4 Slavery References that Have Lost Their Racial Trigger in Jamaica

Some Jamaicans who live on the island may often say otherwise, but for those of who have experienced real racism in First World countries, there is hardly, if at all, such a thing as racism in Jamaica. In fact, it is widely accepted that Jamaica’s social divider is not race, but class.

This is despite the fact that like the United States, and many of our West Indian neighbours, we were once victims of slavery. So, what happened? It’s hard to say. Racism is still very much an issue in other Caribbean countries, but as a collective, Jamaicans have processed and emerged from slavery with a much different mindset from other formerly enslaved nations around the world.

Whereas slavery continues to be a point of shame and hurt for many other nations, for us, it is a point of pride. No; we are not proud to have been the playthings of the plantocracy. But, we are proud to have survived and emerged the victors—not the victims. Blacks in Jamaica run our country, make our own laws, and climb the social ladder on merit and connections.

In my opinion, one of the best bits of evidence for how much we have progressed beyond being defined by slavery and its aftermath, is the slavery references that no longer trigger a racial response in our culture. Here are four of the most common.

FAIR WARNING: If you are easily triggered by racial themes and use of the N-word, this article is not for you. 

1. Massa

While learning about African-American culture, reading American books set in the enslaved south, and watching American slavery movies like Django Unchained, a common word I came across was Massa. At first, the racial significance didn’t resonate with me. Clearly it meant Master.

While talking with African-Americans about the racial disparity with wealth in America, the word came up again as a less than favourable reference to White Americans who fit one or more of the following categories.

  • White Republicans
  • Wealthy Whites who looked down at Blacks
  • Whites who were racist, or affiliated with the KKK

That’s when I realised for the first time that in America, Massa was not just Master, but White Master. Still, it was not until my Mom asked me something and I jokingly replied, “Yes, Massa!” that I realised the difference in the meaning for Jamaicans. We refer to each other as Massa all the time, especially the older generations.

Yes, without a doubt, the term Massa originated in slavery for us, too. But, after slavery ended, we no longer only referred to our former slave masters as Massa; we also referred to ourselves as such. In fact, in Jamaica, Master is no longer an accurate translation for Massa. All it really means is Mister, though it can also be said between women who know each other well, as was the case with me and my mom.

2. Niggeritis

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The N-word isn’t a thing in Jamaica. We know of it—sure—but it’s not considered a part of our culture. That said, it is quite possible that the racial slur nigger was once used in Jamaica, but even use of the word nigga is considered highly Americanised, and often only done in jest.

As with Massa, Jamaicans tend to refer to each other, even those they do not know well, in ego-boosting ways. This is especially common between men, who use phrases like:

  • Big Man (meaning strong, powerful, or grown)
  • Boss Man
  • Dada
  • Man a Yaad (American translation: Man of the House)

However, there is one remnant of the N-word in our culture and that is in the word niggeritis. In almost all English-speaking countries, the word “itis” is used or was once used to describe the feeling of lethargy after eating too much. Without a doubt, using the N-word as a prefix was an allusion to the alleged laziness of Africans, who did the back-breaking work of chopping sugarcane in the Caribbean heat.

Sounds obvious enough, right? But not to most Jamaicans. Not to me. One day, I was out with one of my White friends. We had eaten a heavy meal and had barely made it to the car when the first series of yawns started.

“We ate way too much,” my friend observed, patting his tummy. “I’m so sleepy right now.”

“Tell me about it,” I agreed. “I have niggeritis.”

The word had barely made it out of my mouth when he turned to look at me with wide eyes. “What did you just say?”

I repeated the word, innocently, but as I said it, I now realised for the first time in my life that a racial slur made up the first two syllables of niggeritis.

3. Free Paper

Last year, I read Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, a historical fiction novel set in the American Reconstruction era. One of the characters in the novel is privileged enough to come from a family of free women, whose female ancestor received her free papers and was allowed to live and work away from the plantation as a herbalist. For the generations she birthed, their continued freedom was dependent on their ability to protect their free papers and present it when necessary.

These days, free papers aren’t much discussed in contemporary American society. However, the phrase is still used in Jamaica. The exact phrase is, “Y’uh free paper bu’n up!” which translates literally in English as, “Your free paper has been burned up”. Here are the two times you are most likely to hear this in Jamaica.

  • As a child, you hear this a lot from your parents and other adults when your holiday break is coming to an end.
  • As an adult, this may be said when your vacation time from work is coming to a close.

Until I studied slavery in high school and college as part of my history courses, I had no idea free papers were rooted in slavery. It was just another thing our parents said.

4. Britain

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Jamaicans love Britain. We are more proud of our historical ties to Britain than we are happy with our proximity to America. As I have detailed in several posts before, Britain (and Ireland!) contributed heavily to the language and culture in Jamaica. In fact, the lingo-cultural exchange continues even today.

Last year, while discussing White appropriation of African-American culture with a bi-racial who passes for White, he asked me the following question.

Aren’t you offended by how British people try to sound Jamaican? I hear them using so many of your phrases.

“Do you know who the mother country is of Jamaica? Do you know who is our Head of State?” I asked him. He did not. “Britain is our mother country and Queen Elizabeth II is our Head of State.”

