Many years ago I knew an intelligent and talented black journalist named Alva Ramsey. As I recall, he covered tennis and golf for The Gleaner. But that’s not why I remember him.
It was something he said to me one day as we chatted casually in the Gleaner newsroom. I was in my twenties at the time and he was much older. In my memory his hair was already becoming gray.
We were talking about politics, Jamaican politics, and he was positing a theory that white Jamaicans held power socially but black Jamaicans were coming into power politically. As I said, that was a long time ago.
I can’t remember who he said held power financially. Probably, at that time, it would have been mostly white Jamaicans, absentee European landlords and foreign business owners.
What I do remember – and will remember to my dying day – is a remark he made about American society. I had not yet lived in America and could not comprehend the mysterious racial doctrine I had heard from relatives who had traveled to America. From what they said, I gathered that if you had 2 per cent “black blood” you were considered black. Actually, I think the tag was “Negro” in those days.
It would not have been a big deal were it not for the fact that American “Negroes” were treated as inferior. I believe they were even barred from “white” washrooms and “white” water fountains, and their children had to attend separate schools.
It was not surprising, therefore, that many light-skinned Jamaicans would want to “pass” for white when they went to America. Some who were not quite light-skinned enough to “pass” would pretend they were Hispanic.
Alva and I were pondering this bizarre state of affairs when he made the remark that has stayed with me all these years.
“Americans regard African blood as a contamination,” he said. “That’s why they categorize anyone with the slightest amount of African blood as a Negro.”
I was thinking of that remark recently as I watched a “black man” who would be president holding an audience of thousands spellbound with his charm and eloquence.
Yes, I am talking about Barack Obama.
He could well become “America’s first black president.”
Yet, when I look at Obama I see a “brown man.” His father was black but his mother was white.
In Jamaica, we have people of many complexions, from very dark to quite light, and in the old days there was a name for each subtle shade. I imagine that these epithets have disappeared from the language by now and would be considered offensive by most people.
The truth is that the vast majority of people in the western world are of mixed ethnicity. Most of the “black” people I know have some non-black ancestors, and most of the “white” people probably have at least one non-white ancestor somewhere in their bloodlines.
Yes, even in America.
Dr. Orville Taylor, a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work at the University of the West Indies, wrote an illuminating piece in The Gleaner recently. He wondered whether Obama might not be America’s sixth black president.
His list of possibly black presidents included Bill Clinton, of course. Clinton is often referred to as America’s “first black president” because he plays the saxophone and enjoys a relaxed approach to social life. (I have read that he was adopted so I suppose his father could have been “black,” but I doubt it.)
Professor Taylor also names Thomas Jefferson as a suspected black American. He quotes one of the founding father’s political opponents as calling Jefferson “a mean-spirited son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a Virginia mulatto father.”
“It is not difficult to accept that he (Jefferson) could have been black because there were very few European women in the early colonies and half-breeds were often substitutes,” Professor Taylor wrote. “Children of a white and mulatto parent often look pure white.”
The list of suspects also includes Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
To most reasonable people, this article would be amusing. After all, what difference could it possibly make if Jefferson’s father was not pure white? It would not change a word in the Declaration of Independence.
But obviously there’s more to it than that.
Consider Obama – half black but half white, yet categorized as black.
What would Alva Ramsey have to say about that, I wonder?
George Graham is a Jamaican-born writer who has worked as a reporter in the Caribbean and North America for more than half a century. He lives in Lakeland, Florida. His books are available at http://stores.lulu.com/georgeg.