Slave Monument in Le Precheur, Martinique
If you asked me 15 years ago what my definition of freedom is, I would probably describe a life growing up in Jamaica. Back then, freedom meant the ability to wake up to a warm cup of chocolate tea and some variation of porridge, a nice open air bath at our favorite river, chasing the cane truck down the street, or watching soccer at our favorite community league. Back then life was simple. I was younger, more ignorant and less concerned about the past and how those occurrences could dictate the kind of future I might have. Freedom meant that I could live and be ‘irie’ in a land once inhabited by people who could not have enjoyed the beauty that land offered. My island freedom was only a few decades removed from what is arguably the most hostile slave environment in the world.
With time and exposure my contentment with ignorance was replaced with an eagerness to know more. I knew I was born in Jamaica. I knew that my great-grandfather was of Scottish/Northern English ancestry. Somehow I was not satisfied with that, so I was curious to fill in the missing pieces. In high school we were taught about Christopher Columbus and the Native Indians. We were taught about the slave trade, but there was not much emphasis placed on the level of brutality. I don’t believe the average person asked many questions about their ancestors. We lived in a carefree world where we figured out our daily struggles and moved to the next phase.
When I migrated to the US in 2007 my perspective changed. Somehow people seemed more passionate about the slave trade and the issues of oppression. It made me question how a nation (Jamaica) with a 93% population who directly descended from slaves is not cognizant of the fact that this topic is important? Is it that the realities of slavery are too traumatic so we suppressed them? There is a possibility that the existence of “majority” and a “minority” races in the US is a constant reminder that some ancestors were once owners while others were owned. In Jamaica, majority of the population is black so there is no blatant reminder. What I found fascinating in the US is the fact that even though the majority/minority dynamic exists, the brutality of slavery and its effects on the African-American/Afro-Caribbean people are often disputed.
About a week ago First lady Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. A line in her speech stood out to many, which led to some praising her while others criticised. She said “I wake up every day in a house built by slaves…” Her speech was a trending topic on twitter and I was amazed by how angry some people were. The audacity of the first lady to speak the truth. One fox news anchor (Bill O’Reilly) went on to school the first lady on the slaves who built the White House. He said “they were fed and given good lodging”. The people who oppose any narrative on the struggles of slaves and their ancestors are either ignorant, or in support of the practice. How can you dilute the experience by saying “well at least they ate and had someplace to sleep”? So you are willing to ignore the fact that these people were property? You are willing to ignore the fact that many were captured from a foreign land, placed in chains, beaten and sometimes killed if they resisted? You are willing to ignore the fact that people were bred and sold like cattle when they were no longer useful? You are willing to ignore the fact that any semblance of identity was erased and dignity trampled? Providing a slave with the basics served to prolong their service. It in no way improved the quality of their life. The same way you can downplay the brutality of slavery to soothe your conscience, but the reality is that slaves were not treated with daily pedicures to soothe the harrowing effects of toiling in the fields.
I know this is a tough subject, but let me know what you think.