Culture Magazine

On the Difference Between Black Society and Culture in Jamaica and in America

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
With a bonus about why Melissa McCarthy's Sean Spicer impersonation is superior to Alec Baldwin's Trump.
From Conversations with Tyler, Malcolm Gladwell Wants to Make the World Safe for Mediocrity:
GLADWELL: Well, yeah, there is something — well, I hesitate to say under-theorized, but there is something under-theorized about the differences between West Indian and American black culture, the psychological difference between what it means to come from those two places. I think only when you look very closely at that difference do you understand the heavy weight that particular American heritage places on African-Americans. What’s funny about West Indians is, they can always spot another West Indian. And at a certain point you wonder, “How do they always know?” It’s because after a while you get good at spotting the absence of that weight.
And it explains as well the well-known phenomenon of how disproportionately successful West Indians are when they come to the United States because they seem to be better equipped to deal with the particular pathologies attached to race in this country — my mother being a very good example. But of course there are a million examples.
I was just reading for one of my podcasts; I’ve been reading all these oral history transcripts from the civil rights movement. I was reading one today and I’m halfway through. And I had that completely unbidden thing, “Oh, this guy’s a West Indian.” He was an African-American attorney and a civil rights lawyer in Virginia in the ’60s. I got a 30-page transcript. I got to page 15, I’m like, “He’s West Indian.” And then, literally page 16, “My father came from Trinidad and Tobago with my mother and me.”
COWEN: [laughs]
GLADWELL: There is something very, very real there that’s not, I feel, fully appreciated.
COWEN: Another difference that struck me — tell me what you think of this — is that the notion of freedom for much of the Caribbean, it’s in some way more celebratory, and it’s more rooted in history, and it may be because these are mostly majority black societies. History is in a sense controlled; it’s much more commemorative. Does that make sense to you? It’s not a struggle to control the narration of history at a national level.
GLADWELL: Yes. You’re in charge of the narrative —
COWEN: Yes.
GLADWELL: . . . which is huge. I thought of this because I wanted to do — sorry, my podcast is on my mind — I wanted to do and I haven’t managed to figure out how to do it, but there’s a Jamaican poet called Louise Bennett. If you are Jamaican, you know exactly who this person is. She’s probably the most important colloquial poet. I think that’s the wrong word. Popular poet. And she wrote poetry in dialect. So for a generation of Jamaicans, she was an assertion of Jamaican identity and culture. My mother was a scholarship student at a predominantly white boarding school in Jamaica. She and the other black students of the school, as an act of protest, read Louise Bennett poetry at the school function when she was 12 years old.
If you read Louise Bennett’s poetry, much of it is about race. It’s about race where the Jamaican, the black Jamaican often has the upper hand. The black Jamaican is always telling some sly joke at the expense of the white minority. So it’s poetry that doesn’t make the same kind of sense in a society where you’re a relatively powerless minority. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense if you’re not in control of major institutions and such, but you are 95 percent of the population and you feel like you’re going to win pretty soon. My mother used to read this poem to me as a child where Louise Bennett is . . . the poem is all about sitting in a beauty parlor, getting her hair straightened, sitting next to a white woman who’s getting her hair curled.
[laughter]
GLADWELL: And the joke is that the white woman’s paying a lot more to get her hair curled than Louise Bennett is to get her hair straightened. That’s the point. It’s all this subtle one-upmanship. But that’s very Jamaican.
Special bonus:
GLADWELL: Well, I don’t like the Alec Baldwin Donald Trump, I don’t think, actually, if you compare it to the Sean Spicer . . .
[laughter]
GLADWELL: It’s not as good, and it’s not as good because the truly effective satirical impersonation is one that finds something essential about the character and magnifies it, something buried that you wouldn’t ordinarily have seen or have glimpsed in that person.
With the Spicer impersonation, why that’s so brilliant is, it draws out his anger. He’s angry at being put in this impossible position. That is the essence of that character. So how does a person respond to this, it’s almost an absurd position he’s in. And he has this kind of — it’s not sublimated — it’s there, this rage. In every one of his utterances is, “I can’t fucking believe that I am in this . . .”
[laughter]
GLADWELL: And so that Saturday Night Live impersonation gets beautifully at that thing, it satirizes that. I’ve forgotten the name of the woman who does it . AUDIENCE MEMBER: Melissa McCarthy.
GLADWELL: Yes, when Melissa McCarthy, when she picks up the podium . . .
[laughter]
GLADWELL: That’s an absurd illustration of that fundamental point. But the Alec Baldwin Trump doesn’t get at something essential about Trump. It simply takes his mannerisms and exaggerates them slightly. But he hasn’t mined Trump.

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