When I initially pitched Black Eye to The Japan Times, I explained to the editors that my objective was not only to share my own ideas about life on these lovely islands, but also to offer readers a wealth of perspectives, from people of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds living here in Japan. The only other thing they’d have in common is being identified, either by themselves or others, as black.
The diversity of black ideas and ideals I’ve encountered since moving here has been far more varied than I’d expected to find in an Asian country, and I’m of a mind that the more that those inclined to pigeonhole by pigment know about this diversity, the better.
So, for the next couple of months, my column’s focus will be on several people I’ve interviewed to get their take on life in Japan: a lawyer, a singer, a restaurateur and an administrator. All four come from another fairly homogenous island nation: Jamaica. Some of what I learned from these ladies and gents surprised me, and I’m willing to wager that many Japan Times readers will be intrigued as well. But first, I feel compelled to give a little background, ’cause Jamaica and I go way back.
Every summer, the One Love Jamaica Festival is held at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. It’s a free two-day event where the art, music, dance and food of Jamaica are made available to all. I’ve gone a couple of times but haven’t attended for several years.
I’m not very fond of this festival, to be honest. For one, I don’t tolerate crowds as well as I used to. Nor do I countenance “hustlers of culture” (as the great Chuck D once called them) so well anymore either, particularly when it’s being hustled by those only alluding to be part of the culture, cashing in on the presumptions of people who don’t know any better.
In a country where I can sometimes go days without seeing another black face, for one weekend, in the heart of its largest city, it looks like the gang’s all here. Many have Jamaica-themed souvenirs and paraphernalia for sale, and can be found either hawking caps and T-shirts, CDs and DVDs, or have uncovered some other way to capitalize on (and tacitly endorse) the rampant cultural appropriation and fetishism that goes on here.
Moreover, I can only see but so many Japanese with dreadlocks, dressed up in Jamaican cosplay, rocking T-shirts with black, gold and green marijuana leaves (like it’s the Jamaican national flower or something) or visages of Bob Marley, puffing on a fat spliff, before I’m spewing Red Stripe and partially digested jerk chicken on innocent bystanders.
I wasn’t always weary of this, though. Back home in Brooklyn, back in the days, there was also an extensive amount of this, but I certainly wasn’t upchucking my ackee and saltfish over it.
Probably because I was guilty of a bit of it myself.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, in the Brooklyn I grew up in, Jamaica was to many black Americans what Japan is to Japanophiles anywhere.
The first time I was introduced to Jamaica, I must have been about 7. I attended a school that prioritized black history over a sanitized whitewashed version of American history. For example, I was purposely not taught about George Washington, or any of the other so-called American forefathers. Instead, I was introduced exclusively to heroes of African descent, my faves being Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and a Jamaican by the name of Marcus Garvey.
Garvey advocated that blacks in Jamaica, and the U.S., do what my school had been preparing us students to do: pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and return to the motherland, Africa — if not physically, at least mentally and spiritually. For this and much more, Garvey was venerated, his name consecrated in a holy trinity of black empowerment alongside Malcolm X and MLK.
I would also be introduced to the wisdom of a musician by the name of Bob Marley. It was he who officially put the island of Jamaica on my map. While Garvey was this icon on a poster, Marley was very much alive, revered as a prophet, wailing about a place called Trenchtown somewhere in the bowels of that tropical paradise we were shown idyllic glimpses of on those “Come Back to Jamaica” commercials. From there, his majestic voice implored oppressed people in ghettos all over the globe to “Get Up, Stand Up” for their rights, while edifying us with the truth that there’s only “One Love,” and if we could get together we’d be alright . . . all to some of the finest rhythms ever heard.
Next thing I knew, my mother had gone from a perm to dreadlocks. She was the first non-Jamaican in my neighborhood to get locks, but she wouldn’t be the last. In fact, by the time I was a teen, Jamaica was well-embedded in the hearts and minds of many. Be it for the music, the fashion, the attitude, or even that good sinsemilla, Jamaica likely had more fans and followers than Facebook.
