Obstacles to the Creation of Afrocentric Societies
in the Commonwealth Caribbean1
©Verene A. Shepherd
Member of the UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
Presentation Made to the WGPAD’s 10th Session, March 28- April 1, 2011
During the International Year for People of African Descent)
Madame Chair, fellow members of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, Ambassadors/members of the Diplomatic Corps and other States representatives, staff of the supporting offices of the UN, Members of the NGOs and Civil Society Groups, fellow presenters, a very good afternoon to you all.
In observance of the International Year for People of African Descent under the theme, “People of African Descent: Recognition, Justice, Development” (which, by the way is struggling for space along with the International Year for Chemistry, for Youth and I believe for Forests?), I have been asked to present a brief survey of the reasons that people of African
descent, and others, lack knowledge of the culture, history and traditions of people of African descent. This is a rather wide topic so I have decided to narrow the focus and choose as my primary geographic focus my own region of the Commonwealth Caribbean.
The first point I would like to make is that many people of African descent and of other origins are quite knowledgeable and aware of the culture of Africa and suffer no historical amnesia or “willed ignorance” whatsoever. There are communities in North America, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean that maintain strong cultural connections with Africa; and their successful cultural resistance to European cultural imperialism has resulted in the survival of visible African elements in dance (e.g. dinki-mini, kumina, gerreh); language (e.g. Haitian Creole); religion (e.g. santeria, vodun), dress, hairstyles, cuisine, the visual and performing arts and tangible sites of memory. The teaching of African history in many educational institutions and the insistence that people of African descent are connected to a great and ancient civilization and that they did not begin their lives in the West as enslaved and downtrodden people has resulted in a feeling of pride and dignity across many African diasporic communities. Those are the communities of people who are doing more than paying lip service to the International Year for People of African Descent; who are embracing and adopting the theme and the logo, not just welcoming and recalling them, albeit conscious that, apparently, distance must be maintained.
At the same time, I have to admit that a condition of cultural erasure and historical amnesia does plague many countries with people of African descent. My presentation argues that this is due largely to the failure of Caribbean societies – with the possible exception of Haiti whose cultural orientation since conquest but especially after 1804 has been African- to choose an Afro-centric model for their societies and to rid such societies of the negative legacies of European colonization, imperialism and neo-imperialism. The reasons for this choice lie deep within the history of slavery and colonialism and will be explored below. I will argue that despite great resistance to the elimination of African culture and tradition in the West, Afrocentricity has not permeated all sections of Caribbean societies.
The ‘New World’ cultures that were forcibly incorporated into the trans-Atlantic interchange following Columbus’ invasive voyages have been the loci of globalization patterns for over five centuries. The African roots of ‘New World’ cultures were present from the very beginnings of the trans-Atlantic colonial enterprise. Forcibly extracted from their African societies, the enslaved Africans were transplanted into a plantation-based system by imperial powers bent on exploiting their labor and erasing any aspirations of liberty. Under the various imperial systems that were imposed, Caribbean social and political structures were oriented toward the metropolitan powers and away from their indigenous and African roots/routes. Throughout the formative process, colonial authorities actively tried to suppress any and all manifestations of African cultures, and the remaining signs that could not be erased, such as speech patterns and skin color, were incorporated into Creole society but were marked as inferior (Brathwaite, 1971).
Names were changed; African clothing, language, religion, dances, family structure, traditional gender roles, drumming and other communication and entertainment practices were discouraged/outlawed and the geographical connections with roots and routes displaced. Cultural homogeneity was supposed to be the order of the day. The process of cultural erasure was enhanced by the erection of tangible monuments to colonizers and foreign monarchs; by knowledge produced about the Caribbean for local and European consumption after the conquest. For example, in the aftermath of the conquest, literary works exhibited a tendency to negate or minimize the role of indigenous and African peoples in the advance of Caribbean modernity, presenting both text and sub-text that project perceptions of the indigenous and African Caribbeans as a 'problem' for colonial development and an obstacle to the European march to progress.
