- Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, a Haitian Anthropologist, and Self-Making in Jamaica
Downtown Ladies is Gina A. Ulysse’s thought-provoking response to the challenge of gendering globalization as anthropologists and other social researchers encounter it across multiple local and extra-local sites where they negotiate the conditions and ferret out the evidentiary contents of fieldwork. Ulysse undertook this project in Kingston as a regional native and local outsider committed to dovetailing research with the political sensibilities of an activist. The result is an engaging ethnography framed within a transnational black feminism drawing from diverse sources—black and Latina feminisms, cultural studies, Caribbean(ist) social science, and Jamaicans’ vernacular knowledges. The latter includes “Bob Marley’s lyrical theories”(p. 165) and the views and voices of “third world, subaltern female[s] in multiple shadows” (p. 1).
Ulysse brings the wisdom of Informal Commercial Importers (ICIs) into conversation with an interdisciplinary array of social theorists and cultural critics, resulting in a richly-textured analysis, punctuated by perspectives from anthropologists (e.g., Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Anna Tsing) and Jamaican intellectuals (e.g., Patricia Anderson, Carol [End Page 204] Campbell, Elsie Le Franc, and Michael Witter). Even with the abundance of citation-worthy sources, Ulysse’s voice is distinctive. It articulates an “alter(ed)native” perspective on the emergence of ICIs onto the national and global stage as both economic and cultural actors. She convincingly demonstrates the salience of their socioeconomic practices and symbolically evocative self-making as mutually constitutive domains within a reflexive political economy.
The idea and practice of black working-class women refashioning themselves as downtown ladies works against the grain of the traditional lady/woman and uptown/downtown binaries, which interlock with polarities and hierarchically-ordered gradations of race, color, class, and space. Ulysse elucidates how ICIs, especially the visible ones that stereotypes of tough, “rude gal” traders purport to represent, disrupt the meanings of class, which are “lived through race and gender” (p. 13) and are color-coded. The cultural politics and mediating performances of color, the intricacies of which are often elided in the research literature, are part of an enduring legacy of colonial racialization in contemporary Jamaican“pigmentocracy.” As independent international traders maneuver through the cracks and interstices of the transnational terrain, they are often stigmatized as outsiders and outlaws (e.g., as drug smugglers, “mules”).
Ulysse provides an instructive historical overview of the intersecting codes of gender, class, and color, which higglers, ICIs’ predecessors who have been central to internal marketing, were compelled to negotiate and mediate. Representing “icons of black womanhood” and “social marker[s] of difference” (p. 23), higglers and ICIs have contested dominant images by redefining femininity and beauty, setting the stage for black working-class women’s performances as ladies. Ulysse explains how mediations and refractions of class and color have been integral to Jamaican women’s self-making since the era of slavery, when femininity was considered the reserve of privileged white females. Then and now, black and brown women have deployed different forms of capital, material and symbolic, as vehicles for upward social mobility. Ulysse paints a graphic picture of the phenotypic markers and modifications in appearance that have served as capital.
Although ICIs’ mobility is constrained by stigmatizing stereotypes and saturated markets, some traders have managed to achieve success navigating neoliberal landscapes. However, this “relative success puts them in constant conflict with the state and big business” (p. 59). Ulysse provides the background for understanding how independent international traders emerged in the political-economic crisis of the 1970s. As self-employed “suitcase traders,” they traveled throughout the Caribbean and eventually to Miami, New York, and other destinations in North America and Europe to “buy and sell.” The government responded to the business [End Page 205] establishment’s anxieties over this emergent class of competitors with policies to regulate and restrict their expanding sphere of the informal economic activity. Ulysse explains that the government-coined label, Informal Commercial Importers, belies the intensifying controls...