There are a few themes that often recur in this column. I think they must be revisited ever so often. I believe that the more we can share and spread about womanism, feminism and the overlapping agendas between the two, the more we can push back the sentiment that these movements are consumed with man hating and man bashing. We can show the uses of looking at all forms of oppression and its historical roots.
This week, I want to examine the themes of historical legacy and racism. Racism is one of the intersections of great concern to womanists in relation to how the world treats to individuals based on power structures and how they have been constructed. When we speak about women’s lives and the ways that the patriarchal structure has been established, womanists are not just concerned with relations between men and women but also how racism affects the lives of black women and men.
When a royal visit occurs in Barbados, even as the Brexit turmoil spirals, and in the shadows of Windrush, it triggers reflections about who I am, who my people are and, more importantly, where we are going in the short term future. The muse became deeper in the context of an experience I had over the weekend.
It is no secret that I am an avid hiker. One of the things I enjoy most about the sojourns is the forbidden pieces of Barbados I am allowed to see. There is no way that this black, locks wearing, generally wayward looking woman was walking across anybody’s plantation in Barbados without the privilege of the Barbados Hiking Association behind me. My fear of being shot and/or quartered would not permit me to be so foolhardy. However, in the company of some white people and, as I said, association privilege, I make believe that I actually have more freedom than I do in this land of my birth and I risk it. Imagine how shattered I was Sunday gone when I ventured across an illegally built wall that abounds the high water mark in the vicinity of Folkstone to hear a voice bellowing that we should get off the wall! Even within the shelter of a Barbados Hiking Association organized event I was shooed—what I have known to be the case when I am in my own skin and boxed in by where I can and cannot go in Barbados. Have things in Barbados changed any much over the years? Is this society anymore integrated? Why is a royal visit still a thing in Barbados? Is racism on Barbados’ coastal properties becoming more blatant and pronounced?
I found a short but biting article by Nalini Moabir instructive. Nalini is a Caribbean studies specialist at Concordia University, Canada. Her observations, captured below (admittedly with a few insertions by my hand) are timely:
Once upon a time, a king ruled with divine right, later with charismatic authority. Some would say that the future king, Prince Charles (#NotMyPrince), has neither. Yet Caribbean governments are paying for him and his second wife to tour the Caribbean. From March 17 to March 29, the couple will visit ten islands in the region, to “celebrate the Monarchy’s relationship with these Commonwealth realms”. What is there to celebrate?
The current visit is instrumental; its model familiar. The Caribbean countries are footing the bill (or at least the majority of the costs) while he is paid to persuade us of the harmonious ties between Britain and the Caribbean, pose for pictures, and essentially provide a celebrity endorsement for the Caribbean. His function lies in the inherited role of embodying imperial legacy. But why should Caribbean government facilitate this performance?
To quote the Black Atlantic scholar Paul Gilroy, “without the crude injustices of racial slavery we are required to know even more comprehensively than in the past precisely what we are against and why.”
A significant number of Caribbean countries are part of the English-speaking world through the history of colonialism. In the not too distant past, West Indian school children were taught that Britain was the mother country and the royal family was to be revered. This identification with Britain was encouraged during World War I and World War II despite the persistent racial hierarchies of Empire.
For example, Jamaican soldiers on their way to the battlefront during World War I were caught in a blizzard off the coast of Halifax. Ryerson University Professor Hyacinth Simpson’s research reveals that the imperial authorities denied permission to the Jamaican soldiers to come ashore. As a result, many suffered frostbite and amputated limbs. Despite their willingness to fight and potentially die for the crown, black Caribbean people were not recognized as equals (and, from my experience above, are still not seen as equal).
Even after decolonization, several independent countries did not sever ties with the crown, and those that did remained convinced of the benefits of voluntary association (through the Commonwealth). The rituals of the royal tour in the post-colonial period exploited this notion of progressive relations between the former imperial centre and the Caribbean.
Before his marriage, Prince Harry was sent to playfully promote royal celebrity in the region. In a picture with Usain Bolt, he mimicked Bolt’s lightning bolt pose and Bolt allowed him to win a race. These photos encapsulated the true purpose of the Caribbean for the royal family – to display to cameras that they have transcended the slave-owning, racist past and have taken an interest in the achievements across their realm, while maintaining their status at the head of the Commonwealth.
The attempt to rewrite history was continued with Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle. Some believed that the royal family had become “colour-blind”, particularly after the showcasing of black culture during the royal wedding at Windsor Castle. However, it is important not to mistake this as an embrace of black people (the look on the extended royal family’s faces made that clear); neither was it a turning point in the relationship of Britain with the Caribbean.
Last year’s Windrush scandal shows the callousness with which that country treats Caribbean people, by deporting or threatening to deport elderly West Indians who migrated legally when their passports marked them as subjects of the British Empire. Similar to the organizing distinction under empire (subject vs citizen; colonized vs colonizer), Caribbean migrants continued to be denied the benefits of full citizenship.
Will any of the Caribbean governments hosting Prince Charles and Camilla bring up the lack of respect and disregard for the region and its Diaspora? Will trade unions boycott their visit and refuse to be a colourful backdrop for an orchestrated campaign to whitewash Britain’s continuing imperial legacies? Will “unruly” activists take to the street and demand the royal family be held accountable for the past? Or will this be business as usual, ignoring a bloody royal legacy?
The British government supports the royal family through a sovereign grant but this does not cover local costs for royal visits. So St Lucia will essentially pay the former imperial power to be the guest of honour at its Independence celebrations; in other words, to legitimize independence? The Barbadian Government subsidized Prince Charles to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in honour of those who died during the World Wars, many of whom fought as a way to demonstrate they were deserving of the elusive rights the British Empire promised (liberty, civil rights).
The Prince attended a demonstration of hurricane preparedness in Barbados, meanwhile the British Virgin Islands has still not been able to fully rebuild and repair its infrastructure after Hurricane Irma, despite being a British territory. When Charles and Camilla visit Grenada to learn about cocoa, will they be told that cocoa is a plantation crop?
It is not only the royal family that seems eager to wash away a history of empire through a facile notion of friendship and cooperation across the Commonwealth. Islands of elites connected through their own privileges seem willing to show hospitality and welcome to the royals in exchange for a dusting of royal prestige, but will refuse black neighbours to cross their wall for a Sunday walk.
During Protests and Pedagogy, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1969 West Indian student protest against racism at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) in Montreal, Martiniquan writer Raphael Confiant gave a talk on decolonizing the Caribbean. A young man stood up and asked Confiant for some hope of liberation.
However, from Confiant’s position as a resident of an “overseas region” of France, independence seems like an impossibility. Women in the audience pushed back, convinced that the region that mothers us can also nurture our full independence. The women said you cannot leave young people without hope. What hope do we leave the next generation in the face of a lingering empire and its symbols? Confiant thought about it and answered: we need federation, from Cuba to French Guiana. There is still hope for liberation.
However, it is clear that liberation will not be handed to us. As if to mock the entire reparations process, one of the first calls on the royal visit was to a clinic for diabetes treatment. This, in the back water of the work done by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles that proves the link between slavery, diet and the prevalence of diabetes as a non-communicable disease in these former colonies. There is perhaps still hope for liberation but, as with every liberation before, somebody has to be willing to fight. What is our call? Pageantry or fight?
(Marsha Hinds is public relations officer of the National Organization of Women. Email: [email protected])