Most of the writers of the late 19th century, like Anthony Trollope (1860) and James Anthony Froude (1888)2 were decidedly imperialist in their view of post-slavery resistance, for example, of the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica, which signalled the end of representative government and the intensification of Crown rule. At the end of the 19th century those writing were still mainly amateurs writing from an imperial perspective. Even in the early 20th century, authors like Charles Lucas and A.P. Newton, Rhodes Chair of Imperial History at London, were still writing in the Eurocentric, imperial mode.3 Indeed, the dominant note in the writings from around 1880 to 1945 was imperialism: the justification, encouragement, defence and apology for colonies.
Not surprisingly, cultural resistance, using all possible media, was endemic. The black masses struggled against the efforts to achieve cultural homogeneity that implied a removal of Africanisms and the African worldview from Caribbean culture. In the post-slavery period, Blacks too were preoccupied with the question of who mapped the terrain of citizenship or the criteria for belonging in a society emerging out of slavery. Contrary to the designs of the colonizers, the enslaved Africans successfully managed to preserve important aspects of their native cultures, not only among first-generation Caribbean residents but for future generations as well. As Kamau Brathwaite observes, this inheritance of African customs - including languages, dance, music, religious practices, and birth and burial rituals - proved foundational in the establishment of a uniquely Creole culture. Caribbean society in the early colonial period was the site of great cultural fluidity, and the European orientations of the elite competed with the African-centered visions of the masses in the ultimate forging of a Creole identity. The creolization of society witnessed not only a mixing of European and African identities, but the blending of distinct African cultures into each other as well, contributing to a strengthened signification of Afro-Caribbean identity even as Europeanness ultimately controlled the greater part of social space.
Haiti was particularly successful in holding on to its cultural traditions and is universally known as a country that has an African culture. Its singular revolution, the ending of slavery and consequent expulsion of the French meant that it was able to keep its own institutions, which were, and still are to some extent, African. Haiti kept its own religion (which co-exists with Roman Catholicism), African cultural practices, its own language, Creole, expanded its peasantry and the culture of marketing. Despite the infiltration of US influence, Haiti is still identifiable African.
Scholars joined the cultural fight, and their success became noticeable in the post-World War 11 period when the Eurocentric, imperialist tendencies of the works originating in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries were increasingly overtaken by revisionist works of a newer generation of scholars like Eric Williams (1944) and C.L.R. James (1963) who grounded their work in solid archival research.4 The end of World War 11, the escalation of the decolonization movement, the globalization of Western culture and the re-empowerment of non-Western states, all signalled a new intellectual age. The new writers questioned the essentialism of the traditional historiography and the master narrative imposed on former colonized peoples and introduced their own discursive practices.
In the Commonwealth Caribbean following independence, in the post-1970s in particular, there were renewed attempts, not always successful, to dethrone the old intellectual absolutisms and introduce new 'sociologies of knowledge'. Caribbean scholars have attempted to destabilize the hegemonic European knowledge paradigms and discourses and produced knowledge about the region that is designed to anchor its citizens to a more empowering past. The liberation by ‘Creole interpreters’ of Caribbean history of Black mind and body from the dis-empowering language and actions of colonizers is seen as essential to Black identity.
But despite this energy of reconstruction, this opportunity to re-focus their cultures away from western-imposed models, many Caribbean societies retained many of their colonial systems, including in the realm of culture and politics. Despite the efforts by pan-Africanists, especially the Rastafarians, some intellectuals, and people with Afro-centric leanings, have not resulted in the cultural transformation of Caribbean societies. The prevailing cultural vision in the Commonwealth Caribbean illustrates the continued legacy of European rule, even though it is evident that a truly Afrocentric perspective would drastically transform the values and power dynamics of the contemporary social order. The historical legacy of imperialism and enslavement, coupled with the present day economic, political, and education structures, contribute to the Caribbean’s difficulties in forming powerful, substantive bonds with African culture today.
