What Do Jamaicans Mean by Ole Negar?
Anthony C. Winkler.
When Glyne Griffith invited me to attend the conference “Blackness Unbound: Constructions and Deconstructions of Race in a Transnational Context,” I thought he was out of his head. You see, I am neither a black nor a brown man, but a white one. Yet, in the mornings when I first get up, I don’t go to the mirror, look at my reflection and scream, “Kiss me neck! Me white,” any more than anyone begins the day by bawling, “Rahtid, me brown!” or “Say what? Me black!” or “Lawd Jesus, me turn Chiny.” The color of your skin is like the color of the car you’re driving. People outside the car can see its color better than you can. I may be driving a white car but most of the time I don’t know it. I’m just driving as best I can.
Yet readers are always coming up to me and asking how I could have written the novels I have written, which mainly feature brown or black characters. Sometimes I get a little irritated at the presumptuousness behind this kind of questioning, for it seems to limit the imagination, which, I believe, has no limits. But the perfect answer to that question is the one Agatha Christie gave to a fan. She said, “One writes what one can, not what one can’t.”
I don’t write about black people or brown people. I write about Jamaicans, most of whom happen to be brown or black. It is essential for me in conceptualizing a character to know what color he or she happens to be. The authenticity of the portrayal demands it. For a similar reason, the dialogue of Jamaican characters can’t be in strictly Standard English because that is not how Jamaicans talk. Depending on the class we come from and how we were raised, we speak a mixture of English and patois, and in that witches’ brew are to be found a potpourri of idiomatic expressions that are incomprehensible to one who did not drink Jamaican culture with his mother’s milk.
When it comes to race, Jamaicans are very discriminating. We openly describe people by their many varied complexions. Americans, on the other hand, see people in terms of black and white. You’re either black or you’re white. If you’re brown you’re black. If you’re sepia, you’re black. If you’re high yellow, St. Elizabeth variety, you’re black. That kind of absolutism, however, is practiced only on humans. No Americans call a brown horse black. In Atlanta we have a television anchor who calls herself black, which would accurately describe the color of her hair but not her skin. I heard some Americans talking about her, one woman saying that she was a white-skinned black. I’ve heard Americans use that term often. But I’ve never heard them describe anyone as a black-skinned white.
Many people have claimed that I write black. My own editor and friend Kim Robinson-Walcott has written a book on my work that has the subtitle “Anthony C. Winkler and White West Indian Writing.” But although the critics and many other readers have hailed it as a fine book, I have resisted reading it from cover to cover. It’s hard enough for me to be me without listening to anyone telling me what I’m supposed to be like.
The perspective I bring to the discussion of race is simply this: I am the child of a white Jamaican family. For the first twenty years of my life, I knew no other culture than Jamaica’s. My father and mother were both born and raised in Jamaica. I myself was born in Victoria Jubilee Hospital in 1942. Here, I propose to discuss a racial stereotype in Jamaican culture that is virtually incomprehensible to foreigners and even to Jamaicans. It is the concept of ole negar. What do we mean by the expression ole negar? On the surface of it the term seems to refer to the poorest class of black people in the Jamaican society. But it’s not that simple.
One day I went to visit a white Jamaican friend at his office, taking with me a white American friend. My Jamaican friend greeted me with the exuberant cry, “Wha’ happen, ole negar.” Afterward I had a difficult time trying to explain to my American friend why my friend had greeted me in that way. I also had a hard time trying to explain to him what ole negar meant.
Another example. As a young single man, I was on fire for the director of entertainment at the hotel where I was staying in Montego Bay. She was a woman with a wholesome and prodigious batty, a feminine feature that Jamaican men, I among them, find nearly irresistible.
(This reminds me of a story I saw in the tabloid Jamaican Star about a man who had been brought up on charges of raping a country woman. During the woman’s testimony, the judge asked her if the man had said anything as he committed the despicable act. Yes, she replied, he had said, “A so, you batty fat?” The judge exclaimed, ” ‘A so, you batty fat?’ That’s what he said?” The defense attorney objected to this testimony, maintaining that his client would never have made that remark because the woman’s batty was not so fat.)
