Wednesday, March 24, 2010

“Iron In The Soul” Portrait of the Caribbean

The video “Iron In The Soul” Portrait of the Caribbean explores the history and the legacy of slavery in the British Caribbean. Several people are interviewed by the narrator Stuart Hall as he speaks of the past, present and future of the Caribbean. In his native Jamaica Hall speaks with Professor Rex Nettleford and several Sixth Form (Grade 12) students at a prestigious all-male secondary school who are all beneficiaries of a British education system. It is mentioned that during the British colonial system, Nettleford, Hall and the students who are all Africans would not have been permitted to enter certain spaces on the island, including the club and the exclusive boys only secondary school.

A dramatisation of Douglas Hall’s book In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica, 1750-86 illustrates the lives of enslaved Africans. Thomas Thistlewood, was a British slave holder who lived in Jamaica in the 18th century. His diary documents his rise from overseer on a sugar plantation to owning his own plantation where he enjoyed moderate success depending on the unpaid coerced labour of enslaved Africans. Thistlewood’s diary also documented his physical, sexual and emotional abuse of the Africans enslaved on his property.
In the dramatisation of Thistlewood’s diary, an enslaved African woman identified as Phibba is referred to as his “slave wife.” This is a misnomer since Phibba did not live in Thistlewood’s house and their only relationship was a sexual one. Thistlewood documents his systemic rape of the enslaved African women on his plantation and Phibba was one of many with whom he engaged in sex. The fact that these enslaved women did not have much choice in who used their bodies for sexual gratification or in an exercise of power, makes the term "slave wife" in regards to Phibba unusual and mistaken. The only thing that sets Phibba apart from the other enslaved women on the plantation is that Thistlewood acknowledges the child that is born of his sexual relationship with Phibba.

In Barbados, Hall interviews the descendant of a slave owning and plantation owning family. After retiring from his job in Britain the interviewee moved to Barbados in a seeming bid to recapture the glory days of his slave owning ancestors as he entertains visitors at his family’s plantation house and grounds. The Goddard family is a white family which has a different history from the slave owning descendant who lives on his family’s former plantation. The Goddards are the descendants of the poverty stricken Europeans from Britain who went to Barbados as indentured servants. However, it was easier for some members of the Goddard family to rise above poverty because of the colour of their skin as white people. Those descendants of enslaved Africans in Barbados and Jamaica who have managed to rise above their ancestor’s impoverished condition have done so through education and also through sports.

The documentary explores the influence of both the European and African cultures on the people of the Caribbean. Cricket, a game imported from Britain and played by the white expatriates who colonized Barbados and Jamaica has become a game played by the descendants of the Africans who were enslaved on those islands. Ironically cricket has become one of the means of escaping poverty. Barbadian Wesley Hall, a world famous cricketer whose family was interviewed in this documentary is an example of Africans using sport as a way out of poverty.

The documentary shows that the legacy, culture and traditions of the former enslavers and colonizers have been integrated into attitudes and culture of Jamaica and Barbados. That legacy is seen not only in the games and the education system but also in the dress of the people and their names. In the documentary none of the Africans bear African names. The members of the judiciary in Barbados dress in clothes unsuitable for the hot climate as they mimic the former colonizers.

In this documentary there is not much evidence of an African influence in the culture of the descendants of the enslaved Africans. The language has been lost, the names have been lost and much of the culture is missing. Some African influence is evident in the worship style of the members of the Spiritual Baptist church that is featured. There is some syncretism of the European and African style of worship. The Christian religion which was forced on the enslaved Africans is seen as a way to alleviate the feelings of desperation that come with living in poverty that many of their descendants experience as they remain at the bottom of the economic ladder in the Caribbean even though they are the majority and have political power.


