Basil Jarrett | Slavery still holding us back
The police beating and subsequent killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, on January 7 was shades of George Floyd, 2020. Except this time, it wasn’t a gang of white police officers thrashing an unarmed black man. All five officers involved in this latest episode of ‘driving while black in America’ are black, an interesting departure from the typical narrative.
Regardless of what Tyre Nichols did prior to being pulled over, beaten and killed, there is no excuse for what we saw on that body cam and CCTV footage. Nowhere in the training manual of any United States police department is it prescribed to punch, kick and baton an unarmed, unthreatening suspect; worse, one with his hands handcuffed behind his back and lying on the ground screaming for his mother. I suspect that this is why all five officers involved have been fired and are facing serious charges of murder, kidnapping, assault, and misconduct. Even three firefighters who were on the ambulance that took Nichols to the hospital have been taken off duty as President Joe Biden calls for peaceful protest.
Last month’s incident is a disturbing way to usher in February, traditionally celebrated as Black History Month in the United States. It is sad, though, that as we do so each year, the conversation around black history almost always starts and ends around the legacies of the Atlantic slave trade. It’s as if black people never existed before we were first brought over in the bellies of slave ships. Imagine the lasting psycho-social impact on a people whose origin story began with them being someone’s property, carefully commoditised, packaged and shipped via the Middle Passage, with logistical allowances being made for spoilage along the way.
Unfortunately, the legacies of those 350 years cannot be erased in the six decades since the Civil Rights Movement, as the plantation still influences us to this day. In post-colonial Jamaica, one of our greatest challenges has been to overcome the psychological impact of five centuries of European racism and colonial rule. One need not look very far to truly appreciate the depth and complexity of this legacy.
We may no longer be on the plantation, but in many respects, the plantation is still very much with us. When Backra would separate families by selling off sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and even entire families indiscriminately to different purchasers, never to see each other again, is it any wonder that so many black men still fail to live up to their paternal duties as fathers and providers for their families? And from that same situation, is it any wonder that our black women continue to find the uncommon strength to single-handedly provide food, clothing, schooling and shelter for their children? Thankfully, no. But not all of the positive survival mechanisms that we employed on the plantation have aged as well. Some have actually turned out to be quite debilitating in today’s reality.
THE HOUSE NEGRO
Take the anti-informer culture, for instance. It is tempting to romanticise slavery as an eternal struggle between the strong, rebellious, freedom-fighting slave protagonists and the oppressive, colonial, slave-owning antagonists. The truth is, though, that there is an often overlooked third party in the slavery narrative. Some historians call him Uncle Tom. Malcolm X called him the ‘House Negro’. In deference to all my friends named Tom, I will use the latter nomenclature. Malcolm described the House Negro as that slave who “lived close to his master in the big house, dressed like his master and wore his master’s second-hand rags. He ate leftovers from his master’s table and when his master said, “We have good food,” he would say, “Yes Masa, we have plenty of good food.” When his master was sick, the House Negro would say, “What’s the matter Masa, is we sick?” And when those troublesome field slaves would light the cane fields, the House Negro would fight harder than even his master to put out the fire. If slavery existed today, the House Negro would be the one gushing over a selfie with Backra and posting it on Instagram.
Clearly, the House Negro was not to be trusted, as he would often sell out the freedom fighters to his beloved lord and master. It was here that the distrust and disgust towards informants started and has endured to this day.
TODAY’S REAL THREAT
But Backra Master and the plantation no longer exist – at least not in a literal or physical sense. We are no longer being strangled by the man with the whip, but rather, by the tight noose of crime, violence and one of the highest corruption indices in the Caribbean. These are the real threats to a prosperous Jamaica, but unfortunately, that anti-reporting culture continues to hold us back, as too many of us would rather see no evil, hear no evil – until, of course, that evil reaches our own doorsteps or bank accounts.
We must overcome these debilitating psychosocial burdens if we are to truly create a safe and economically prosperous country. Criminals of both the white-collar and the bleached-out-face variety must know that Jamaica is no longer a safe haven. Those who cozy up to the rampant corruption and systematic criminality, hoping to benefit from its largesse and ill-gotten gains, must be shunned and brought to open disgrace. When persons start to name and shame and report criminals, is, to my mind, a good first start.
In preparing this article, I want to acknowledge the contributions of my high-school history teachers, Alrick Josephs and Viviene Grant-Barrett, who first lit this fire of black consciousness in me. Between those classes at Jamaica College and a steady diet of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and KRS-One’s Edutainment EP, I recognised from early on that while we must acknowledge the impact of slavery and colonialism on our national psyche, we must not allow it to hold our future or our children’s future hostage. That lesson is sadly, still lost on many of us to this day.
Major Basil Jarrett is a communications strategist and CEO of Artemis Consulting, a communications consulting firm specialising in crisis communications and reputation management. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.