Mon | Dec 5, 2022

Michael Abrahams | Enduring legacy of slavery

Published:Tuesday | September 27, 2022 | 12:06 AM
Michael Abrahams
Michael Abrahams
A man photographs a maquette of a slavery memorial statue at City Hall, London, in August 2008.
A man photographs a maquette of a slavery memorial statue at City Hall, London, in August 2008.
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The Transatlantic slave trade was not an event. It was an ongoing system of brutality and dehumanisation that our African ancestors endured for over 300 years. Unfortunately, when Emancipation was announced in 1838, the torment did not cease....

The Transatlantic slave trade was not an event. It was an ongoing system of brutality and dehumanisation that our African ancestors endured for over 300 years. Unfortunately, when Emancipation was announced in 1838, the torment did not cease. Colonial rule continued, and with it came an unrelenting cycle of oppression and exploitation of black people.

One of the most enduring and painful legacies of slavery is our low self-esteem and rejection of ourselves. We became an independent nation in 1962 but remain tethered to the influence of colonialism. The enslavers and colonisers spent centuries convincing the enslaved and colonised that the white man was superior and that anything black or of African origin was inferior. Indeed, they presented images of a white Messiah resembling them to their captive audiences, who they coerced into accepting him as their saviour, or else face the consequence of burning in Hell for eternity.

Their efforts were not in vain. Today, when many of us look in the mirror, we do not like what we see. Colourism is rife in our country, and phrases such as “anything too black can’t good” and “black and ugly” are commonly uttered, ironically often by dark-skinned people. In the not-too-distant past, dark-skinned black people have been deemed unworthy of specific jobs and positions, and today we see many successful black men seeking ‘brownings’ as spouses, while ‘bleaching’ remains rampant.

REJECT OUR HAIR

We reject our hair, too. Terms such as ‘good’ or ‘pretty’ hair, to describe straight hair, versus ‘bad’ hair, when referring to hair of black African origin, are common. We find one of the most glaring examples of the enduring legacy of slavery in the dress codes of some educational institutions and workplaces. There are instances where Afrocentric hairstyles such as Afros, Nubian knots, Bantu knots, cane rows and dreadlocks are banned and deemed inappropriate for school or the workplace. However, Eurocentric hairstyles are accepted in these same institutions, even if the wearers resort to wigs and weaves to achieve the desired look. There is no rational reason why in a country with a predominantly black population, a woman wearing neatly styled Nubian knots to work should be reprimanded, while her co-worker who styles her hair to look like Queen Elizabeth is accepted.

Discrimination also persists regarding our language. There is no denying that the ‘Queen’s English’ is an effective means of communication. I am using it to communicate with you now, and I love and embrace it. But Patois, our native tongue, has been denigrated by the ‘upper echelons’ of society for a very long time. In my youth, it was discouraged in my home, and I was acquainted with other youngsters who were also under strict orders not to use it, lest they be reprimanded or even beaten.

And, speaking of beating, the rampant use of corporal punishment in our country is also a component of the legacy of slavery. Enslavers beat our ancestors mercilessly or even tortured them for their transgressions, and this occurred throughout multiple generations. Today, it is not uncommon for Jamaicans to speak of getting a ‘buss a**’, or severe beating, from a parent or guardian for a misdeed. To strike a fellow human being with a hand, belt, ruler, tree branch, fan belt, electrical cord, or other weaponised instrument is barbaric. Decades of research have found that corporal punishment does more harm than good, but in Jamaica, savagely beating children has been normalised. Research has indeed found that societies that have been enslaved or colonised, such as ours, utilise corporal punishment significantly more than societies devoid of such histories.

VIOLENCE AND CRUELTY

The violence and cruelty meted out to our enslaved foreparents have affected our family structure, too. Back in the day, on plantations, slave owners had no respect for slaves and their families. Masters would rape and impregnate women in front of their spouses and children, and sodomise men in front of similar audiences to humiliate them and keep them in line. They would also force healthy males to mate with healthy females, even if they were first-degree relatives (such as mother and son), to produce what they hoped would be strong and healthy offspring who would be good workers. After generations of this decimated family structure, the effects still linger. It is therefore not surprising that most Jamaicans are raised in single-parent homes, and absent parents, especially fathers, are customary.

After Emancipation, slaves were not given any land or financial aid to begin their new lives, and the disparity regarding wealth between dark-skinned and white or light-skinned Jamaicans persists to this day. Also, the intergenerational trauma resulting from the plethora of injustices has unsurprisingly contributed to a relatively high incidence of mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The legacy of slavery haunts us. However, acknowledging the existence of this legacy and how it affects us will help mitigate its effects on our society. It is incumbent on us to educate our youth about the acceptance of their skin. We must call out colourism and African hair discrimination and encourage efforts to legitimise Patios. We must also educate parents, and prospective parents, about the potential harm corporal punishment and absence from the home and their children’s lives can cause, and prioritise education about wealth creation. And we must do all we can to destigmatise therapy and mental health issues.

We are still hurting, and we continue to hurt one another. But we can heal. Our history does not have to be our destiny.

Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator and human-rights advocate. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @mikeyabrahams.