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The Call for a Conversation on Race


In last weekend newspapers under the caption, “Can we talk about Race, Maia Eustace calls for “open, uncomfortable and sustained discussion of race by Vincentians of all races and opinions, not apologetics”. It was fitting that this call came at this time, the month when we celebrate Black History. It should be noted that we celebrate Black History Month in February and National Heritage Month in March.{{more}} The focus of February is, therefore, on our African past/self, while in March we look at the contributions made by all Vincentians, ‘of all races and opinions.’ Given what Bert John in his letter in the SEARCHLIGHT on Tuesday, February 21st, referred to as the stifling effects of a political system of race typing on our psyches, the conversation cannot be limited only to those who consider themselves Black people or descendants of persons from Africa.

Maia’s letter touches on the ‘banality of self hatred’ and of ‘self loathing’, which she admits is not unique to St.Vincent and the Grenadines. One hopes for a civilised conversation, since the conversation today should have a different kind of focus and should not arouse the kind of fears that were generated in the 1960s when there was a lot of overreacting by persons who felt threatened by the language and implications of what was referred to as ‘Black Power’. One of the reasons why I pointed to the close proximity of the celebrations of Black History and National Heritage is because of the realisation that while we continue the journey which involves Independence, we have not yet made peace with our ancestors. And here I am taking Bert John’s point to its logical conclusion. As persons of African descent in a largely black country, we have up to now not been comfortable with our African past, and this impacts on the image that we have of ourselves, of our confusion over identity, and of the self contempt and self doubt that still exist.

Granted, this was always going to be a difficult task that would never be completed until, as Bob Marley said, we rid ourselves of mental slavery. The misconceptions, the efforts to discourage and outlaw any aspect of our African culture (The Shaker religion was even banned because it was said to be a relic of African primitivism), and to show that we were dependent on our colonisers for everything we had. All of these had been reinforced by the Church and by colonial education. Oscar Allen in his recent piece in the Tuesday issue of SEARCHLIGHT declared that in his view Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery was not an opposition debate vs White Eurocentric history. It was certainly an attack on an Eurocentric view of history that had created and reinforced the misconceptions and misinformation and suggested that our liberation could only come from persons outside. After all, in an effort to justify Slavery, the early historians said that slavery was for our good and tried also to suggest at different times that the majority of slaves were happy with their situation.

The abolition of slavery did not end this, and here is where Lloyd Best’s view of the Afro-Saxon became very important. It suggested that we really had to get out of ourselves in order to be anything or rather anyone.

Education was the vehicle needed to do this. George Lamming adds to this by suggesting that the education to which we were and still are subjected served only to isolate the educated from their communities. The educated persons were the ones who had made it and who were expected to distance themselves from their communities, not to play a role in their liberation. I am saying all of this to make the point that even our very educated are filled with self contempt and are uncomfortable with their image of blackness.

When black persons are referred to as ‘monkeys’, this carries a powerful message of self-contempt. So in a sense, there are two conversations; one about correcting the misconceptions about our ancestry and making us comfortable with our image and defining ourselves in a way that does not cause us to loathe ourselves. The other part of the conversation has to do with how we as Vincentians of all races, classes and opinions relate to each other. I am of the view that many Vincentians have up to now not fully identified with and accepted Chatoyer as our national hero. There is, of course, the cultural aspect where we have taken him completely out of his historical context. But even more is the fact of his Carib descent. Vincentians of African descent have to be comfortable with themselves and their identity and must be prepared to relate to persons of other races on a basis of equality, not to harbour any feelings of superiority or inferiority.

So there is a lot to talk about, and a civilised conversation is needed. But already we are seeing the levels to which this conversation can descend. I refer to the letter in Tuesday’s SEARCHLIGHT by “100 % Vincy” who is surely an ‘apologetic’ and is attempting to take the discussion into an area that does not fit what the debate is all about. Bert John on the other hand makes a very useful contribution to the discussion, where he sees it as less about race and more about the journey. I accept this view partly, but will add that to be able to complete the journey, we have to deal with the lingering racial hangovers (if they can be so described).

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.