’ve lived there most of your life?”
“Don’t get me wrong, that’s where I grew up and where I became who I am. And it’s home too. But it’s just not 100% home. I think I could feel like Jamaica was 100% home, I really do. It’s that way for my parents,” I continued. “They have friends in Toronto and a nice social life there, but their really close friends and family are all here.”
”Won’t you miss your friends back there?”
“Of course I will! Oh, hi Auntie,” I greeted the figure who had just joined us.
“What kind of deep conversation are you two in?” she asked as she sat down between us.
“We were just talking about Nadiya coming back to Jamaica.”
Thankfully, Jeremy’s parents didn’t doubt my sincerity, nor had they tried to discourage me in my plans. “Oh, that’s nice. So that’s your final decision? No doubt about it?”
I shook my head vehemently. “No way, nothing’s going to happen to change my mind about this one.” I’m sure that Adrianne would roll her eyes at me for being superstitious, but looking back, sometimes I wonder if I jinxed myself that night by making that declaration.