Ahmed Reid | No place for Orville Taylor's ageism in modern society
In my article, 'What Orville Taylor Got Wrong' (Gleaner, July 22, 2018), I stated that Taylor's views about West Africans "is clearly lacking in context and a true understanding of historical facts". My views have not changed. In fact, having read his response (The Gleaner, July 29,2018), I am now more convinced than ever that Taylor's position is problematic, if not deeply flawed. The role of an academic and public intellectual is not only to state "irrefutable historical fact[s]," as Taylor sees his role, but to provide readers with much broader historical context over the longue duree because facts are not always just facts. Indeed, so-called "facts" in colonial Caribbean history are always contested.
I was disappointed, though not surprised, by Taylor's ad hominem response. The main point I raised (the need for Taylor to provide historical context, about Africa's role in the trade in Africans) was never addressed. His statement, and generalisation about West Africans, is bereft of context and it shows a deep misunderstanding of Africa during European contact. I was expecting a discussion on these issues, not my age. Taylor's "dog-whistle" that I am his "younger exuberant colleague", his "younger colleague", the "misguided critique by my younger colleague", and his statement that he has" been flogging that horse since he was in school" is distasteful and ageist. Such ageist views are discriminatory and have no place in any modern society. I might be relatively younger than Taylor, but my age and training do not preclude me from identifying flawed reasoning or the many weaknesses I highlighted.
While many associate ageism with discrimination against the elderly, it carries devastating consequences for young people as well. There are many talented young people in our society who are denied positions because "they are too young". Such views are an insult to the thousands of young, bright, and talented men and women who have worked hard to help chart Jamaica's future and to meet the development challenges of the 21st century. Taylor intimated that I am "misguided" simply because I had the audacity to "flag" him on the importance of contextualisation, something that a more careful academic would have known and come to appreciate.
Taylor's black activism no special feat
Rather than engaging in a meaningful and enriching discussion, Dr Orville Taylor sought to parade his activist credential, which amounted to his support of a well-known reparation advocate and joining the thousands of Jamaicans who turned out to honour their ancestors at Kingston Harbour in March 2007, an event, incidentally, that as a young assistant, I helped organise. He went on to mention that "against dissenting voices, including some from my university, I've pushed black pride, 'Africentricity', reparations, and recognition of the stains of plantation life long before it was fashionable and certainly before my primary place of employment ... created a centre and made reparations its official position".
But what Taylor failed to mention to his readers is the "irrefutable fact" that he is not a "stand alone". What he is taking credit for is nothing new. And this is exactly the problem when one takes a narrow approach to historical examination.
There is a rich academic tradition at the University of the West Indies that has sought to instill black pride in Caribbean people. There was Walter Rodney, who, despite dissenting voices within the university, "grounded" with oppressed youths in Hermitage and August Town. Doyens such as George Beckford and others from the plantation economy school produced insightful and impactful studies on the legacies of the plantation system. Cultural icons such as Rex Nettleford and Barry Chevannes spent their entire careers teaching black pride.
There are many other Pan Africanists at the university who have made sterling contributions. All he had to do was to examine the history of that noble institution since its creation in 1948, and the writings of these intellectual giants, and he would have realised the rich tradition. As Walter Rodney opined, "the faculty and programme at UWI were helpful ... they were at least raising the nationalist question, and by raising the nationalist question, it ultimately pointed me, for instance, in the direction of Africa" (Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual).
I would also encourage Taylor to spend some time looking at the genealogy of the reparation movement because Rastafari carried the flame of reparation and repatriation.
Taylor's obsession with the "divisive influence of the plantation" is a narrow interpretation of plantation life, and it does not provide a full account of the experiences of enslaved people during the period. Furthermore, his account lacks the broad outlines of the power dynamics within the plantation complex. This is evident when he stated that "among the enslaved victims on plantations, we failed to see the larger picture. Thus, Sam Sharpe was betrayed by his peers. In the 1760 Tacky Uprising ... he was snitched on by other Africans".
The larger picture, I might add, is what Sam Sharpe and those brave freedom fighters achieved during the 1831-32 War for Emancipation despite British brutality and a system of divide and rule encouraged by enslavers who paid some black people to fight on their side. Had Taylor taken the long view, he would have noticed that the 1831-32 War was the culmination of a 200-year anti-slavery/anti-colonial war.
The liberation ideology espoused by Nanny, Chief Tackyi, Sam Sharpe, and the thousands of men and women who stood on the right side of history to fight the brutal system of enslavement and terror that colonial Britain unleashed on them is worth highlighting. It was this war, which came after a series of reverberations that started in Haiti (1791-1804), then Barbados (1816), and Guyana (1823), that sent shockwaves across the enslaving nations of Europe. The message was clear as Eric Williams noted: if it was not "emancipation from above, it would be emancipation from below". It was this "self-liberation ethos" that led to emancipation.
Over 600 enslaved people lost their lives fighting this war. Their names were unveiled in Sam Sharpe Square, Montego Bay, in 2007, and a rededication ceremony was held there on August 1, 2018.
The story of our enslaved ancestors effecting their own emancipation is a tale of triumph; an enriching tale that every Jamaican should be taught. In this long tradition of fighting for justice, our ancestors were never afraid to challenge systems of domination. We are forever indebted to them; their names we should never forget.
Furthermore, exploitation, dehumanisation, brutalisation, and ultimately death was the reality of the plantation experience in the Caribbean. It is worth noting that over 1.5 million enslaved Africans were forcefully relocated to Jamaica between 1670 and 1807, yet when the trafficking in Africans was outlawed in 1807, the island's enslaved population was just above 310,000. The work demands placed on the enslaved population shaped their demographic experiences during the 18th century. The intensity of the gang system, for example, meant that field workers, the majority of whom were women, toiled for more than 60 hours per week. This was doubled during periods of harvesting.
Speaking about the high mortality and low fertility of enslaved women, one commentator noted, "The impact of the sugar labour system upon mothers can be inferred." It is within this genocidal system that enslaved people created "a subaltern economy", where they were relentless in their quest to become autonomous economic agents. Our enslaved ancestors used their "leisure time" and the proceeds from Sunday markets to forge an alternative lifestyle, to improve the quality of their diets and to possess and own property even though they themselves where considered property by enslavers. Despite the oppressive and repressive tendencies of enslavers, the plantation was a site for the creative expressions of our ancestors as seen in their cultural retentions.
The notion that a critique of one's position is a legacy of the "divisive influence of the plantation" is ludicrous and not worthy of further comment. I did read Taylor's article, and my conclusion has not changed. Unfortunately, I have come to expect more of the same.
- Dr Ahmed Reid, from the City University of New York, is visiting professor at the Centre for Reparation Research at UWI.