In Their Own Words: Women Who Lead (Caribbean Women/First Lady Issue), 11/12/2019, #10

Beverly Manley is best known for being the wife of Jamaica’s former prime minister, Michael Manley. However, throughout her life, she has distinguished herself in numerous other ways, such as establishing herself as a popular radio show host in Jamaica. A central theme that arose from Beverley Manley’s candid memoir is the idea that power is a complex occupation that, for black women, often involves powerlessness: 

Looking back over my life and experiences, I observe patterns. The struggle between powerfulness and powerlessness was played out early between my mother and father, and those conflicts have plagued me since. More than once I have given up my own power for a man of power. I know now that my intense attraction to Michael was in part an attraction to power outside myself.

Even in a class that focuses on black women and their political leadership, a great amount of time is dedicated to talking about men. In her memoir, the way Beverley Manley frames her experiences over the course of her lifetime as a struggle between powerfulness and powerlessness has put into words the explanation I have been looking for as to why we continuously have to return to white men, white women and black men as subjects of discourse in our class and, in particular, in this week’s focus on Jamaican politics. Even when black women hold some position of power, there has consistently been this tension between being a legitimate source of power, due to the labor they perform and the respect they earn, and the external power dynamics and institutional forces that dilute this power. The Manley Memoirs contains various examples of the complex power dynamics black women are forced to navigate, which are worthy of discussion. 

The first example derives from Beverley Manley’s early life and childhood socialization. She was raised in a lower middle class family, in which she viewed her mother as the dominant parent, the money manager, and the leader of the household. This is not uncommon, for we have already seen that many of the other black woman political leaders we have studied also grew up in matriarchal households. From personal experience as a black woman, I view my own mother as the head of our household. Despite her mother’s role in the functioning of the household and family, Beverley Manley eventually realized the true power her father held, which she notes as something that did not occur to her later in life. Although she viewed her mother as the household authority, there was still an internal family struggle, because her mother could not control her father’s infidelity and alcohol consumption. She notes, the “experience of the power struggle between men and women as observed first in my parents’ troubled union … was largely responsible for who I was to become. For who I am.”

Another tension between powerfulness and powerlessness came from the fact that Beverley Manley took many of her phenotypic traits from her father, most importantly, his dark complexion: 

I was also the darkest in my family and my mother often compared me with my father, who by then had fulfilled all the prophesy of my grandparents and turned out to be good for nothing, as all blacks were – at least that was how my mother put it. Because my colour was unacceptable, like my father’s, my destiny too was to be good for nothing. 

These thoughts were recurrent throughout her memoir, and they also materialized in the form of prejudice she sustained from others. It was very interesting for her transparency about the fact that she only dated white men and derived a lot of her worth from her relationships. 

The third example of Beverley Manley’s struggle with powerfulness and powerlessness came from her relationship with Micheal Manley. She mentions how she was introduced to Jamaican political life in 1969 through Michael Manley, though she was also indoctrinated into politics through her father’s involvement with the People’s National Party early in her life. It was interesting to see how so much of the book was dedicated to talking about Michael. The control that was present in this relationship is worthy of discussion, because it overshadowed many parts of her life. Michael was a cheater, yet oddly possessive. Black women are constantly policed in their relationships, even in spite of the non-presence and betrayal by their men. It was disheartening to see how she stayed in the relationship: “And I stayed. Of the two alternatives once offered by my mother – you can be black and good for nothing like your father or you can be anything you want to be – I made my choice.” Even though Michael Manley continuously disrespected her in their marriage, it was almost funny to see that when Beverley began having an affair and Michael found out, there was a huge intervention for her infidelity. Michael even brought in a psychiatrist to see her, in order to figure out why she wanted to leave him.

Although Beverley Manley was in close proximity to power as the prime minister’s wife, the dilution of this power came from the fact that she was simply that: the prime minister’s wife. I observed that it took her awhile to grow into her role as a powerful figure in her own right: in the beginning, she prioritized Michael’s mission and goals and continuously helped build him as a leader. At the very start of their relationship, it was her private lessons that greatly improved his communication and public speaking skills, which benefited him for the rest of his political career. It was at least minimally gratifying to see that Beverley Manley was able to explore some of her own political interests, especially those that focused on women’s and children’s issues: 

After meeting and thinking this through, we decided to form the Cabinet Wives’ Association – in keeping with the Mao TseTung concept that women ‘hold up half the sky’ – and our first project was a day-care centre in Kingston’s industrial era.” Given all of the labor that often goes unaccounted for, it is safe to say women hold up, at least, the better part of the sky. Sometimes they shouldn’t have to. Given the immense labor required to establish boundaries, I admire the courage Beverley Manley had to leave eventually leave Michael Manley, even in spite of him saying she would never make it without him. 

Bibliography

Beverley Manley. The Manley Memoirs. Ian Randle Publishers, 2008.

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