Let’s heed Paule Marshall’s message!

Over the past 60 years, Paule Marshall –– the famous 87-year-old Barbadian American female writer –– has been trying to deliver a very important message to the Barbadian, Caribbean and African American people through her impressive suite of novels: Brown Girl, Brownstones; The Chosen Place, The Timeless People; Praisesong For The Widow; and Daughters.

The “message” which she has been trying to convey is intimately connected to the Bussa Rebellion of 1816. And so, this 200th anniversary year of the Bussa Rebellion is an extremely appropriate time for us to focus on Ms Marshall’s works and the profound central theme that is embedded in them.

Having read Ms Marshall’s novels, I would essay to summarize, interpret and express this message/theme as follows:

The suffering of our black Barbadian ancestors was so great, the sacrifices they made were so monumental, and –– against that horrific background –– the aspiration they manifested when they set out to destroy the system of slavery was so toweringly magnificent, that if we –– their descendants –– refuse to remember, acknowledge and do justice to that history, and instead settle for a social/national existence that is small and tawdry, we will retard and destroy ourselves –– first in the psyche or spirit, and then in every other way!

Paule Marshall has explained that this historical/cultural insight first dawned upon her during a year-long visit to Barbados in 1957. At the time, she was a 28-year-old Barbadian American woman who had been born in Brooklyn, New York City, to a Barbadian mother (Adriana Viola Clement) and a Barbadian father (Sam Burke); had grown up in a tightly knit Barbadian community in Brooklyn; and had spent
a year in Barbados as a nine-year-old girl
in 1938-1939.

In her 2009 memoir entitled Triangular Road, Ms Marshall described her epiphanous experience as follows:

At least twice a month, I dutifully travelled up to the remote hilly district called Scotland on the Atlantic side of the island . . . . On one of my first trips upcountry the bus I was on had been held up by an accident on the narrow country road. One of the huge lorries used to transport the harvested sugar cane to the mills had sideswiped a parked lorry being loaded at the roadside.

No damage had been done; yet a full-scale shouting match was under way between the work crews on the two lorries. There was more “Gor blimmuh this, Gor blimmuh that!” to be heard . . . . Along with much posturing and displays of menacing gestures.

What interested me more than the men and their histrionics were the women “headers” at the scene. These were the women who worked in the fields during “crop time”, their job to tie the freshly cut canes into great bundles weighing hundreds of pounds, which they then carried on their heads across the fields to the lorries waiting at the roadside.

One of the headers, though, remained silent. A stringy, raw-boned woman with large, badly splayed feet, she appeared to be oblivious to the shouting match around her and, strangely, even oblivious to the overload of canes on her head and the searing midday sun. Indeed, the woman seemed entirely removed from everything and everyone around her –– her gaze was that distant, that detached.

It was almost as if she had physically turned away from the present scene, the present moment, and, with the huge sheaf of canes on her head, was walking back towards another place and another time altogether. Or so it seemed to me.

Her unsightly feet taking her back to some past event that I imagined was of  far more importance than the squabble at the roadside.

From her eager stride, it had to be a momentous event, one that had perhaps promised her and those like her something better than cane-fields, hot sun and work as headers during the crop season. And she, for one, would steadfastly refuse to engage the present, the here-and-now, until that long-ago promise was fulfilled.

The set expression on her face declared as much.

And what might have been the momentous event to which she remained so faithful? Might it have been the Easter Sunday morning uprising of 1816 that I had read about at the Barbados Museum . . . . The rebellion had been led by the legendary, the “incorrigible” Bussa and his equally “incorrigible” co-conspirator, the house servant Nanny Griggs.

Plotting together, the two had managed to assemble a force of some 400 and more from the surrounding plantations. Then, come Easter dawn, with the planters attending the sunrise service, the chattel forces had struck.

The rebellion failed, as did many others on the island from the beginning. Nevertheless, Bussa and Nanny Griggs are considered the Nat Turner and Toussaint L’Ouverture of Barbados.

Years later, they would also serve as inspiration for my second novel The Chosen Place, The Timeless People.

Our national historian Professor Hilary Beckles has informed us in his A History Of Barbados that “the enslaved had organized an islandwide conspiracy to overthrow the slave owners and to obtain their freedom. The Governor, the colonels of militia and the commandant of the imperial troops were all convinced this was the case. They denied the rebellion was limited in nature or directed specifically against a section of the island’s planter class”.

In other words, our ancestors –– led by Bussa, Nanny Grigg, Jackey, Cain Davis, Roach and Washington Franklin, among many others –– intended to destroy the slave society then in existence and replace it with a new and liberating social order! And they held fast to this intention even in the face of Barbados being a veritable “island fortress”, with virtually every area of land under the control of slave plantations, ferocious armed local white militias in place in virtually every parish, and the powerful British Imperial Army stationed at The Garrison.

We present-day Barbadians need to pause and reflect on the sheer audacity, heroism, and magnificence of that mission our ancestors set out to accomplish 200 years ago. Nothing else we have attempted to do since then –– not even our 1960s campaign to secure Independence –– has come anywhere close to this in meaningfulness
and commitment.

We also need to reflect on the tremendous sense of unity that undergirded the Bussa Rebellion. Our enslaved ancestors had attempted to revolt on several occasions prior to the Bussa Rebellion, but the effort had always collapsed, usually because the conspiracy was “sold out” by a black traitor.

But this was not the case in 1816. For the first time in the history of our then colony of Barbados, the enslaved community was able to come together in unity to plan and organize a sophisticated revolutionary strategy that involved dozens of leaders on plantations located all across St Philip, Christ Church, St George, St Thomas and St John. They were able to unite to collectively attempt a noble and towering mission.

Surely, in this 200th anniversary year of the great Bussa Rebellion, in this 50th anniversary year of our still very deficient Independence, we Barbadians need to embrace the notion of coming together –– uniting –– to attempt to do something truly significant and meaningful –– something magnificent –– for and with ourselves and our nation.

This is the type of message and inspiration that we Barbadian people are desperately in need of at this time. And we don’t have to look far for it. It is all there in the books of our very own Paule Marshall!

Isn’t it about time we recognize Paule Marshall and pay some attention to the literary treasures she has gifted to us?

(David A. Comissiong, attorney-at-law, is president of the Clement Payne Movement.)

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