The entertainment director agreed to go out with me one night and we ended up in a disco in the Freeport section of Montego Bay. But we had been there only about ten minutes when she grimaced with distaste and snapped, “Come, mek we leave. Too much ole negar in here.”
What was funny about that remark was that hers was the darkest skin of anyone in the disco. Of course, I didn’t say anything to her because there was a whole night of begging still ahead and I wasn’t going to let ole negar mash up my business.
These two seemingly trivial incidents reveal what almost any thinking Jamaican instinctively knows: ole negar is a concept that is central to the Jamaican view on race.
Every one of us who grew up in the Caribbean, or were raised in a Caribbean household, have an intuitive understanding of ole negar. I used to hear my father and his drinking cronies talking disparagingly about people they called that name. As I understood the term, it meant a poor black person who was ignorant, had an unbridled appetite for sex and rum, and whose manners were uncouth. Yet the expression seemed to me to be used most of the time to vaguely refer more to an indefinite group than to one specific person. No one has ever come up to me and said, “My name is Joseph and I’m what you call a ole negar.” Yet people were always saying disparaging things about this person or group of people.
As it turned out, the first Jamaican character I wrote about clearly fit the description of ole negar. His name in real life was Baba, and he was an ugly fisherman. His face was distorted by what I later surmised must have been acromegaly, a disease caused by a malfunctioning pituitary gland. He came into our lives when we moved to Montego Bay in 1950. We had just settled in when a fisherman came to our veranda to ask permission of my father to continue to store his fishing equipment in a cave on our property. We didn’t know that the property had a cave in it until the fisherman showed us where it burrowed inconspicuously into a hillside behind the servants’ quarters. The cave was obviously man-made and ancient and provided protection for the fisherman’s equipment. After looking over the cave, my father agreed to allow the fisherman to continue to use it as his place of storage. I was then eight years old, and I found the fisherman fascinating. I don’t know why but for some compelling reason I wanted to go fishing with him, and over the next few years I begged him repeatedly, “Baba, tek me fishing with you, nuh man.” His reply was always gentle, but always the same, “You too young.” The last sound I would hear at night before I fell asleep was the groaning made by the rope oarlocks of Baba’s canoe as he put out to sea right across the street from a small strand of beach known locally as Lady’s Rock. I would be drifting off into the sea of dreams just as he would be setting out into the dark mouth of the night sea. Sometimes he would be coming in just as I was trudging to school, and we would wave to each other.
One morning he didn’t return. His empty, overturned canoe was found floating over the fishing reef and he was presumed drowned. A few days later a man appeared who identified himself as Baba’s cousin and asked permission to clear out the cave of the fishing equipment that Baba had left behind. My father gave it, and the fisherman stripped the cave clean and left taking Baba’s canoe and fishing gear with him. I was aghast. I begged my father not to allow the man to leave with all of Baba’s worldly goods, but he told me to mind my own business. What appalled me was how Baba had simply disappeared, wiped off the face of the earth as if he’d never been here. I remember walking down to the beach with the fisherman who was taking Baba’s stuff and asking him questions about who he was and being gruffly told by him to mind my own business and leave him alone.
I never forgot about Baba, but he remained just below the surface of my consciousness. Many years later he suddenly appeared. I was living in Pasadena and working on a textbook called Rhetoric Made Plain. The idea was to write about English composition in a down-to earth and simple style. For weeks I had been writing this way, and on this particular morning, I was sick of simplicity. I yearned to write in a complex style, with long serpentine sentences crammed with subordinate clauses and bristling with fat similes and metaphors. I took out a writing pad, sat down at a table with a pencil and began writing.
This is what came out:
Baba was a black man with no past. He had nothing ahead of him; he had nothing behind him. He had dropped out of oblivion one day, grew up in Montego Bay on the island of Jamaica, growing into manhood with a tremendous lower jaw burgeoning above his windpipe, a jawbone as large as the top jaw of any mastiff; a jaw that jutted out under his face disjointed, unproportioned, stiff, mysteriously heavy, capped with a lower level of green teeth. He was a black man with no past and no future, with a forehead rounded and indented like a goat’s, with two thick and hirsute arms that dropped below his waist when he walked.
