Whiteness, Racism & Reparation

On Friday, I shared a post that popped up in my Facebook feed with the one-word comment: “Discuss”.

This was the article: How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question. The question in question is “Should our nation pay reparations to black people for the enslavement, mistreatment and economic exploitation of them and their ancestors over the past four hundred years?” The article is almost eighteen months old; if it were a human child, it’d be walking. I don’t know why it popped up in my feed on Friday past. One doesn’t ask these questions of Facebook’s algorithms (though perhaps one should). And it’s not a stand-alone. It’s part of a three-part meditation written back when the Trumpworld was still young enough to perhaps seem benign, if you squinted hard enough and had one glass eye. The other entries are these: A Reasonable Reparation and Paying My Reparations, both of which should also be read to inform the discussion. And it’s inspired by a different kind of essay, the kind that gets published in The Atlantic. The author of that one was Ta-Nehisi Coates.

What was interesting to me, and part of why I’m writing this entry (which may be a beginning of something perhaps), is that people took the one word to heart. Discussion was had—and, one hopes, is ongoing.

I’ll see if I can attempt to summarize the breadth of the discussion so far. And I’m going to try and contextualize the discussion as far as I can, because context adds an interesting filter.

  • There’s the observation that the article is oversimplistic, and that opposition to reparations does not mean that one is racist. This was an observation that was offered, and supported, by a number of people of all backgrounds (which is code, as far as this blog entry is concerned, for “races” as well gender, geographical placement, economic status, etc)

  • There’s the complete affirmation and reinforcement of the position offered in the article. This, too, was a position taken by people of most backgrounds (remember the code outlined above), but more so by people of African descent or by women of non-African descent

  • There’s the observation that the article is related specifically to the United States of America (which it is, because of course the world begins and ends at the borders of the USA)—with the implication that the argument might be different if it is applied in different post-slave societies with different histories. This was proposed by one or two people only

  • There’s the argument that reparations are irrelevant or impossible (not entirely sure which) because slavery is over and modern-day people who did not directly benefit from it should not have to pay for the injustices of their (or, perhaps preferably, other people’s) ancestors. This argument was not so evenly offered by people of all backgrounds; while there was some diversity, this argument tended to be put forth by men of whole or part European ancestry

  • There’s the argument that despite adverse circumstances in the past, despite a history of disadvantage, progress has been made either personally or collectively, and that progress eradicates or at least mitigates the damage done in the past. This argument tended to be advanced by men of mixed or non-African backgrounds

  • There’s the argument that the lines are not so easily drawn outside the USA, which defined “race” with a mathematical precision that ensured the continued oppression of many people who would not be recognized as “black”—unlike, say, the Caribbean or other parts of the Americas, where society endured and made room for more mixing, resulting in variants of pigmentation rather than monoliths of race. This argument was advanced most commonly by non-American women

  • There’s the argument that paying money for past wrongs is not a valid mode of compensation, because money is easily wasted. This was advanced by people of diverse backgrounds, most of them male

  • There’s the argument that the discussion does not need to be had, and in fact can be divisive and potentially negative. This was advanced by male individuals of mixed descent

  • There’s the argument that reparation is not about money, but about principle; money may be a fitting symbol, but it is not the point. This was advanced mostly by women.

One of the commenters asked me to write an article in a similar vein. Not sure I can do it, or that I haven’t already done it. But what I can do is begin a meditation inspired by the post and the ensuing discussion.

First things first: where I myself stand.

I shared the article because it was provocative, but also because I don’t buy the simple equation of anti-reparations = racist white person. In this regard I stand with those who raised the (obvious) question of what to do with/where to place those people who are not white and who don’t believe in reparations. I do, however, support the idea of reparations. No. That’s putting it mildly. I am utterly convinced that reparations for the institution of slavery must be paid. Moreover, I believe that they will be paid, eventually; if they are not, it is because the institution of democracy has failed, the concept of the human has died, and the ideas of human rights and humanity have become obsolete.


At the same time, I would also propose that the argument against reparations is itself racist. But it doesn’t follow that people who make the argument must be racist.

