Black Repair and Questions of Sovereignty

Jovan Scott Lewis, Scammer’s Yard: The Crime of Black Repair in Jamaica (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020); 248 pages; ISBN 978-1517909987 (paperback)

• June 2022

Joining contemporary work in anthropology, Caribbean studies, and Black studies that explores questions of sovereignty, decoloniality, and repair, Jovan Scott Lewis’s Scammer’s Yard elegantly argues that the Jamaican lottery scammers in Montego Bay subversively mobilize the logic and apparatus of racial capitalism in order to enact reparative seizure by defrauding elderly White Americans.1

Lewis first historicizes the Jamaican political economy by disruptively reframing emancipation outside British colonial altruism and instead reads its operation as the applied political-economic trial of free market liberalism” (28), a definition that enables a clarification of the persisting perverse relationship between dynamic market forces and the devastating condition of Black life. He situates this intervention alongside the plantation economy thesis of scholars from the New World Group, but he also extends their argument by identifying multinational corporations and international development banks as contemporary mediators of the global hierarchy of capital within which transnational exploitation compromises the sovereignty of the postcolonial state, most recently manifested in the proliferation of American call centers on the island. Lewis demonstrates that from these material relations emerges the economic, philosophical, and ontological structure of “sufferation,” an idiom that catalogs the quotidian and normative experience of living in crisis.

In Jamaica, sufferation circulates both as a nihilistic orientation toward nationalist politics and as a “palliative framework of optimism” for life beyond poverty. Sufferation therefore “functions as a vernacular ethical poetics around the economy that translates a fundamental condition in need of repair” (17). Rather than an anthropological imposition, this multivalent rendering of sufferation allows Lewis to trace its literary and cultural genealogy that encourages a robust theoretical model that anticipates and contextualizes the scammers’ reading of the world. Within this framework, the poor recognize that the means of accumulation are inaccessible to them, a phenomenon that Lewis aptly describes as market opacity. The scammers circumvent this opacity by instrumentalizing their experience within the call centers through which they learn about the American credit system, lead list industries, and even cutting-edge technological tools.

Lewis, therefore, perceptively elaborates on the scam as a paradox—it relies on the performance of technical legitimacy acquired through call center work in order to generate illicit wealth. To evince this claim, Lewis discusses the scammers’ participation in the intimate labor of customer care as a way to con victims. He demonstrates how granular negotiations of sovereignty produce complex gendered relations that complicate our understanding of Jamaican heteromasculinities in the contemporary moment. Thus he shows how the scammers’ staging of legitimacy revises David Scott’s assertion in Conscripts of Modernity that tragedy is the historical narrative that characterizes the postcolony after the failure of independence to bestow the decolonial romance of sovereignty.2 Lewis incisively reframes the scammers’ postcolonial moment as satirical: rather than having negative attachments to earlier anticolonial and postcolonial attempts to achieve autonomous and respectable nationhood, the scammers’ mimicry of legitimacy underscores the deficiencies of these strategies and even those of the very goal itself.

More forcefully, the scammers refuse the exceptionality of their own criminality, weaving a dense web of connections between themselves and the Jamaican elite, who, they maintain, also acquire wealth in nefarious ways. Ultimately, they perceive scamming as a way to alleviate poverty and to achieve respectability in Jamaican society.3 Therefore, Lewis advances that they produce a new vision of respectability that “pair[s] popular urban poor Black mores with Jamaican ‘middle-class’ sensibilities, where those sensibilities are rooted less in Victorian expectations of etiquette, decorum, aesthetics, and values, and more on the basis of wealth, which is arguably the foundation of middle-class values” (122). 