Baba became Zachariah, my protagonist in The Painted Canoe, my first novel, which I began in 1975 when I had come back home to teach at Moneague Teachers’ College in Saint Ann’s. In the novel, he is openly identified as an ole negar by the English doctor’s woman in the scene below:
“That sonofabitch must die soon!” the doctor growled to his woman, who rolled her eyes in contempt over his worrying about country negar.
“Ole negar hard to dead!” she said scornfully. “Dem love de earth too much.”
“But you should hear the cancer inside his lungs!” the doctor said, pacing agitatedly through the drawing room of the small bungalow. “My God, if you could hear it as I do! If you only knew what it meant! He must be suffering unbelievable pain! Yet he acts as though he going to live another fifty years!”
“What you bodder yourself so ’bout ole negar, eh?” the woman scowled, wriggling on the sofa where she had been reading a comic. “Me tell you, ole negar don’t have de decency to dead when dem time come. Is so him make, to cling to life like weed.”
1. When it comes to race, what you see is not what you get in Jamaica. Take two people, both black, one educated and one not. If you asked the Jamaican on the street which one of the two was an example of ole negar, he would quickly choose the uneducated one regardless of skin color. But he would not do it with any degree of confidence. The whole idea of choosing an individual to typify the group would make him uncomfortable, for he would intuitively know that the expression ole negar is not only a way of classifying people; it is also a way of vilifying them. Indeed, if you asked Jamaicans to name that signature trait that is most representative of ole negar, you’d be immediately told: indiscipline. But indiscipline to whom or to what? The answer-to the standards set by the colonizer.
Jamaica for that creature must have been a nightmare, a living hell on earth. To begin with, the English man was running a penal colony throughout the entire island. He was enslaving an entire race of people. The acts of brutality and suppressive cruelty required to enslave and subjugate captives who vastly outnumbered him took not only brute force but also devious psychology. When you read the documents from that period you quickly realize that for the English man Jamaica was not a paradise but a slaughterhouse of sudden death. In 1894 when the British abolished slavery, the population of Jamaica stood at 16,700 whites living among 311,000 slaves, a ratio of better than 18 to 1. How could so few enslave and control so many? The answer was, there was only one way: that was to get the suppressed and enslaved majority to long to become like the minority. It was to make him want to ape you, instead of wanting to kill you.
I do not mean to suggest that the plantation owners and their wives got together over tea one day and said, “Let’s lay down standards that our slaves will want to emulate. That way they’re less likely to murder us in our own beds.” But however it evolved, this was a devious, brilliant strategy that almost worked. The only person it didn’t work on was the one who came to be labeled ole negar. He stood steadfastly for his own culture, his own beliefs, and to get his way he was often accused of hooliganism and indiscipline. He became out of order and went on bad.
What do I mean by went on bad? I mean more than just acting badly. I mean refusing to play the game by the anointed rules. If you can get people to abide by your rules and protocol, you’ve won the game no matter who has the higher score. This is where going on bad enters the equation. For when ole negar went on bad, he not only refused to conform to the rules of your game, he turned the game itself on its head. He demonstrated contempt not only for a particular play or specific ruling but for the whole game. That is what going on bad involves. It says, “Take your cricket ball and stick it where the monkey stuck the nut. I’m not playing.”
I’ll give you an illustration. In 1958, I joined the staff of an insurance company in Kingston. It was my job to help customers fill out applications for motor vehicle insurance and also to do the paperwork generated by their acceptance. Now, in those days an insurance company was as quiet as a tomb, as stately as a cathedral, and as well behaved as a mother superior. It was a colonial institution at its finest, an outpost of the English insurance company Commercial Union. Everyone knew his place. Everyone spoke very softly and the decorum was as thick and creamy as freshly churned butter. Upper management always consisted of Englishmen.