Aha, you say. A contradiction, you say. Absolutely. It is contradictory, but it is nevertheless very possibly true. It’s true because we still inhabit a world that was only made possible by half a millennium of the forced labour of millions of people whose humanity was stripped from them and their offspring in perpetuity, and whose humanity is only being returned to them (us) piece by bitter piece as our voices confront the institution and the world that it made and dismantle it bit by bit. Our entire reality is racist, and that racism shapes us all. It dwells in our deepest unconsciousnesses, no matter what our outward appearance might be. It lurks in the easy associations we all make, again and again, as easily as breathing: associations that link blackness with savagery, sexual appetite, violence, idiocy, brutality, dishonesty, laziness, criminality, shiftlessness, dirt, vagrancy, ugliness and filth, associations that link whiteness with purity, civility, intelligence, justice, law, industry, thrift, cleanliness, beauty and right. It lurks in our complete obliviousness to the brutality on which the institution of slavery depended. It lurks in our inability to recognize the perpetuation of that brutality in the daily life of the twenty-first century, brutality that lives on for all of us in expressions as apparently benign as “good hair” or as destructive as the reference to people who may be young and black as different sorts of animals (heifers, dogs, bitches, bucks, monkeys, cats, etc).

Reparations are necessary to expose these associations. They must be monetary because the crime was, in its origin, monetary. The current issue is barely how that money should be spent; the current issue is that to repair the great wrong done to the entire human race by the institution of chattel slavery (not just one group within it) it must be paid. That is the first level of the discussion. The rest of the discussion—the place where the idea of reparations opens up doors to creativity and innovation—is still to come.

But this is where I stand. As long as we conceive of the discussion as one which highlights racism, we miss the point. The point is that the kidnapping, sale, and enslavement of Africans, together with the entire systematic and ongoing dehumanization of the very idea of Africanness that was necessary to prop up the institution of slavery in an age of enlightenment, is a crime that continues into the present day. Think of James Byrd being dragged behind that truck. Think of the children forced to live in filth and captivity at the US border. Think of all the different mundane acts of violence, great and small, we accept as normal in the Caribbean. Think of the currency of these ideas: that the ripping of people from their homelands and the stripping of their identities from them is something that can be past, buried and done with, or that the robbing of land from the people who inhabited it and their eradication from public consciousness is simply the way the world is.

These are the parameters of that crime, and they continue. They replicate. They are supported. The political and economic elements of that crime may have passed away, perhaps. But the systems of dehumanization remain in place, and remain largely intact.

And. That crime is enacted not only on the descendants of the kidnapped. What we fail to see in the discussion we’ve been having so far is that the crime is perpetuated just as much on the kidnappers as well. In order to dehumanize the “other”, the people who designed and perpetuated the institution of slavery had to dehumanize themselves. They had to transform themselves into torturers, rapists and murderers, and they had to do so systematically and legally. They had to leave no room for the kind of doubt that might cause the system to fail, and so they built societies that legitimized and rationalized those actions.

It is that which must be repaired. This is a reparation that is far larger than the United States of America (which, after all is not the world). It is a reparation that has to happen to begin to rebuild us all.

