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The race conversation

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The conversation that has been going on now for a couple of weeks has been described as a conversation about race, but any conversation about race in the Caribbean has got to be broader than race and must include matters relating to class, education, values and really colonialism, out of which these things emerged in the form in which they presented themselves in St. Vincent and the broader Caribbean. Margaret Fontaine in her article of February 24 suggests that the talk about black and white is just insinuation.{{more}} According to her, the fact that some children like white dolls over black ones is not to be associated with race. She went on to deal with the power of advertising and asked: “Are there features of the white doll that may massage the tastes and preferences of a child and thus influence her decision to prefer the white doll as opposed to the black?” Fontaine demonstrates a profound ignorance of the history and realities of this country and of the Caribbean and is certainly not aware of all that has for a long time been written about race, class and the structure of our societies.

I want to start with a few quotations from the book West Indian Societies written by David Lowenthal and published by Oxford University Press in 1972. I will after doing that speak around the quotations since there are some aspects with which I do not agree, which means that I will be forced to continue this article in my next column: “There is something in these West Indian societies which can be called a standard Creole structure. It is a pyramid, based on a past history of slavery and a present legacy of colour, or more precisely of shade, as one indication of status among several.” (“…when emancipation came, the former slaves had nothing of their own; they were conscious of no means of escape from poverty and ignorance but by becoming more like Europeans.”) (“The West Indian obsession with differences in shade sustains an atmosphere that, if less polarizing, perpetuates other serious problems of identity and action, problems for white, coloured and minority groups as well as for black West Indians”

“… middle -class Vincentians are said to be ‘preoccupied with marrying lighter-skinned persons’ in order to ‘have nice straight-hair children’” “‘Good hair may compensate for a dark skin’”

One of the quotations establishes the connection between obsession with shade differences and problems relating to identity and action. That in a way touches on my focus on identity and view that the conversation has to involve a number of other matters impacting on Vincentian society. Lowenthal says, too, that slaves had nothing of their own and were not conscious of any other means of escaping poverty and ignorance than by becoming more like Europeans. It is not true that slaves had nothing of their own. A lot of their own was kept alive in the slave community despite the attempts to stifle any aspect of their African culture. What they had, though, they were forced to despise because they were led to believe that they were inferior, and so the more educated one became after emancipation, the more he/she was tempted to leave aside those remnants of their African past which the church and their schools told them were inferior.

Let us look at the situation at emancipation. The two most important things that mattered were access to land and to education. Emancipation was a legal undertaking but the institutional framework that existed during slavery was preserved. This meant that prejudices remained, but the divisions began to manifest themselves more clearly in terms of class with which of course shades of colour were associated. The elites in the society, having fought against emancipation, attempted to maintain the society as close as possible to what existed under slavery. This meant limiting the options that existed to former slaves off the plantations. In an agricultural society, land was the obvious option. By limiting the access of the emancipated to land, they were forced to remain on the estates, and so under the control of the planters. But they were free, so technically they had bargaining power. This is where immigration became important and efforts were made to introduce Chinese, Portugese and Africans liberated from slave ships to crush their bargaining power. Finally, they had to settle for East Indians. Education was dominated by the Church, but some of the freed people attempted to set up their own schools, realising the importance of education within the value system of the colonial world. But education was not about themselves and their country. It was about England and Europe, whether it be geography or history, everything in fact. Education, of course, is not neutral.

Orde Coombs, a Vincentian and former master at the Grammar School, wrote the following: “Sunday school and church picnics, cricket and soccer, and afternoon teas that brought us black popinjays into the realm of English grace. Our British affectations, 4,000 miles removed from their source, seem, on reflection, absurd. But there was no absurdity when, as children, we prayed for Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh;..and we wore, uncomplainingly, green woolen blazers and gray flannel trousers to school, not because they were comfortable (the wool itched and stank in the tropical heat) but because on some decaying street in Liverpool as well as at a posh public school, a British teenage wore the same get-up”.

(To be continued)

Comments can be sent to fraser.adrian@gmail.com)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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