The African In Us
Wednesday, June 27, 2007.
By Nicolette Bethel
Recently I've been exploring the idea of race. It's not because I want to cause trouble. It's because I believe I don't have much choice. Despite the happy-talk about there not being any real problem any more, ours is a society plagued by self-loathing.
As "blacks", we hate ourselves for being descended from enslaved Africans; as "whites", we hate ourselves (or our ancestors) for our involvement in the slave trade. We have all, for worse and for better, been impacted by the institution of transatlantic slavery; and yet we refuse to discuss in any meaningful way the consequences of that fact.
I'm going to suggest that part of the reason for our silence on this matter -- and it's a silence that's as thick and as ominous as a summer day before a hurricane -- is that we have all been taught to believe the lies that supported the institution of slavery. These are the lies that were told to justify the enslaving of other human beings, and they are also the lies that were taught to the enslaved to keep them from fighting their state.
One of those lies was this: that slavery existed as part and parcel of a vast civilizing project that God gave the European for the betterment of all humanity.
According to this lie, slavery was a necessary evil that existed to save the "lesser races" from their savagery and to teach them how to be good human beings. The fact that the slaves were forced to work against their will, often to their deaths, and that they were bought and sold like less important horses and cows, was conveniently overlooked in this fiction. Slavery was on some levels God's blessing to the enslaved, the avenue by which He taught them how to be fully human.
Utter nonsense, of course, but powerful anyway.
This is one reason why, I believe, we're so afraid to address our past -- and one reason why I think we must. The way in which we look at the world -- at ourselves, at our relatives, our acquaintances and at strangers -- was shaped by a specific need to justify an unjustifiable system.
If we let that world-view go unchallenged, we will perpetuate the lie from generation to generation.
Let me illustrate. There's an article that I relished teaching to students when I was a lecturer at the College of The Bahamas.
It addresses the Africanness of Caribbean and Bahamian culture, and it talks about a number of things that link us with the African continent: certain habits we have, the way we bury our dead, things we do when babies are born, the way we worship, and the things we believe about the dead and other strangeness. I liked to teach it because the students' reactions were so profound.
What surprised me most was how many of them stopped reading the article before they reached the end. When we discussed it, they labelled it "heathen" or "sinful", and tried to distance themselves from the author's observations. And their reactions were in direct proportion to the truth they found in the article.
The more they recognized themselves and their own actions in the piece, the more they tried to distance themselves from it.
I suspect that what was so unsettling about the article is that what they were learning about themselves -- about themselves and about this culture that we all share -- uncovered for them the fundamental Africanness of much of what we do.
And this is an unsettling link, it would seem, because we are still perpetuating the lie that was told to justify the enslavement of our ancestors: that Africa was a primitive place, and it took the light of the European to guide it from its darkness to the light.
This idea of the savage -- of the being who looked like a person but who wasn't fully human, but who might potentially be able to be trained to be mostly human -- went hand in hand with the project of slavery, and it's against this backdrop that we have learned to see ourselves.
And this is why race still pulls our strings today. According to the tales told about our ancestors, civilization was considered to go along with white skin, and savagery was considered to accompany skins of different colours. The way in which we treat people whose skins are dark, as opposed to the way we treat those whose skins are light is residual.
This state of affairs is not unique to us, by the way. All of the nations that have been constructed on the ruins of slavery are fighting the same battles, from those in which the descendants of the enslaved are a minority of the population, like the USA, to those in which those descendants constitute the entire country, like some of our neighbours to the south.
I'm going to argue that we can trace the present racial and social inequalities of The Bahamas, the USA, Jamaica, Brazil, Canada, Australia, and even Africa to a single set of causes, and that one of these causes is the image of the savage, that person who was invented to help make the project of slavery more bearable to all concerned. Understanding those causes isn't necessarily going to fix the problem, but it may tell us where to look and how to approach it.
But more on that later. For now, we need to remember that our inequalities are steeped in a history that is bigger than all of us. That's why there's no shame in talking about them. Unless we talk, we'll never understand them; and without that understanding, there may be no cure at all.
Nicolette Bethel currently serves as Director of Culture for the Government of the Bahamas .
She is a social anthropologist and a writer. Her plays have been produced locally, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in various collections.
She blogs at Bahamapundit
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