Wed | Aug 5, 2020

Glenville Ashby | The plantation syndrome and its impact today

Published:Sunday | December 22, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Excerpts from Conflict of Identity: From the Slave Trade to Present Day – One Man’s Healing in Benin, Africa

The Plantation syndrome is not unlike Stockholm syndrome – a term that was used by psychiatrist Nils Bejerot after a bank robbery and hostage situation unfolded in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973. During the five-day crisis, the hostages began to identify with their captors to the point of seeing the police as the main threat. They refused to testify against their captors.

An identical psychological scenario was played out in the 1974 case of Patty Hearst, the kidnapped daughter of a wealthy California family. While in the captivity the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), Hearst was radicalised. She denounced her former life and identified herself as an urban guerilla, stating, “Tell everybody that I’m smiling, that I feel free and strong, and I send my greetings and love to all the sisters and brothers out there.”

The case of Monteach, the Igbo and extreme Christian apologist who bought his freedom, comes to mind. His letter, an excerpt from which appears later, demonstrates the hold that the Church had on his psyche. He held that the enslavement of Africans, if only to save their heathen hearts, was a worthy pursuit, despite the steep price in blood.

The unapologetic embrace of the oppressor to the point of self-annihilation characterises the plantation syndrome. Many slaves suffered from this psychological trait, and it is easy to understand why.

In the two cases previously mentioned, the victims were in captivity for a couple of days. Now imagine this dynamic in the context of centuries-long captivity. Imagine that this imprisonment was part of a larger institutionalised system that reinforced the beliefs and values of the captors. Imagine that a compensatory system was added to reinforce acquiescence and punish resistance.

UNCONSCIOUS ADAPTIVE TRAIT

The plantation syndrome is not so much a disorder but an unconscious adaptive trait and defence against ego fragmentation.

It makes sense that we in the diaspora are still victims of the plantation syndrome. This is understandable, given centuries of wily conditioning. We adapted to survive, but many of the behaviours and values that we adopted, in the process, have been destructive. We have unconsciously adopted the false self that has resulted in a host of psychological maladies that have destroyed our communities and us.

Author and lecturer Neely Fuller Jr referred to the conditions in which blacks live as prison-like. Blacks, he argues, are conditioned to accept and believe that their existence is natural in the prison created by what he calls the “system of white supremacy”.

Making the analogous connection to animals in their natural habitat, he states, “The fish is born in water, so the fish is not aware of water until it is out of it. If you are born in prison (and black people are born in prison), you think it is normal, it is natural. You never question racism. You might say, ‘What are you talking about? I am happy’.”

He calls such a person “firmly indoctrinated and unaware of his situation”.

It is in this prison that maladaptive, even pathological, behaviours are normalised. Not unlike in prisons, life is harsh, and inmates assume different personas to survive.

In Fuller’s prison model and my plantation model, race and colour are psychologically punitive, but they define existence. According to Fuller, “The black skin is our uniform.” It is through language, symbols, laws, religion, entertainment, sex, politics, and economics that blackness is defiled and rendered expendable. The violence in both models is a representation of attempts at destroying the despised, the hateful, and the rejected within us.

Neely argues, “If you look at yourself in the mirror, you see something you despise. You despise anything that looks like you: your mother, your neighbours. You despise them because they are dark.”

WE LASH OUT

Angry and frustrated by our own plight and incapable of violently ending our own lives, we lash out and kill those who look like us.

Depersonalisation, or the stripping away of one’s humanity, is one characteristic of the plantation model. The scarred individual goes through life in an instinctive, self-serving way.

Note that I have used the word ‘de-culturing’ in the same context. This is because culture, applied correctly, builds, enlighten, and refines individuals and societies. In the modern plantation, or prison system, residents regress to the pre-Oedipal, primal stage of existence. Here, survival is paramount.

That many on the modern plantation regress to this stage reflects the desperation for meaning and identity, failure of which results in internal rage that feeds on itself in the form of self-anesthetisation, suicide, suicide by cop, and health-related problems such as obesity. When turned outward, the modern plantation is consumed with organised and random violence that is lethal.

- 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,