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Monday, December 11, 2006

My People


Dr. Lester CN Simon

A dear friend of mine, truly sorrowed by my long suffering attempts at solving crossword puzzles, suggested I tackled them in the afternoon instead of in the morning. He explained that by afternoon time many attempts would have been made by others, and their successes and failures would be floating in the ether for easy absorption, like a national, ethereal photocopying machine. Another dear friend said that a similar, cultural, photocopying process called race memory, can explain our current behaviour and attitude.

What kind of society do we expect when slaves unlock themselves and become free men and women? One disappointing result is that our culture displays a historic and peculiar national badness every single day in Antigua and Barbuda. It is our fierce and profound lack of respect for authority in all walks of life. It is twinned to a familiarity that says we all came out of the same slavish chains. And that same familiarity breeds contempt even when and especially when some of us attain positions of privilege and power.

The explanation for this national, wanton familiarity and rabid disrespect lies not solely in the small size of our population. We have to reexamine colonial history and race memories to look for clues to solve this mystery. The colonial masters justified their behaviour by seeing slaves as less than human and ill worthy of any respect. Whilst some slaves regarded their colonial masters as the best thing since Columbus, most others regarded them and their authority status as worthy of death and destruction.

The dismantling of colonial authority and all its trappings became the affirmation of the humanity of enslaved West Indians. Anticolonial resistance became a moral duty to be carried out by any and all, by any and all means necessary. To Frantz Fanon, native violence was not a call for new violence. Native violence was a justifiable end to colonial violence. Similarly, native crass disregard for authority was aimed at applying a final solution to the arrogance of the colonial masters and birthing a bright hope for a new beginning; a new, native humanism. But utopia, without due and proper care and attention, can so easily become dystopia.

Yes, there are some of us in positions of authority who have no clue whatsoever about leadership and management. However, in most cases, the combination of small-island familiarity, the absence of any teaching about civics and history and the embedded, historical revulsion of respect for authority, makes for the gross disregard for supervisors, managers, leaders and all forms of authority. This vulgar disregard and utter disrespect even extend to companions who simply ask one another to be responsible.

But there is something peculiar and intrinsic, indeed native as in being constitutive, about the typical arrogance of the garrot. At the stroke of midnight on Thursday, 31 July, 1834 about three-quarters of a million men, women and children were emancipated from slavery in the British West Indies. The Act of Emancipation was passed by the British Government with a proviso. The ex-slaves were made apprentices to their former masters. An apprentice was only able to earn wages or choose an occupation after giving 40 hours of unpaid labour each week.

In Antigua, there was no apprenticeship system. Immediate freedom was granted to the slaves. Because of the lack of alternative employment due to the lack of free land, two-thirds of the ex-slaves returned to the sugar plantation as free labourers, within 2 months of their emancipation. Predictably, sugar production increased despite the reduction in the number of workers. Are there lessons here for this government’s voluntary separation package? In Antigua, we had a head start on freedom and possibly a head start on the social engineering that made ex-slaves jostle for position of responsibility and power. Earlier than others, we took on the guise and disguise of the colonials in form and function, with the attendant despise and blatant disrespect by fellow natives for each other.

Ironically, many of us who curse and despise authority actually crave the same authority. It cannot be that the only way to ensure succession and settle differences is to openly tear down others and in so doing, add to the long line of negative, cultural photocopying and perpetual contemptuousness. We should take a tip from one of our national heroes, the Coromantee, King Court, and the English. If we have to, we must plan and execute our strategies more carefully, cunningly and covertly (like Brer Anancy) whilst going about with apparent public charm and grace.

The enjoyment of private pleasures such as family, property, drive and ambition, requires the existence of a stable society. A stable society is predicated on adherence to laws, rules and regulations and participation in institutions. More important, it demands that its citizens be of good character and mores. But some private pleasures, thoughts, desires and actions may be publicly unacceptable. It follows that the coexistence of some private pleasures and a good society presupposes that living together incorporates an obligatory contradiction and essential hypocrisy. Nowhere on earth is it more difficult to understand and display this fundamental construct, in a civilized manner, than in a post colonial, developing country like Antigua and Barbuda where native freedom and vulgar disrespect came early.

By the bye, I no longer do crossword puzzles (Sudoku is better) because the times for tackling them receded more and more into infinity. But I still honour my dear friend’s advice in other ways. And so, I humbly suggest, with no hint whatsoever of the arrogance that is typically, historically and constitutively Antiguan, that you read or reread this article in the afternoon or evening.

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