In the end, Lewis argues that the scammers’ practice of seizure is guided by a dynamic and relational set of ethics as opposed to a rigid moral compass. Within this system, the scammers are able to recognize the co-constitutionality of their sufferation and capitalist practices of accumulation that dominate the economy of the United States. Therefore, they rationalize the scam as a form of reparations, insofar as it addresses the location of contemporary injury produced by US imperialist exploitation. According to Lewis, within this framework, the scammers read Whiteness as fungible, in that they interpret both White Americans and White Britons as participants in a long project of dispossession in Jamaica.4 He therefore asserts that what the scammers articulate is a reparative framework capacious enough to attend to injury beyond a narrow nation-to-nation model that accounts only for a linear historical relationship between a metropole and its (post)colonies. In fact, we might argue that Lewis masterfully takes up Stuart Hall’s call in “When Was ‘the Post-colonial’? Thinking at the Limit” to identify “the new relations and dispositions of power which are emerging in the new conjuncture.”5

Attending to these postcolonial shifts in power, therefore, would also allow us to fracture certain collectivist ethics of Blackness that continue to frame the reparations debate, Lewis argues. Whereas institutions such as the Caricom Reparations Commission advocate more conservative demands that aim to provide social welfare through social institutions that might afford traditional forms of respectability, the scammers expose the relative futility of this project within the context of their own lives: “Scamming, then, is how the poor, using liberal economic forms, can gain for themselves within late liberalism. However, it necessitates the individuality of repair” (174). Lewis’s challenging and open-ended proposition here is potentially transformative for the terrain of Black and Caribbean studies to the extent that it encourages us to strain against easy gestures to unitary futures on which discourses of reparations so readily rely. Even as Lewis questions the limits of an individualist reparative model, however, he also contends that these individual acts of repair also allow for the scammers to care for their families and avoid accusations of “wotlessness”—“a charge that cut[s] deep into the anxieties and insecurities of masculinist ideals and expectations of financial caretaking and overall productivity” (5).

I want to end by meditating on the care with which Lewis attends to the lives of the scammers. Given the social sciences’ extractive history within the region, the Caribbean anthropologist with radical commitments is often challenged with the Sisyphean task of wading through the weighty inheritances of anti-Blackness within and beyond disciplinary boundaries. It might be helpful, therefore, to also imagine these commitments as a form of scam wherein the very institutional methods that secure ethnographic legitimacy are revised in favor of an improvisatory practice grounded in the rhythm and texture of Caribbean vitality. As the field continues to grapple with its (ongoing) complicity in colonial technologies of management and control, Lewis subversively deploys a practice that, much like the scam, refuses to inhabit and engage the Caribbean as a provinciality and instead actively and reparatively reroutes the region as central to the making of the modern world. Refusing what Ryan Cecil Jobson calls the “neutral empiricism that so often overdetermines the ethnographic imagination,” Lewis instead joins the chorus of the Black radical tradition in grounding his analysis in the political, philosophical, and cultural force of Black life in negotiation.6 To read this work as only about Jamaica or the Caribbean, therefore, would be a mistake. Rather, it demands an engagement that would challenge us to rethink the various scales of Blackness and repair across the diaspora.

 

 

Jovanté Anderson is a third-year doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Miami who is currently interested in mapping Black queer mischief in Jamaica across the terrain of the twentieth century and the contemporary moment within and against geographies of domination. He is also appointed in the university’s Center for Global Black Studies as a research assistant responsible for syllabus development in the discipline of Black queer studies.

 


[1] See Yarimar Bonilla, Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Savannah Shange, Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); and Deborah A. Thomas, Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

[2] David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

[3] Lewis’s argument here recalls Charles W. Mills’s extension of Rex Nettleford’s theory of “smadditizin”: the “struggle to have one’s personhood recognized in a world where, primarily because of race, it is denied.” Charles W. Mills, Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality: Race, Class, and Social Domination (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2010), 165–66.

[4] Contemporary articulations of Jamaican Whiteness still remain largely understudied, however. Scammer’s Yard opens up space to think through this for future projects.

[5] Stuart Hall, “When Was ‘the Post-colonial’? Thinking at the Limit,” in Iain Chambers and Lidia Curti, eds., The Postcolonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons (London: Routledge, 1996), 246.

[6] Ryan Cecil Jobson, “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 122, no. 2 (2020): 266.