So, what are the factors that have contributed to the failure of Caribbean post-colonial societies to develop along Afrocentric lines? Why has western philosophy continued to undergird the entire Caribbean social project when the region’s cultural roots are so prominently African? Why is Afrocentricity not the preferred model along which Caribbean societies should develop? Afrocentricity, broadly defined, is an ideological position that affirms the centrality of African and African diasporic history and culture in the lives of people of African descent. Afrocentricity emphasizes the sustained presence of African roots in contemporary diasporic cultures, in contrast to Eurocentric grand narratives (Asante, 2003). An Afrocentric interpretation of present-day Caribbean society would assert that historical denigration of African markers of identity in the Caribbean must not only be challenged but overturned. Advocates of Afrocentricity may debate as to the extent of cultural continuity within African diasporic communities, or the degree of adulteration of original African customs and systems over the centuries, but all Afrocentrists are of one accord when it comes to questions of orientation and self-identification (Okpewhu, 1999). Afrocentricity is predicated on the notion that African origins are to be celebrated, African influences in diasporic cultures are to be elevated, and members of the African Diaspora should be encouraged to embrace their identity and place Africa at the center of the personal cosmology (Asante, 2003). For this to occur, Creole societies need reexamining historically, and Afro-Caribbeans must push back against both the over-emphasis of British antecedents and the Euro-American focus of cultural activities today.
Unfortunately, such a conviction or even awareness of the African Diaspora as a community is not widely present in the Caribbean today (Barriteau, 2007). The question now becomes one of why, following both Emancipation in the 1830s and Independence in the 1960s, such an Afrocentricic path was not pursued. The reasons for the absence of Afrocentricity in the collective Caribbean consciousness are varied and deep-seated.
The first reason was that the initial promise of Emancipation soon segued into stultifying classism and hardened social divisions that cemented the plantation society hierarchies and rigidity of place. The 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion, led by Paul Bogle and George William Gordon, occurred decades after Emancipation and represented the discontent resulting from the still unachieved promises of liberation. Historian Hilary Beckles has termed the period beginning with the first slave rebellions in the 17th century and extending until Bogle’s insurrection as the 200 Years War, in reference to the continuous resistance by enslaved or marginalized Afro-Caribbeans to their oppression (Beckles, 2000). This history of resistance clearly illustrates the unacceptability of race-based oppression to peoples of African descent, but the recognition never crystallized into a movement in pursuit of an Afrocentric community or identity. The influence of Anglo-dominated Creole society and its social divisions won the day, as Bogle and others were fighting more for the right to participate in the Creole system as equal subjects under British rule than to overturn the unjust social order itself (Catch a Fire, 1995).
In the first half of the 20th century as well, international movements celebrating African diasporic identity seemed poised to succeed in the Caribbean. The Harlem Renaissance centered in New York, the global Negritude movement with its heart in Paris, and Marcus Garvey himself, operating across Jamaica, the United States and Africa, shared a devotion to initiating a worldwide change of consciousness toward people of African descent (Skinner, 1999). The presence of Maroon communities in Jamaica, Guyana, Suriname, Colombia, Brazil and elesewherer - those descendants of escaped, formerly enslaved people who retreated to the mountains and organized so effectively that the colonizers were often forced to negotiate peace treaties recognizing their autonomy, are also valued as symbols of resistance to imperial domination. The celebration of the Maroon history and their preservation of a more African way of life in isolation from the wider Creole society, coupled with the global currents of Pan-Africanism, could have produced an Afrocentric cultural orientation. As it turned out, however, Maroon communities are valued in the abstract but never accessed in any tangible way, and the dialogue necessary to cultivate mutual understanding and an awareness of African roots in Caribbean history was simply not there. Once again, the Commonwealth Caribbean’s legacy of colonialism and the Western-focused mentality of the people proved too strong for even national hero Marcus Garvey to overcome.
