Assistant Professor Explores Cultural Implications of Informal
Commercial Importers in Jamaica
Tough, entrepreneurial, family-oriented and
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.
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
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
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