Respecting Us …
I wish to persist with the theme I addressed in my article of March 11, 2013 captioned "Learning about Us". I believe this is important and not merely to be left to those we refer to as Pan-Africanists. It is the responsibility of everyone who has any pride in self whatsoever. Although I cannot say that I am well-versed in terms of our Black History, I do feel compelled to ground myself in my background and to understand more about my race and culture, the struggles we fought and the challenges we overcame. If we take this matter lightly or treat it simplistically, others will not take us seriously. As a race, our history is rich and we have achieved much, even within the context of our own Caribbean. Just considering the University of the West Indies and its 65 years of rich educational service to the region fills me with sufficient pride and convinces me that we can have a bright future if only we remain resolute and are sure of ourselves.
Yet, tragically, we seem more inclined to devalue ourselves. What has happened to us? A detailed explanation is beyond the scope of a brief newspaper article so I will not assay that task now. The unquestionable indication of this devaluation is that although it is almost 40 years since Walter Rodney wrote the following words concerning our loss of self-worth as well as a self-imposed wearing away of our dignity, they are still true today, and shamefully so. Thus, according to him:
Black Power in the West Indies must aim at transforming the Black intelligensia into the servants of the black masses….The adult black in our West Indian society is fully conditioned to thinking white, because that is the training we are given from childhood.
Hence, there is some failing or shortcoming on the part of our education system at its very early stages. This sort of mental slavery must be nipped in the bud, that is, at the early childhood education level and especially at the home. A university can do very little for someone who is already brainwashed or conditioned. This idea resembles the concept, "garbage in, garbage out". Our children must be made to feel that they are not inferior to anyone and, without a doubt, are special and can achieve anything they want to. Why is it that some - even educated - people of our race are not confident enough to believe that they have a point of view and what they craft, intellectually, can succeed? Why is it that some - even educated - people do not feel certain that they know more about their environment and what is possible and workable compared to others who have absolutely no clue about us?
These so-called educated people are indeed a major disappointment and represent a squalid betrayal of the blood our forefathers spilled to liberate us. I do not believe I am overstating this and indeed I have absolutely no hesitation in considering such people (formally educated or otherwise) as modern-day plantation house slaves who broke the spirit of the rebel slaves by selling out attempts to liberate us as a people!
Thankfully, we prevailed. There is of course a good chance that this "victory" is being eroded now. When I reflect on these modern-day plantation house slaves, I am reminded of those slaves who tried to ingratiate themselves with their masters. Yes indeed, they were the precursors to the modern-day grovellers and crawlers. Witness the following from the pseudo-historian Lady Nugent's diary, describing a slave who tried so much to show respect to his masters:
In returning home from our drive this morning, we met a gang of Eboe negroes… I ordered the postilion to stop, that I might observe their countenances …The women in particular seemed pleased … one man attempted to shew [show] more pleasure than the rest by opening his mouth as wide as possible to laugh, which was a rather horrible grin. He showed such truly cannibal teeth, all filed as he had them, that I could not help shuddering. (Quoted from Brereton, 1995 and cited in Shepherd, 2000, p. 61)
Lady Nugent was repulsed by this "negro" who overreached himself in attempting to greet her and be nice to her. This reaction by Lady Nugent may be no different from the reaction of those we try to invest all our allegiance and devotion to.
Walter Rodney, again almost 40 years ago spoke to this posture of demeaning ourselves quite early in the course of our lives. According to him:
The little black girl plays with a white doll, identifying with it as she combs its … hair. Asked to sketch the figure of a man or woman, the black schoolboy instinctively produces a white man or a white woman. This is not surprising, since until recently the illustrations in our text books were all figures of Europeans…. West Indians of every colour still aspire to European standards of dress and beauty. The language which is used by black people in describing ourselves shows how we despise our African appearance. 'Good hair' means European hair, 'good nose' means straight nose, 'good complexion' means a light complexion….we continue to … express our support of the assumption … that black is the incarnation of ugliness. (pp. 32-33)
To add insult to injury, our young men are now dragging themselves around, almost lacking the ability to walk freely because their pants are right down thus exposing 75% of their underwear. Doesn't this smack of young men who have lost their dignity and self-respect? Doesn't this smack of young men who, instead of using education and knowledge as a tool for affirming themselves, choose to descend, literally, to devaluing themselves by a code of dress that has unsavoury origins? It seems almost endemic among our young men, if my observations in New York were reliable. I did not detect that this practice was as widespread among non-Blacks. And what of the young black girls who are attracted to them? Are they aware that they can do better and deserve better? The skin bleaching is another indication of a people who do not have confidence in who they are and are literally and metaphorically speaking, uncomfortable within their very own skins.
The moral here is that, unless we learn about us and we respect ourselves, we will always be relegated to the bottom rungs of the global society. What is particularly tragic is that we would have conspired with the oppressors, whether local or foreign, to "keep us in our place".
(c) Dr. Francis O. Severin is the Acting Director of the University of the West Indies Open Campus Country Sites.