Welcome

Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

One people?

My eldest daughter is on one of her periodic visits to Jamaica; the last time she was there was four years ago. She's now of age so can do as she wishes; she's still a student so very little free money is flowing into her pockets and trips like this "have to be paid for" by one or other parental unit. Her visit allows me to focus on a few points that cross over the region but are raging a little in Barbados, if I read the papers correctly from my temporary Jamaican outpost.

My first wife was/is a white Englishwoman. I am black. My daughter is clearly biracial. Her skin colour could be described as very red, in Caribbean terms: very pale but with a hue that indicates there is black blood in the genes. She has ginger hair. She identifies with both of her parents' origins, but is also a product of north America's white suburbs, having lived there for most of her 20-plus years. But she loves to visit England and Jamaica and try to boost those parts of her culture. She does not shirk the black side of her genes, but often has to walk in that strange world of "otherness", as she puts it, because people want to label her as "black" or "white". I thought of her straddling that line when I read some recent commentary concerning Emancipation celebrations.

The origins of the current discussion appear to be words used by Barbados' Minister of Culture, Steve Blackett, to articulate an interesting thesis: Emancipation celebrations in Barbados are for everyone, not simply people of colour (see Nation report): "Sometimes we forget that our two major ethnic groups – Africans and British – first arrived on the same ship." [I'm not going to tell the Minister that African and British are not ethnic groups.] I would not have chosen to use those words as the basis for putting race and colour on a different footing for the celebrations, including Crop Over. His words give the impression that there was some original degree of equal status for blacks and whites in Barbados (which is what I think he is focussing on), and for that impression he is understandably being taken to task.

During the original trans-Atlantic voyages we know that the black slaves were transported in intolerable and inhuman conditions and that as slaves that treatment continued for centuries, both at the hands of white masters. We also know that some of those white Europeans who came the the Caribbean as early settlers were people of wealth and status. Many of the other white Europeans who came to these islands on slave ships or by other means were to be overseers and merchants and obviously were not treated in any way as intolerably as the black slaves. Those white Europeans who were transported here as indentured labour had a status far superior to that of the black slave. So let's not run far with any idea that there was some equality at the outset or even for some very long time after. Since Emancipation, the inequalities could be reduced and to a large extent were, and continued to be reduced since Independence. In most Caribbean countries these inequalities are now greatly reduced, though not completely eliminated everywhere.

There is no question that Emancipation was about the monumental movement of the black man and woman from slavery to freedom in what was then the British Empire. As such, it should be a day of joy and celebration specifically based around that fact. That liberation of black people took place over 170 years ago.

But here's the rub in the modern-day Caribbean and even further afield in the UK, Canada and the USA. There are many people who can claim their origins in whole and in part from those original black slaves or from those early white settlers, or from a mixture of both at some stage since the 15th and 16th century. So it can be difficult to say that a certain group who may be identified as much paler than most of the rest don't have a place in the celebrations. Very few of the people I know in the region can claim to be wholly of black African or white European stock. Many are viewed as black and have some clear white European traces (paler skin, straighter hair, tinges of red or blond in their hair, traces of lightness in their eye colours, etc.) [As a Jamaican, I should extend the term "European" to include Lebanese and Chinese, and many will know the origins of most of our prime ministers being from families with mixed white and black origins, most famously the Manleys.] Even if they cannot trace their family roots back beyond 1834, many if not most of these people will identify strongly if not completely with the notion of Emancipation being a celebration of some of their black ancestors' liberation from slavery.

Those in the region who can claim that their heritage is 100 percent white European are few. That limitation in numbers does not make them insignificant because significant privileges that were there hundreds of years ago enabled the families concerned to gain wealth and status and power, and that is often still evident today. So, there may be Caribbean whites who represent part of some economic and perhaps social elite, and have that status because of some historical privileges. I would not wish to say how they should view Emancipation and its later celebrations. Depending on how far back their origins go, some may be the offspring of plantation owneres and remain embittered that the wealth that the plantations once had was destroyed by Emancipation, and despite other economic changes thing were never the same again. Some may have origins that are post-Emancipation (say some of the offsprings of indentured labour) and have fewer if any real economic or social privileges that were as a result of their colour. They may have no real historical basis for resenting Emancipation. They may see its celebration as something for black people but may also not see any problem in their celebrating too.

