Mon | Apr 19, 2021

Alfred Dawes | The left behinders

Published:Sunday | February 28, 2021 | 12:12 AM

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. – Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

As we close the celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded that history texts will be written about our own lives. Since no amount of spin doctoring will prevent history from being unkind in her characterisation of our era, it is worth a peek into this real Black History that our grandchildren will learn, in the hope that we, in writing the texts as we live, will see it fit to change the story for the better.

Far from being a uniformly Black continent, Africa was a potpourri of different shades and sizes of Aboriginals with distinct cultures and languages. Phenotypically black Bantu-speaking tribes from Eastern Nigeria and Cameroon were able to expand throughout Africa after domesticating crops that sustained larger populations that diversified skills and displace hunter gatherers. Pygmies, Koi, San and Nilo-Saharan peoples were eliminated throughout sub-Saharan Africa by the Bantu farmers and their steel weapons, with only traces of their population and languages assimilated by the Bantu remaining. Complex societies developed and traded with Asian and European countries and they established universities and major urban centres.

SYSTEMATIC OPPRESSION

The ‘discovery’ of the Americas saw the exploitation of natural resources on a large scale. Europeans, who lagged the rest of the Old World in development, soon found that they could level the playing field with the Ottoman Empire and Asian powers if they exploited not just gold, but the land to grow crops in their newly created colonies. The climate and the burden of plantation labour led them to replace their local Amerindian slaves with West Africans sold to them by other Africans. Thus began the second Bantu migration, albeit a forced one, that saw 12 million Africans transported to the new world to a life of forced labour. The wealth generated by slavery fuelled a grab for colonies across the world and the propulsion of Europe as the centre of world technology, politics and warfare for the next 500 years. In the 19th century, first the slave trade and then slavery in the colonies were banned. The Western Bantus were now nominally free.

The lot of the former slaves hardly changed post-emancipation and systemic oppression and the psychological conditioning passed down from slavery kept Blacks at the bottom of society, with no money, land, or access to opportunities. In the Caribbean, the Blacks led rebellions against the oppressive system, notably in Jamaica in 1865 and across the West Indies in 1938. However, very little changed until the former colonies became independent and majority rule in the islands saw the descendants of the slaves becoming rulers of the lands their ancestors toiled. In North and South America where larger white majorities formed the independent Governments, the Blacks still had to contend with systemic racism, especially in Brazil and the United States. It is at this point that the histories of the Western Bantu diverge.

In the Black minority countries, the fight was for equal rights and justice in their White-ruled societies. Police brutality, exploitative and suppressive government policies and systemic racism defined the struggles of the Blacks from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Whereas some were able to escape the generational curse, being lettered or moneyed did not erase the stain of Blackness that relegated them to second-class citizenship in their own lands. In the islands it was different. The struggle was more of a classist and colourist revolt with Blacks peacefully erasing the class lines drawn based on skin shade. With majority rule, there was a push for greater social reforms that paved the way for predominantly Black middle, upper and political classes. One would think that the dream of the ancestors was fulfilled in the island nations, but the illusion would last only as long as the lies would be believed.

NEW BLACK ELITE

The opportunities that education, business opportunities and political largesse created led to the formation of a new Black elite in the early post-independence era. This new elite immediately defined themselves as extraordinarily different from those left behind in the great development race. They married those on equal or greater educational and financial footing and raised children with ambitious values that guaranteed the preservation of their new elitism across generations. The children of the Black elite never had to handle the psychological, social and financial barriers of the offspring of the Left Behinders and easily progressed through life, without considering the luck of the birthright lottery that landed them educated, financially stable parents. Meanwhile, in the ghettos the Left Behinders grappled with high levels of crime, unequal application of laws, limited educational opportunities and a survival-in-this-moment prioritisation. Long-term investments in education were relegated to the few who never returned to be role models when they joined the elite.

The fiery protests of the minority Western Bantus in White-ruled countries contrasted with the relatively silent acceptance of their fate by the Left Behinders in Western Bantu-ruled countries. What silence was even more deafening was that of the good people in the Black neo-elite, who allowed the divide to widen even as inequality fell worldwide. Studies of the Western Bantu revealed heterogeneous societies with one shared theme – the divisions created in plantation society were passed down through several generations and led to the inability of the Blacks to see themselves as an African diaspora but rather akin to elitist house slaves and field slaves in a world still controlled by the former colonisers.

- Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic, and weight-loss surgeon; Fellow of the American College of Surgeons; former senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Public General Hospital; former president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association. @dr_aldawes. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and adawes@ilapmedical.com.