Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Yes, slaves were starved and tortured, but at least they could attend dances

As much as I bemoan the low standards of journalism that often assault us, I would sometimes rather believe that what I'm reading is more a reflection of these standards or of plain misunderstanding than of people's real, human thoughts.

The Nation today ran a story describing the content of a lecture delivered last week by historian Dr Karl Watson. In it:
Watson emphasised that slavery was an era of brutality and exploitation of Blacks by white plantation owners, with at times severe periods of malnutrition.

But he said there were some truths and not widely publicised facts that helped to balance the picture - including slaves' ability to travel long distances to attend dances, their access to money through the important ginger crop, and the esteem in which obeah people, midwives and other knowledgeable slaves were held.


As a former student of history, I'm all for expanding knowledge, especially of the lifestyles and relationships underpinning historical institutions like slavery and colonial plantocracy. But let's maintain some perspective here. First of all, go ahead and discuss your little-known facts, but please don't frame them to suggest that a little ginger money and a line dance in any way 'balance the picture' of centuries of colonial exploitation.

Second, you're a white dude. I'm sorry, but you are. No one seems to want to say these things, but the fact is, that makes your words more loaded than if they had been coming from someone who is the descendant of a slave. Dr. Watson contributes much to natural conservation and the exploration of the island's history. We value that, but let's not pretend that the identity behind the message doesn't matter. And that particular message can often sound like white apologism, especially among a wider public who may not recognize Dr. Watson as an ally of black history.

Now I'm not saying that Barbadians who are not descendants of slaves can't talk about slavery; of course they can, slavery is everyone's legacy. And we know that indentured, imprisoned or exiled Scottish and Irish who had previously worked in servitude on plantations also fathered white Barbadian descendants. But given the racial history of the place, I would think that non-Black academics especially would be more sensitive than to imply in a lecture that slaves didn't have it so bad because they could cross the parish border to attend dances.

I get annoyed because so much of the public discourse that takes place in Barbados surrounding blackness is 1) about slavery, but seems to have little practical, interrogative purpose other than to say "oh look what happened." And 2) oriented towards, or at least includes, some commentary on how slaves didn't have it as bad as people say. We very neatly separate out current experiences of whiteness and white privilege, current experiences of blackness, and that slavery thing that happened way back when. And we're always happy to talk about the latter, but not in any critical way that takes us to an ongoing dialogue on the former.

I have to stress that I wasn't there. As I said initially, it could have been that the reporter just highlighted some of the more controversial parts, as they are wont to do; and that the lecture was a perfectly benign, highly analytical effort to look at a more layered plantation system, and how that might reflect in current social hierarchies and habits. In fact, I'm hoping it was that, and not "slavery sucked but whee dances!" as the article suggests. Because that would be bad.

1 comment:

  1. That's why I don't think these lectures should be held - period, at some point a body or five will get vex and then u 4get the purpose of the lecture and squabble over an offense or slight whether deliberate or accidental.

    Lecture series on this topic is like picking at a scab every day, leave it alone and it will heal by itself.


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