Would blacks welcome the inclusion of whites in Emancipation celebrations? I guess a lot depends on how those two groups have really co-existed. Jamaica's national motto "Out of many, one people" is to me closer to the truth as most people in this island feel it. Biracialism is a very evident fact in Jamaica as seems to give less ground on which to beat a black or white drum. But I wonder about Barbados. I see enough Bajans who clearly look biracial but I feel that racial divisions are still acute and there is no or little sense that people want to see black and white Bajans (however they are distinguished) as one.

Barbados' current prime minister, David Thompson (see picture), has clear biracial origins and they are well known. He may be viewed as a black man in Barbados and wherever he goes, but he is straddling that world of "otherness". He clearly sees himself as a Bajan and has had no problem identifying with Emancipation celebrations as a black man. His own origins may be one of the factors playing out in his urging Barbadians "to enhance their true African history and their 'true Barbadian culture'". The country's origins and history have been clearly multiracial.

When I watched the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics this morning, the notion of racial co-existence naturally came into my mind as I saw the 200 or so countries parade their various racial or colour differences, or lack of them. The Jamaican commentator tried to explain why the team from Kyrgystan looked the way they did--Asian features--but struggled as he could only say they "look Chinese or Japanese"; that covered most of Asia as he knew it and would do, no offence meant. I saw the Caribbean islands' teams parading. For the most part, dark-skinned, but with many white or lighter skin tones. Then I saw the UK and Canadian teams, mainly white but now sporting a good smattering of dark faces and different ethnic traits, and the commentator made references such as "including ... born in Mandeville, Jamaica ...". The Canadian team had notables groups within such as the band of Canadian Sikhs who were dressed in the red and white uniforms, and sported their red turbans. Racial and colour differences have started to merge in a good number of places where the British used to rule; a similar development has also become evident in France and elsewhere in Europe. I thought of the USA and its presidential candidate, Barack Obama, another biracial child, who may have to deal with convincing his white compatriots that he, a black man, can deal with their problems on non-racial lines.

It seems that in Barbados the bridge between racial difference has barely begun to be built. Perhaps there's something there that I don't understand, which runs deep but is barely under the surface--if those metaphors can be mixed.

2 comments:

RESTEBAN AGOSTO REID said...

Interesting post.Nonetheless, the answer lies in our moutto.OUT OF MANY ONE PEOPLE!!

Brian said...

The Jamaican motto is a well-known myth successfully propogated at the time of independence and to this day in order to foster some comfort to the white and brown elites who faced the prospect of managing a society in which they were vastly outnumbered by the direct descendants (only 6 or so generations before) of African slaves. Jamaica's famous melting pot is about, at most, 10% of the people.

Your approach to race seems to proceed from some kind of scientific basis where races are somehow defined and then you can talk about mixtures. I think you have to be careful about attributing to white ancestors so-called white features that you have perceived in black people. There is a totally erroneous idea that certain features (light coloured hair, for example) are only found in "black" people because of the presence in their ancestry of a "white" person.

But much more important is that race (insofar as the term is used in reference to the ancestors of slaves brought to the Americas from sub-Saharan Africa) has nothing to do with scientific determinants (like your ancestry) and everything to do with the politics and sociology of dominance, oppression and social control. "Black" does not describe someone physically but rather locates them in a particular class of the oppressed. Kinship rules are used to define this class, but not exclusively.

As we all know, the system has worked very well for over 400 years. Your post provides examples of its success. There is absolutely no doubt in anybody's mind that the prime mininster of Barbados is a black man. The fact that he has white ancestors does not change this one bit.

The confusion and difficulties of persons who exist on the cusp of the racial divide are a result of this simple system meeting up with the modern world where we now believe that each of us has equal rights with any other. I suppose this is the price for progress. But the psychological and social plight of a white youth with "black" features will never be explored because in the grip of this system to discuss it is to discuss the possibility that the youth has black ancestors. This is still taboo and rigidly suppressed.