On March 27, 1972 Angela Yvonne Davis made her opening defense statement in the Santa Clara County Superior Courthouse, California. Davis, at the time a 28 year old (born January 26, 1944) African American former assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) was on trial accused of criminal conspiracy, kidnapping and homicide. Superior court judge Richard E. Arnason presided and the prosecutor was Assistant Attorney General Albert W. Harris Jr. Harris had earlier outlined his case to the all white jury promising them evidence to prove that Davis was involved in a criminal conspiracy and that the weapons used in an alleged courthouse shoot out and attempted kidnapping in Marin County, California two years before (August 7, 1970) had been purchased by Davis. Davis did not deny that she owned several guns but shared that it was a holdover from her childhood growing up on “Dynamite Hill, Birmingham where as she explained: “My father had to keep guns because he was afraid that he would be the next target of racial violence.”

In her one hour and 20 minutes defense statement she argued that the case was based on "a network of false assumptions." During the two months (August 16 – October 13, 1970) that Davis was being hunted as a fugitive she was also placed on the list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI.) During the months of incarceration and eventual trial Davis became an international symbol of resistance. She was seen as a proud, radical African American woman under political siege in the USA. With the image of Davis’ fist clenched defiantly, raised above her six inch Afro her story captured international attention and a movement to Free Angela Davis. By the time she was acquitted of all charges on June 4th 1972 the Afro, was a bona fide symbol of being radical and Black and Proud.

Almost four decades years later the image of Angela Davis’ Afro remains a powerful symbol. So much so that when the New Yorker attempted to scare white voters away from even considering electing the country’s first African president, the image they selected included an Angela Davis type Afro topping Michelle Obama. It was a blatant attempt to portray Michelle Obama as an angry radical African American harkening back to the days of Afro wearing African Americans being Black and Proud and white discomfort with that symbol.

Davis’ trial had not only garnered international attention to the race question in America but it also made the Afro an international symbol of African American resistance to the white supremacist culture. Since the 1960s the Afro had become a powerful image for many African Americans as a symbol of liberation. The Afro offered an alternative image of African femininity for women who wanted to return to a natural hairstyle rather than the Eurocentric beauty standard of straight hair. The ordeal of Davis’ trial and her triumphant acquittal throughout which she proudly wore her towering Afro made Black is Beautiful meaningful and popular not just to African Americans but also to other Africans in the Diaspora.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s led to The Black Power Movement. Through these movements the creation of African American political and cultural institutions began to flourish focusing on promoting and advancing African American collective interests, values and culture. The images of the members of the Black Panther Party and other Black Nationalist organizations proudly wearing their hair in its natural state during this era is a symbol of freedom from trying imitate the appearance of the oppressor.

The Afro was so much a part of African American culture in the 1970s that it was prominently featured in the movies of the time with actresses including Pam Grier (1973 as Coffy and Foxy Brown and as Sheba Baby 1975) and Tamara Dobson (as Cleopatra Jones 1973) portraying a new generation of African American women. Maybe some of those defiant take charge Afro wearing women were patterned after Angela Davis. The Afro worn by Angela Davis, Pam Grier, and Tamara Dobson became more than just a hairstyle it became a symbol of African beauty, feminism, liberation and cultural revolution.

The quintessential African American magazines of the 1970s, Ebony and Jet featured African Americans from all walks of life proudly wearing Afros. The teenaged daughter of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., the members of the Jackson Five, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, poet Nikki Giovanni, singers Aretha Franklin, Miriam Makeba and Roberta Flack are some of the African Americans whose images graced the cover of Ebony and Jet magazines sporting Afros.

Unfortunately the 1980s saw a decline in Africans willing to proudly wear their natural hair. It seemed we had moved up, moved on and moved away from the days of wearing our natural hair. Dr. Althea Prince’s book The Politics of Black Women’s Hair published 2009 and Chris Rock’s movie Good Hair released 2009 both address the politics of African women wearing their natural hair. Wearing our natural hair for many African women is a political statement as much as it was in the 1970s when Davis and others wore their towering Afros. African women who choose to wear their hair locked or in other natural hairstyles are resisting the white supremacist society’s pressure to confirm to a white standard of beauty.

