Taking away our breathThursday, April 01, 2021
The case of murder against Minneapolis police officers for the strangulation of George Floyd is currently on its way. Its timing is telling. It is coincidentally being tried during the Easter season when Christians painfully remember the putting to death of Jesus on false testimony by agents of the State.
I recall reading William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock, the merchant, lamented that “sufferance is the badge of my tribe”. Shakespeare, an Englishman, took on the Jewish experience and brought it to theatre. Interestingly, the play was written in the year 1600. When I read this play in fifth form in high school I pondered on Shylock's suffering and compared it to my own people's suffering. Shylock was, unlike us at the turn of the 17th century, able to trade and enter into commercial activities as a businessman. Shakespeare's country of birth, England, soon after he wrote the play, became engaged in the capture, transportation, and setting to work of Africans for three centuries. Our ancestors' life experiences made Shylock's suffering seem like nothing to talk about. In short, enslaved peoples of the Caribbean in the 1600s would readily have exchanged places with Shylock, the merchant of Venice, any day.
We have had our breath taken away almost as a way of life (death) for centuries. So, for example, between 1807 – when the purchasing of slaves in Africa ended — and 1834, when the process of Emancipation commenced, the Jamaican slave population fell by 43,000 or 12 per cent. This was not as a result of any pandemic, but through sheer suffering and loss of breath among the enslaved.
Today we learn that the highest award (medal) given to British officials who work abroad — the Order of St Michael and St George — consists of a star with the image of a white angel, St Michael, standing on the neck of the devil, represented by a black man. One such recipient of this investiture is the governor general of Jamaica, the Queen of England's representative here. While our four governors general since Independence wore her medal with pride — symbolically stifling us to death — we continue to open our courts in Jamaica shouting, “God save The Queen” every single morning. We also proudly award our best lawyers with the title Queen's Counsel.
Listening to the testimony in George Floyd's killing, we are witnessing just one of millions of cases of black people being unable to breathe over the past centuries. Since the time Shylock declared that sufferance was the badge of his tribe four centuries ago, we have only been able to criminally charge those who take away our breath in the last two centuries. No one stood trial for taking away our breath for over 200 years!
I really wish that Shakespeare could have been acquainted with the real sufferance badge, the one worn by our governor general. The lynching with impunity of black people in the United States of America by their fellow white citizens was commonplace up to the time my father was a young man in the s1930s.
As we breathe today, let us remember George Floyd along with that brave 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, who captured his torture on film, and all those in the past whose breath were taken away from them for one reason only — being black!
Bert S Samuels is an attorney-at-law. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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