I then explained to him that patois developed out of a need for the slaves to communicate with White planters, Irish indentured labourers, and other Africans. Contrary to popular belief, all Africans do not speak the same language: not then, not now. So, the slaves had to create one language everyone could understand. And thus, patois was born.

Since then, Britain and Jamaica have continued this cultural exchange, as Jamaicans love emigrating to Britain, and British people, especially British people of colour, love to retire in Jamaica. We have both borrowed so many words and phrases from each other that we no longer remember who came up with what first—and we are A-okay with that.

But, Britain was also the very same mother country that enslaved us for hundreds of years and prosecuted many of our Black leaders. So, how did we move past that to develop a love for our mother country? I have no idea, but I’ll tell you this: most Jamaicans I know regret independence. If Britain would take us back, many of us would return with open arms.

Since living in America, one of the things that has always saddened me is how little people really know of the history of people of colour. From Native Americans to Japanese to Africans, the stories have all been whitewashed to suit the majority-conscience. Many of the things African-Americans pay thousands of dollars to learn about Black history in college, I learned in first and second grade. Yes: first and second grade. For free.

I do believe that intimately knowing our history as a people, in Jamaica, is a big contributing factor to our confidence in our Blackness. I also credit the Afrocentric movement that began with Marcus Garvey and Rastafarianism. The torch was later carried by Bob Marley who further injected pride into the Black consciousness of Jamaicans. I mean, come on: we have a lot to be proud of!

While this certainly explains our national and ethnic pride, it may forever remain a mystery to me how we made it to a point in our development, where we could divorce so many slavery references from their source. Do I think this is a bad thing? No, I really don’t. I think in the Third World we have much bigger fish to fry than semantics. Don’t you?

About the Author

Alexis Chateau Option C Curved

Alexis Chateau is a Jamaican entrepreneur, avid traveller and author of mystery, paranormal, and crime fiction novels. Her interest in the social sciences and the history of Jamaica was shaped by her social sciences degree, earned with first-class honours, at the Montego Bay Community College and the University of Technology, Jamaica. To see West Indian characters in action, read her historical novel, The Moreau Witches.

Praise for The Moreau Witches from the National Library of Jamaica

This book catapulted me into reading so many others, looking for that good feeling I got from reading yours. It was so well written! I absolutely love it. You are a genius.

Monique Fergie-Scott, National Library of Jamaica

 

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38 thoughts on “4 Slavery References that Have Lost Their Racial Trigger in Jamaica

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Experiences aside it shows that we really are resilient and take everything make joke, in spite of the harsh and negative origins.

    1. I think that’s the best way to move forward. Acknowledge the wrongs and move past it to better things. Thanks for reading! 😊

  2. I would guess the key is the minority/majority distinction between our two countries. That is coming clearer as some Americans are going ballistic about the coming demographics. Why do you think there is hysteria about the southern border and not the Canadian one. Canadians apparently are most in violation of their visas, but there is no push for a wall there! Great essay.

    1. Thank you!

      It is very true that the demographics explain a bit of why Jamaicans transitioned the way we did, but as I mentioned, other Caribbean islands didn’t follow that route even though they, too, are majority people of colour. Racism is still very much alive and well in the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Barbados etc. Similarly, Atlanta and Chicago are two cities that have very large Black populations in the United States and they are also the 2 most racially segregated cities in the US. Racism is very much alive in both, as much as they like to pretend otherwise.

      I think it’s too easy to blame or credit external factors and the sooner Americans start pointing the finger at the person in the mirror, the better off we all shall be. That’s as true for MAGA folks with their borders blaming immigrants as it is for people of colour blaming the system. The system sucks for sure. I live in it. As a Black, female immigrant it kicks me more than most. But, at some point, people have to make the personal decision to become victors instead of victims. In Jamaica, that’s what we did, and it became a cultural movement because it happened on a large scale.

      I took that mindset with me here. Uncle Sam can try all he wants, but I’m no victim! 🤣😂

      1. We need to have a long conversation about this. I am very intrigued by our different experiences. If you stay in the guest room some time we can toss this one around.

      2. We shall! Here’s to hoping I make it back up north for a solo trip this year. Solo trip is on my New Year’s resolution list 😊

  3. As ever, a great and eye opening piece. You’re right, so many things Americans find offensive would never even cross our minds until it’s pointed out, and while we’re well aware of our history, we don’t carry it in our everyday lives as ‘baggage’. And I’m perfectly fine with that.

    1. Carrying around baggage is a hobby in America. For Blacks it’s slavery and Jim Crow. For Whites, it’s depression. Trust me when I say I am happy to work from home so I can choose the kind of people I want to be around when I leave the house. 🙄

  4. Excellent read! As long as we continue to teach American History as an endless celebration of white supremacy in our public schools instead of pulling the curtain back on our founding fathers who attempted to eradicate the indigenous populations and owned slaves then the racial divide will continue to grow between white and non-white. This country refuses to atone for its past transgressions, still fails to recognize our humanity and equity as fellow citizens but demands our loyalty and patriotism.