President Trump

It's impossible to let this day pass without writing something about this title. I let Brexit go by because, well, I was stunned; I said my piece on the Bahamian gender referendum because I was disappointed. But not to say something about this election, which was historic, yes, and not the way I had wanted, would be a travesty.So let me say this: yes, I am disappointed. Profoundly so. But can I in all honesty be anything else? I am not an American. I could not vote. I had to leave it up to the American people to do their democratic duty, and they did it. As with Brexit, as with the Bahamian gender referendum, people participated in the democratic process the one way they were able. They had one vote, and they used it. And into that vote they channelled everything that they felt about themselves, their times, their nation.I'm entitled to think that, as with us on our referendum, as with the British on Brexit, the American electorate as a collective got it wrong. The world is heading in one direction and the voters in each of these three nations have chosen not to look that way. Rather, they all turned to look behind them at the world we are all leaving behind, while time inexorably moves us somewhere entirely different. The journey forward for all of us will be taken blindly: we're looking back. We're passing through twenty-first century reality and its challenges remain unseen.I don't think that this is accidental at all. I also don't think that it could have been avoided. Because what is happening across the world is that people are voting against their status quo. They are entirely aware, on a molecular level, that things have changed, that the ground has shifted beneath their feet, that the world they find themselves in is not the world for which they are prepared. But because their leaders have been unable or unwilling to articulate these changes, or perhaps even to acknowledge them, they are voting for a return to the past, or for a maintenance of an obsolete system. In Britain, the voters sought to withdraw from the collective of Europe in search of lost (possibly imperial?) times; here in The Bahamas, the voters chose to maintain legal inequalities between men and women in an effort to negate or neutralize women's real power in our nation; and now, in the USA, voters are electing to "make America great again"—this greatness being exemplified in the shaking of a big stick, the glorification of white skins, and the subordination of the female.But in not one case were the voters given a constructive choice. I'm pretty sure that those people who, like me, wanted different outcomes will rise up indignantly at this idea. What's not constructive about Hillary Clinton/the European Union/equal rights for women under the Bahamian constitution? But in imagining these things to be positive because we believe they are, considering them unquestionably as being absolute goods, we miss the point. For democracy is not about absolute and opposite goods. It is about dialogue and discussion—about true debate. If democracy is government by the people for the people, then all the people need to be involved in it somehow.What was critical and revealing about these three contests in 2016 was that there was very little debate involved. There was plenty of talk, and a lot of argument. There was plenty of threat and plenty of ridicule and lots of tearing down but very little building up. Democracy was not at work throughout the process. These elections were crafted the way reality shows are crafted: emphasizing the extreme differences in the matters (many of them, like the bogeyman immigrant and the spectre of gay monogamy, semi-fictional inventions) for the entertainment of the public rather than engaging in the full implications of the choices to be made.  The media in each case focussed more on the sensational surfaces of the contests than on the long-term implications of their outcomes.In every case, the contest went thus:

  1. an issue—two referenda and one presidential election—was fought on a national scale;
  2. the stakes in each were historically critical;
  3. the issues were presented in a binary fashion as though the contest was a clash between absolute good and absolute evil, without any attempt to find common ground between the two options;
  4. the stakes were not discussed in any historical or global context, and the implications of potential outcomes were not presented in any thoughtful or measured fashion.

Now the critical thing about the democracy we currently inhabit is this. Ultimately, the only power an individual has comes down to his or her ability to cast a vote. We have constructed systems in which the individual voice is reduced to a single moment in time, a moment when a choice is made, and that choice, in every case above, was a choice between two irreconcilable opposites.Voters vote they only way that they can. They make a choice. But they do not make free choices. They choose the thing that seems most right to them, most right for them, but they have no control over the ultimate outcome.The collective result, in every case I have mentioned, has been a step away from equality, from kindness, from civility, from generosity. In every case I have mentioned, the result has been a shrinking of self, a turning away from greatness.It's been protectionist. It's been risk-averse. It's been desperate.It has not been great.Let me make my position perfectly clear here. I am not seeking to belittle what has happened. I'm seeking to understand it on my terms, to recognize that in every case that has dismayed me, people have used their democratic right in good faith. And they have had the absolute right to do so. That they chose differently than I would is immaterial. That they chose differently from what will help them survive in the twenty-first century, though, is critical. And it raises the question. Why did so many people make choices that will not help them in the world we are entering? What went wrong?My conclusion: it's not their choices that were wrong. It's the system that made sure these were the only choices that were available. It is a system that divides those who disagree by a chasm that seems only crossable by violence and destruction.  It's a system that suggests that "democracy" has nothing to do with self-governance for the common good, but rather consists of a battle between two demonized adversaries, in which the winner takes all and the loser is crushed.So am I happy that Trump won this election? In no way. I have absolutely no confidence that the persona that he performed on the campaign trail has any resemblance to the man he actually is, and I think that we are all, Americans and the world alike, about to be royally screwed, God's will notwithstanding. But do I think that the "American public" were wrong for voting for him? Not at all. Each individual voted the only way they could: for themselves, for what they believed was the greatest good (for them). The outcome was beyond their control.Brexit, the Bahamian referendum, the American election: it's not the voters who are at fault in any of these events. It's the way we perform "democracy" that is the problem.

