IN KEEPING with the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), and the tumult that has issued from the George Floyd killing, I want in this commentary to express tribal sentiments, projecting my thoughts back to Africa, from my location here in the diaspora. The notion of an African diaspora reflects the fact that Africans are to be found in significant numbers across the Americas (North, Central and South), in the UK, to some degree across the EU, and of course here in the Caribbean. The Caribbean is a very important pillar of the African diaspora.
Ella Andall has plaintively called out to the African motherland: “Hello Hello Africa! How you doing Africa?” Here in the Caribbean, the African is far from home. I have sometimes wondered whether the Sahara dust, borne on Atlantic winds, is not some sort of omen, some jumbie at work. Some signal from ancestors.
The theme for the UN decade is “People of African descent: recognition, justice and development.” The George Floyd case is but an elaborated circumstance of why justice is one of the pillars of the UN call. The Derek Chauvin pose on the ground on a Minneapolis street, while kneeling on Floyd’s neck, reflected the arrogance of whiteness. He was posing, shades on forehead, arms akimbo, while killing a black man in public.
But James Baldwin had warned about The Fire Next Time, and we can only wonder what the opportunity cost of that guilty verdict was going to be. The state of Minnesota knew, and the deck was stacked against Chauvin. The police and the state turned on him. Waiting on the verdict in front of the courthouse with his canvass and brush, a black artist was asked what he was going to paint, and his reply was it could be Heaven, or Hell.
The late Jamaican historian Colin Palmer had striven to inject into historical reckoning the idea of an African diaspora. In an article written in 2000, he explained that “a diasporic stream is the movement of a people to several destinations at once or over time. Thus, the Atlantic slave trade resulted in the movement of the Ibo peoples of contemporary Nigeria to Jamaica, South Carolina, Cuba, Barbados, and so on.” Indeed, he wrote “African peoples have been in constant motion for over 100,000 years, travelling all over the globe, transforming it in many ways and being transformed themselves.”
The African presence in selected locales on the planet today is as follows: USA, 44 million (or 13.4 per cent of population); Canada, 1.2 million (3.5 per cent); UK, 1.9 million (3.0 per cent); Brazil, 14.5 million (7.6 per cent); France three-five million (7.5 per cent). The African presence in Germany is one million, (about one per cent of population), and in Portugal 150,500 (1.5 per cent). Here in the Caribbean the African presence is 20 million, with Haiti a great contributor, and with our country contributing about half a million.
The flip side of this is the colonial footprint on the continent. In many African countries native languages have given way to English or French. Likewise, native belief systems have yielded to western religions. African slaves, in their haplessness, were baptised by priests.
The slave trade was the primary engine of more contemporary waves of the global African diaspora. Estimates of the number of slaves brought to the Americas vary from ten to 20 million (see Eltis). Herbert Klein and Stanley Engerman have provided accounts of mortality during the trip from Africa to the Americas, writing that of 27,000 voyages they looked at, more than 5,000 of them provided information of mortality on board. Mortality on slave ships (five to 15 per cent) greatly exceeded the customary death rates of populations on land, even considering the death rates of great human disasters.
The blueprint for violence by Europeans against the African was laid in slavery. The primary strategy of compliance employed by the planter-class was cruelty-laced violence, beginning with the whip, along with other torturous technologies. Draconian Caribbean slave codes were adopted on American sugar plantations. Jerome Handler points out that in slavery in Barbados, it was the force of custom and tradition that served as the basis for the enslavement. Not law. No law defined the status of slaves in the colony.
The code gave masters full authority over slaves. They could correct slaves by flogging, with no penalty should they be maimed or killed in the process.
In his work Slave and Citizen – The Negro in the Americas, published first in 1947, Frank Tannenbaum writes that the African, much against his will, was to become a participant in the building of the new world. He writes that “Despite the cost in life, sorrow, and broken bodies, the Negro became the effective means for the colonisation of vast American regions. Cotton and tobacco in the United States, sugar in the West Indies, cocoa in Venezuela, sugar, mining and coffee in Brazil, and a thousand other kinds of enterprise everywhere else depended upon the Negro” (p39).
He writes further: “Without the Negro the texture of American life would have been different…American colonization is, therefore, a joint Afro-European enterprise” (p.40). Tannenbaum writes though that “this adventure of the Negro in the new world has been structured differently in the United States than in other parts of the hemisphere. In spite of his adaptability, his willingness and his competence, in spite of his complete identification with the mores of the United States, he is excluded and denied. A barrier has been drawn against the Negro (p.42).
Here we are in the 21st century with the emancipation of African slaves now far in the distance on our rear-view mirrors, and in the richest, most powerful country in the world, that has the Statue of Liberty as representative of its brand, a black man is killed in cold blood, on an American street, by police, the crime being his supposed tendering of a counterfeit $20 bill.
In the land of the free, and the home of the brave.
Theodore Lewis lived in Minnesota for 18 years, teaching at the University of Minnesota