    1. See, that’s what I like about Europeans. They are barefaced about what they have done. I can have easy and honest conversations about race with my Spanish, German and British friends. No hard feelings. No awkwardness. Because they take full responsibility for what their countries did back in the day and their history tells the full story on their end.

      America is busy playing the PR game in classrooms instead of actually educating kids.

      1. Well, to a degree. There’s no real education in the UK about what the British Empire really entailed. Yes, it was the biggest empire the world had ever seen, so there’s bound to be a certain amount of pride (grudging or celebrated) but the more I find out how Britain fucked over people all over the world the more ashamed I get. The problem is that this information is not taught at school; people only learn about the empire in the vaguest of ways, through TV, media & family references. So, the plundering of India, the pushing of opium on China, the creation of the first concentration camps in South Africa, the Irish famine, I could go on & on. And I haven’t even mentioned the slave trade.
        And some twats want us to forge “Empire v.2” post Brexit. They don’t understand that most of the British empire was created because Britain was one of the most powerful nations on earth and a self centred bully. That attitude won’t win friends and influence people. 🙁

      2. I have never met a Brit who didn’t know the history of the empire through and through. I meet Americans every day who don’t know what’s going on today one state over.

        Our education system in Jamaica is based on the British system, so I think you have a better education system that encourages the curious to keep looking beyond what’s learned in a classroom, like we do. Our teachers also taught us plenty of things that weren’t on the curriculum just because it came up in class.

        In my opinion, Britain has plenty to be proud of. Yes, they stomped all over people to get there, but that was common for every world power back then. Human life held little value, even for nobles, with their constants sword fights in the streets over a damsel.

        Since then, I think Britain is learning and has settled down to work on itself, however much Brexit is the wrong approach. I wish the U.S. would focus on themselves more, as well. The focus is always on fixing other people around the world and never here.

  5. Was a great read, Love it and to the mystery of how we move from the slavery mentality is just through Gods Love for the heart of Jamaica 🇯🇲 that makes us so proud!! The Land is blessed just look at produce that comes from the ground. Love that you are sharing this with others, that’s awesome!!

    1. Thank you! Jamaicans are one-of-a-kind. Just trying to share that with everyone, one post at a time.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. I think it’s fabulous that Jamaica took those offensive words, made them its own and gave them a complete new meaning. For me, that is a sign of maturity. You are only a victim if you allow yourself to become one. Good for the Jamaicans! 👍

    1. You are only a victim if you allow yourself to be a victim is so true. That’s why African-American culture confuses me so much. The victim mentality seems prevalent in it, to me. However, to be fair, Jamaica had it easier outside of economics. We are Black majority now and we never had Jim Crow/segregation or anything like that. It’s easier to be proud of being Black under those conditions, I think. I just wish more people would find a way to follow suit.

  7. I love these linguistic related articles from you. Keep it up!

    slave masters as Massa; we also referred to ourselves as such. In fact, in Jamaica, Master is no longer an accurate translation for Massa.

    I grew up in a working class industrial town which received a large influx of black immigrants (mostly Jamaicans) in the 1960s and 1970s as well as white migrants out of London. I heard this word “Massa” a few times from older black Jamaicans, usually towards their elder siblings and parents or grandparents. Thanks for the explanation. It makes perfect sense right now!

    most Jamaicans I know regret independence. If Britain would take us back, many of us would return with open arms.

    No, trust me, you don’t. This country has become toxic because of Brexit. There are now divisions between and within classe,s and colour, and even between age groups. In 2012 we welcomed the world to the Olympics. Four years later we stuck two fingers up at the world. Racial attacks have increased. People of colour who were born here (and even third generation) are being told to “go home”. Nobody trusts each other, really.

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you keep reading my Jamaican rambles and take the time to comment. 😊

      I’m glad you can confirm that we do, in fact, refer to each other as Massa! Haha. It’s one thing for a Jamaican to claim it, and far more interesting when someone else can say, “I’ve seen that!”

      Britain took several steps back with Brexit, for sure, but I don’t believe Brexit represents the will of the majority. The young British followed the same ridiculous tread of young Americans in the election process here: they didn’t vote. And so, older White people who were tired of seeing the demographics of their neighbourhoods changing, who felt pushed back, and who wanted to Make Britain and American Great Again, were able to get their way.

      We believe in you guys! You’ll figure it out. We still love you all. True love is unconditional. 😊 Besides, maybe taking us back would help cure you. 🤣😂

      1. Haha, brilliant response! While some (the most vocal) did so out of xenophobia and racism, I feel far more people did so because of negative media influence about what the EU is and represents. It’s not perfect, but it is the way of the world today to need strong economic rather than military alliances. People have been disenfranchised by neo-liberal economics and blaming immigrants or foreign powers is simply the easy option.

      2. Blaming immigrants is always the easier option, because it takes blame away from the source. However, Britain needs to remember that they had to help bomb some sense into Germany twice for espousing this very same ideology. Ironically, Germany is the one that seems to be at the forefront of taking in as many immigrants as possible, now. My how the table turns!

      3. Here’s to hoping we all come to our senses. There’s blame enough for all sides.

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