The curse of slavery
THE leader of the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), Andrew Holness, recently implied in the Parliament that considerations of the psychic and ancestral legacy of slavery ought not to bear any influence on global diplomacy as a tactical strategy in our international relations with countries on the continent of Africa, since we have long been "free" of this obscenity which lasted for "300 years".
He was berating the prime minister on the perceived shortcomings of her presentation to the nation on the costs to the taxpayers attached to the travel itinerary over the past two years for herself and members of her Cabinet, which included two trips by her to Africa.
The focus now, he asserted, should be solely on tending to the economic management of our country and not on seeking to rekindle ancestral bonds with our kith and kin in the African diaspora and invoking memories of the past.
But given our peculiar history with slavery, a textured understanding of our past is still critical to charting a secure course for the future, and in this regard, the expressed ignorance of the opposition leader is as regrettable as it is astonishing.
At the very least, he ought to know — if only intuitively, having been a former prime minister with African blood flowing through his veins — that formal freedom from slavery did not destroy completely the value system that underpinned the reign of Columbus, meaning: the exploitation, conquest, domination, ethnocide and ecocide that defined the slave society, despite our achievements since then.
There is, in any case, a frightening abundance of human pathology that persists with a vengeance in our fledgling society daily that demands urgent explanation with reference to our past.
Our society, lest we forget, was created exclusively for the production of sugar, which brutally shaped our customs and culture, leading eventually to a centre of human habitation we call Jamaica. Given this, it remains a miracle that as a people we have been able to survive such butchery of the human spirit and capacity on a mass scale and still manage to emerge a reasonably sophisticated human-scale society.
The wordsmith extraordinaire, novelist, journalist and acclaimed Caribbean writer, the late John Hearne, had this to say about contemporary Jamaican society back in 1984:
"...What may have finished slavery... is that the slave society inevitably takes its values from the slaves. Lying becomes a moral obligation. Sabotage of productive work becomes a courageous act. Mistrust of authority becomes a political and moral imperative. Mockery of every institution becomes a revolutionary creative act. Deceit, robbery, even murder become the badges of honour worn by the best slaves."
With the literary brush of his pen, Hearne sadly pointed out that the masters themselves came around to accepting and inculcating these abnormal behaviour patterns as a normal part of the social contract.
But the larger and more distressing point in all of this is that the mental slavery that he suggested this represents is in no way confined to the immediate descendants of slaves. It is also the province of those who were, have since become, and remain today's masters.
So, despite our physical and legal freedom from slavery, mental slavery still throttles with a vengeance, preventing us from constructing a truly civil society of self-possessed and self-directed human beings.
Despite our brilliance in so many areas of human endeavours, and our production of wise men and women who stand out as being better products of the society that spawn them, this country of ours is regarded by many at home and abroad as a land of deceit, dishonesty, hypocrisy, distrust, and murder.
On the latter score, our enjoyment of the 'taste' of human flesh and suffering has seen us slaughter 100 of our own in the first 45 days of this year. Such acts of savagery have earned us the reputation of being the murder capital of the world.
And, as if this was not enough self-mutilation, we bash our politicians relentlessly for deliberately misleading the people in matters affecting their destiny. Last Sunday, columnist Martin Henry incredulously suggested in his column in The Gleaner that "ministers of Government" did no real work at all on behalf of the people, despite overwhelming historical evidence all around us of their contribution to nation-building in the post-Independence era.
Similarly, Suzanne Leslie-Bailey, in a recent guest column in the same newspaper, sought to blame MPs for the current spectre of "voter apathy" among the populace.
In fact, so strong is the will to ambush everything good about us with cynicism, that other authority figures such as lawyers, civil servants, bankers, captains of industry, parsons, talk-show hosts, policemen and women, and even newspaper columnists, are said to be either unethical or prone to play Anancy to maintain their position of power and influence. In this sense, the 'masters' have indeed inculcated the values of the 'slaves'.
Everyone in Jamaica, it seems, is felt to indulge chicanery in dealing with everyone else -- whether to hustle a quick buck, empower oneself over others, 'samfie' our governors in exchange for benefits, or to outwit the strong who are assumed to be always out to trample the weak. The refrain "we want justice" is now a part of the vocabulary of the common folk.
Much of this explains why the belief is so strong that authority -- especially political authority -- must be mistrusted as a moral obligation. In listening to certain radio talk-show programmes it is easy to come away with a build-up of malice, bitterness, envy, and mean-spiritedness towards political authority camouflaged as expression of the democratic temper. In reality, however, satirical debunking of public figures is often transformed into malicious defamation of character of would-be role models.
But it is not only would-be role models and genuine nation-builders who must be prepared to face the possibility of obsessive despoilers.
As many trade unionists and industrial relations specialists in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security can attest, sabotage of productive work is often mistaken as part of the punishment of wicked authority. Such sabotage, furthermore, often expresses itself in exaggerated demands by the laziest and lousiest among us for greater pay and perks in the workplace.
And those who sabotage productive work by exercising the ability to make things not work are very often in the vanguard of the mockers of every institution of growth, including the very ones who have served to facilitate them with voices with which to mock. To these despoilers, the wilful slaughter of such institutions becomes a 'revolutionary creative act'.
In the face of all of this, this month-long celebration of black history demands that we strive harder to understand the regulative principles that underlie the processes of change since the formal abolition of slavery. Part and parcel of this entails educating our young in understanding that every nation needs institutions for growth and reassuring stability.
We have very little time left to really study our past; but if we continue to forget or ignore it, we are doomed to repeat it. There is a great deal in that past, however, that should not be repeated, for it represents old survival strategies that must be discarded in our journey beyond survival.
If we are serious about reconstructing the society out of the conflagration of obscenities perpetrated during slavery and which continue today on the basis of greed, contempt for humankind, and wretchedness, then perhaps we can begin by admitting that a 'slave society' does not end with the abolition of slavery. This is our challenge going forward. This, indeed, is the curse of slavery we must bear.