Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Survival Of The African Soul In The Caribbean by Selwyn Ryan

Emancipation Day, like Indian Arrival Day, invariably gives rise to reflection about the links which exist between diasporas and their ancestral roots. Much has been written about African slavery and the construction of an African diaspora in the Caribbean and the Americas. A great deal of that writing has been the work of Caribbean peoples who over time sought to better understand who they were and what role Africa was to play in shaping their identity as a people, and how that identity must adjust to other economic and socio-cultural realities in the emergent Caribbean civilisation.

Among the many accounts which have dealt with the institution of slavery itself, there are few more instructive than that of Orlando Patterson, a Jamaican sociologist based at Harvard University. Patterson's prize-winning book, Slavery and Social Death, not only examines the experiences of enslaved black persons in the Americas and the Caribbean, but treats with slavery as a global phenomenon. His masterpiece acknowledges that slavery was a practice that occurred in many places, cultures and eras. It also identifies the similarities and differences that characterised that institution over time, and puts to rest theories which claim that slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas was more brutal than it was elsewhere because it was combined with white racism.

Patterson complains that the view that slavery in the Americas was unique "given the primary role that race played as a factor in determining the condition and treatment of slaves betrays an appalling ignorance of the data on slave societies". He makes it clear that race was a vital issue throughout the Islamic and Chinese worlds, as well as among Scandinavians, Greeks and Romans. As he opines, "it may be that the racial factor weighed less heavily for blacks in antiquity than it did for those in the Americas, but it is an exaggeration to suggest that there was little prejudice."

Almost all slavery regimes utilised strategies to generate what Patterson calls "social death" i.e. a status which involved the elimination of the slave's social memory and his sense of honour. The master used various strategies and rituals to create a sense of powerlessness, helplessness, submissiveness, and loyalty in order to "season" him and break his will and disposition to resist. To quote Patterson once more, "masters all over the world used special rituals of enslavement upon first acquiring slaves, the symbolism of naming, of clothing, of hair style, of language and of body marks".

As part of the strategy of creating a living and walking dead, a "social non-person," the slave was deliberately shorn of all ties of blood and attachments to groups or localities. "He had no father or fatherland. Not only was the slave denied all claims on and obligations to his parents and living blood relations, but, by extension, all such claims and obligations on his more remote ancestors and on his descendants. He was truly a genealogical isolate." Whipping was also used as an instrument to induce shame and depersonalisation. As Patterson writes, "there is no society in which the whip was not considered an indispensable instrument. Religion, both Islam and Christianity, was also used to justify enslavement and to separate "we", the saved, from "they", the heathen and the non-believers.

The record is however clear that enslaved Africans in the Caribbean were not passive and that they resisted in various ways, depending on context and opportunity. There were many revolts and rebellions over the years, the ultimate being that of Haiti. Resistance also took the form of maronage, particularly in areas where the topography provided cover. Generally speaking, insurgencies had better prospects of success in "colonies of exploitation," such as those in the Caribbean, than in "colonies of settlement," as obtained in colonial America. Cultural and demographic factors also helped or hindered resistance.

An epic controversy which raged in the discourses about slavery concerned the extent to which Africanisms survived and remained an essential part of reality in the Transatlantic diaspora. The noted Afro-American sociologist Franklin Frazier initially argued that the circumstances of slavery had served to comprehensibly denude Africans of their culture. As he opined, "probably never in history has a people been so nearly completely stripped of their social heritage as the Negroes who were brought to America. Other races have continued to worship their household gods within the intimate circles of their kinsmen. But American slavery destroyed household gods and dissolved the bonds of sympathy and affection between men of the same blood and household Of the habits and customs as well as the hopes and fears that characterized the life of their forebears in Africa, nothing remains."

If that was ever true of what obtained in America, it was certainly not true of the Caribbean. "Social death" was never that unequivocal. Frazier in fact later conceded that he was wrong.

Prof Melville Herskovits, relying on field work done in Trinidad, the Guianas, and Haiti, stoutly challenged this thesis in his magnum opus, The Myth of the Negro Past. Much had in fact survived-words, family and kinship patterns, language structures, musical expressions, mating patterns, gender roles in terms of food production and marketing, patterns of filial obedience, symbolisms about naming, and the management of birthing and burial, and much else.

While there was indeed acculturation and borrowing from Europe, the process was multi-directional. Much that was of African provenience survived. As Herskovits argued, "the inner values which informed the social and religious systems remained firmly African." What survived was determined by the size of the clusters, the production process, the proximity of alternative cultural models, and the conditions under which the migrations of enslaved Africans had occurred. The various celebrations that are taking place today and next week are evidence enough that African cultures are tough, resilient and very much alive notwithstanding efforts over the centuries to effect their social death. Happy Emancipation Day.

Editor's Note: This article first ran in The Trinidad and Tobago Express

Tuesday, July 31, 2007