Higglers in Kingston: Bridging Theory, Teaching, and Women’s Informal Labors

Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Higglers in Kingston: Women’s Informal Work in Jamaica (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011); 225 pages; ISBN: 9780826517654 (hardcover).

• August 2013

A richly detailed and skillfully analyzed study of Afro-Jamaican higglers, Winnifred Brown-Glaude’s Higglers in Kingston: Women’s Informal Work in Jamaica brings together vibrant archival images, diary entries, public letters, periodical articles, and interviews with higglers to provide a nuanced understanding of women’s “informal” labor as market vendors. While illuminating the complex lives of Afro-Jamaican women who sell their wares in the city markets of Jamaica, Higglers in Kingston also offers critical theoretical contributions to women’s studies and bodies of literature on the sociology of the body and female microenterprises.

During the 1970s, women of color developed theories of intersectionality to explain how socioeconomic and political inequalities are simultaneously raced, sexed, and classed. Yet recent scholarship has critiqued intersectionality as an oversimplification of intersecting axes of power that shape women’s lives. In Higglers in Kingston, Brown-Glaude draws from her expertise as a sociologist to make a strong case for why intersectionality remains relevant to the study of women, labor, and systemic inequalities. She extends theories of intersectionality through her notion of embodied intersectionality. As the author convincingly argues, embodied intersectionality deepens analyses of race, class, and gender. Brown-Glaude’s theoretical framework of embodied intersectionality can be used to investigate the process of how women’s bodies and labors acquire social meanings, how women develop their own identities as self-sufficient and respectable businesswomen, and how the literal presence and movement of women’s bodies shape and become shaped by the racialization and gendering of physical spaces.

While using this theoretical lens to analyze a variety of sources, Brown-Glaude reveals how Afro-Jamaican higglers are imagined as poor, unfeminine, and vulgar women who contaminate city spaces. These representations justify state surveillance and economic policies that have policed Afro-Jamaican higglers and their labors in the city from slavery until the present. However, Brown-Glaude does not assume that higglers passively receive the ideologies that are mapped onto their bodies and labors. According to her study, Afro-Jamaican higglers negotiate economic policies and discourses of race, class, and gender in a Caribbean society embedded in color hierarchies, neoliberal policies, and a history of slavery that still looms large. While exploring how Afro-Jamaican higglers navigate this complicated terrain, Brown-Glaude pushes her readers to think beyond a dichotomous framework that categorizes women’s choices as either complicit with or resistant to systemic inequalities. She offers instead a theoretically grounded view of what higglers do to ensure their survival in a severely weakened Jamaican economy.

Despite the political and economic turmoil in Jamaica, which made it difficult for Brown-Glaude to collect primary sources during the 2000–2002 period of her study, she conducted extensive archival research and interviewed twenty-three higglers and twenty-two informal commercial importers (ICIs). These interviews and archival sources, in addition to Jamaican periodicals, shape the contours of her six chapters. Chapter 1 provides an in-depth explanation of embodied intersectionality and how the study of Afro-Jamaican higglers offers new contributions to feminist theory, poststructuralism, and bodies of literature on the sociology of the body and female microenterprises. Chapter 2 traces intricate economic processes and color hierarchies in Jamaica that fueled the concentration of lower-class Afro-Jamaican women in higglering during slavery. Chapter 3 examines how higglering, as a particular niche of Jamaican urban labor, developed racial, class, and gendered meanings from slavery until the present. This chapter also traces how these perceptions of space and higglering labor inform representations of Afro-Jamaican higglers.

Chapter 4 marks a significant shift in the text by exploring the actual interviews Brown-Glaude conducted with Afro-Jamaican higglers. Excerpts from the interviews provide insight into how Afro-Jamaican higglers “talked back” to the ideologies and systems that shaped negative representations of higglering during slavery. Chapter 5 is an investigation of the relationship of International Monetary Fund policies to massive unemployment in Jamaica as yet another difficult context for Afro-Jamaican women’s labor. Brown-Glaude draws from her interviews with higglers and ICIs to analyze how they have developed their own identities as legitimate businesswomen and entrepreneurs despite negative representations of women’s informal labors. Chapter 6 broadens the discussion about higglers by examining newspaper articles and letters to editors published by the Daily Gleaner and the Jamaica Observer. These sources illuminate public debates between city officials, city residents, and higglers over the removal of women’s informal businesses from city spaces. Brown-Glaude concludes her study by offering new ideas about how scholars can continue to push theories of intersectionality into new directions. As she argues, intersectionality can create more nuanced understandings of the interplay between women’s informal labor, race, class, and gender.

The larger implications of Brown-Glaude’s study are clear. It is an ideal text for general courses on women’s labor and migration. I had the pleasure of teaching this book in an online graduate course titled Women at Work: Race, Migrations, and Labors. When teaching online courses, I have often found it difficult to decide which texts to use to engage the type of student who typically register for online courses; however, Higglers in Kingston spoke to the ethnically and racially diverse group of first-generation, full-time-working women who registered for my course. Brown-Glaude’s clear language invites students to question their assumptions that theories are too abstract to be useful. One student commented at the end of the course that I should have assigned Higglers in Kingston at the beginning of the semester, since it provided an accessible theoretical frame for analyzing other books that we used in the class.

Brown-Glaude’s writing style also inspired students to think about the connections between embodied intersectionality, the labor experiences of higglers, and the students’ own experiences in the home and workplace. Students were moved by stories of banks rejecting the loan applications of poor Afro-Jamaican women. For example, a Kenyan woman in the class “knew” the difficulties with banks and loans described by the poor Afro-Jamaican women; she had her own experience of being rejected for loans while trying to establish her trucking company in Texas. African American and Mexican American women in the class were particularly drawn to how race and color shaped the distinct experiences and perceptions of Afro-Jamaican higglers and ICIs. They told their own stories of the politics of skin color and women’s informal labors, while drawing parallels between Jamaica, Mexico, and the United States. A Mexican American student described how confidently her mother went about her work in the flea markets of Texas and Mexico. Across the differences of women’s labor experiences, many students described a similar pride their families took in their work—just as the higglers’s work was held in high esteem by working-class Jamaican families.

The warm reception of the book among students and the study’s complex and layered analysis of women’s informal labors makes Higglers in Kingston a must-read for scholars, students, policymakers, and private citizens in Jamaica—and anywhere women labor.

 

Danielle Phillips is an assistant professor in women’s studies at Texas Woman’s University. She teaches courses on feminist/womanist theories, women’s labors and migrations, and the politics of motherhood. Her current research project is a comparative study of Irish immigrant and southern African American domestic workers in New York from 1880 to 1940. Phillips is also the principal investigator of the Irish immigrant women’s interview database project at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.