Give us the teachings of His Majesty

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Give us the teachings of His Majesty

Haile Selassie, Bob Marley as the embodiment of the Black Lives Matter movement

Michael Barnett

Monday, July 13, 2020

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“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned... everywhere is war. And until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation... until the colour of of a man's skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes, and until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race, there will be war. And until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, rule of international morality, will remain but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained “

These are the immortal words of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I popularised in music by Jamaica's very own venerable Bob Marley, both men undisputed prophets in their own right. The lyrics speak for themselves. We live in a world where one race is still held superior to another race, where the colour of a man's skin is more significant than the colour of his eyes, and where basic human rights are not equally guaranteed to everyone, but are, unfortunately, correlated with one's racial persuasion and class location.

And, in Jamaican parlance, it seems that things have come to bump, so to speak. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests continue around the world. Why? Because many folks have just had enough of the injustice, racialised oppression, and perceived disrespect for black life. If there was no discontent, no sense of aggrievement, there would be no Black Lives Matter movement.

George Floyd's sad demise at the hands of the police was a gruesome reminder of the fact that we have not yet achieved 'racial harmony' in the world today, and that racism and white supremacy, a lingering legacy of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism, still remains with us to this day.

And, although many may argue that we don't have the level of racism in Jamaica as we do in the US, that doesn't mean that racism doesn't exist at all in Jamaica.

If there had not been a history of anti-black racism in Jamaica then we wouldn't have produced a Marcus Garvey — in many ways the progenitor of the Black Power and Black Lives Matter movement. Neither would our nation have given birth to the Rastafari movement. The paradox of this today being that, from an island that is deemed by many in the world as being the pan-African centre of the Caribbean, blackness and our African roots are still derided.

We see this in the pervasiveness of skin bleaching, the condemnation and under-appreciation of African-based practices such as obeah, pocomania, kumina and even Rastafarianism; our attitudes to hair, with kinky, nappy hair referred to as “bad hair” and loosely curled hair or straight hair referred to as “good hair”. We also tend to venerate European culture over African culture, with opera, ballet and classical music referred to as high culture, while dancehall music and reggae is considered low culture.

We live in a country where the National Motto that many of us hold dear, “Out of Many One People”, is not yet a lived reality, but an aspiration. We simply have not attained as yet that perfect society where no hierarchies exist. We have second class and first class citizenship in Jamaica, meaning classism. And we have racism present in the form of colourism, where the lighter one's complexion may be, the more status one tends to have; and the darker one's complexion is, the harder one has to work to prove their worth — what Caribbean sociologists refer to as a colour-class correlation.

Pushing our heads beneath the sand like ostriches and trying to ignore our societal imperfections is not the way to deal with the matter. We have to face our problems and address them head-on, if necessary, if we genuinely want to achieve an egalitarian society with no racism or classism, or any other isms and schisms, and make our national motto a reality.

Ethon Lowe, a medical doctor, wrote on the issue of race in his commentary in the Jamaica Observer of Thursday, July 9, 2020. He made mention of the fact that the concept of race has been shown to be biologically invalid and merely a sociological construct. And he is absolutely right. What it doesn't seem to allow for, however, is just how powerful a social construct is.

Social constructs are phenomena that we tend to internalise through the process of socialisation, whether within our families, at schools, or through the wider community. A social construct does have to be scientifically valid to have power over an individual. In fact, once you internalise it and come to believe it, it can have more power and influence over you than any of the hard sciences. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, social constructs can be more powerful and impactful on one's lived experience than scientific reality.

Michael Barnett is a sociology lecturer in critical race theory at The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or barnett37@hotmail.com.


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