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Downtown Ladies

Informal Commercial Importers, a Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica

Downtown Ladies

Informal Commercial Importers, a Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica

The Caribbean “market woman” is ingrained in the popular imagination as the archetype of black womanhood in countries throughout the region. Challenging this stereotype and other outdated images of black women, Downtown Ladies offers a more complex picture by documenting the history of independent international traders—known as informal commercial importers, or ICIs—who travel abroad to import and export a vast array of consumer goods sold in the public markets of Kingston, Jamaica.

Both by-products of and participants in globalization, ICIs operate on multiple levels and, since their emergence in the 1970s, have made significant contributions to the regional, national, and global economies. Gina Ulysse carefully explores how ICIs, determined to be self-employed, struggle with government regulation and other social tensions to negotiate their autonomy. Informing this story of self-fashioning with reflections on her own experience as a young Haitian anthropologist, Ulysse combines the study of political economy with the study of individual and collective identity to reveal the uneven consequences of disrupting traditional class, color, and gender codes in individual societies and around the world.


“Gina Ulysse is the first anthropologist to zoom in on the far-ranging internationalization of Caribbean market women, and her analysis clearly and compellingly illuminates the historical depth, cultural intricacies, and political and economic stakes involved in their work and their self-making. There is no other synthesis and original research like this on socioeconomic agents who have emerged in response to historical shifts in Jamaica’s place within the global economy in the past thirty years.”

Faye Harrison, author of Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age

“In this remarkable, sensitive, and gutsy ethnography of informal commercial importers in urban Jamaica, Haitian American anthropologist Gina Ulysse opens our eyes to the lives of enterprising women who draw on all their resourcefulness to make it in a hostile global economy, and in the process remake markets, their own identities, and the ethnographic relationship. Putting her own body on the line, Ulysse rethinks many of the key concepts and assumptions within the literature on gender, race, class, and space in the Caribbean and in the wider field of globalization studies. Along the way the book also dishes out a poignant cultural history of contemporary Jamaican urban culture.”

Mimi Sheller, author of Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies

"An engaging and thoughtful ethnography of the symbolic and material meaning of globalization for female entrepreneurs. . . . Downtown Ladies will be of interest to anthropologists, sociologists, women and gender studies scholars and others studying women, work, and globalization. Ulysse’s experimental ethnographic narrative style will be essential reading to any course on feminist theory, field methods, and ethnography that troubles the notion of the ’native anthropologist.’"

Heather A. Horst | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"An accessible and theoretically astute read for both undergraduates and graduate students. Because Ulysse consistently ties transformations in self-making to broader processes of change both locally (nationally) and globally, and because she interrogates consumption in relation to a political economy of racialization, the book should be of interest not only to Caribbeanists but also to those anthropologists more generally concerned with globalization and subjectivity."

Deborah A. Thomas | Journal of Anthropological Research

"Graduate students and professionals alike will find [the book] extremely beneficial and inspiring for its competent tackling of some of the most challenging conundrums in contemporary gender theory, critical race theory and cultural anthropology."

Diana Fox | Bulletin of Latin American Research

Table of Contents

Foreword by Catharine R. Stimpson

Introduction: Toward a Reflexive Political Economy within a Political Economy of Reflexivity
Chapter 1: Of Ladies and Women: Historicizing Gendered Class and Color Codes
Chapter 2: From Higglering to Informal Commercial Importing
Chapter 3: Caribbean Alter(ed)natives: An Auto-Ethnographic Quilt
Chapter 4: Uptown Women/Downtown Ladies: Differences among ICIs
Chapter 5: Inside and Outside of the Arcade: My Downtown Dailies and Miss B.’s Tuffness
Chapter 6: Shopping in Miami: Globalization, Saturated Markets, and the Reflexive Political Economy of ICIs
Chapter 7: Style, Imported Blackness, and My Jelly Platform Shoes
Brawta: Written on Black Bodies: The Futures of ICIs

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