An in-depth study of resistance
Peter A. Roberts’ A Response to Enslavement: Playing their Way to Virtue explores the phenomenology of oppression. Roberts veers into conflicts of identity and the moulding of the newly arrived captives in the Americas. Their renaming, craftily undertaken to sever all ancestral ties, is significant. Roberts cites a 1776 witness: “The names given to the Negroes are the prettiest you can imagine.
“All the histories and romances, ancient and modern, have been ransacked for names; and I don’t think there is a name in Shakespeare’s, or anybody else’s plays that does not belong to a Negro: some are very apropos, others not at all. I have seen the haughty Cleopatra descend to wash dishes, and the mighty thunderer of Olympus rubbing down horses. There are Romeos the father of Juliets...Augustus Caesar cleans shoes and Adonis is an excellent hand at making up medicines of all kinds....”
Of this practice, Roberts comments, “Slave masters gave their slaves famous European names to remove the Africanness from them but chose names that were different from the normal ones of their own children to maintain the distinction between white and black.”
But there could well be another reason, as he infers: “If those bearing the ancient gods were enslaved, the enslaver was unconsciously himself declaring his omnipotence”.
It is within the context of adaptive survival, though, that Robert work evolves.
If only to salvage the fractured self, blacks needed to create, ever so subtly and organically, a parallel existence. The same applied to mulattoes, who directed their own ‘play’ to amplify their relevance.
Roberts culls from an 18th, century an account: “The mulattoes have their public balls and vie with each other in the splendour of their appearance: and it will hardly be credited how expensive their dress and ornaments are and what pains they take to disfigure themselves with powder and with other unbecoming imitations of the European dress.”
Roberts reminds us that the behaviour of the oppressed should not be construed in literal terms. Actions are symbolisations, representations of unconscious dynamics.
The response to enslavement was driven by both deliberate calculations and unconscious impulses. Roberts, adding anecdotal richness to an academically sound study, grapples with the nuances and ambiguities of the human experience.
Of actively resisting oppression, he writes: “Some slaves might have wondered how they would make a living and survive, if free, and whether they could have had a truly independent life, free of abuses and dominance of whites. These considerations could have led them to question the advantages of freedom in their context just as small states of the Caribbean during the 1950s and 1960s had doubts about the advantages of political independence.”
History proved that many of the enslaved flirted with the idea of rebellion. Others methodically planned and executed these ideas. Most, it seemed, concluded that “a less confrontational strategy was needed to survive”.
It is this realisation that seeded an ‘alternative lifestyle’ rooted in drama and symbols. Dance, masquerades, parades, and plays emerged primarily out of organic libidinal needs. It is from these activities that the enslaved developed aesthetic and creative tastes that were uniquely distinctive and experiential. From the fusion of these new realities with their collective memories, a creolised response to enslavement unfolded.
Roberts analyses and compares first-hand accounts of dozens of European writers and observers to shed light on acculturation. He notes, “In the case of the St Patrick’s Day parade, not only is it evident that whites walking in parade provided a model for slavery parades but also that a specific colour (in this case green) was being used uniformly as an ethnic symbol.”
Throughout, Roberts’ psychological paradigm redefines resistance. His thesis underscores culture as a veritable means of projecting power in a disconsolate environment.
We are served with various interpretations of African song and dance by European writers, some, wilfully debasing, while others formed part of politically driven agendas. Of the latter, Roberts makes mention of J.W. Oderson’s The Fair Barbadian and Faithful Black, a misleading narrative that “presented a “faithful black” in Barbados playing a significant and influential role.
Roberts pens, “The black was not a tragic figure ... . Singing and dancing are openly used to signal the happiness and contentedness of the slaves, and the play ends, inevitably, with the slaves singing and dancing. Orderson’s intention in writing the play was to contradict what he regarded as abolitionist propaganda.”
Roberts extrapolates: “A fundamental and widespread belief among whites and others, which has come right down to today, is that European civilization improved Africans, and one way that is illustrated in the historical literature was to contrast the dumb, emaciated, newly arrived African with the bright, singing, and dancing slave.”
But displays of gaiety served another purpose: it was the ideal cover for seditious exploits. Slaves presumably took advantage of seasonal masquerades to organise active resistance, prompting suspicion, and in some cases, violent crackdowns. “There was the belief,” according to Roberts, “that slaves used the Christmas holidays as a mask for rebellious activities, [and that] divisions into parties might not have been totally innocent and featured women, because they were less likely to provoke white hostility.”
In conclusion, Roberts emphasises the subliminal and practical significance of culture for oppressed peoples: “There was admiration of wit and humour in songs, there was admiration of flair in dancing, there was admiration of the musician’s ability to transport participant’s beyond the mundane. On the other hand, there was not any great preference for individual music playing – music and dancing were predominantly part of group activities ... and a critical force for social bonding.”
The enslaved, he argues “refused to be reduced to a state of social, psychological or physical non-existence ... [using] songs to show their ingenuity, wit, humour, satirical intent and also a means of protest.”
Significantly, he continues: “They chose to sing rather than to talk in all these cases because singing was not only more expressive, but was also safer for their own self-preservation – it had a built-in veil of duplicity.”
A Response to Enslavement is an important and relevant study in existentialism. It explores the complexities of adaptation and the natural, evolutionary response to all forms of oppression. Creating alternative realities to survive – to be virtuous amid austerity– showcases the unimaginable resolve of the human spirit, a resolve that Roberts, with clinical insight, invariably captures.
Copyright 2019 Peter A. Jackson
Author: Peter A. Roberts
Publisher: University of the West Indies Press, Mona Jamaica
Available at Amazon