In their quest to acquire good hair many African women spend inordinate amounts of money in stores owned by people who are not members of our community. I recently accompanied a younger member of my family (I am the only adult female in my family who chooses to wear my natural hair) to a hair store where even though members of the staff were young African women, the owners were not African. The prices for the wigs made of human hair (supposedly from South Asian women) were outrageously expensive. The chemicals that are used to accomplish the straight texture that some African women seek can be dangerous to their health. I was especially alarmed to see products advertised for bleaching of African skin. Some of the labels on the containers listed the chemical hydroquinone which is dangerous to our skin.

In 2010, 38 years after what many considered the trial of the century Dr. Angela Davis now Professor Emeritus, University of California-Santa Cruz, continues to wear her natural hair albeit not the towering Afro she wore in the 1970s and speaks out as passionately as she did almost 40 years ago.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


On March 21, 1960 a group of Africans in Sharpeville, South Africa were peacefully demonstrating against the white supremacist apartheid "pass laws" when they were murdered by white police. The Sharpeville Massacre where 69 Africans were killed and almost 300 wounded (shot in the back as they fled the murderous police gunfire) led to worldwide condemnation of the white minority who had seized power in the African nation. The government in South Africa at the time was in power because Africans were denied the vote in their own country. In the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre where the white minority government declared a state of emergency and arrested more than 18 000 people even the very conservative United Nations (UN) was forced to take a stand and condemn the action of the state sanctioned massacre of peacefully protesting Africans.

In 1966 the General Assembly of the UN proclaimed March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The UN called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. The Canadian government and various institutions in Canada including Carleton University and the University of Toronto, colluded with the white supremacist apartheid government of South Africa by refusing to divest and continuing to trade with the government and South African companies.

In 1985 Glen Babb the South African Ambassador to Canada was invited to speak at both Carleton University and the University of Toronto. In spite of massive student protests Babb spoke at both universities. As late as 1985 (25 years after the Sharpeville Massacre) Canada was still doing business with the apartheid government as then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark flip flopped on the issue of sanctions against South Africa
Grass roots organizing, protests and demonstrations eventually forced the Mulroney government and institutions like Carleton University and the University of Toronto to halt their support of the apartheid system by divesting and ceasing trade with South Africa.

In 1989, the Department of Canadian Heritage launched an annual March 21 Campaign Against Racism. In 1996, another government sanctioned initiative, the Racism. Stop It! National Video Competition was launched.

This competition is open to youth between the ages of 12 and 20 years old where they are encouraged to create videos about their thoughts on eliminating racism. Each year ten videos are chosen and shown on national television. The youth creators of the chosen videos receive an all expenses paid trip to an awards ceremony in Ottawa hosted by the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism. The chosen videos ( chosen from the 2009 competition illustrate that the youth involved have not been educated about racism.

Racism does not result because people lack information about each others culture. Racism is a result of one group of people having power and privilege because of the colour of their skin and their unwillingness to share that power and privilege. In 1998 Peggy McIntosh a white professor wrote and published an essay on white skin privilege entitled "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” where she lists the unearned privileges of simply being born a white person

Anti-African racism in Canada manifests itself in the racial profiling of African Canadians regardless of their age or place of birth being stopped and searched by police in so-called random checks. African Canadians whose families have been living in this country since the 1600s are as Canadian as any white Canadian so the whole argument about not knowing very much about the person’s culture or religion is false. There is a history of white supremacist behaviour in this country since Europeans settled here and began a systematic destruction of the First Nations people and their culture. From stealing their land to scooping up their children who were then imprisoned in residential schools where they were stripped of their language and culture and suffered physical and sexual abuse.

