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Glenville Ashby | Colorism, religion and the black child

Published:Sunday | December 15, 2019 | 12:21 AM

Excerpts from ‘Conflict of Identity: From the Slave Trade - One Man’s Healing in Benin, Africa’

The black child forms his view of the world from his daily experiences. He reacts consciously and unconsciously to responses to his skin colour. The world is his mirror.

In the Judeo-Christian bible, there seems to exist an apology for the black skin. Solomon’s lover, a Shulamite, states, “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kear, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.”

No doubt, racism has been a major anomaly bedevilling the human race for a long time. After a 13-year war against the French, Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared independence and unveiled Haiti’s new constitution, which included a unique designation regarding race.

Article 14 reads:

“All meaning of colour among the children of one and the same family, of whom the chief magistrate is the father, being necessary to cease, the Haitians shall henceforth be known by the generic appellation of blacks.”

Interestingly, the people of Haitian descent were ‘black’, not in respect to colour, shade, or hue, but were part of homogeneous, ideological identity. In other words, the Constitution was a celebration of Haiti’s identity as a ‘black’ country.

This idealised concept of race, expectedly, never bore fruit. Dessalines was assassinated a year, later and Haiti plunged into a deep political divide fuelled by colour.

Arguably, every child is born into a racial world. His or her birth paper is stamped with a racial identity. Racial categorisation is the first official pronouncement of a child’s physical presence and a barometer of life ahead. Such is the power of race.

In the diaspora, this identity crisis is based more on colour than race.

It is from colourism that the false emerges. Self-worth and access to opportunities grew out of this colour scheme. Colonial societies were rooted in a phenomenon that shaped one’s social status, aesthetics, religion, politics, and economics.

The rape of enslaved women by white settlers, over time, produced a hierarchical society based on colour. For example, in Haiti, “a quadroon was half mulatto and half white, or one-fourth black. An octoroon was the child of a quadroon and a white, so their blood was one-fourth black at most. A griffe was half-black and half-mulatto, so they were at least three-fourths black and a sacatra was half griffe and half-black.”

Whiteness remained the ideal, but the many lighter hues and shades jockeyed for that identification in mannerisms and even physical appearance.

In his account of public dances, organised by mulattoes at the end of the 18th century, William Beckford writes, “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.” (Beckford 1790, 389).

JESUS WAS THE ULTIMATE EQUALISER

The majority, unable to escape the blight of their dark skin, sought meaning in their new faith. Jesus was the ultimate equaliser in a cruel world. Many slaves became fiery preachers, excoriating their listeners to denounce African practices or risk eternal damnation.

Christianity produced many faithful leaders among the enslaved. One such personage was George Liele, born a slave in Virginia in 1750 and who went on to become the first Baptist missionary in Jamaica.

In his book, Daddy Sharpe, Dr Fred Kennedy described the confusion that Christian teachings wrought among slaves who were inclined to their traditions.

“Slaves born in Africa (salt-water Negroes), in particular, displayed perplexity at the strange faith (Christianity) foisted on them while Creole clergymen are the fiercest of apologists. ‘Jesus, Oh Jesus, Jesus is near,’ they pray,” he writes.

In Maureen Warner-Lewis’s Archibald Monteath: Igbo, Jamaican, Moravian, “an enslaved convert claims to have washed himself of his ancestral roots. Named Aniaso in his native land of Ghana, Monteath eventually bought his freedom and became a pillar in the Moravian Church. A letter he wrote appears in the book’s appendix, an excerpt of which reads: ‘What grace, what mercy, that the Lord brought me, a poor African, born a heathen, despised slave, to the light! With sadness, I look across from our land here, to the land of my birth, heathen, dark Africa! Oh, that the light is the Gospel may soon brighten it!’”

This disturbing missive demonstrates a tug-of-war of values, a crisis of identity that still exists today.

 

- Dr Glenville Ashby is an award-winning author. His book, ‘Conflict of Identity: From the Slave Trade to Present Day – One’s Man’s Healing in Benin’, was released in October 2019. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and glenvilleashby@gmail.com, or tweet @glenvilleashby