January 22, 2007

The Half That’s Never Been Told: A Fractured History

As the first New World Africans stood on the auction blocks and watched the slave ships leave the harbor, they realized that the life that they once had was now gone, and whatever new life that awaited them would never be equal to the life that they had lost. Standing on the other side of the auction blocks, the slave owners watched the same ships and knew the life that they had left behind was still out of reach, but if they exploited the land and the Africans, then they could return to the motherland as fine English “gentlemen.” From both sides of the racial divide and coupled with the human belief that life is always better somewhere else, the genesis of original sin and redemption in Jamaican culture was born: escape from the island was the only salvation. Coupled also with the deeply human desire to “make the best of a bad situation,” the two races followed a similar path of estrangement from the land. The New World Africans resisted the claims of their masters to their identity, and the masters used coercion and propaganda to control the minds, hearts, and bodies of their property. Over the next five hundred years as New World Africans and would-be English “gentlemen” eyed each other over the fence, the themes of escape, exploitation, resistance, control, and the relationship between Africans and Europeans were woven into the collective story of the island’s identity. Many of these patterns of behavior still persist and they would become especially troublesome between the decades leading up to independence and in a postcolonial Jamaica.

Colonies exist to provide cheap land and labor and a transfer of wealth to the homeland. In order to insure that this would continue into perpetuity, the British Empire and its architects drawing on their history of resistance against the Romans, Normans, and French and their study of Greek and Roman civilizations, erected an vast system of coercion and propaganda to enslave the minds, hearts, and bodies of the colonists. This along with institutionalized racism in the West Indies proved to be particularly effective in Jamaica. Resistance was crushed immediately and barbaric forms of intimidation were employed to crush any hope of freedom. Monuments to failed uprisings, whether they were the gallows, marks of the whip or amputated limbs, practically guaranteed that the “natives” would think twice about mounting an insurrection. To gain power and status under colonialism, one had to pledge allegiance in body, heart, and mind to the Empire and devalue anything that was local. In other words, to advance under the British Empire, one had to be a traitor to one’s family, community and culture. Behind all this was the belief that white bodies, minds and hearts were purer, freer, more beautiful and intelligent. These betrayals of identity led to a increased sense of separation from the land which was viewed as a product to be exploited, and in turn to an even greater sense of estrangement from their own minds, hearts, and bodies.

This combination of British colonialism and brutality also fostered the belief, which was rewarded by social and economic promotion, that British intellectual and aesthetic standards were the only measure of culture/civilization, and anything else was a pale comparison. By simultaneously robbing the colonists of the ability to defend themselves by outlawing self-defense as a threat to the Empire and by imposing foreign standards of beauty and wisdom, the “natives” found themselves in an unnatural situation. Everything that they desired (food, clothing, shelter and sex) was vulgar, base and taboo, and if they asserted their natural human dignity to defend themselves, this was seen as criminal behavior or in the other social settings as being “uppity” or in the catch phrase of Jamaican matriarchs: “Out of order!” This system of reward and punishment that favored the foreign over the local continued for at least two hundred years until political changes in Africa and India led the Empire to rethink its strategies in Jamaica which was once considered “the jewel in the Crown.”

Leading the charge against the Empire, leaders such as Norman Washington Manley realized that the belief that we were Englishmen in black skins was an insult to our bodies, minds, and hearts. Along with other regional political leaders, artists, members of the elite and the intelligentsia, Manley began to change the story about what it meant to be a West Indian and thus began the movement to decolonize the minds, bodies and hearts of West Indians. Of course, other leaders such as Marcus Garvey who had a pivotal role in the funding of the Harlem Renaissance had failed, but Garvey's failure set a precedent that would have world wide implications, especially in Africa.

Much of the pressure to change Colonial policy during the thirties through the fifties cane from an allegiance of political leaders, artists and intellectuals and began as a regional struggle with luminaries such as Albert Gomes, Alfred H. Mendes, CLR James, WT Barnes, Frank Collymore, AJ Seymour (Kyk-over-al) and Edna Manley, and they asked these questions: Is self-rule by the colonies possible? Are the “natives” capable of intellectual achievements? Can anything local be considered beautiful? Who or what is a West Indian? Jamaican writers such as Roger Mais, Andrew Salkey, Claude McKay, Louise Bennett Coverly, and George Campbell responded intuitively to restoring the dignity and value of local culture and their were equally as revoltutionary as their political counterparts. For whereas the politicians articulated the will of the people, the writers and artists captured the imagination of the people by creating works that appealed to the emotional consequences of remaining vassals of England. Manley and his cousin, Alexander Bustamante, persuaded the British that self-rule was possible while stirring up local agitation and with the artists and intellectuals changed some aspects of the Jamaican story to include indigenous characters.

By articulating the great cause/mission for their generation and providing the means/possibilities for their cause/mission to grow, the leaders united the populace, artists and intelligentsia into a single minded purpose of ridding themselves of British rule and the manifestations of British colonialism. Harnessing the power of the minds, hearts, and bodies into believing that a vision of freedom was possible and that this cause was greater than their individual lives, they became a formidable force, so than by the late fifties and early sixties, despite the history of failed uprisings such as the Morant Bay Rebellion, many Jamaicans were now willing to die, if necessary, to be free of British rule. The questions had been answered and the Crown government after making calculated political decisions and also involved economic choices, granted Jamaica independence on January 6, 1962.

The generation of leaders, artists and intellectuals that had fought to wrest power from the British had won, and the politicians became cultural icons in the story of Jamaica. Years later, Norman Washington Manley would say at his retirement, “I say that the mission of my generation was to win self-government for Jamaica. To win political power which is the final power for the black masses of my country from which I spring. I am proud to stand here today and say to you who fought that fight with me, say it with gladness and pride: Mission accomplished for my generation.”
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Professor Zero said...

Very good post. And you're getting something done, I see ... inspiring!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks. It has been very good to sort through my ideas abou this time.
As my daughter would say, "It's all good."

Rethabile said...

Very illuminating. There are snippets of poetry interspersed in the writing. And apart from just enjoying the writing for itself, the ideas behind it are dear to me as well. "It's all good."

Geoffrey Philp said...

Rethabile, thank you.
Mikey Jiggs' questions have opened up a new line of thought for me and I'm just running with it.


Fuzz said...

Thanks for telling this other side of Caribbean history, Geoffrey. Its always good to get more background on a region that most people don't see past its beaches. Best, Jeff

Geoffrey Philp said...

Thanks, Jeff!
Welcome back.