The Canadian government apologized to the community on June 11, 2008. Other racialized communities suffered including the Japanese, many of whom were born in this country but incarcerated in concentration camps beginning in December 1941. Then Prime Minister Mulroney apologized to the Japanese on September 22, 1988 and they received compensation. On June 22, 2006, in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to Chinese Canadians for the head tax that was charged to members of the community between 1885 and 1923. Compensation was paid beginning in October 2006. On the 94th anniversary of the shameful Komagata Maru incident in British Columbia (BC) where 376 people were refused entry into Canada because they were not white, the provincial government apologized to the South Asian community. On February 24, 2010 Peter Kelly, the Mayor of Halifax, Nova Scotia apologized to the African Canadian community for the city government’s destruction of the African Canadian community of Africville. The historic community which had been established by African Canadians in the 1800s was bulldozed out of existence by the city of Halifax in the 1960s. The members of the community, forced to relocate were scattered and their land became Seaview Park. The Premier of Nova Scotia is thinking about granting Viola Desmond a pardon for her arrest and conviction of sitting in the white section of a cinema on November 8, 1946. The Canadian government has not yet apologized to Africans for the centuries long enslavement (1628-1834) of Africans in this country. Systemic racism continues into the 21st century because there is a refusal to acknowledge its existence even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

The many studies done and books written (including Racial Profiling in Canada: Challenging the Myth of "a Few Bad Apples by Carol Tator and Frances Henry, Canada's Economic Apartheid: The Social Exclusion of Racialized Groups in the New Century by Grace-Edward Galabuzi, Discourses of Domination: Racial Bias in the Canadian English-Language Press by Frances Henry and Carol Tator, Reconstructing Drop-Out: A Critical Ethnography of the Dynamics of Black Students' Disengagement from School by George Sefa Dei) prove that white supremacy manifests itself in the education system, policing, the media etc. March 21 the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is a day on which we can renew our efforts to continue the fight against and remember those who have been on the front lines of the fight against racism locally and internationally.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


International Women’s Day (IWD) is a United Nations (UN) recognized day which according to the UN is dedicated to “looking back on past struggles and accomplishments, and more importantly, for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women.” In 1975, during International Women's Year, the U N began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. However IWD supposedly “emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe.” In the USA, National Woman's Day was first observed in 1909 when the Socialist Party of America choose February 28 to honour the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested against their working conditions. The history books omit the fact that the women who were protesting were white women because at that time in the history of North America African women were relegated to working as domestics in the homes of white women.

In the December 6, 1938 edition of Crisis Magazine (founded in 1910 by W.E.B Du Bois as a crusading voice for civil rights) Ella Baker and Marva Cooke wrote an article documenting the experience of African American women in New York who worked as domestic servants. Some of the women were as young as seventeen and as old as seventy “who would stand on a two block stretch as white housewives from the suburbs drove by in their cars and negotiated to hire them for domestic service.” This area was considered the Bronx Slave Market and Baker and Cooke wrote that this “illustrated the race, class and gender subordination of black women.” Following in-depth interviews and hours of research Baker and Cooke observed "Rain or shine hot or cold you will find them there Negro women old and young sometimes bedraggled sometimes neatly dressed waiting expectantly for Bronx housewives to buy their strength and energy for an hour, two hours or even for a day at the munificent rate of fifteen, twenty-five or if luck be with them thirty cents." In their groundbreaking expose Baker and Cooke also discussed the backbreaking work and the sexual assault the women often encountered on the job from the male relatives and friends of the white women who employed them as domestic workers.

The similar struggles of domestic workers in Canada have been documented in Makeda Silvera’s 1989 published Silenced: Talks with Working Class Caribbean Women about their Lives and Struggles as Domestic Workers in Canada. The vivid descriptions of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse as told in the voices of the women themselves, using their own language makes for a heart rending read. Many of these women had left children and other loved ones behind in their home countries while they tried to make a living with the hope of eventually reuniting. Those hopes were in many cases never realised as a result of the turmoil that they dealt with working in precarious and unsafe conditions.

IWD is also supposed to address the absence of women from the history books. While white women’s history may have been relegated to the margins of the history books, African women’s history is usually in the footnotes or entirely absent. Fortunately there are books written mostly by African men and women (from the continent and the Diaspora) that document the lives, struggles, triumph and contributions of African women internationally.

In Annette Madden’s 2000 published In Her Footsteps 101 Remarkable Black Women from the Queen of Sheba to Queen Latifa some of the remarkable women are well known while others are not known. This book which lists 101 African women beginning with Dinknesh who lived more than 3 million years ago in Ethiopia and is considered the first woman in the world according to archeological records should be required reading.

