White, black, or Bajan?

GUESTXCOLUMNThe 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.)

8 Responses to White, black, or Bajan?

  1. seagul February 6, 2016 at 11:19 am

    I recalled the words of a writer who described the journey to the Caribbean as the way to racial harmony—as though racial harmony existed in the Caribbean. Racial harmony can only come when there’s racial justice. So I can never disrupt what never exists. Our people are not foolish, we don’t need magic we need truth. We don’t need deception we need truth. Those of you in power you know that you’re deceiving the black masses. You know you’re making them to believe that something exist that you know…..does not exist.

  2. jrsmith February 6, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    Nothing works in our favour, our slaves built the world , we were paid with the history , which is always use against the local masses as politicians cover they asses for decades of failure to achieve anything for our people…We can shout as loud as we want to in Barbados, power to the people, who really have the power, the smallest % part of our society..

    We the black people in Barbados is not alone, a documentary in the UK months ago on the blacks in the USA, show how the black , are worst off today than they were 50 years ago, we see for ourselves, the blacks is still signing , we will over come some day, when , we saw in the media, 62 people owns more than 50% of the worlds wealth…its as though we like it or lump….

  3. Annalee D Davis February 6, 2016 at 5:16 pm

    Thanks for this, Peter. There is definitely fear about opening old wounds among many of us. I’d like to share some ideas about the difference between anti-racists and non-racists which I have come across through the writings of Michael J. Monahan in his publication The Creolizing Subject. He suggests that the racist is not someone that simply holds racists beliefs but someone who refuses to even confront their own fixed positions. He then posits that the anti-racist is open to changing their habitual ways of thinking and actively works towards overcoming their racism. I often think about how easily racism continues to perform in Barbados, in what most would say is a Christian society. Monahan also suggests that racism demonstrates spiritual weakness in its desire to have very fixed ideas about how one understands race because of an inability to deal with ambiguity or inbetweenness. Given that Barbados and the Caribbean are spaces of slipperiness, inbetweenness, ambiguity and indeterminacy, this desire for fixing identity, for maintaining the status quo, for keeping within our boundaries is entirely at odds with who we really are. I think re moving forward, conversations about race need to happen in schools, in our homes and on a national scale so that the diversity of what it means to be a Barbadian may be laid bare for all to see and reckon with. Accepting our fluidity and crossing borders in terms of race, class and sexual orientation will only allow our lived realities to come out from under the perpetual carpet where the three hundred year old broom sweeps to hide rather than cleanse.

  4. Barry Mostran February 6, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    Sorry to say these comments are the reason racism still exists today, be proud of your roots, be proud of your culture and be proud of your colour be it black, white or mixed, (some of the wealthiest people in the world are black) but Remember the first slaves were white English and Irish and some of the biggest slave traders were Arabs and Africans who were selling their own people, Race, Colour or creed doesn’t make the Man or Woman, we all bleed red when we are cut and we all feel the same pain and the same love irrespective of who you are or where you come from. The world is becoming more and more multi cultural and in generations to come I believe the conflict will not be about race,colour or creed but Religeon, and how sad is that

  5. Alex Alleyne February 7, 2016 at 6:17 am

    I wonder how many people know that the “slave master” said that “OVER ONE HUNDRED MILLION SLAVES DIED IN THE MIDDLE PASSAGE”.

  6. Lynn Bointon February 7, 2016 at 8:45 am

    Barry, you have made a very intelligent synopsis of the situation. I fear the spread of islam is the biggest threat to the world and that black, white or mixed need to stick together against its uprising.

  7. Bobo February 7, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Ref to the first comment Seagul — every word is true as John 3.16 walk back in time take a look at Redjet similar to Easy Jet hop on hop off–for a comfortable airfare — Black-man Political injustice– white-man should not help the Blacks to a better life.

  8. Olutoye Walrond February 8, 2016 at 10:28 am

    As usual a very reasonable and insightful essay. Yes, there are inequities that need to be addressed, but really we need move to that sensible place where we see our racial features as incidentals.

    It really is quite absurd to judge and treat fellow human beings on what pigmentation their skin is and what kind of hair they have. That must be the quintessence of stupidity.

    Which of us at the bottom of a well hearing the voice of someone with a rope at the top will first ask “what colour are you?”


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