BACK TO AFRICA
Dr. Lester CN Simon
With all the talk and celebration of diversity amongst the peoples of Antigua and Barbuda, a correct and timely warning has been issued by Dorbrene O’Marde for less attention to diversity and more focus on what we have in common. But what do we have in common? Notwithstanding the preeminence of Africa, I am turning my back to Africa as the nidus of our commonality.
The West Indian islands and societies as we know them were made by Caribs, Arawaks, Europeans, Indians, Africans, followed by Chinese, people from the Middle East and others. Many of us, including black West Indians, see ourselves as West Indians and not as Africans. We understand the ancestral fact that as Indians look to India, Chinese look to China, Lebanese to Lebanon, etc., black people must look to Africa. But Africa can never be the meeting place for true West Indian commonality. In this regard, and this regard only, I am turning my back to Africa and my face and focus elsewhere.
To begin an earnest search for a West Indian commonality or West Indian cultural similarities, we have to start at the place where West Indian society was born: The plantation. The problem here is that we tend to run away from re-examining plantation life because the documented, harsh and seemingly hereditary realities of plantation life are too painful to engage our attention in a quest for common, positive rallying points.
The general view of the social structure of plantation life is one in which the whites were
planters, overseers, clerks and book-keepers and blacks were field and house slaves. But something is wrong with this simplistic view. When we look at the African societies that the slaves came from and the occupation and skills they had in Africa, we find pastoralists, agriculturalists, brass workers, potters, merchants and cloth makers who came as slaves to the West Indies.
We know about the harsh life of the field slaves, working in gangs that included pregnant women and youths. We look askance at the house slave, whom we regard as Massa-boy and a spy. Notwithstanding the validity of this regard, we are negating the considerable skills these slaves possessed. Worse, an extension of this blindness leads us to totally disregard the experienced, artisan slaves who worked in factories in charge of mills, boilers, machinery, rum houses and transportation. The fact is that, despite the preeminence and the predominance of people of Africa descent, all of us built these West Indian societies and contributed to our culture by way of language, food, religion, music and other art forms, relationships, work ethics, etc.
Focusing on plantation life compels us to stand up and analyze it in many different ways. Many run away from this. They see it as a needless and pointless exercise and as unnecessary finger-pointing. It is not finger-pointing. It is the fundamental stepping stone to a reconciliation process in which we admit the wrongs of the past and measure our society today by how far we have come away from that low life to occupy and live on higher ground. Instead of this inevitable West Indian reconciliation, we focus all our energies on reparations from the European colonizing countries. Our binocular vision must engage the two focal points, West Indian and metropolitan.
When we use plantation life as ground zero, we are defining our constitutive community by saying that we are against anything that remotely takes us back today to hopelessness, suicide, genocide, inhumane working conditions, slavish or apathetic workers, sabotage, murder and rape and poor health.
The celebrated triumph of West Indian peoples of all colours and races, including those who came after the plantation, must be that we are on a successful, common journey away from an imperfect, plantation origin via a less imperfect union today to the most pragmatic amalgamation tomorrow. This real, common, mountainous journey manifested in our culture, which is the generational sum total of all we do and say, is the central theme of commonality amongst all West Indian and Caribbean societies. It is not Africa.