One day a man who identified himself as a pastor, a Jamaican who had lived in New York for many years but had finally returned to Jamaica, came into the office to dispute the ridiculous claim settlement the company had offered him for his motor car that was totaled in an accident. Since I was in the front line of the desks at which we sat-in those days companies liked white in front and black to the rear-I had to deal with him. All I could do was tell him what the company had told me, namely, that this was their final offer. He became irate and began to go on bad. He cursed at the top of his lungs. He used words that the walls of the company had never heard before. It wasn’t that he was just being loud and rude. He turned into a rambunctious sumo wrestler at a tea party with the best china on display. His behavior did not violate the rules; it nullified and transcended them.
Shrieking obscenities, the man raced to the door of the manager’s office and began pounding on it demanding that the manager show his face. Beleaguered and trapped behind closed doors, the manager shouted out, “Speak to Mr. Winkler.” I did the best I could, and eventually I was able to mollify him. After the man had left, the company accountant strolled over to my desk and said to me in a voice heavy with contempt, “That’s what happens when you insure ole negar.” Eventually the company settled his claim for a higher and more equitable figure.
That, in miniature, is the history of Jamaica. Justice and fairness was only obtained by not playing the colonizer’s game. Yet to this day you can still see lingering effects of the colonizer’s pernicious influence on Jamaican culture.
My brother was once a successful higgler before suffering a stroke. Like a typical higgler, he sold goods door to door to the poorest Jamaicans, allowing them to pay him off by interestladen payments over time. It was a morally doubtful business with a grimy justification-without vendors like my brother, the poor had no opportunity to buy goods.
One Christmas season, I was visiting him when a huge truck pulled up in front of his house and began unloading its merchandise. It had brought him one thousand bedspreads. Astonished, I asked my brother what he intended to do with a thousand bedspreads. He said they would be sold within a week. It turned out that higglers know that the hottest selling item during the holidays is the bedspread.
The bedspread? For God’s sake, why? Because even the most modest and humble shack on the countryside or the Kingston ghettoes, built of plywood too thin to even hang a picture on, with no electricity or running water, will have a resplendent bedspread on the bed, as treasured and bright as any medieval tapestry.
Where could this deranged desire have come from? Obviously from the colonial English. Enslave a woman, work her like a mule, then diffuse her loathing of you by brainwashing her into envying you your bedspread. When she should be plotting how to poison you and your family, she’s pining for your bedspread and her murderous wrath is harmlessly dissipated.
Another psychological trick the Englishman used on us was to make us envy his language, his manners, his way of thinking. This particular expectation many Jamaicans of my generation despised and it indirectly led to my expulsion from Cornwall College in 1957 shortly after I turned fifteen.
One night in 1957, I found myself walking on Fort Street in Montego Bay at one o’clock in the morning. As I passed a white man in the street light, I asked him what the time was. He said in a strong English accent, “I beg your pardon,” which were fighting words as far as I was concerned. All my life it seemed that the English were always saying that to me just to turn me into a parrot repeating myself for their benefit. I’d come to see this begging of one’s pardon as a kind of linguistic bullying by the colonial master. Under the streetlight, I went ballistic. I rolled out bolts of claat in his wake as he hurried away into the night, leaving me under the streetlight by myself. I admit that I was drunk. But in my teenage mind, I was also being patriotic.
The next day the new school term began. We had a new physics teacher from England. It was the man I had cursed off a few hours earlier.
I learned then and there why in the history of Jamaica there has never been a white bank robber: you’re simply too visible. I was the only white boy in the class and he spotted me immediately. After that he took dead aim at me for the rest of the term and was always sending me to the headmaster’s office with a complaint about my behavior or performance. Finally, after several visits, the headmaster said, “Well, Winkler, I’m going to have to cane you this time,” and reached for his cane.
“Well, Mr. Barrett,” I croaked back, “it look like me and you going fight.” “In that case,” he said thinly, “leave the premises.”
And that was the end of my Jamaican education.
Looking back on that incident that happened fifty years ago, I admit now that I deserved to be expelled. What I didn’t see then was that I was enacting a small piece of history and that the encounter with the Englishman under the streetlight, the defiance of the headmaster’s authority that led to my expulsion – these were lessons I had somehow learned from observing ole negar. Mark you now, if the headmaster had chosen to fight me, he would’ve won hands down. At the time I weighed all of 105 pounds, and the headmaster was at least 60 pounds heavier. It would have been no contest. But it would have been a preposterous sight, a ridiculous spectacle to see the headmaster grappling with a fourth former. His only recourse was to expel me; it was only way he could preserve the dignity of his position-and, for that matter, of mine.
