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Pursuit of Happiness by Bianca Williams


In one of the episodes of the TLC show 90 Day Fiancé, Molly, a White woman in her late 40s from Georgia, exclaims of her failing marriage with, Louis, a 29-year-old Dominican man with whom she met during one of her trips to Dominican Republic and whom she had brought over to the US on a 90 day fiancé visa. “I don’t know what happened. Louis is like a different person now. I take his change in behavior as something about the air, maybe lack of the beach.”


This scene flashes into my mind while I was reading Bianca Williams’ The Pursuit of Happiness and her detailed depictions of Jacqueline, Gayle, Angie among other Girlfriends who describe themselves as Jamaicaholic and find themselves visiting Jamaica at every chance they get. This is not to justify all older women—both White women from the US like Molly and those in Williams’ book—are the same, but a recognition to the theoretical framework Williams situates her work in, emotional transnationalism--“the process of sustaining transnational connections through emotions and ideologies (4). The Pursuit of Happiness is a well-written ethnography. It is both an ethnography about affect and an affective ethnography. It evokes feelings in the reader themselves while reading about Girlfriends’ feelings. For instance, it brings about a feeling of joy even in me while reading about Girlfriend bonding and affirmation process (47). Williams locates Girlfriends in this emotional transanational framework in understanding how they negotiate gender, class, and race. Girlfriends are able to, or at least feel as if they can only, pursue happiness and joy, not just pleasure, only when they are beyond geographic bounds of the US. At the same time, they are aware of their status as “privileged Black” (55) in Jamaica no matter how much that privilege comes with certain unwanted lived experiences in the US. In a way, they need their lives to be in somewhat stable positions in the US not only to get happy but also to stay happy.


I am particularly interested in Williams’ discussion on “sex tourism” or “romance tourism” in Jamaica. In Chapter 2, Williams parallels the concept of diasporic contact zone in another anthropologist Lena Sawyer’s work with African male dance teachers and white Swedish women who takes African dance classes. Both in Sawyer’s study and Williams’pay attention to the intricate complexities of race and class structure in gender relations in these diasporic contact zones. In Chapter 4, we see the stories of Girlfriends’ sexual involvement with Jamaican men. One of the Girlfriends, Vera, at one point, exclaims to the ethnographer, “Jamaica is for fucking!” (138) but later, when her Jamaican boyfriend broke up with her, Vera distraughtly admitted that “she was never going have love like that” (139). What these narratives provoke in my thoughts is that affective constructions of emotional states like love in this case and how they are deeply and inevitably ingrained in our racialized, gendered, and class-divisive worlds.


In Boulder, I would say one of the diasporic contact zones, we see similar stories like Sawyer describes in her work—Latin dance classes abundantly and without charge at time offered and targeted to white middle-class women. A Mexican-American friend of mine told me that he began going to those dance classes and events to meet women since they were particularly attracted to Latinate men. Just like in Molly’s story above, these encounters of “love” come off problematic at time. We cannot however pinpoint why exactly they are so but Williams did a great job painting intricacies of these encounters of romance and joy shared among African-American women who are in their own lives being subjected to gendered and racial violence. White middle-class women like Molly in 90 Day Fiancé are also perhaps subjected to, not racial, but perhaps gendered emotional burden in the US or in their in-group spaces. But both Girlfriends and Molly are able to pursue some forms of joy and happiness through a proxy of American privilege that extends beyond various forms of racialized bodies outside of the US. Although I empathize with them, I still wonder ways in which these affective encounters of romance are still problematic when they are in the one-sided pursuit of happiness (or a fantasy). At the same time, is there romance without any superficial interest at all? Perhaps I am just a skeptic in love.


© 2023 By Lion with a Flowing Mane.

All Myanmar Image Courtesy by Chu May Paing.