Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The goat-dragon in the backyard

Work has been feeding on most of my daytime hours as I plow toward a deadline. I've started five posts which remain in draft, mocking me, so I haven't much to share apart from this small story:

In the backyard a few minutes ago, I dropped a clothespin. My sister's dog, Ellie, immediately pounced on it and started to eat it. I don't mean playfully chew on it; I don't mean toss it around with her mouth; I mean she genuinely tried to ingest the thing. I think she thought I had tossed it to her, and since I had tossed it to her, it must be safe to eat, and furthermore, delicious. Such blind trust. I wish I had that kind of superpower with human animals. Not that I would try to feed people clothespins. At least not most people.

Epilogue: I couldn't get the clothes pin away from Ellie, who is caught in an identity crisis that makes her part goat, part dragon guarding a cave just beyond King Arthur's kingdom. But thankfully, she got bored and stopped trying to eat the plastic snack. This is a relief. It could have gone so much worse.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The houses that slavery built

There is a thing happening now that is confusing to me. Perhaps you can help me understand it. The Barbados National Trust is a local charity concerned with "the preservation of places of historic and architectural interest or of natural beauty and ecological importance". One of their programmes in an open house initiative, in which the public is invited to view not only historical homes, but also "newer, luxurious Bajan-Style villas". You pay some money, enter the property, engage in due amounts of oohing and aahing, and there. You've had your open house experience.

It has seemed to me over the years that most of the people who attended the open houses were tourists, along with those locals and expatriates with a particular interest in architecture or museums. But there seems to be an effort afoot this year (I can't say with any surety that the effort is peculiar to 2010, but I am just noticing it in the campaign's publicity) to encourage more locals - your, ahem, average Barbadians - to participate. The CBC Evening news ran a segment this week showcasing the first open house of the season, and this is where I'm going to fail you on the details, because I don't recall the location, and I don't have a clip or article to show you. I have nothing, in fact. You essentially have to take my word - paraphrased as it is - that this is what happened:

Dr. Karl Watson, a UWI historian and local champion of historical and environmental preservation, was in attendance at the event, as expected, and as the camera panned around to show who the guests were, was giving his thoughts on the importance of open houses and the like. He was pleased with the turnout, and the fact that there seemed to be more locals there, because Black Barbadians should take an interest in seeing the homes that their ancestors had built. Sounds harmless enough, although Dr. Watson being a White man does tend to nuance his telling Black Barbadians in which parts of their heritage they should take an interest. But let's accept this and move on.

The reporter on the story also heard from the owner/resident of the property - also a White man, this time of non-Barbadian provenance - who was chuffed that people had taken the opportunity to come out and see his home, because when he first moved (t)here he had spoken to the people in the village from time to time, and they had said no, they'd never been inside, and had no idea what it looked like, a fact by which he seemed surprised.

Right then, so this is what the invitation translates to: I, as a descendant of slaves, should be interested in paying for the privilege of being allowed inside the homes built from the toil of my enslaved ancestors, in order to observe the inordinate wealth in which slave owners lived at that time (especially as compared with slaves, who literally owned nothing, including themselves), and in which White owners of these properties continue to live today. Yeah. Thanks.

Now I might be wrong about a fact or two. Perhaps in the interest of getting more locals in, they waived fees for those coming from the surrounding areas. I don't know if that's true. It would make sense if they had, and if it's true, feel free to correct me. But it doesn't change what is wrong with some of the absurd statements I heard in that newscast. Barbadians are famous for our reluctance to have anything to do with the history of slavery (incidentally, Dr. Watson is also making absurd statements in the article linked here, although I'd like to think the cluelessness is a result of something lost in the journey from the newsroom. Barbadians don't want to cut sugarcane because they see it as a relic of slavery? I can't think where they would get that notion). And I have my own thoughts on that - on the idea that engaging in any discourse that recalls the horrors of slavery is necessarily an undesirable thing - but I understand it. A few have tried to widen that discourse, to demonstrate that it might actually be a useful and empowering one, but the jury's still out on that. So I get that there's a need - as far as some of us are concerned - to stimulate Barbadians' engagement in learning about our heritage. But here's what I don't get: a group of privileged, often White, sometimes non-Barbadian, sometimes non-descendants of slaves telling me in what parts of my heritage and consciousness-raising I should engage as a Black Barbadian. And worse, encouraging me to do so in an environment that reinforces the racial and economic hierarchy that existed in the time of slavery. I'm meant to mill about a rich, White man's property - one that was built by slaves - as said rich, White man looks on - and then go home feeling honoured to have been allowed?

I say all that in the first person because there were Black Barbadians there, who said on camera that they live nearby, and had been curious about the place, so they took the opportunity to go in and see what was what. One woman, when asked her impressions, basically said (I'm paraphrasing again) that the stuff inside didn't seem all that ornate and she was expecting more expensive things, but overall it was nice, which made me chuckle.

I am not against the work of the National Trust in preserving and showcasing historic sites. I think it's a great thing. But here's the thing: when the only commentary you have to make on race relations in Barbados - both old and new - involves telling me how to experience the history of slavery on your terms, in an immediate environment not unlike the actual environment at that time, where the property built by Black slaves was occupied and enjoyed by the wealthy White, and you do not see or acknowledge what is problematic about that picture, then that's where I have a problem.

I was speaking to my friend about it last night, and I told her "I am going to call that man - Dr. Watson - on the telephone." And she agreed that I should. So I will. I'll let you know how that turns out.
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