Now, if there’s one thing I know about Jamaica, it is this: climb up on your high horse and someone or something will rudely knock you off. As Jamaicans say, “The higher monkey climb, the more him tail show.” The English must have known this, because no one was more fanatical about saving face than the colonial Englishman. And when you look at his situation, it is easy to see why. He was colonizing people who were far poorer than he was, which put him in a peculiar place during the inevitable conflict that goes with stealing another man’s property.
The English colonizer found himself constantly battling the poor rabble of other countries and dying at the hands of an enemy whom he would have regarded as unsuitable guests for dinner. As Kipling put it, a thousand pounds falls to ten rupee. But it was one thing to be killed in glorious battle by a fellow European observing the rules of combat and quite another to be dispatched by the riffraff of India or by ole negar in Jamaica. So the trick was to pretend indifference to fear and to parade about in front of the natives as if you were invincible.
As a beleaguered English commander, whose force was about to be overrun by a horde of natives, screamed to his men, “They can kill us but they can’t harm us!” Some encouragement. Ole negar would say, “Me no business how it look, me a go lick down him rass.” Whatever else you may say about him, you can’t say that ole negar cares much for appearances.
In spite of what the English would like us to believe, ole negar is very rarely ever a rebel without a cause. When he goes on bad and causes a ruckus, there’s always a reason or provocation behind the behavior.
Here is an example that I personally witnessed as a boy.
When we lived in Montego Bay, my father hit upon a novel idea for a business. Through his travels over the Jamaican countryside in the 1950s as a tire salesman, he noticed that many of the small villages and hamlets in the deep bush had no movie theater and were starved for entertainment. So he went to Duncans and rented the backyard of a Chinaman’s shop and advertised that on Friday night at 8:00 he would show a 16mm cowboy movie for an admission charge of one shilling. The night of the show, when he arrived at 6:00 to set up he found a line of eager customers already snaking out of the backyard and into the street. It was a festive and sparkling debut, like a Christmas outing, and everyone had a wonderful time. My father decided that he had hit upon a winning idea. He quickly expanded his show schedule to other communities and villages.
We were in Clarkstown one night when my father capriciously decided that he’d had enough of cowboy movies, which the people loved, and it was time for a change of pace. He screened a musty costume drama that was supposedly romantic and had absolutely no action. The reaction was predictable. An ugly muttering arose from the crowd. This quickly changed into a threatening grumbling. When the movie ended and the lights finally came on, the people were in a rage and began to loudly demand their money back. My father refused and for the next two hours, rockstone and bottle fell from the sky in a torrential rain. Inside the makeshift theater, we all cowered under a table to avoid the monsoon of falling projectiles.
Now, you might say that this is exactly the kind of behavior associated with ole negar. And for a moment or two, we did fear for our lives. But my father knew that the people he was showing the film to would hate it, and he went ahead in spite of his misgivings and showed it anyway, and then stubbornly refused to give the unhappy customers a refund when the movie turned out to be so bitterly disappointing.
What had brought down a rain of rockstone on our heads was the contempt he’d had for his audience. Most of the people we showed movies to were cane cutters who made about four shillings per day cutting cane in the blistering sun. If you know anything about cane you know that it cuts the flesh like a razor blade. At the end of the shift, the cane cutter’s limbs are crisscrossed with a scrimshaw of slices. And these were the people who were paying one-fourth of a day’s pay to see a show starring Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, not some stuffy closet drama starring Joan Crawford. But you know what? Never again did my father make the same mistake. Ole negar had taught him a lesson he would never forget.
It is a stereotype that resides in our brains and that was planted there by the colonial experience-that is what ole negar is. And we still cling to this caricature.
At the end of my novel The Duppy, my protagonist, whose name is Baps and who is returning from a visit to heavenly America with God, has exactly this reaction when God tells him that there is good, too, in ole negar. Baps is indignant with God for holding that opinion. They have the following exchange:
Later, God remarked casually that His experiment proved that I was wrong and that there was good, too, in the heart of ole negar.
