The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade And Slavery: The Psychic Inheritance

The Caribbean is arguably the living laboratory of the dynamism of the encounters between Africa and Europe on foreign soil, and both with the Native American who had inhabited the real estate of the Americas during periods of conquest and dehumanization and the corresponding process of struggle and resistance. For these purposes, northeast Brazil with its iconic centre in Bahia, New Orleans and all of the eastern littoral of North America, referred to as Plantation America, constitute along with the island-Caribbean the geo-cultural area that houses a civilization with its own inner logic and inner consistency.


The advent of later arrivants into the Caribbean after the abolition, first of the trade in enslaved Africans and later of slavery itself, did not save them from labour exploitation. But those new arrivants did enter as free men and women into a society which by then had the promise of decency and civility informing human, if not an altogether humane, existence. This has been made distinctive by the catalytic role played by the African Presence in social formation within a psychic universe, a great part of which has been plunged, wittingly and unwittingly, into subterranean and submarine silence. Such mixed metaphors are masks to hide real visages or mute-buttons to impose that threatening silence which Jimmy Cliff, the reggae superstar and talented lyricist, characteristically described thus:

"You stole my history,
Destroyed my culture,
Cut out my tongue,
So I can't communicate.
Then you mediate
And separate,
Hide my whole way of life,
So myself I should hate."
From "The Price of Peace" (1973)


It is fitting that the CARICOM Caribbean should be concerned with breaking the silence, that second most powerful act of oppression which the African Presence in the Americas has suffered for the past 500 years along the Slave Route. Such are the acts that define the journey by those who having been severed from ancestral homelands and suffered in exile on plantations, but have survived and continue to struggle beyond survival.
The quest for the truth of what has evolved over the past half a millennium is an effective way of tackling what has been arguably the greatest scourge of modern life. It may well have been the culmination of some four centuries of obscenities perpetrated in the pursuit of material gain, fueled by greed and the lust for power, and often under the guise of carrying out a civilizing mission, said to be divinely ordained and even earlier sanctified by papal edict.


The fight for, and occupation of, the newly "discovered" Americas was continued with the enslavement of millions. This was followed by the systematic dehumanization of an horrendously exploited labour force, as well as by the psychological conditioning of millions into stations of self-contempt bolstered by an enduring racism, underlying rigid class differentiation, and the habitual violation of human rights. These are a few of the blots on human history that have left legacies of the deepest concern in humankind's journey into the twenty-first century.
However, there are other legacies -- which speak to the invincibility of the human spirit against all odds, but also to the ability of the human mind to exercise the intellect and imagination creatively for the advancement of human knowledge and aesthetic sensibility. The contribution of the African Presence to all this is deserving of bold assertion, supported by painstaking investigation, critical analysis and decisive programmed dissemination -- all part of the mission of the UNESCO Slave Route Project.


In the Americas, the historic encounters between diverse cultures from both sides of the Atlantic have forged tolerance out of hate and suspicion, unity within diversity, and peace out of conflict and hostility. The African Presence on the Route is a celebratory incantation of a philosophy of life and of the hope-in-despair, which has sustained survival and beyond in defiance of the trans-atlantic slave trade and slavery. The process of cross-fertilization of Africa-in-the-Americas, which is the great art of humankind's "becoming" out of the dynamism of the synthesizing of contradictions, has taken place despite the stubborn persistence of the rules of representation which decree the denigration of things African, as well as a debilitating racism against all who are of African descent.


Lest we forget, that African Presence informed the ancestral pedigree of ancient Greece and Rome, which Western civilization has hijacked into its history with monopolistic fervour. In that Mediterranean crossroads civilization, the treasures of cross-fertilization gave to humanity the creative energy which guaranteed humankind's capacity to live, die and live again. We later again see that catalytic presence on the Iberian Peninsula, which gave rise to an expansiveness of thought that resulted in the so-called "discovery" of the Americas and our own flowering into the vital source of "crossroads" energy that this Hemisphere has been for modern humanity.


The African Presence continues to make the impact where it most matters in the enduring areas of language, religion, artistic manifestations and even kinship patterns, as well as in areas of ontology and cosmology rooted in the creative diversity that is now the global reality of our third millennium. That creative diversity has been the lived reality of the Caribbean and the wider Americas, of which the Caribbean is an iconic integral part.
This is something that invites understanding and acknowledgement from modern Europe and North America. But alas, the legacy of slavery and its fertilizer of a trade in African labour continues. I agree with the notion that there comes a time when the past ceases to be an alibi. Yet I cannot agree with the shrouding of critical elements like the brutality of the trade in enslaved Africans in a silence that would deny their descendants the fullest possible participation in all discourse that would define, determine and delineate their destiny. The UNESCO Slave Route Project is clearly designed to identify all the deep social and cultural forces that have successfully conspired to prevent a repetition, at least on the scale of that past, or to deny history and us the long memory of that past.


