“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ~ Elie Wiesel.
This is my story, condensed, abridged, minimized, retold. Picture an almost eight-year-old white girl (blonde hair, blue eyes) transplanted from grey rainy Manchester along with her entire family and their worldly wealth to a tropical island in the 1960s. We moved from a busy city to a slow moving, soon-come country town in the 1960s, arriving in Jamaica shortly after Hurricane Flora slammed into the island.
The primary school I attended (equivalent to an elementary school in the US) was some distance from the town, but had a very good reputation and was recommended by the high school teachers whose children were already going there. The act of sending me there earned my parents the disapproval of the wife of the headmaster of the local school, since she felt it signaled to others that their school was not good enough. Also, other parents then followed my parents’ example. This was unforgivable.
Of course, I knew nothing of that. I just knew this was a great adventure, driving 5 miles to and from school every day, a journey which took easily thirty minutes along the winding, pot-holed country roads, where slow country buses and loaded trucks could significantly impede progress. The climb uphill from the gate of the school to the buildings was another adventure. Of course, we took the shortcut up the hillside rather than the official path which was longer though less steep.
I soon made friends, after the children I first attended with moved on, and there began my education. By this time I was probably nine or ten, and eager to fit in. I had no idea how alien I was, I was a kid, and these were kids, and we had fun. I didn’t realize that my white skin and status earned me different treatment from the teachers and headmistress. Nor did I realize until maybe a decade ago, that my privilege extended to the girls of my group. If the teachers couldn’t beat me for coming back late from ‘recess’, no one in my group could get the strap either! I couldn’t hide from the fact that I was white, for the rest of the school was not, and I was an object of curiosity. If I fell down in the (marl covered) playground and skinned my knees, my school mates would be fascinated that I had red blood just like them!
But all this to say that not only did I not see the children who surrounded me as inferior to me, I actually thought they were superior. There was so much to be said for a gorgeous dark complexioned skin, for hair that stayed in place all day. I had to hide from the sun (or end up with blistered, sunburn) and my hair was forever coming out of the elastic bands (no scrunchies back then). They all seemed so much more capable than I was, with skills and dexterity in areas from playground games, to erecting simple houses from sticks and mud (our wattle and daub dolly houses in the bushes).
In my teenage years it never occurred to me that I should have been attracted only to males of my race (I still delight in the fact that I broke South African law with my interracial marriage – although of course I was not living in South Africa!). It was not just that there were none to choose from, it was that I had no reason to look elsewhere. My father once said, after sitting in Heathrow airport for a few hours: “I’ve come to the conclusion that white people are quite ugly.” Like me, he recognized that people of African descent, whether mixed with other races or not, are a beautiful people, Jamaica had spoiled us.
I have come to believe that this whole white oppression, white supremacy movement was borne out of fear, out of recognition that far from being superior, the white conquerors recognized that they could not compete on a level playing ground. And so they used propaganda, religion and instruments of war to create an imaginary world where the white race was ‘better’. It was ludicrous, since so much of Africa was far more civilized, far more developed, far more educated than Europe was. One of the frustrations of learning African history is recognizing how much was stolen, lied about, misrepresented and omitted over the years.
Which would have been bad enough. But the injustice that began with conquest and colonization then devolved into the trading of people, the treatment of human beings as animals. Just as there are Holocaust deniers, there are many who refuse to accept the reality of the slave trade. And the fact that so much of the wealth in Europe and the US was built on the backs of free labor, on the backs of human beings. While in New Orleans recently we learned that enslaved people in that area, because it was so heavily Roman Catholic, were given Sundays off for church. They were permitted to sell goods they had grown or made in a market on that day (after working in the fields all week for no pay). If they raised enough money to ‘buy’ themselves, they could purchase their own freedom. Try to imagine that.
Then imagine a country which reluctantly (after a civil war) agrees to end slavery, only to ensure that people of color are denied simple opportunities, are kept in underprivileged communities, with all manner of discrimination and worse. I saw recently that Jamie Foxx’s father was arrested and spent 7 years in prison for the possession of $25 of illegal drugs. No justice.
I was foolish to think I could tell my story in 1000 words or less. But I am tired of living in a world where there are still people who do not know their neighbors’ stories. A world where people can remain ignorant of the true inhabitants of this great continent, First Nation People who are disappearing, whose women are killed and discarded with no fanfare, no outcry. We have to open our hearts and minds, and try to walk a mile in the shoes of the immigrant coming from Central America, the Puerto Rican living in their car, the Australian living within sight and smell of burning fires.
Color me compassionate, color me colorblind, color us all one big human race, with love for each other. “I don’t want no peace, I want equal rights, and justice” (Peter Tosh). Have a wonderful weekend, Family.