Telling the difference: Junkanoo vs Carnival

One of the most infuriating and insidious ideas that I have heard bandied about in the wake of this weekend's mega-party aka Bahamas Junkanoo Carnival is the idea that carnival is the natural evolution of Junkanoo. It's the kind of statement that leaves me (momentarily) speechless, and leads me to wonder how on earth any red-blooded Bahamian could even form his or her mouth to make it. But it reveals the depth of the ignorance about ourselves that we as a society have cultivated; and the general (could it be stunned?) silence on the part of the Junkanoo community suggests to me that even the junkanoo participants themselves don't know the difference. Gus Cooper is dead, after all, and Vola Francis is complicit in the introduction of Carnival to our shores, so those people who knew and who underlined the difference all my lifetime are silent now. People are happily burbling on about carnival being Junkanoo's next incarnation, about us "all being Africans, right?", about how carnival is the next stage in the development of Bahamian culture.

So gather round, children. I'm going to tell you a story. If you don't want to accept it, that's fine by me; but I assure you that the story I am going to tell is supported by the kinds of facts you can, if you want, check for yourselves. You can check them if you like by visiting the Bahamas Archives and digging through the newspapers on an annual basis around Christmastime (as I have done); you can follow up with visits to the American Library of Congress that documents these things, or by going to the Trinidad National Museum and examining the Carnival display there; or by going to New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro to read what they have to say; or you could do a little digging on the web to find out what Carnival is (but don't trust a thing that the internet has to say about Junkanoo). Just don't take for granted that what someone told you in primary school or on the radio has a modicum of truth. It's probably fiction of the highest order.

First, a little history. We all know the story of Columbus. But we may not all still be so aware of consequences of the engine he set in motion: the expansion of Europe into all of the spaces of the world, the depopulation of the islands of the  Caribbean, the repopulation of them with a motley crew of Europeans in the first instance, Africans in the second, and after the enslavement of those Africans, East Indians and people of Chinese descent. The age of European empires changed the population and the cultures of our region in ways we need to understand if we want to talk about Junkanoo and Carnival in the same breath.

Just about one hundred and fifty years after Columbus came to the Bahamas and introduced slavery and diseases that reduced the population of the Lucayans he met here to a fragment of their original size, the islands were settled by a different set of Europeans. These people called themselves the Eleutheran Adventurers, and unlike Columbus, who represented the Mediterranean, Catholic world, the settlers of The Bahamas were from the very inception Protestant and British. There are few other Caribbean islands which have this distinction. Bermuda is one; Barbados another; but most of the other islands had a Catholic presence in their histories, and many English speaking Caribbean countries (including Trinidad) changed hands from the Catholic French or Spanish to the British. This part of our imperial history is critical to understanding where the differences between Junkanoo and Carnival lie.

Now, a word about empires. We live in a postcolonial world, and so we may no longer be aware of the critical impressions made on our territories by the European powers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries; but those impressions, established over four hundred years, resonate today and cannot be overlooked. There were three major imperial powers that held control over the Caribbean region, and their influence continues even today in the languages we speak, the social structures we inherit, and—importantly—in the cultural practices we celebrate. The major ones were Spain, France, and Great Britain.

Now. Spain and France both held indigenous celebrations that they identified as carnivals. These celebrations had pagan roots, and they were linked with the spring and with Easter or Lent, and they were all practised in a similar way: they celebrated fertility, sexuality and the disruption of the regular social order by dancing in the streets for several days at a time, by putting on masks and costumes, and by turning society upside down. These were European celebrations, and the French, Spanish and Dutch settlers took them with them to their Caribbean colonies.For those who are interested, this is where the Catholic carnivals got their names. Most of these festivals are linked with the weekend directly preceding Lent (the forty days of fasting that leads up to Easter). The Catholic method of preparing for Lent, during which meat was not eaten, sex was shunned, and parties were cancelled in preparation for the death and resurrection of Christ, was to indulge in all of those sins and vices they would not be having for the next six weeks. The word "carnival" comes from the Latin carne (meat) and vale (farewell); and the other name given to this time, Mardi Gras, is the French for "Fat Tuesday", indicating that on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the tradition was to indulge in as many sweet things as one could.