On a theoretical level, ontological claims are required to define a Diaspora or Diasporic community (Echurero, 1999), and most Caribbean people are not prepared to claim membership in the African Diaspora as an act of identity formation. Furthermore, the African diasporic experience is not the same as the Indian, Irish or Jewish Diasporas, tied together by an agreed-upon common heritage. Irish folklore and cultural history, and Jewish religious and social customs, bind diverse groups of individuals across the world into a cohesive unity in a way that the African Diaspora cannot. The absence of a single shared language or social structure is a product of the traditions lost across the Atlantic and the variety of subsequent cultural evolutions in the Americas and in Africa alike (Warner-Lewis, 1999). The diversity of individual experiences also complicates the capacity of the African Diaspora to encompass every member’s reality, though it certainly does not preclude such a result (Joyce, 1999). Finally, challenging Eurocentricity as a discourse still requires one to speak the language or use the terms implemented by the hegemonic powers, limiting the progress of even the most ardent of Afrocentrists in the Caribbean (Skinner, 1999). To denounce the suppression of African culture and perspectives in the Caribbean, Afrocentrists must call attention to the current absence of that which they propose to resurrect, and in rejecting the inferior position of African-derived material culture and social systems in contemporary society, Afrocentrists find themselves employing the same dichotomous, denigrating language they seek to overthrow. These constraints all hamper the development of an Afrocentric worldview in Caribbean theorizing and ideologies.
Afrocentricity has been thwarted on a practical level, as well. The colonial apparatus fundamentally denied Afrocentric possibilities in the Caribbean by positing Europe as the central figure in the newly created sociopolitical constructions. The resulting plantation society was a total institution, leaving no room for existence outside plantation-based social, economic, or political structures (Beckford, 1971). While the formation of Creole societies did co-opt certain components of African cultures, elements that were not incorporated into the broader Creolization movement were intentionally deprived of space to be preserved, let alone to flourish, thereby invisibilizing the enslaved Africans’ contributions to Creole culture (Brathwaite, 1971: 244). Among the legacies of an autocratic plantation society pervasive in Caribbean societies today, class distinctions, color differences, and gender divisions stand out as prime markers of suppressed African origins (Reddock, 2007: 3). An Afrocentric perspective necessarily challenges these stratifications as harmful, regressive, and as products of a European-imposed social order premised on African inferiority.
Class divisions are very closely linked to color differences, a relationship directly resulting from the plantation system (Spencer-Strachan, 1992). In the social order dominated by European-minded, tea-sipping elites, the African and Afro-Caribbean people descended from enslaved Africans constituted an absolute separate subordinate class. The thin intermediate social layer, between the White elite and the Black masses, comprised mainly the mixed-race offspring of privileged White men by Black women (Brathwaite, 1971). Color differences, then, became a key signifier of class and social standing as the children of such liaisons, known as ‘browning’ for their lighter complexions, assumed roles increasingly removed from manual field labor. The popular sayings that “coffee need a little milk”, referring to the desirability of finding a lighter skinned partner as a way to ensure one’s children the possibility of social advancement, and “anything too black no good”, evidence the continued impact of plantation-era social divisions.
Regrettably, the sharply drawn lines between Afro-Caribbeans based on skin color form a barrier to the creation of a collective consciousness among peoples of African descent within the Caribbean and across the Diaspora (Reddock, 2007). This might explain why the Black Intelligentsia fought its own separate war for identity and social space within the context of a society where material and intellectual progress did not confer equality with the White and mixed race elite. Like the people of mixed ancestry, their intervention into the discourses of belonging was often framed within the context of distancing themselves from Africa and African. Rather than claim the designation of African, they claimed Caribbean though in its Euro-Creole cultural manifestation. Several letters to the editor of Jamaican newspapers in the first half of the 20th century attest to this tendency. One citizen who wrote to the editor to oppose any ethnic identification with Africa was certain that “the only race we belong to is the Human Race and our nationality is Jamaican, not African…”5 Another, as Colin Palmer notes, looked sceptically on any attempt to de-emphasize links with England and strengthen those with Africa.6
The exclusionary social divisions born of the plantation system extended to gender relations as well. Despite the fact that enslaved women’s labor was more constrained and exploited than men’s, the dehumanizing colonial viewpoint propagated the illusion of sexual equality under slavery. This shared oppression did not, however, foster more egalitarian interactions between the sexes (Mathurin Mair, 2000). On the contrary, the matrifocality of West African cultures survived in this environment as women adapted to the plantations’ increased demands, while the traditional African male role of provider was effectively undermined as men could not assert themselves in any large scale manner within society. This situation led to a crisis in gender dynamics, not infrequently resulting in violence when enslaved men struggled to exert patriarchal dominance in a system that denied them substantive agency (Reddock, 1985). In an additional consequence of the sexual division of labor, women assumed the role of preservers of cultural memory within Afro-Caribbean communities (Joyce, 1999). This responsibility ensured the maintenance of vestigial African traditions and customs, albeit adapted to the realities of the plantation society. It is important to recognize that without this active preservation and passing on of African practices, the African-derived aspects of Caribbean culture, however subdued and ignored, would not exist today and there would be no basis for an Afrocentric transformation. The isolation of individuals in the African Diaspora is a prevailing issue to be dealt with before an Afrocentric worldview can take root in the Caribbean and abroad.