In many cases when we read of a historic struggle of Africans the names of the women are absent. We may know of the freedom fighters of Haiti who wrested their freedom from brutal French enslavement but most of those names are male. One of the few books where the contribution of women to the Haitian Revolution is mentioned is Haiti the Breached Citadel published in 2004 by Haitian historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. One of the women mentioned in Bellegarde-Smith’s book is Cecile Fatiman who officiated with Boukman at the Vodou ceremony that launched the revolution on August 22, 1791. Bellegarde-Smith also writes of Marie-Jean Lamartiniere who is popularly known as Haiti’s Joan of Arc for fighting at the Battle of La Crete-a-Pierrot of 1802. We need to know the names of these women described in Haiti the Breached Citadel: “Other female revolutionaries such as Suzanne Sanite Belaire and Henriette Sainte-Marc demonstrated formidable military prowess until they were captured and executed by the French.”

In 2009 Professor Carol Boyce Davies published Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. Claudia Jones (1915-1964) was an African woman born in Trinidad whose life and work in the USA and Britain as an activist, communist and feminist has not been documented in mainstream history books. Boyce Davies writes: “The fact that Claudia Jones is buried to the left of Marx in Highgate Cemetery, London, provides an apt metaphor for my assertions in this study. Her location in death continues to represent her ideological position while living: this black woman, articulating political positions that combine the theoretics of Marxism-Leninism and decolonization with a critique of class oppression, imperialist aggression, and gender subordination, is thus ‘left’ of Karl Marx.”

Jones is brought to life in the pages of Boyce Davies’ book as a pioneer among African women feminists who addressed the exploitation of her sisters and advocated the inclusion of race with gender and class. In her book Boyce Davies recognizes Jones pioneering work incorporating gender and race in her political critique and activism.

She writes
: Claudia Jones’s position on the “superexploitation of the black woman,” Marxist-Leninist in its formation, offered, for its time, the clearest analysis of the location of black women – not in essentialized, romantic, or homogenizing terms but practically as located in the U.S. and world economic hierarchies. It thereby advanced Marxist-Leninist positions beyond their apparent limitations. To develop her argument, Jones contended that if all workers are exploited because of the usurping of the surplus value of their labor, then black women – bereft of any kind of institutional mechanism to conquer this exploitation, and often assumed to have to work uncountable hours without recompense – live a life of superexploitation beyond what Marx had identified as the workers’ lot. Jones’s argument regarding the superexploitation of the black woman is clearly a position left of Karl Marx, since Marx himself did not account for race and gender and/ or the position of the black woman.

Many white feminists similar to Marx do not have “either the imagination or the historical context to argue for the gendered black subject” and therefore the history of IWD for the most part excludes the history of African women as activists, feminists and workers.

Even in the traditional telling of the history of the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements, the role and activities of the women are not as prominent as those of the men. In 2009 Professors Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharris and Komozi Woodard collaborated to publish Want To Start A Revolution? Radical Women In The Black Freedom Struggle where African American women’s contribution to the Civil Rights, Black Power and feminist movements are at the centre. The women including Shirley Chisholm, Shirley Graham DuBois, Vicki Garvin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Assata Shakur and Johnnie Tilmon are recognized for their activism, bravery and ground-breaking work that contributed to changing the lives of Americans.

There has been a growing movement to include women’s history in the curriculum in Ontario schools. Two years ago, on February 14, 2008 a group of women held a demonstration outside the provincial government offices demanding that the McGuinty Liberals create a women’s studies course in Ontario high schools. Education Minister Kathleen Wynne told the group yesterday that progress is being made to develop women’s studies as an optional high school course. Ideally this course will include the intersectionality of class, gender and race.

The names of African Canadian women including Marie Joseph Angelique, Jean Augustine, Zanana Akande, Rosemary Brown, Lucy Blackburn, Chloe Cooley, Afua Cooper, Viola Desmond, Sherona Hall, Mary Ann Shadd and Carol Ann Wright are all part of Canadian history and their names and contributions must be included to encourage our "future generations of women" to tap into their potential.