The British, on the other hand, having broken with the Catholic church some time before they began to assemble their empire, had done away with this habit. Perhaps in an effort to set themselves apart from the Europeans and to ensure that they were no longer governed by the Catholic Popes, the British were beginning to focus their attention on Christmas as the main holiday in their Christian calendar. Easter was celebrated, and Lent observed, but the revelry associated with the pre-Lenten season was not part of the British customs by the time they moved into the Caribbean. The settlers' great feast took place at Christmas.

As the European empires grew—as they began to build them, let us be frank, on the backs of the forced labour of millions of kidnapped and enslaved Africans—these differences became entrenched. What was more, they were passed onto the people they enslaved. And here is the critical point. The Africans, too, had festivals and rituals that did similar things with costumes and role reversals that the Europeans did; but because the Africans came from many different places and because they were stripped of their languages and most of their cultural heritage by the systematic cruelties of the new slave societies, it is not as easy for us to identify what those rituals were as it is for us to name the practices of the Europeans. Still; even the enslaved Africans were given one or two days off a year. But with a difference.

In the Catholic empire, the masters celebrated their carnivals as they had done in their homes in Europe. The Africans were given the same holidays as the masters took, and because the carnival traditions, especially those in France and Spain, involved servants playing masters and masters playing servants, those Africans may have even been encouraged to take part in the carnivals. Whatever. Carnival as we know it today grew out of these cross-participations, out of this joining together of the Africans and the Europeans for these few days. Throughout the period of slavery, Carnival was celebrated by both. In the Americas, the carnivals that grew and flourished—those that took place in New Orleans, in Rio de Janeiro, and in Port of Spain, Trinidad—were influenced in music, dance and costuming by the Africans, but were not African in origin. Rather, they became what anthropologists and folklorists refer to as syncretistic celebrations. Syncretism is the word we give to an activity that combines African and European elements in such a way that the African is sometimes hidden, but still influential. The languages we speak in the Caribbean are products of this syncretism; many of the Caribbean religions—shango, santeria, vodoun—are similarly syncretistic with Roman Catholicism; and carnival/carnaval/Mardi Gras are syncretic festivals.

In the British empire, however, things were different. The enslaved people were given three days' holiday at Christmas. Rather than joining the masters in a big fete (the word is French, and it means festival or party), the enslaved celebrated in their own, African-based way. For whatever reason (we do not know the origin of the word, but the myth of the slave who started the festival is almost certainly a fabrication) these celebrations, which appeared across the British Americas, were called jankunuor, to use the British spelling which was used until the end of the twentieth century, John Canoe. They were also called masqueraders and gombeys. They came out at Christmas; they had very particular characters and dances; and they were performed almost exclusively to percussive instruments—drums, bells, and scrapers. Whistles and shells added different levels to the rhythms, but the masquerades are almost always percussive.

The jankunu festivals of the New World, then, are not syncretic festivals, as Carnival. They are African in character; they are linked with Christmas, not with Lent, and they are products of the British presence in the Caribbean. They also tend to be far more serious, even frightening, events than Carnival tends to be. There are definite similarities between the jankunu festivals and the carnivals: the masks, the costumes and the dancing are among them, but there the similarity stops. In almost every case, Carnival took place in conjunction with the European masters, and jankunu took place in isolation from them.

