A present past
We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be. – Michel-Rolf Trouillot
The subtitle A Family’s Story Of Slavery And Empire speaks directly to what Andrea Stuart achieves so memorably in her book Sugar In The Blood, which I’ve just finished reading.
The author sets out to trace her earliest Barbadian ancestry and, in so doing, confronts us once again with the story of untold wealth and power for the European seekers of “white gold”, and the absolute suffering and degradation of those whose labour ensured its cultivation through the system of enslavement.
If I have already lost some readers this Sunday based on the present subject matter, I can understand why. Unless the psyche is damaged in some way, the average individual does not wish to be reminded of anything as shameful and degrading as the stark realities of slavery.
There are sectors of this society as well that prefer not to be haunted by any possibility of guilt by association. The past is the past. Leave it where it is and let’s get on with it.
And indeed, if certain social and historical injustices were revisited just to create divisiveness, then such actions could be deemed undesirable. On the other hand, I think it is necessary to scrutinize, from time to time, our present Barbadian society for the purpose of understanding who and where we are. Is the past really dead? Are we still suffering from its trauma? How far away have we moved?
The fact is that Barbados is still a racially-divided society. I agree with the moderator of a local call-in programme that white Barbadians generally do not feel themselves to be a part of the wider society. There is very little effort, if any, at integration.
It is still a fact that while black and white children may mix during school hours, it all ends there. No home visits. The idea of racial separation remains fixed with very little flexibility.
As a country, we have made great economic progress. We have the huge houses, hotels and golf courses, business houses and the like. The plantation house, however, remains an inescapable feature of the Barbadian landscape. While this symbol of absolute colonial power has lost much of its bite, some argue that a troubling kind of metamorphosis appears to have occurred: we may now be suffering the effects of what Kamau Brathwaite describes as the “inner plantation”.
It is on record that in order to keep the Blacks in a state of subjugation, slave owners inflicted on them some of the harshest cruelties known to humankind: branding, whipping, mutilation, rape, hanging and other punishments too sickening for me to mention.
(Let us understand that the “massa” was himself debased by his inhumane actions which marked him more of the savage than he claimed his victims were.) But whereas the slave owner was buttressed by absolute power and wealth, the enslaved Blacks had nothing.
As a result, they suffered what Stuart refers to as a “disfiguring psychological process” which they internalized and turned into self-loathing.
Is there still evidence of that self-loathing among us as black people? What about our “put-down” mentality? Judge also for yourselves the meaning of the skin-bleaching, the abundance of weave and Asian wigs, the ridicule of those of very dark skin colour, broad nose and thick lips.
I still can’t believe that one of my students told me, without the slightest consciousness of irony, that he intended to marry a light-skinned woman, not because of love, but so that his children could be fairer than he was; this was a young “educated” man within very recent times. I wanted to believe that this was all finished with.
As for our present educational system, let me say that as a descendent of an enslaved people, I am thankful for the opportunity to have received an education that was denied my foreparents.
I am, however, with those who argue that our education system, to a great degree, still smacks of the old colonial spirit that is bent on keeping people in their place. I continue to be convinced that the Common Entrance examination is an iniquitous imposition on the psyche of young children.
This “screaming” test has as its pillars the unjust advantages of money, privilege and class. It is socially and psychologically divisive. It is a persistent and insidious offshoot of an entrenched plantation society that is still with us.
• Esther Phillips is head of the Division of Liberal Arts of the Barbados Community College. She is also a poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century. Email [email protected]