I’ve been on a hiatus ( and I have missed you all) because I just returned to teaching after being off for six months and I recently got a contract for my second book which should be out in the fall. This book is the sequel to my first book, Becoming Cosmopolitan, which was published eight years ago.
The thrill of a book contract is mind-blowing especially since the book was rejected for four straight years. But it was rejected not because it was bad. The editors loved it. They thought that it was intellectual but not narrowly academic enough. I had torn the manuscript up a few times and vowed never to look at it again. I was in despair for years and gave up hope of ever being published again. But my abandoned child, flung to the dogs, was rescued by me. I nursed her back to life and sent her again out into the world. We had no luck. The book was too controversial. My baby was tossed in a rubbish bin. Then out of the blue an editor writes to me and says that he has just read my first book and would love to see the next one. The rest is a blissful tale of heroism and courage on the part of my new editor. And this is what I mean by life's better possibilities coming true.
My first distaste for strong blood identities didn’t begin with experiencing racial prejudice. It came at a seemingly innocuous moment in high school in Jamaica where I was born and raised.
There are the Jews and Syrians who came to escape persecution in the case of the former, and to seek economic opportunities in the case of the latter. They along with a significant percentage of East Indians control much of the wealth of the country.
There are the direct descendants of African slaves who—Jamaica being a raceless society—are mixed with any of the above groups to varying degrees, or not at all. The key to knowing how much African or mixed ancestry they have is their skin pigmentation. The concept of race is absent, but pigmentocracy is the social means by which to gauge their social and, not infrequently, economic status in society. Those with mixed ancestry are regarded as brown if their skin is brown, and red as if they are fair-skinned to the point of looking red as is the case of my father. Those mixed with East Indian and Chinese are labeled according to the dominant morphological characteristics they display.
Most Jamaicans and Caribbeans—regardless of mixed ancestry—would be regarded as black by American standards. This, of course, has to do with the one-drop racial taxonomy rule in the United States.
My first contact with anything like blood identity as I’ve said, was seemingly innocuous. I was a twelve year old high school student who was given an assignment that most students delighted in: we had to trace our ancestry and depict it graphically in the form of a family tree, replete with maternal family lineage on one side, paternal on the other.
I was immediately bored.
I never cared for ancestry, always thought of myself as an outsider, and tried to connect with people on a deeply individualistic level. I am sure feeling like an outsider came from being secretly gay in the most homophobic country in the world. I could never belong because if I did I would be “found out.” Nevertheless, I went home and attempted to trace this ancestral family tree with the help of my maternal grand-mother. It turned out that her father was half Jewish (Sephardic, I believe) and half East Indian. His father had been a Jewish merchant who came to Jamaica from Jerusalem sometime in the nineteenth century. Other details of the tribal portrait elude me, but on my father’s side it turned out that his father’s father was the son of a slave woman and a white Scottish plantation owner.
There were some Sephardic Jews on his mother’s side of the family, along with more inter-breeding among white plantation owners and slaves.
What strikes my memory most was the excitement my classmates exuded in the classroom. It was more like elation. And the elation that was most palpable was the one that rode on the discovery of white ancestry in their backgrounds. Actual discovery of white ancestry made them delirious.
Without thinking, without analysis—primitive as analysis might have been in a twelve year old child—my thought was: I am already excluded because I am gay, now I’ll never truly belong to many of them.
I listened to them bragging loudly: “My mother’s dad was German,” and “my father’s father was pure English.” It was true there was a German community in Jamaica where most of the children were mentally retarded because of in-breeding.
Some students stuck their tongues out in playful my-family-tree-is-better-than- yours one-upmanship.
I looked behind me where the black-skinned and very dark-skinned students were sitting. They slunk deep into their seats, a look of embarrassment and slight fear marring their features. It turned out I had one of the “good” ancestral charts in the class, but that didn’t leave me with a good feeling. It was not because the dark-skinned students had “bad” ancestral charts. It was something in the elation in the students who felt pride in their charts. I felt they were looking for prestige and upliftment and that they had found them in symbolic relationships with the names of the dead people on the charts they were holding.
In the years ahead I thought repeatedly of elation in having high social prestige ethnicity and in having “good blood.” I thought of the shortcuts people wanted in having prestige in life and then back to those students who had “bad” ancestral charts. I saw them alone, ashamed, naked and helpless. I felt sorry that I had not gone over to them and said something kind. But I had been pondering too much, wondering if East Indian “blood” had as much social prestige as “Jewish blood,” if too much African blood meant you had succumbed to contagion. I knew for the most part that to have Chinese ancestry was to have a high prestige ethnic identity. During the colonial era the Chinese had been a dominant group. They had even had their own Miss Chinese Jamaica beauty pageant.
What I came to realize as I also became a moral cosmopolitan in my late teens, is that glorification of blood identity is strongly problematic because it shuts people outside the domain of the ethical and, a fortiori, the human community. It does so for one single reason: they have “bad blood.”