If imitation is flattery, then the ass-kissing was incessant, because Jamaicans were the most imitated immigrant group in Brooklyn. Sometimes it was reverential, in recognition of the significant contributions Jamaicans have made to the world, but in hindsight, too much of it was stereotype-plagued mockery and buffoonery. Many of the converts had not only never been to Jamaica, but knew nothing of her history and probably couldn’t even point to it on a map. Yet, they never failed to achieve the “cool and deadly” look, their dreadlocks tucked in a tam, draped in gold chains, Adidas track suits and the ubiquitous Clark Wallabees. Some even spoke the patois, and could do so with a lit blunt of lambsbread between their lips.
We had names for these posers: imposter Rastas, fakin’ Jamaicans.
And I and I, Jah know, was this close to joining their ranks my damn self!
I always tell Japanese people that my grandfather was Jamaican, imagining it adds a dash of Ajinomoto to my already zesty American profile. It’s kind of ironic, though, and a little pathetic. Sometimes I feel like one of those black people (and there are many) who don’t hesitate to tell anyone in earshot that they’ve got a touch of the exotic swimming in their gene pool. Some proud native American tribe, like Cherokee or Navajo, is frequently offered up.
Truth is, I’ve never met Grandpa, nor have I ever been to Jamaica to meet this branch of the McNeil clan. Furthermore, there’s not a thing about my upbringing that’s distinctly Jamaican. So, my claim to this heritage is almost as problematic as my claim to any African heritage.
I was already in my 30s the day my father — while pausing to chalk his cue and survey a pool table he’d cleared twice since I last shot — offhandedly divulged this bit of family trivia. He’d recently been diagnosed with cancer and, though otherwise engaged most of my life, informed me he’d like for us to spend some time together and get to know one another. We discovered we both liked billiards, so these times often found us chatting in a poolroom, me mostly watching and waiting while he trounced me mercilessly.
He was recounting how he’d wound up in war-torn Korea in the 1950s, just south of the 38th Parallel. He’d run away from his abusive father and joined the air force, under-aged and none too bright.
“But my father was very abusive,” he’d explained. “A strict disciplinarian. Jamaican fathers can be like that.”
“Huh?” I gasped. “Say what?”
“Yeah, sometimes he would whup my ass with a—”
“No, no, no, not that,” I said, struggling to get the words out. “Who . . . who the hell is Jamaican?”
I’d said “hell” and froze. His father wasn’t the only McNeil patriarch with a penchant for dishing out corporal punishment. My father didn’t even like me using the word “ain’t” around him. “Darn” would raise an eyebrow. I reminded myself I was an adult and no longer subject to his temper.
“My father, he was from Jamaica,” he said. “I never told you that?”
A flash of anguish and regret shot across my terminally ill father’s face that spoke to the long list of things he hadn’t been around, and likely wouldn’t be around, to tell me.
“Anyway,” he said, and continued to talk about his life, not knowing that I was stuck on this new intelligence: that this partiality I had developed for everything Jamaican — from food to music, even women — might somehow have a genealogical explanation. I suddenly felt the exhilaration I imagine “Roots” author Alex Haley must’ve felt visiting that village in Gambia and hearing the oral history of his ancestor, Kunta Kinte.
I, too, had roots, or at least branches aside from my mother’s, which only extended to some cotton plantation south of the Mason-Dixon line. I now had an offshoot on an exalted island just a four-hour hop away.
The people from that island in the Caribbean have a little something to say about life on this island nation in the Pacific, the one we call home now. Over the next couple of months I’ll be sharing with you these four Jamaicans’ reflections on life here and, trust me, you won’t want to miss a word of it!
Hold tight. One love.
Black Eye, which appears in print on the third Thursday of every month, focuses on the experience of living in Japan from the perspective of people of African descent. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Your comments and ideas: email@example.com