Plantation society’s limitations, then, are one historical reason for the contemporary disconnect with Afrocentricity, but it alone cannot explain the continued Euro-American focus of Caribbean culture. The orientation of the economic, political, and education systems also contributes to the region’s dependence on external systems. Like most small, developing states, Caribbean countries boasts a peripheral economy, even after the dissolution of direct subordinate ties to the metropole. Opportunities for growth and development are consequently limited by the very nature of the economy (Bernal, 2000). The success of exports is subject to the whims of external market forces, for example, and heavy debt burdens further constrain organic, national and regional efforts to modify the economic system. Integration into the global marketplace is therefore premised on inequality, both between nations and within countries. Structural Adjustment Programs and the demand for open markets have privileged the formal sector of private enterprise over the informal work done largely by women, sharpening the sexual division of labor and the conception of inferior, less productive women’s roles in the workforce (Sparr, 1994). For the Caribbean, the present incarnation of globalization has allotted all its benefits to the already powerful nations while the Caribbean accrues the major part of its disadvantages (Thomas, 2000). Thoroughly enmeshed by the Western dominated international finance institutions and trade arrangements, Caribbean people are forced to look to Europe and the United States for economic direction, even if they were not already inclined to do so (Girvan, 2000).
Another factor inhibiting the cultivation of an Afrocentric national and regional vision is the political system. The CARICOM states are based on the Westminster parliamentary model left by the British colonists, the organizational structure itself is a legacy of imperial rule. Moreover, the two party bicameral system has resulted in more internecine feuding than concerted, bipartisan nation building. The male-dominated political environment also places barriers to the voices of Caribbean women reaching large audiences, further skewing the unrepresentative character of CARICOM politics. Afro-Caribbean women, previously mentioned as the preservers of the remaining African influences in Caribbean culture, are denied the policy platform to shape the sociopolitical landscape in accordance with these residual links to Africa. Together, the lack of economic autonomy and truly representative, transformational political leadership fuel the widening distance between Afrocentric ideals and Caribbean cultural reality.
The persistence of British, French, Dutch (and the USA in the context of Puerto Rico), control in non-independent Caribbean countries also limits the extent to which true Afro-centric societies can emerge in places like Aruba, Bermuda, Bonaire, the Cayman Islands, Cayenne, Guadeloupe and Martinique. The lamentable status of History as a non-mandatory subject in most Caribbean schools, or the Eurocentric nature of the history texts and curricula, further contributes to Afrocentricity’s failure to take root in any organized fashion. Under British administration in the CARICOM region and still-colonized countries, the history of England and the United Kingdom was taught instead of African or Afro-Caribbean history. People of these countries learned British geography and culture in schools, cultivating a sense of patriotism and pride in Britain as a homeland despite the subordination experienced at the hands of imperialism (Bosquet, 1991: 46). Even following independence, however, the education system retains a school year calendar and pedagogical philosophy inherited from the former colonizing power. What’s more, not requiring high school students to study history discourages the formation of powerful bonds between past and present realities. Proponents of Afrocentricity already face severe difficulties in disseminating an awareness of African culture, both historically and currently, but the dearth of historical education among the general population exacerbates the problem. The school system’s potential to highlight the African rhythms of Caribbean life remains sadly unrealized, and the greater culture suffers for it. The tendency to lessen the claim on citizenship by those whose ancestral homes are other than Africa is also still present. If Creole culture has the potential for social integration and forging a new cultural unity, then that potential has not been realized fully.
