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Continuing the conversation on race

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The day after the Oscars, the Daily Beast (a news reporting and opinion website) carried a story about Viola Davis, the black actress who was nominated for Best Actress and who was among the favourites. The piece stated that Davis arrived with a natural curly Afro “instantly lifting the lid from the bubbling pot of anger, judgement and debate often directed toward African-American women and the varying states of textured tresses.”{{more}}

It goes on: “I think it was a bold move, but she is truly content with who she is”, said celebrity stylist Damone Roberts who has worked with the likes of Beyonce and Madonna. “She was making a statement about having power to be just Viola…She’s using her hair to say, ‘Don’t be confused. I am not who I play on TV or movies’, says race and cultural writer Rebecca Walker, ‘I have left the plantation and wait for no one to tell my story.’

It is amazing that such an issue still exists today. I came across this piece just by accident and decided to use it as an introduction to the continuation of my piece on race. My interest with this issue has to do with the self contempt/self hatred and the negative image blacks have of themselves. This is where the problem exists. Although I made reference to the African-American situation, matters such as these affect us just as much, perhaps more so since we live in a society that is overwhelmingly made up of people of African descent. It is of interest, too, that I have just opened an email from someone who was asking: “How did we get to the point where we ‘self hate, feel inferior, do not believe in our selves, stay at the bottom of the (income) ladder and cannot help each other?” (This was not addressed to me)

I must say, first of all, that race relations or the relationships between people of African descent and Europeans was a power relationship, with whiteness associated with power. Let me try to put this in an historical context and summarise what is quite a complex matter. Slave society had whites at the top and slaves at the bottom. But there were divisions within each group. The planters who owned the lands (which, of course, they took from the Caribs) were at the very top, other whites who served as managers and in other positions on the plantations were in a lower category. The fear of slave revolts, given the overwhelming difference in numbers between slaves and Europeans, meant that the Europeans had to stick together, and so, although the divisions remained within that group, they were softened somewhat. Below them were the free coloureds (to which some free blacks were added later), and then to the very bottom were the slaves. The slaves were also divided between the more favoured house and skilled slaves and the praedial slaves who worked in the fields. Colour came into the picture because the free coloureds (mulattoes), who were the product of relationships between white planters and slave women, were given privileged status among the black population. Many of them were freed and did not attain slave status.

Stipendiary Magistrate John Anderson, who left a journal of his stay in St.Vincent during the apprenticeship period which existed between 1834 and 1838, provides information on the race relations existing then. He said that labour assignment, colour and ethnicity divided the apprentices. Reference was made to the struggle by ‘smaller’ whites, free coloureds and non-praedial apprentices (those not working in the fields) to attain and secure social status. He referred to references by some blacks, particularly those who were coloured and others who occupied skilled positions, to other blacks as “black niggers”. The attainment of emancipation severely affected the free coloureds and free blacks since the only thing that separated them from the bulk of the blacks was the freedom they enjoyed during slavery. That was now removed.

Even though a peasantry developed in the 19th century after the end of slavery, the ownership of land was in tiny quantities so that it is difficult to draw clear distinctions between peasants and small farmers and workers on the plantations since many of the peasants and small farmers had at different times to join the other workers on the plantations in order to be able to meet their needs. What was significant, however, to the emancipated population was the exposure to education. Let us remember that we were operating in a colonial situation where civilisation was said to rest in Europe and among persons of European descent. Education was, therefore, in the minds and strategies of the colonial officials a means of civilising the former slaves and maintaining control, and higher education was to provide those who had access to it with the skills to man the colonial machine.

Since Europe was where civilisation was, imitation of European values became important. Colonial education for us glorified everything British. Even our heroes were British, including those who played significant roles in our enslavement. In order to advance and be civilised, it was necessary to imitate British values and styles. Black was ugly and beauty was defined the English way. So our noses and hair styles and any aspect of African culture were to be despised. We were, therefore, taught to despise anything African, and this applied to ourselves. The power relationship continued to exist because the land was in the hands of a few persons who were of British descent. But slavery finished a long time ago, so why is there still a problem?

(I will continue with this next week)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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