Commemorative activities in the country seem, inevitably, to acquire some of the stain and colours of our racial antipathies. They generally recount and re-inforce a narrative of imposed and unjustified suffering, resistance and struggle and, finally or hopefully, degrees of triumph.
The narrative is thus, in a teleological fashion, the justification for an underlying discourse of revenge or entitlement, and, in a way serves to affirm, to re-use a word of Arab origin, our izzat (dignity, honour) while rendering the Other essentially malevolent and culpable.
The variety of Other in the narrative differs with the time being treated and with groups or races in the telling, and its depiction often necessitates a falsification of history that needs correction.
We are still unsettled by the fact that, for a historical event that has generated so much academic literature, it is not yet admissible to many that the African slave trade was an indigenous African industry in which Europeans or Arabs were, for the most part, limited to the role of buyers. And that our social condition prior to transportation to the New World was often already bad, if not servile. Walter Rodney has written of the role of African slave traders. The African slave trade narrative, essentially eurocentric, generally obscures the role of the natives themselves, as it does that of the Indian Gujurati and Baniyah money men in East Africa and for a long time, the true role of the Arab merchants. It was, and mostly still is, a story of Black and White and Plantations.
Similarly, any treatment of Indian indentureship must relate that some of our ancestors in the homeland were already being indentured to tea plantations, or worse, were debt slaves, and that many were happy to flee famine and caste injustice for life in the colonies. The Gujuratis also, in the later years of indenture were active in Mauritius as land owners. Today, with contract labour in the Emirates and other Gulf nations, the market for indentureds is flourishing and the practice of labour exploitation is still alive on the sub-continent. Below is a quote from Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick in a recent issue of Aeon magazine.
“Around half of the world’s slaves are held in debt bondage in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Debt bondage is a very old form of slavery in which radically marginalised members of society, often from India’s ‘untouchable’ caste, must trade all their labour for single small infusions of cash. Broader social and economic systems ensure that they do not understand the terms of such loans, and that the time required to repay them is interminable. Lack of other work, lack of credit, and the need to pay for schooling and marriages effectively guarantee that there is no single contractual debt between the landlord and labourer but rather a string of interconnected informal loans.”
A lot of slaves still exist in the margins in Africa. Many immigrants here in France come from Mali or Mauritania where slave status is recognised by the family name and the inter-ethnic discriminations are still strong.
This means that a history of the past has to be re-thought and re-taught so that we recognise that the concepts of ‘human rights’ and izzat we now affirm, were neither common in the countries of the peoples who exploited us nor in our lands of origin. So retellings of the past have to move beyond simple racial renderings. Retelling of the present needs also to be examined.
The narrative as it is repeated in Queens or Brooklyn today builds on a selective history, with its ethnic antagonisms where the European has been replaced by the African or Indian Guyanese.
It is interesting listening, in the USA, to stories told by immigrants of why they left Guyana. Frequently, for a certain level of Guyanese immigrant, it is a story of racial oppression. But we are warned against giving too much credence to these oral histories. Even Jews who suffered in the Second World War and in Cold War USSR are known to distort their stories despite the voluminous documentation of the circumstances.
In ‘Telling Memories’ by Helen Haft, again in Aeon, the point is made that what is, in our case regurgitated in the letters columns and clarioned at Babu Jaan, reminding us to “remember your history”, is, as in the case of one or two columnists, a reconstruction of history and to the point of myth.
Helen Haft observes: “In my conversations with former Jewish dissidents who remained in Russia, Russian Jews who emigrated to New York, and an American Jewish lawyer who actively participated in the fight to ‘free Soviet Jewry’, I was struck by the contradictions in their narratives, shifts in memory, and the ways in which their retelling of the past seemed to fulfill a role; whether that was validating the decisions they had made, affirming their current positions, or finding a way to cope with open wounds and traumatic family histories. The stories I heard were untidy, ambiguous, sometimes self-contradictory, and anything but one-sided. I was in the midst of myth-making, and through every speaker I observed how each constructed a personal narrative and wrestled with his past. How does one separate one’s own history from the collective narrative, and when does the line between the two become irrevocably blurred?”
The descendants of slaves and indentured labourers seem to need, at a level of their mass psychology to reclaim their humanity by narrativising their single and collective lives, and to explain past and present conditions. In a country where “below the poverty line” defines the existence, in more or less equal measure of about 35% of both African and Indian descendants, the commemorations are important events. They serve to fix the narrative mileposts of the victimology we have developed, not in in the interest of living and working in harmony, but in the interest of the group that we identify with. Its ethnic antagonisms still intact, it continues the struggle, and replaces the European colonist with caricatures taken from contemporary times.
All of the above is complicated by the fact that some of the stories told or exaggerated by our country are true. But some are not. But the false facts have invaded and taken possession of the recent histories of race relations in the country. The constant columnising by one or two characters in the national media, the platform speeches of some politicians and the elections campaign propaganda remind us that we need to commemorate something other than our abiding hate for each other. But, given a chance, would we do better than the former colonist countries are doing now in terms of human rights and race relations?