CariCom, finally officially supporting the demand for reparations from Britain for their enslavement of millions of Africans in the Caribbean, should base the claims not only on the historical damage wrought by the “peculiar institution” but also by its still insidious manifestations in the present; summarised by the heuristic, “marginalisation”. Reparations obtained could be used to address this existential marginalisation. The following will initiate a series originally offered in 2008.
The debate about African marginalisation in Guyana has been conducted without sufficient attention to the underlying world-view or paradigm, which unfortunately structures the arguments in a veritable cul de sac in which we just snarl at each other. That worldview, which we share along with literally the rest of the world to some extent, is so contaminated at its deepest level with race and racism – specifically anti-African racism – that it distorts our judgement, even our capacity to reason – when subjects like marginalisation – especially African marginalisation – are scrutinized.
The term marginalisation is derived from the word “margin” which means to be on the edge, the periphery, or on the outer limits etc. – away from some centre. When applied to groups within a society, marginalisation would imply the agreement of what constituted the valued goods that define the “centre” and one or more groups excluded from those goods. In the sense of lived experience, marginalisation often includes exclusion, discrimination, rejection, omission as well as isolation. As with any social phenomenon, one does not have to be Marxist to appreciate that a historical inquiry can shed useful insights into understanding the practice.
In our estimation, the African experience in the “New World” defines the word “marginalisation”. Following the peformative inability of the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean to withstand the labour demands and diseases of the Spaniards (evidenced by ninety percent of them dying off within decades of Columbus’ arrival) the Christian Church recommended the importation of Africans as slaves. Unlike with the Amerindians, they could discern no sign of a soul in the latter group and deemed beyond salvation. They were fair game for slavery – or extermination for that matter.
The enthusiastic entry of the English, French, Dutch etc, ensured that some 18 million Africans were eventually dragged across the Atlantic, but the fact that only 600,000 survived at “Emancipation” in 1834 offers a clue to their prior living conditions. The appallingly barbaric treatment, which included stupefying physical brutalisation, destruction of families, wrenching away of languages and cultures etc. demanded the creation of some sort of rationalisation since Europeans were supposed to be “civilised” while doing all of this.
In the beginning, slaves who worked alongside white European indentured slaves, were simply defined as “heathens” and could be kept on the margins as such. It was when they started to convert to Christianity that colour became the marker to distinguish them from the “mainstream”. The concept of “race” was created and transmuted into racist practice that relegated and maintained Africans to the margins of society especially from the 18th century onwards.
As I wrote in 1993, “Race and racism, as we know them today, are very modern constructs arising out of a European 18th century discourse that ran parallel with the European conquest of the rest of the world and especially with the justification of African slavery. Notable names such as Hume, Kant and Hegel were involved in the project, which gave a social significance to physical markers. This is illustrated in Hume’s position that, “negroes… are naturally inferior to the whites”, and Kant’s view, summarised by his comment, “this fellow was quite black …a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”
My contention is that “race and racism” are part and parcel of the “Western Enlightenment,” project exported as one weapon in the European arsenal of imperialistic conquest. “African and Black” were constructed as the binary opposite to “European and White” and like all dualities it is not possible to eliminate one without the other. Racism is not a phenomenon that ended with the abolition of slavery – and it has not ended even though many assert that “race” has no objective existence. It persists in the totality of its relations that have become imbricated on the sinews of the “civilization” that we all practice.
Following Foucault, one can consider “racism” as a discursive field that incorporates beliefs, descriptions and actions, and the principles on which racist institutions are based. The discursive formation would include the normative rules and norms – including laws and moral rules about how we “ought” to act towards each other.
In the words of Cornell West, racism discourse is a product of the “structure of modern discourse…the controlling metaphors, notions, categories and norms that shape the predominant conceptions of truth and knowledge in the modern west.”
As I wrote in 2006, West assures us that “there is the lingering effect of slavery and past discrimination in the continued attack on black humanity and racist stereotypes which are designed to destroy black self-image”. This, if true, would of course, ensure the continued marginalisation of Africans in general.
To appreciate its possible continued impact on the marginalisation of Africans in Guyana, one must inquire into the extent to which the premises of the old discourse of race and racism has survived into our particular socio-historical conjuncture and continued to influence our thinking. To suggest how difficult this project would be is to consider that even the empirical sociological tools we would probably use such as, say, social psychology, are all contaminated with premises of “races”, “racial differences” and “racial attitudes”.
Guyanese you are being prostituted by your politicians!
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