Friday, October 26, 2007

On Slave Mentality

Sometimes I wonder if to be black in this world is to be absolutely unaccountable. For anything. We love windows but have never been very keen on mirrors, but then that probably goes for all human nature. Criticism is too often looked upon as attack and blind defense of black people simply because they are black can make for curious bedfellows, thugs, thieves, murderers and cop killers suddenly elevated to victim-martyr-saint status by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton even though the latter has gotten far more judicious lately.

People complain, privately of course of the black person’s eagerness to deploy the race card and maybe they do in the US but in countries like Jamaica where pulling a race card is tantamount to mixing chocolate in coffee, it’s the slavery card that gets pulled once too often. A female friend of a friend of mine, a woman from the Dutch colonies tried to break down how it was the English slavery cum colonial system that resulted in the Jamaican mentality. Our almost communal refusal to be decision makers, our eternal patience for their mediocrity to be rewarded (hello, Long Service award), and our basic lack of ambition, revealed in everything from a 30 year sojourn as a file clerk, to a five month sojourn on the street corner waiting for handouts, guns, and the visa that was revoked mere weeks ago, though not necessarily in that order.

And while the argument that we are still carrying the ill effects of slavery nearly 200 years later has many merits, it’s also old and barely applies to any current living situation. Tribal politics, Brain Drain, importation at the expense of production, political shortsightedness, poor emphasis on education, drugs and turf wars and just plain laziness have far more to do with the so-called slavery mentality than slavery itself, but those factors lack the one thing that makes the slavery excuse so tantalizing: Blamelessness.

As long as it’s slavery, it never our fault. The whole point to an excuse is to excuse oneself from accountability and in that regard the slave mentality is manna from self-delusion heaven. It’s the one size fits all justification, the ultimate go to for explaining everything from post colonial theory to post colonial architecture. It is so universal, so easily said and so easily grasped for that “slave mentality” can silence any fruitful discussion, leaving all the black people in room warm and cuddly all over for getting to the core of what’s wrong with them. It is also tired bullshit.

As I said before, the truly rewarding thing about the slave mentality card is that it absolves entire nations of responsibility. It gives black people a 500 year get out of jail free card, where everything that has happened or will happen can simply claim slavery as the reason why. Terrell Owens makes a mess of his career? Slavery. Jayson Blair invents stories for the New York Times? He’s burning down his master’s house—Didn’t you get the memo? Mike Tyson beating the living daylights out of one woman and raping another? He’s had 400 years of the white man on his back, so of course he’s a monster. Black men breeding kids all over the place? It’s slavery dontcha know? From those days when the black man’s job was to be Mandingo-cock while the Massa sold off the kids so that he didn’t have to deal with baby-mama drama. Failing in school? Don’t you know that it’s the legacy of the white devil education that taught us to be inferior? Sho nuff it is. And you can’t help but be downtrodden because even after 1838, the white man simply got craftier with his enslavement of us.

Of course faced with such logic, white people often feel powerless and unfairly treated, as well they should be. They were dealt a nasty card, an unimpeachable one, similar to a Zionist screaming ‘NEVER AGAIN!” to silence even the slightest possible debate about Israel’s political policies. After a man shows his Bergen Belsen tattoo or his great grand father’s lynching photo what comeback can a white person possibly have?

None perhaps except this. Some blacks have a ridiculous capacity for mythmaking, a rewriting of the grayer parts of history that nobody wants to confront, the story of ex-slaves who owned slaves, blacks who collaborated with whites in slave rebellions and the Civil War, and blacks who could rob, rape, kill and steal just as terribly as any white Jack the ripper. The slave mentality as excuse for the black person’s inability to prosper is the all encompassing, unimpeachable argument and it’s also false. Maybe Brother A can’t get a job because the world is racist, but maybe he didn’t study hard enough in school. Maybe sister B can’t progress because she’s just too damn worthless to try. Maybe Father Q didn’t want success badly enough and was never put in a situation where he had to. Maybe the poorest of us Jamaicans have gotten so used to free food near Election time that we have no need to earn anything. Maybe it was gang violence the de-motivated the ghetto. Maybe it is a rural people drifting into an unforgiving urban reality that led to extreme poverty. And maybe that has nothing at all to do with slavery.

What’s truly offensive about the slave mentality excuse is that it insults the memory of slaves. How dare we wallow in our present victim fetish by casting our ancestors as the ultimate victims, ignoring what they went through but assuming that whatever it was, gave them an internal sense of defeat that they passed on to us. This patronizes their oppression and ignores their triumph. Jamaican slaves were victimized for over 400 years, but they were never victims once, not even for a day. They were one of the most rebellious in the western hemisphere. And this was more often than not the product of genuine planning, preparation, and thought, not some wild savages trying to pillage and plunder. At the core of Tacky’s revolt was in ingenious idea, not just destruction but rebuilding the county if not the nation in a series of city states based on the fruitful African model. Rebellion was more than an act of violence; it was an act of self-determination, independence by any other name. Even the Paul Bogle led protest of 1865 was again, a race of people demanding to be social and political players in their own socio-political system, not a bunch of dumb niggers blocking their own roads and burning down their own stores—cutting off noses to spit their faces. Were a slave to come to a ghetto street corner right now, he’d be horrified to know that these are the people for whom he gave his life. The true slave mentality was one of constant ingenuity, constant, active rebellion against an oppressive society, and a constant struggle for equality and humanity. The maroon town is a product of slavery mentality. The ghetto is not.

So maybe the reason why you have no drive, ambition, intelligence or future is that you’re too damn worthless to begin with. Maybe the reason you don’t have a good job is that you’ve never tried to find one or thought those subjects you took in school never came in handy. Maybe the reason you are looking to the Don for a handout is that you’re trapped in your own urban prison shaped by greedy modern politics and a dependence on handouts to begin with, instead of bearing the legacy of ex-slaves who knew how to grow their own damn food. Maybe it’s the drug and weapons trade and not the post slavery economic dispensation why your sister will be shot and killed tomorrow because she’s just one foot beyond her garrison boundary. Maybe the education system failed because teachers have become bureaucrats who care about meeting the requirements of the syllabus and not educating kids, just like every other bad education system in the world. Maybe fathers don’t raise their kids because everybody lets them off the hook and nobody puts forth legislation for deadbeat dads the way white people did in America (turns out that worthless fathers can be white too).

Maybe Tacky, Nanny, Sam Sharpe, Boukman, Accompong, Kunta Kinte, Frederick Douglas, Mary Prince, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Paul Bogle, Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois are all turning in their graves wondering if we were worth their lives. I have a feeling they might be thinking that we aren’t worth a damn, but who knows, maybe that’s just their slave mentality.