Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nobility, bloodlines, identity in Jamaica

I just read the most amazing piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been doing a mind-blowing series of pieces on the Civil War. they are all amazing, but this one is simply the best thing I have read in years.

one particular passage, however, hit me hard for another reason - it sparked a set of thoughts I have been kicking around while trying to understand what it means to be in a country where race relations are shaped by colonialism rather than by slavery (setting aside the colonization that destroyed so much of Native American culture, which was a different kind that I'm even LESS equipped to think about, unfortunately). Anyway I had been thinking about how racism, colorism, and class work here -it's so, so, so, so different than I see it in the US, many of my missteps with people have arisen from my misreading of these things. But I also had a growing discomfort with the way many black Jamaicans frame their resistance to it.

Here's the exceprt from Coates (which I take off from.. the rest of it is focused somewhat elsewhere, and is, again, amazing, as are the comments):

When I was young I believed, like a lot of us at that time, that my people had been kidnapped out of Africa by malicious racist whites. Said whites then turned and subjugated and colonized the cradle of all men. It was a comforting thought which placed me and mine at the center of a grand heroic odyssey. We were deposed kings and queens robbed of our rightful throne by acquisitive merchants of human flesh. By that measures we were not victims, but deposed nobles--in fact and in spirit.

I don't propose that blacks are alone in our myth-making, or in our desire to ennoble ourselves. But given the power dynamics of this society, we're the ones who can afford the comforts of myth the least. This is doubly true for those of us who are curious about the broader world. By the time I came to Howard University, I was beginning the painful process of breaking away from the "oppression as nobility" formula. But the clincher was sitting in my Black Diaspora I class and learning that the theory of white kidnappers was not merely myth--but, on the whole, impossible because disease (Tse-Tse fly maybe?) kept most whites from penetrating beyond the coasts until the 19th century.

A few years later I read (like many of you, no doubt) Guns, Germs and Steel and was, again, heartbroken. Here was a book with no use for nobility, but concerned with two categories--winners and losers. And I was the progeny of the losing team. I was not cheated of anything. I had simply lost.

This was heart-breaking, in the existential sense. What was I, if not noble? What was the cosmic justice at work that put me here, that made me second? Slowly, by that line of questioning, I came to understand that there really was no cosmic justice, that I should just be happy to be alive. Moreover the truth--Harriet Tubman and Ida Wells--was sustenance enough.

I'm especially thinking about Coates' discussion of the need to, and problem with, focusing on being descended from "Kings, Queens, and Nobles" as one reclaims a certain kind of black identity.

I'm pretty much anti-hereditary nobility and monarchy and against that kind of social hierarchy, and have spent much of my life studying people who have never had access to (through marriage, birth, or membership) that kind of power. I am also the granddaughter of farmers or peasants, on both sides (immigrant jews on one side, poor Texan dairy farmers for a coupla hundred years and Europe before that), as well as having been raised by working-class radical academics.

Wherever my worldview comes from, I have often been a bit weirded out by the royalist language many use in Jamaica, including but not limited to Rastafarians. I spoke with a descendant of the Maroons, who (as did others I spoke with) emphasized his connections with royal families in Ghana and elsewhere. Rastas call each other King and Queen, and Empress and My Lord. In one way it's impressive, it's grand, it feels dignified and powerful. I understand that people who were systematically denied dignity, and still are, in terms of social power in Jamaica today, want to claim markers of dignity.

But seriously, the focus on royalty and nobility makes me cranky. What's so bad about being descended from a farmer? It seems like rather than taking the King=dignity, not-king=worthless framework as a given, and just reversing who is the king, is missing the point.

does this have any connection to music and music-making? Well, in some ways..
I see a lot of Rastas, for example, who are perfectly happy with the government ban on dirty dancehall music on the radio, while they had in the past decried government bans on reggae. They are happy to support the power of the government to dictate acceptable music, so long as acceptability fits their definition. There is an authoritarian strain here that I can't fully get on board with. Some people I have talked to say this is a newer development in Rasta politics, and I'd like to know more..

I'm not sure but it's possible that the dancehall culture is not as caught up in this.. I don't find it mapping so well onto this quest for royalty/nobility. It seems more a scramble for capitalist-style success, in which the concept of dignity is a bit hard for me to spot. Not sure what to make of that either..

1 comment:

  1. very very interesting perspective man....i think like all good writers u've articulated something i've felt for a while but didn't know how to frame it...u're right tho....the fixation with nobility started out as a way of counteracting the negative images of ourselves...but somewhere along the line it went overboard...

    someone said to me once...(a rastafarian by the way)..that he uses King/Queen in referring to ones innate its more of a 'i see the god in you' kinda thing as opposed to i'm from a line of Kings and Queens....cause reality is we all weren't...:)
    his take on it isn't shared by all who use the terms but i found it interesting and more in keeping with my personal beliefs