The images that many see of people of African descent in the various media are also often less than empowering. Stereotypes abound and influence the ways in which other ethnic groups react to PAD. Children especially need to see empowering images of themselves reflected in the media, whether the local, regional or international variety. This is hardly happening in the Commonwealth Caribbean, with few of the cable channels originating in Africa and little news coming out of Africa, except when there are natural and man-made disasters. The ignorance about Africa was demonstrated in the 2010 Football World Cup, when hardly any vehicles in the Caribbean displayed the flags of African teams and few
Added to all of these mostly internal factors are external ones, primarily racism and the obvious lack of respect for the culture, history and traditions of people of African descent in many developed countries. Many immigrants face undignified interrogation at borders and many diasporic communities feel marginalized, despite the great contributions they continue to make to host countries. Many children of Caribbean and African ancestry residing in the developed countries are themselves not always aware of their rich heritage as this is not accommodated in the schools’ curricula.
So what are the consequences? The failure to embrace Afrocentricity as a governing ideology in the immediate post-independence period had and continues to have huge ramifications for the cultural development of the region. Despite decades upon decades of struggle, social iniquity and an outwardly focused cultural vision today remain a hallmark of life in the Caribbean (Reddock, 2007: 5). The resulting out-migration patterns, consequences in part of the lack of social mobility, generally lead to the West instead of elsewhere in the Global South, let alone Africa. Caribbean people emigrate to cities such as Miami, New York, Toronto, and London, reinforcing the Anglo-American orientation of the culture. In particular, notions of individuality are more prevalent than ideals of collectivism in society, representing the continued ability of Anglo-American Enlightenment-era thinking to trump traditional African mores of community and cohesion (Asante, 2003). The association between Western-focused ideologies with material success among the socioeconomically elite in Jamaica further entrenches this external fixation in contrast to an Afrocentric alignment.
The Caribbean context of welded European and African identities, situated in the cross-stream of global interchange for over five centuries, offers the possibility to blaze a proud path and proclaim the region’s foundational African heritage on an international stage. As it stands now though, the cultural orientation is staunchly Western and the societies’ African roots devalued. The majority of national holidays celebrated are English in origin, and classism derived from the English social castes remains a prominent divisive force in the Commonwealth Caribbean. Another prominent division is the hierarchical social and economic distinction between men and women’s roles, also a legacy of Western direct and cultural imperialism that detrimentally affects the cooperative, productive capabilities of society as a whole. It is clear that pride and wisdom derived from African antecedents are not central to the thoughts and actions of all Caribbean people, and that the unity that results from such an Afrocentric perspective is far from being achieved. An Afrocentric revolution would entail drastic philosophical and cultural transformations, catalyzing Caribbean culture from disinterestedness and latent potentiality to an awakened consciousness and “fixity of purpose” as an outstanding Jamaican statesman puts it.
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1 I acknowledge the research assistance on this paper provided by Katherine Phelps Miller of the Institute for Gender & Development Studies, UWI, Mona, and Barbara von Hünerbein, Intern, Anti-Discrimination
Section, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva.
2 See Anthony Trollope, The West Indies and the Spanish Main
(London: Chapman and Hall, 1860); and James Anthony Froude, The English in the West Indies; or The bow of Ulysses
(1888, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969).
3 See Charles Lucas, A Historical Geography of the British Colonies (1888, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902) and A.P. Newton, The European nations in the West Indies, 1493-168, (London: A. & C. Black, ltd., 1933).
4 See Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1944) and C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins; Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York, Vintage Books, 1963).
5 Daily Gleaner, January 10, 1957, p. 8, quoted in Colin Palmer, “Identity, Race and Black Power in Independent Jamaica”, in The Modern Caribbean, eds. Franklin Knight and Colin Palmer (Chapel Hill, 1989), p. 113
6 Jamaica Daily Gleaner
, August 6, 1963, p. 21
People of African Descent: Recognition, Justice, Development