The African Diaspora cries out for recognition and status in the new dispensation -- globalization -- which, from the perspective of the post-colonial Caribbean, threatens to be a calculus of inequality rather than an opportunity for universal human dignity and individual freedom in praxis.


Such dignity and freedom in praxis must continue to be on the agenda of concerns and positive action for the African Diaspora in the new millennium. Crossing the boundary of thought to programmes of action that will benefit the millions that tenant the African Diaspora is itself an imperative. Hence the need to incorporate designs for social living and a positive sense of self into the mainstream development strategies of the newly globalized world. The aim for Diasporic Africa must be to help determine the mainstream and not merely to float along with the currents.


One twenty-first century challenge for the African Diaspora is to have the new globalization veered away from inherited obscene habits of a racialized division of the world into the rich industrialized North and the poor non-Caucasian South, the developed civilized world versus the two-thirds underdeveloped world, misnomered the third world. That this is best done by the manifestation of achievement through the Diaspora's exercise of the creative intellect and creative imagination is impatient of debate. But it must help replace the Cartesian-driven thought-system that declares that the show of emotion is a "decline from thinking to feeling", with the diasporic reality that genuine creativity and intellectual rigor are not mutually exclusive and that the harmonization of the two may well be the hope of a third millennium world. The abolition of the Trade for all the reasons, including those outlined in the Caribbean scholar Eric Williams' seminal Capitalism and Slavery, could not help but facilitate the re-humanization of the offspring of the millions involuntarily and inhumanely lured or dragged from West Africa and the Congo across the Middle Passage. The mind, as the African Diaspora has long known, can be a passionate organ too.
This is arguably a main point of the Reparation advocacy -- by no means seeking a hand-out to descendants of the oppressed but rather positing serious investment by countries enriched by the Slave trade and Slavery, in the human resource development of countries that suffered, preferably through the education and preparation of youths, to enable them to cope with the inheritance of a continuing unjust world. And above all, for them to be able to understand their own history and help plug the knowledge gap. For as a well-known African proverb goes -- "until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter".


To cross the boundaries of hate, intolerance, discrimination, racial arrogance, class exclusivity, intellectual snobbery and cultural denigration, which constitute the legacy of that horrific past, the African Diaspora must continue with its time-worn strategies of demarginalization, reinforcing the intensity of the creative work in the expansion of communication arts serving humankind.


In order to legitimately speak to that African diasporic reality, the diverse voices, as well as beliefs of the descendants, must be accorded their rightful existence, for this diversity counters the imposed silence of oppression in the spirit of ecumenism. Heterogeneity as a guiding principle of human organization is the desired framework for peace -- global, regional and local.


The gift of the grasp of the plurality and intertextuality of existence, though not exclusive to African diasporic experience, is the primary feature of that experience. Can the world without anguish accept itself as "part this", "part that", "part the other", but totally human without one part of it trying to dominate the other? The idea of the Caribbean person being part-African, part-European, part-Asian, part-Native American, but totally Caribbean, is still a mystery to many in the North Atlantic, which has been spoiled by the very hegemonic control it has had over empires and far-away real estate for half a millennium.


It is the full grasp of the creative diversity of all of humankind that provides the source for tolerance, generosity of spirit, forgiveness, respect for the Other, that the new millennium will require if it is to house the brave new world with the human being as centre of the cosmos. It is the source as well of the patience which is needed for the human-scale development, which all the grand objectives of United Nations declarations envision. That patience is honed in the habit of the African diasporic tenants who have had to negotiate their space over time and to find form on a playing field that has not been levelled.


The African Diaspora is for this reason more than equipped to enter the dialogue among civilizations having seeded the germ of a civilization itself, as if with the beneficence of retributive justice.
Such dialogue, after all, is all about the quest for peace, tolerance, justice, liberty, sustainable development, trust and for respect and human understanding, and should not be seen as a threat, but rather as a guarantee for peace.


Yet, even while I recommend this to our African Diaspora and to the world as the guarantee of a safe and meaningful future, the experience of ages drives me back to some wise words* which have been immortalized by Bob Marley, ironically entitled "War" even while it hankers after peace:

"Until the philosophy which holds one race superior
and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited
and abandoned, .
Until the colour of a man's skin is of no more significance
than the colour of his eyes,
Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all
without regard to race, .
Until that day .
The dreams of lasting peace, world citizenship
and the rule of international morality will remain
but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained!"
Such are the many boundaries, and obscenities, left by the slave trade and slavery.

• By Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, in an address to the United Nations General Assembly on 4 October 1963.


Adapted from the keynote address given at UN Headquarters on 25 March 2007 during the UN Observance of the Commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.