He didn’t rub my nose in it, for He is God, and God does not rub nose.
However, I didn’t answer Him out of friendship and respect. I just let it drop. Sometimes we Jamaicans can’t explain to foreigners what we know and how we feel, and we’re better off just shutting up than even trying. Let the foreigner buy property and plant some cocoa and he’d soon find out for himself about ole negar heart. In fact, I was going to suggest to God that He buy three acres of land that I own in Portland, but I bit my tongue and said sharply to myself, “Hi Baps! Dis is you friend! You want ole negar thief out Him one crop? Dat is how you treat you friend?”
Personally, if it was me reading this book, I’d demand my money back.
2. I’ve learned a lot over the years about my Jamaicanness and what it has given me and how it has informed my worldview. Race in Jamaica is not merely a matter of white and black. That is the American view of race. Ours is a more slippery concept. When it comes to race we Jamaicans are hopelessly composite. Race has unknown effects on us, most of it bad, but some of it unexpectedly benign. For example, the racial situation in Jamaica unwittingly prepared me for migration. When I was growing up, I was certain of one thing: it was the rare white man in the world who could beat me at anything. Against the white race, I felt invincible. Why? Because I had only competed against my brothers, never against white people. The only people who had ever kicked my butt in sports, scholastically, or any other way, were brown or black. So when I looked at America and the prospect of competing there, I had this naive feeling that I was better.
The Jamaican was a more formidable adversary than the American.
This is, I know, one of those stereotypes that impregnate our being. And you know what? It turned out to be true. The Jamaican was better and is better. That is part of the paradox of what it means to be a Jamaican. We’re strong and capable and good-looking because the stewpot we come from is a blend of black, Indian, Chinese, and white, and seasoned with the pepper of ole negar.
When I think of ole negar, I think of the rebellious slave who was burned to death following Tacky’s Rebellion in 1760 and whose brave death was reported this way by an eyewitness:
The wretch that was burnt was made to sit on the ground, and his body being chained to an iron stake, the fire was applied to his feet. He uttered not a groan, and saw his legs reduced to ashes with the utmost firmness and composure; after which, one of his arms by some means getting loose, he snatched a brand from the fire that was consuming him, and flung it in the face of the executioner.
3. Such defiant courage is almost unimaginable.
And I think of Baba who was here one minute and the next minute was gone, unmourned and unremembered, the few trinkets he’d left behind after a long lifetime as a fisherman swept up by a supposed cousin, until nothing was left behind to mark his presence, not even a footprint. The speculation was that he’d fallen asleep and overturned the canoe. Some said that his canoe was attacked by a shark or hit by a rogue wave. We don’t know. But what I do know was that he was always kind and patient with the pesky little white boy who was always nagging him about going fishing. And I think I know how he will greet me when that moment comes for us to meet again. Up in heaven, I have it on good authority, we are not black or white, or brown or sepia or yellow or red; instead, we will all have the coloration of jellyfish. Nevertheless, Baba will recognize me. And I will know he recognizes me from his greeting. He will say, “Wha’ happen, ole negar?”
- Anthony C. Winkler, The Painted Canoe (1984; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 250-51.
- Anthony C. Winkler, The Duppy (1997; repr., New York: Akashic, 2008), 145-46.
- Brian Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the West Indies: With a Continuation to the Present Time, 5 vols.(London: Whittaker, 1819), 2:79.
Anthony C. Winkler was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He was educated at Excelsior primary school in Kingston and at Mount Alvernia Academy and Cornwall College in Montego Bay, to which his family had moved in 1950. In the United States he attended Citrus College in Glendora, California, and California State University at Los Angeles. He is the author of fifteen college textbooks, as well as several novels, plays, short stories, and essays, and a recently published autobiography, Trust the Darkness: My Life as a Writer (2008). He lives in Atlanta with his wife, Cathy.
What Do Jamaicans Mean by Ole Negar?
Anthony C. Winkler
Small Axe. Bloomington:Jul 2009.
Iss. 29, p. 118-127,232-233 (12 pp.)
Anthony C. Winkler, The Painted Canoe (1984; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 250-51.