Assistant Professor Explores Cultural Implications of Informal Commercial Importers in Jamaica

Posted 04/04/08
Tough, entrepreneurial, family-oriented and successful. This is how Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Associate Professor of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Gina Ulysse describes the Jamaican women who work as informal commercial importers (ICIs), who she has spent 15 years studying. Her unique, groundbreaking research has lead her to publish the book Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist, and Self-Making in Jamaica, which is the first broad analytic work to examine ICIs.

The study was inspired by a talk given by well-known Jamaican businesswoman Mabel Tenn at the University of the West Indies. Ulysse was part of a study abroad program at the time. Tenn—who worked closely with ICIs—spoke about her success and others’ accomplishments. She said, “Nobody’s paying attention to these ladies [the ICIs].”

“That did it for me,” Ulysse said.

She decided to take on the subject for her graduate dissertation. Although she originally wanted to study Haiti, the country where she was born and lived until age 11, her mentor thought it would be a better idea for her to study another Caribbean nation so that she could see how Haiti fits its regional context.

Ulysse began visiting ICIs in Jamaica in 1992. The title of her graduate dissertation was “Uptown Ladies and Downtown Women: Informal Commercial Importing and the Social/Symbolic Politics of Class and
Color in Jamaica.” She altered the original title to the current book title, explaining that the book’s title more clearly explains what she had learned in her years of study.

“Years later, while rethinking the manuscript, it became evident to me that I misunderstood what was happening,” Ulysse said.

“The methodological and theoretical tools from Michigan failed to capture what my research actually revealed. Importers whom I interviewed were engaged in remaking themselves in ways that challenged stereotypes of ‘lady’ and ‘woman’ and their concomitant color, class and spatial referents which continue to affect them in their daily lives. Ultimately, the project points to the significance of a transnational black feminist approach to illuminate how black females, who are simultaneously invisible and hypervisible, negotiate intersections of race, color, class, nationality, age and other indices that are written on our bodies,” she said.

Many people are familiar with the traditional Caribbean market woman or higgler. They are often seen or depicted wearing skirts and kerchiefs in tourist illustrations. In fact, many ICIs were once higglers or are the daughters of higglers. Marketing is the most common gendered trade in the Caribbean, according to the book.

Higglers sold goods at local markets. ICIs take on the world. They have the initiative to travel outside of Jamaica, many times to countries where they don’t speak the language, to purchase goods to resell at markets and other locations. Since the ICIs didn’t need licenses, “they were able to move goods in a way that the formal business sector could not,” Ulysse said.

Although the elitist world around them defines ICIs as working class women, they consider themselves ladies and are determined to define themselves. Historically, Jamaican society did not believe that black women were as civilized as white women, and therefore, did not possess the potential to be ladies. The ICIs refuse to be marginalized.

Although Ulysse got close to ICIs in her work, she was always an outsider. She told the ICIs her name and that she was interested in what they do. She was often asked, “Why are you doing anthropology and not business?” She told them she wanted to tell stories.

“Being from Haiti got me people’s attention and interest,” Ulysse said.

She considers herself a black anthropologist and a feminist anthropologist. Ulysse says she feels it’s important to examine in anthropological study whose voice is of greater value.

“By positioning myself in the study, the book shows how the researcher is not invisible as previous works claming objectivity have argued. In fact, I am marked both in the U.S. and in Jamaica in ways that also reveal particular narratives about Haiti and what it means to be Haitian.”

In the text of the book, Ulysse does not seem disconnected from the people she studied. In fact, she was encouraged to ‘dress up’ by the ICIs. She spent hours in beauty parlors and was told to abandon her favorite jelly platform shoes in 1995. She recounts this in her book:

“I wore them until the buckle broke. That day, a dark-skinned, Jamaican friend, Miss Q. (who is first-generation middle class), was visiting. She seemed relieved and expressed happiness that I would finally stop wearing my jellies. ‘Well thank God! You won’t have to wear these ghastly shoes ever again. They’re going in the bin.’ Surprised, actually shocked, I asked her why. ‘Oh Gina! Get serious … These shoes are so common,’” she exclaimed.

Ulysse goes on to explain that in Jamaica “shoes have been a marker of distinction, which at times separated a field hand from a house slave. The cleanliness of one’s feet and the type and style of shoes that encase them are visible signs of position.” Though the particular shoes she had on had been name-brand fashion items featured in both Elle magazine as well as the British version of Vogue, in Jamaica, they had low status, as they were associated with common folk.

The woman who work as informal commercial importers are constrained by class, but by becoming involved in the work it allows them a previously-unattainable level of freedom.

“The trade has been an occupation for many people because it makes you to be independent. It makes you to be self-reliant. It motivates you to be a person of substance,” a woman in Ulysse’s book says. “A person that … you lose you gain, you fall you raise, you fall you raise … It make you to be tough. So many time I have fallen by the wayside, I get brush up meself and start again.”

Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist, and Self-Making in Jamaica is published by the University of Chicago Press. It is available at Broad Street Books.

By Corrina Kerr, associate director of media relations