Black history, resistance, and the Caribbean mosaic

Everton Pryce

Sunday, February 11, 2018

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For those of us with a sense of the role of black history in the development and progress of humanity, United States President Donald Trump's alleged recent characterisation of the people of Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, and Africa, as progenitors of “sh**hole” countries epitomises the further evil of the systematic racist oppression of black people in the third millennium, reminiscent of Apartheid South Africa. Such racial intolerance and validation of racism, furthermore, is tantamount to hostility, on the part of the leader of the free world, towards the civilisation of the black diaspora, including the Caribbean.

Yet, despite this apparent attempt to de-legitimise the history of black civilisation, the stubborn facts of history confirm that the sojourn by the region's millions at the crossroads of the Americas stretching over half a millennium has made possible remarkable discoveries about human possibilities, and the wide range of such possibilities and discoveries about the diversity of human endeavours and the unity that can underpin such diversity.

So, notwithstanding President Trump's prejudicial and nativist views, it is fitting that in celebration of Black History Month we reflect on the Caribbean's struggle to lay claim to its self-respect, its inalienable rights to exist on its own terms, and its claim to empowerment. For, although in the Caribbean we thrive on contradictions, pluralities, complexities, and organised chaos, our history — black history — is not an event, it is a process.

It was shaped in the crucible of the exploitation of labour and the vilest consequences of suffering, severance and survival over 500 years and resulted in a people capable of operating on several levels, simultaneously and sequentially.

Much of the chaos and disorder we see around us daily in Jamaica on our roads, in government, in our schools, public institutions and communities, for example, spring from the fact that most of us who were forced to the margin of existence throughout our history and had no choice but to opt for survival by whatever means were at our disposal.

This reality tells us that resistance is part of the Caribbean's mosaic.

For ever since the first day an African slave set foot on Caribbean soil the myth, which developed into an ideology of preordained white supremacy, has remained under mega-heavy “manners” by way of resistance from its victims. This is because such myth has long served to tighten the stranglehold of Europe and its demographic extension across the Atlantic over a powerless, racially denigrated under class of people alternatively designated throughout history as slaves, colonials, common black labourers, the masses, sufferers, proletariats, and now, progenitors of “sh**thole” countries.

As Hilary Beckles and the late Professor Rex Nettleford remind us, the naked truth is that the history of the Caribbean is about the naked exploitation and dehumanisation of labour underlying the relations between the forebears of the great majority that inhabit the insular Caribbean today on the one hand, and those Europeans who came as “masters” to run the sugar plantations, including those who graduated from white indentureship into small land holdings in places like Barbados of the late 17th century.

But the story is not simply about numbers — although the vast majority of the contemporary population of the region are persons of African ancestry. The real story, as Nettleford, while he lived so often insisted, is about the building of nations and the shaping of societies from the ruins of exploitations and marginalisation.

The Aboriginal native Americans (Arawaks to the North and Caribs to the South) paid the supreme sacrifice in the face of such exploitation. They died out, for the most part, with remnants of their civilisations to be found in St Vincent, Dominica and the mainland territories of Belize and Guyana, which are part of the Caribbean. The Caribbean archipelago, from The Bahamas down to Trinidad and Tobago, records early decimation of the Aboriginal populations, as in mainland America.

And so the African replacements have themselves built up a tradition of belief that they are the legatees, through psychic inheritance, of the ancestral struggle and the invincibility of the human spirit.

To this day, people in the Dominican Republic refer to themselves as Indians, as if in fear of losing their ancestral legitimacy. And, here in Jamaica, people have referred to the mythic alliance that exists between Maroon warriors and the Arawaks. In Dominica and St Vincent, reconnections with bloodlines and ancestral rights to land are again being made, and alliances are being formed with Native Americans all across the Americas.

And let us not forget the presence of the East Indians and Chinese who came, albeit voluntarily, into post-Emancipation exploitation called indentureship, which sought to perpetuate the dehumanisation of hordes of humanity by the need and greed of a Europe that felt it could hold the whole world in its hands. Its development and entrenchment, with dire consequences for subject peoples, are a direct result of the myth of Columbus's “discovery” of the Caribbean with its baggage of Europe's “civilising mission”.

Truth be told, very few Caribbean citizens are amused by this aspect of their history wrought by the 'great events' of 1492, meaning, the obscenities of a history in which they have been the victims of marauders and torturers.

In the Caribbean today, the epic struggle with crime and violence, the effects of climate change, the pulsating rhythm of globalisation, inflation, rising prices, joblessness, poor health services, and rising poverty, bear down heavily on the souls of ordinary people. In light of this, most would agree that the struggles of the future are as important and history- defining as those of the past; and they would see in any celebration of black history the opportunity and pressing need for re-assessment, review and planning, once again, for safe sojourn in the 21st century by the Caribbean.

In fact, this year's month-long celebration of black history, in particular, in my view, offers up the Caribbean and its extension in the Diaspora a tremendous opportunity to seek to walk one's own path or continue on the particular path of self-definition, drawing on the historical achievements of the Caribbean people. We have within the region the heritage long given to racial tolerance, freedom (for which slaves fought so relentlessly), and a creative ecumenism in maintaining the integrity of differing belief system.

Despite President Trump and his epigones, then, what the leaders of the Caribbean should be doing in this month and beyond is to redouble their efforts in trying to communicate to its people the view that they are the genuine products of a process of Creolisation through cultural cross-fertilisation and that they are capable of coping with a world that is still not organised, designed, nor made to function in their interest.

They have, over three or four centuries, fashioned all sorts of modalities to survive — and to go beyond survival. Today, what we all need to do is to stand back and look seriously at these attributes of survival and see how they can be made to form the region's contemporary development strategies for a future that will guarantee forthcoming generations the great freedoms and possibilities that underpin all of humanity.

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