The one exception during slavery was Jamaica, the richest sugar colony, where the Europeans splurged at Christmas and mounted a series of events as part of their jonkonnu festivals that suggested that the Jamaican planters were familiar with the Mardi Gras balls of New Orleans. It is partly because of Jamaica's centrality as a sugar island that jonkonnu was first described there; but the fact that it was first recorded in writing in Jamaica should not be assumed to mean that what we called Junkanoo began there and travelled to the rest of the Caribbean. It makes more sense to see Junkanoo as a simultaneous resurrection of West African kono (harvest) festivals across the Americas, and this would help to explain the occurrence throughout the jankunu new world of figures of animals, cowbells, and the like, while in Carnival many of the carnival characters have connections with European figures.What is also important to recognize is that in almost every territory where jankunu was celebrated—except The Bahamas and Belize—jankunu has all but disappeared. The John Kuners of the Carolinas are gone altogether. The Gombeys of Bermuda are struggling to survive. In Jamaica, the jonkonnu figures appear at Christmas but they do not attract a whole lot of attention. In the southern Caribbean, the Christmas masqueraders appear, but they do not get the same focus or merit the same admiration as the carnivals that take place in those same territories. Only in Belize, where what we call jankunu is practised as a central part of being Garifuna (or Black Carib), is it flourishing. And in The Bahamas, of course—where its evolution into a major street festival that can rival and even defeat Carnival has yet to be wholly explained.

And so: our Junkanoo may not be indigenous, but it is certainly unique. It alone of all the jankunu festivals has not only survived, but grown, and moreover has become a fundamental marker of Bahamian identity. (People from the Turks and Caicos might claim that their Junkanoo has also survived, but I would argue that their Junkanoo and our Junkanoo are part and parcel of the same phenomenon.) For some scholars, like Ken Bilby who gave what we used to call John Canoe the name that I've been using throughout, what we have done to Junkanoo is to move it from its core roots in African spiritual ancestral connections by engaging in a conscious hybridization of our own. But the fact remains that our Junkanoo is the one of all the John Canoes in the Americas to have grown stronger and to flourish.

Until now, perhaps.

So where do we get the idea that there is no difference between Junkanoo and Carnival, that Carnival is an "evolution" of Junkanoo? The late twentieth century, which is the period of independence, has been a time in which Junkanoo artists and practitioners sought eagerly to make connections with others who were doing similar things throughout the Americas. Because of the African contributions to all these festivals, the visual  aspects of Mardi Gras, Trinidad Carnival and Junkanoo have many connections, and during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Junkanoo leaders and participants travelled throughout the Catholic world learning and borrowing and adopting and fuelling innovation in the Junkanoo parade. But until now, we never mixed up the two festivals. Until now we understood that we could borrow aesthetic and structural elements, we could learn from one another, but we did not have to think that one was the junior of the other.

Until now, we have understood what Vola Francis himself has always observed, that Junkanoo is a spirit. There is more truth in that statement than he understood; for the John Canoe festivals, unlike Carnival, are almost certainly derived from the African practices of connecting with the ancestors. This is why our festival is linked with the nighttime, and why severing that link may also be dangerous. Rather than coming from the European habit of saying goodbye to the flesh, there is something transformative and spiritual in the Junkanoo that we practice. (People will argue with me that there is something transformative about Carnival too, and they will be right, but bear with me here.) As Gus Cooper was always fond of saying, there were two fundamental and critical elements that separated Carnival and Junkanoo. The first was that Junkanoo participants make their own costumes. They do not buy them. The process of making them is a critical one, and one that is linked deeply and ancestrally with this invocation of a spirit. It is an African spirit, and it is something that has nourished us from our beginnings. It cannot be replaced by the purchasing of a feathered costume, a commodity. That is play-acting; what Junkanoo does is akin to worship.

And the second one is that Junkanoo performers play their own music, live, on their feet, and dance while they do so. They do not have canned music played for them; they make their own. This custom, that of making one's own costume and playing one's own music, is fundamental to the Junkanoo world; it is part, too, of what links Junkanoo to its African, rather than its European, roots. And Junkanoo music is a serious thing. Traditional Junkanoo instruments (which do NOT include horns, sorry) have always been both musical instruments and weapons of war. Before there was a competition there were physical confrontations on the street. That these confrontations were ritualized, often musicalized, is immaterial. Carnival has always privileged its elements of play. Junkanoo has always privileged the rhetoric of war.

Now we may not like these differences. We may want to ignore them, or to downplay them, or to wish them away. Nevertheless, they are there. Junkanoo and Carnival are not the same thing. One is not an evolution of the other. They come from different roots, although they look similar on the surface, and they convey different meanings. Our society may well have room for both of them. But let us have no more discussions that try to pretend that they are one and the same. They are, most emphatically, not.