October 16, 2013

Human Rights in the Caribbean: Using Stories and Poems to Discuss Human Rights

When Christopher Columbus set foot on San Salvador, the struggle for human dignity that had begun with Cyrus of Persia (c. 600 BC or 576 BC–530 BC), and eventually spread across Europe assumed a different context. Out of that initial encounter of a colonizing nation and native peoples, the need to define human rights vis-à-vis the indigenous populations, who were perceived as the Other, became a preoccupation of the English, French, Spanish, and Dutch nations. As commerce developed between the colonial powers and the colonies, in the quest to increase the production of sugar cane and its byproducts, a cheap labor force was needed; this fateful encounter led to the genocide of native peoples.

The Slave Trade and the horrors of the Atlantic Holocaust ensued and in order to maintain colonial domination, a caste system based on race and class was enshrined into law, which effectively transformed New World Africans and indigenous peoples into non-persons. Simply put, in law and customs, New World Africans and indigenous peoples were less than human and therefore did not have any rights.

These patterns of behavior became part of the culture of the Caribbean and long after former colonies gained their independence from the "fatherlands," the legacy of slavery, patriarchy, and colonialism continued in many forms that have had disastrous effects on the psyche of the oppressed.

Jamaica, one of the earliest sites of rebellion against the inhuman legacy of slavery and colonialism, has had an enduring history of preserving human dignity in the figures of Queen Nanny, Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle, and Marcus Garvey. In nearly every aspect of Jamaican culture, the struggle for human rights has become a raison d'être for the creation of art. In popular music, musicians/songwriters such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and Bob Andy, have made the cause of human rights an integral part of their work.

This is also true in the literary arts where writers such as Claude McKay, Roger Mais, and Orlando Patterson laid the foundation for many of the writers from the Caribbean Boomer generation to continue the struggle in poems, short stories, and novels.

Here is just a partial list of Caribbean writers (some of whom have been featured onthis blog) whose work explores the issues of human rights:

Robert Antoni
Opal Adisa
Julia Alvarez
Reinaldo Arenas
Edward Baugh
James Berry
Neil Bissondath
Dionne Brand
Kamau Brathwaite
George Campbell
Jan Carew
Patrick Chamoiseau
G. Cabrera Infante
Alejo Carpentier
Martin Carter
Adrian Castro
Colin Channer
Michelle Cliff
Merle Collins
Afua Cooper
Christine Craig
Fred D’Aguiar

Edwidge Danticat
Rene Depestre
Oscar Dathorne
Kwame Dawes
Junot Diaz
Zee Edgell
Garfield Ellis
Frantz Fanon
Rosario Ferre
Brenda Flanagan
Rawle Frederick
Marcus Garvey
Thomas Glave
Edouard Glissant
Lorna Goodison
Jean Goulbourne
Nicolas Guillen
Wilson Harris
John Hearne
Nalo Hopkinson
Slade Hopkinson
Cynthia James
Janet Jagan
VS Naipaul
Oku Onoura
Orlando Patterson
Sasenarine Persaud
Caryl Phillips
Velma Pollard
Patricia Powell
Jennifer Rahim
Jacques Roumain
VS Reid
Elaine “Jamaica Kincaid” Potter
Walter Rodney
Andrew Salkey
Dennis Scott
Mikey Smith
Malachi Smith

Virgil Suarez

Michael Ekweueme Thelwell
Ana Lydia Vega


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