The 51st anniversary of Barbados’ Independence will forever be firmly and irreplaceably etched in my psyche. For all of my years of lived experience, the events surrounding the dawn of the 51st anniversary carried the most total symbolism of what Independence in Barbados could mean – and indeed should mean.
Somebody painted the Nelson statue in the heart of Bridgetown in the national colours of Barbados! I have seen other commentators – at this point before they offer reflections on whether or not Nelson should be moved – firmly denounce the ‘civil disobedience’ of painting a national statue. I look at the act as an unusual one taken in correspondingly unusual times in Barbados’ current context.
It is not every year in Barbados that one businessman and his related entities so blatantly seem to always be in time for nice sized shares of government contracts and favour. It is not every year that sewage runs freely in the streets of the south coast with no one seemingly knowing how to address the issue.
It is not every day in Barbados that attempts are made to sell state assets without explanation of how investments made on behalf of the taxpayers will be recouped. It is not every day in Barbados that a minister uses a public forum to seemingly demand a particular outcome from what was established to be an autonomous consumer protection agency.
And so it goes. The last few years have not been usual ones and so, in order to add the longstanding and largely ignored issue of race to the front burner of national attention, Nelson was put in national colours. It was one of the most important quotes of paint ever to be applied in the history of Barbados. The day that Nelson was painted was the day that the balm fell off of race relations in Barbados.
In response to a pervasive intellectual and passionate reiteration of why the statue should be at the museum and not in the heart of Barbados’ Heroes’ Square, those with the most vested interest in keeping the statue in place rose up. They presented their positions in unequivocal language. Neither the virulent views of sections of the white Barbadian community nor non-committal and obvious silence of the rest of the community surprised me.
I was never one who believed that there were not undergirding, unresolved and unaddressed issues in the race relations of Barbados. A social apartheid is still an entrenched feature of Barbadian society. White Barbados forms a club grouping. They either marry within their group or they travel overseas for partners to avoid race mixing. They conduct business among themselves and they still maintain the vestiges of their old plantation-made money and the attendant old relations and respect that make negotiating financial institutions easier.
The real symbolism of Nelson should now be clear and obvious. He stands as a bastion of the superiority in race of Barbadian plantation class-derived whites. He is a time dilation to the moorings of Barbados’ slave society in which African-descended people were seen as subhuman, incapable of intellectual capacity and undeserving of inclusion in anything other than the provision of labour. He stands as a symbol that binds Barbados to a national culture that cannot be inclusive or wound out of the elements of any of the other cultures of the inhabitants of Barbados.
I have not written today’s reflection for enlightened people or those with psyches too fragile to accept reality as it is. I will be no more apologetic in my painting of this situation than the Nelson artist was. The privileges afforded to white Barbadians only by the virtue of their whiteness are real.
It is not by accident that white Barbadians live in the clusters they do in particular communities. It is not by mistake that the failure rate in white owned business is significantly lower than in black business. It is no accident that after years of protest and repeated call, Nelson remains tall, stubborn and unaware.
The Government of Barbados is black in complexion but the colour of the financiers and recipients of nepotism are a very different hue. Most black people do not have the money or power to run a political campaign. They form partnerships with the holders of old money in exchange for contracts and government bounty.
I do not need anybody to point out here that they have white friends or know interracial couples. There were token blacks used as a part of the façade of integration during slavery and a similar thing is replicated in the social apartheid.
When one looks at an apartheid system simplistically, it always seems as if those excluded by the system are reaping the results of their ‘wutlessness’ and unwillingness to work. Their position is seen as their predestined lot based on their racial inferiority. A more analytical and historically grounded examination will present a starkly different result.
Our metaphors and symbols matter. If Nelson meant nothing, his perch would not be so vehemently and vociferously protected by white Barbadian voices and the other white souls would not be so smugly complicit in their silence. Nelson and a certain cement depot are immovable for the exact same reasons.