White, black, or Bajan?
The recent media firestorm in a teacup provoked by the exchange between Bizzy Williams and Trevor Marshall, over the video shown at the launch of the 50th anniversary celebrations of our Independence, shows that race and colour are always bubbling beneath the surface in Barbados, and you only need an incident to make it erupt.
That should not surprise anyone with the slightest knowledge of our history. It would be unrealistic to expect that with Independence all the consequences of that history would vanish overnight.
Most of us would like to pretend that all is sweetness and light, and only troublemakers want to disturb the peace of our multiracial paradise. But the volcano is not extinct. It’s alive. And the more we talk about it, the less chance it’s likely to erupt catastrophically.
The question we face as we approach 50 years of Independence is whether we can do anything constructive about it. Talking about it is healthy, but can we do anything other than talk?
Well, we cannot go ahead without going back. I know this troubles some people, both white and black, who would like us to forget the past and move forward. They see delving into the past, that is slavery, as opening old wounds and provoking greater resentment by Blacks against Whites.
And, to be honest, this seems to be the agenda of a few among us. On the other hand, there is little hope of healing and becoming one Bajan people, unless we first revisit our past in a spirit of truth and reconciliation. We attempted to do this some 15 years ago with the National Committee On Reconciliation, chaired by Sir Keith Hunte. Its efforts came to nothing. Its report was ignored.
We are a society if not founded, at least forged in 300 years of the enslavement and dehumanization of, first, working-class English and Irish Whites, and then Africans for the production of sugar whose enormous wealth was amassed for the exclusive benefit of the English plutocracy and their Barbadian representatives.
This inevitably entailed the development of a virulent white racism.
You do not enslave people and treat them as property without dehumanizing them. Literally. This is a fact of our history. It would therefore be astonishing if at the stroke of a pen with Independence all the consequences of our history would thus be rendered null and void.
Our colonial history pitted White against Black. Independence was supposed to bring healing, reconciliation, and unity. It has not done so. Even though most of the inimical consequences of a society and economy founded on slavery have been legislated away, we are still left with some of its bitter fruits.
We have unfinished business. Now we are reaching 50, it’s time to deal with that unfinished business in a mature and rational fashion.
Two goals for the next ten (time in this digital age is speeding up) years:
First, genuine black economic empowerment. And please, let us not see this as only providing a level playing field and so on for the black middle class. We have a serious problem with our educational system failing the children of the working class, who seem to be now condemned to the living hell that our society is becoming for those at the bottom. We cannot afford this either socially, economically, or most important of all, humanly.
Second, we have to understand where as a nation our ancestral cultural roots lie –– Africa –– and what we are going to do about it. While Britain gave us a valuable formal framework for our lives –– public administration, law, language, education, and so on –– Africa gave us the informal framework that actually shaped how we lived: the way we spoke, played, made music, ate and drank, laughed, loved and expressed our spirituality, in a unique Caribbean synthesis. If any white Bajan does not know where his ancestral cultural roots lie, I encourage him to visit England and then Africa.
The problem is that for centuries everything African about our culture has been systematically suppressed. We, both Whites and Blacks, have been taught and taught to be ashamed of it. The national project after Independence was supposed to have been about rescuing and resuscitating our pervasive African roots and explaining them to all our children.
We have failed dismally, despite the laudatory efforts of many individuals among us. The culture that our ancestors courageously preserved and ingeniously forged against all odds within the interstices of the bleak wasteland that was slavery is still largely neglected. How can we possibly go forward building our Bajan culture without understanding all that our forefathers did? We have shamed them and their memory.
Each human being is a complex of shifting identities: gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation and so on. The prize-winning Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie observed that when she is in the United States she is defined as black, but in Lagos she is defined as Igbo.
Will we in Barbados ever get around to asserting our primary identity as Bajan?
I am not hopeful. I think we prefer to go our separate ways, holding on to our ethnic security blankets.
With old age, I have come to the conclusion that race and colour will always be with us in Barbados. We take one step forward and two back.
Bajan Blacks and Whites are like an old married couple who can’t do without each other, but are always quarrelling, and are often at each other’s throat. Each feels misunderstood. Each feels hard done by.
The only consolation is that if a white and black Bajan are threatened by anything, such as a hurricane or a severe economic crisis, we have each other’s back.
For small mercies let us be grateful.
(Peter Laurie, a former Barbados diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)