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GET REAL: History rhymes with itself


GET REAL: History rhymes with itself

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MANY BARBADIANS SEE history the same way they see the sea. They avoid history because they think history has no back door and once you go into it, you are likely to drown. People who are averse to diving deep into history are often well-meaning. They do not want to get stuck in the past. They want to move on with life and leave the past in the past. But even your doctor will ask you about your family’s health history. It is a mistake to think that you are safe because you tread water in the shallows of the current moment.

History is there to advise us on how to swim smoothly in the current by giving us knowledge of the way the tide trends. A people without historical perspective are often caught in the tide of current affairs and swept away. The saying “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” is attributed to author Mark Twain. Familiarity with history, the rhyme scheme of the past, helps us to more accurately predict upcoming lines in the poetry of history.

When a previously unknown politician by the name of Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States of America, a spoken word artist with his finger on the pulse of history was not at all inspired. The poet Heru felt like Obama’s election resonated with a verse from history. He released a poem comparing President Barack Obama to a particular emperor of Rome. 

Septimius Severus was an African citizen of Rome who became emperor in 193 AD. He was born in North Africa. His mother was Italian and his father an African. Like Barack Obama, Severus had a difficult relationship with many of the political elites of his time but he was beloved by the people. Despite his African birth and ancestry, this African emperor was brutally committed to the expansion of Roman power even and especially into Africa. Severus took Northern Africa, particularly the area now known as Libya, by sword point. The two black leaders of white nations have some rhymes in common.

You can hear and read the poem Septimius Severus on YouTube. It is food for thought, unless you are allergic to or have no appetite for history. Maybe you are flooded with history and have had enough. But its water just keeps flowing.

In the current moment deep sea divers of history are drawing comparisons between the new president of America and another leader from the past. They are sensing something familiar in the political rhythm of Donald Trump. A number of observers have compared President Trump to Adolf Hitler. That is a serious accusation and not to be taken lightly. As much as his election has caused concern, Trump has done nothing yet to solidify this comparison, but his rhetoric invites it. Everyone can feel the sea starting to get rough.

Trump is definitely making waves. He is no more Hitler than Obama is Severus. But that is not the point. When we are looking at history, we are not looking for repeats, we are looking for rhymes. In the advance of humanity the hope is the next wave of turmoil will not be as devastating as the last. Knowledge of the waves of the past helps us to navigate safely the waves of the future. It is easier to affect the course of the future than it is to affect to course of the sea. Having experienced Hitler, the world is looking side-eye at Trump. Hitler may not have seemed like Hitler at first either.

As sad as it is to have to keep saying this, the course of Barbados’ future is, like all other nations, heavily influenced by the course of its past. The ability of this nation to stay afloat, especially in these turbulent times, will be linked to its familiarity with and response to the waves of history it has swum through. 

Familiarity does not guarantee the correct response though. Twenty per cent of Donald Trump’s supporters admit that they think the American slave system was not a bad thing. They are aware but they don’t care. Many Barbadians feel an affinity to the British Empire despite our history of slavery. 

There are Barbadians who, like almost half of American voters are aware of Trump’s problematic rhetoric but support him anyway. Interpretations always vary. People will interpret the present differently, just like they interpret the past differently. Fascist and right-wingers will have a different interpretation of Hitler from others. They should. You would also expect the enslaved to see things differently from the enslaver.

According to Sir Hilary Beckles’ new book Barbados was the first black slave society in history. This is where they perfected the breaking of Africans and the making of slaves. In order to make a free person a slave you have to rob her of her history. But that is not all. You also have to rob her of her will to retrace it. You have to make her interpret history and in turn, the present in a particular way. That accomplished, the slave will swim to the slave ship instead of to the shore.

They were African Americans who fought on the side of the Confederacy. They were African Americans who voted for Donald Trump. They were Barbadians who did not want Barbados to become Independent. There are Barbadians who do not wish Barbados to become a republic. These are not simply repeats of history. It is more complex than that. But they do rhyme.

Adrian Green is a creative communications specialist. Email [email protected]