Not all Chains are Made of Iron, some are made of Tradition
Updated: Oct 6
Sometime late last year, I came across a Facebook meme that defined tradition as “peer pressure from dead people”. I chuckled and shared it because I have not generally considered myself a traditional person for the reason captured by the meme. I want to put forward the perspective that tradition is also a stubborn attempt to avoid evolving from a less informed, to a more informed position. There are two specific aspects of this currently at play in my beloved Caribbean where the oppressive vestiges of colonialism continue to mentally enslave physically liberated people.
Irk number one hit the news today, July 31, 2020. On the eve of Emancipation Day 2020, the Supreme Court of Jamaica ruled that a school could require a child with dreadlocks to cut her locks in order to attend the school. That story can be found here. From the comments that followed the story on social media, it is clear that this position does not represent the views of a significant percentage of the population. This opens a whole lot of questions regarding how the legal system in a predominantly black country could justify upholding a position that is so clearly prejudicial against its citizens.
I look at this situation with fury but not surprise. In earlier blogs, I spoke about how the education system is set up to further a racist agenda and promote colonial thinking, (read it here). However, it is horrifying to realise that the ideology of colonialism is still evident in so many spaces in post-colonial societies since the legal system is clearly biased against overt displays of blackness, choosing instead to focus on and legislate hair. These are the same people who discarded the horsehair wigs and robes inherited from Britain in 2013 while countries in Africa continued this absurd tradition. The thinking in 2013 was that the practice of the horsehair wig in court is an outdated colonial practice that had no place in contemporary Jamaica. How on earth can the court system discard the horsehair wig on one hand while endorsing the discrimination of black children’s hair on the other a mere seven years later?
The obvious hypocrisy of the Supreme Court of Jamaica makes me think about the fact that although we have been emancipated from the shackles of physical slavery since August 1, 1834, clearly no one bothered to push us to actually free our minds. To quote Marcus Garvey whose words were made popular by Robert (Bob) Nesta Marley, “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”. What could we possibly be waiting for to do that work in 2020?!
The other irksome retention of colonialist thinking that is currently a point of bother for me is the anti-LGBTQ+ thinking that refuses to let go of the region. It is ironic that Emancipation Day 2020 coincides with the beginning of Jamaica Pride Month. Buggery laws are still on the books and those Jamaicans opposed to toppling it usually cite their Christian beliefs in an attempt to justify their oppression of a group of people. (The law is targeted towards people with penises who have sex with other people with penises. Lesbian activity is not covered by the law). The arrogance of that way of seeing the world has always provoked my ire in its insistence that anyone who is not holding fast to the rules of the colonizer’s god is somehow less human. These are the same people who would be very reluctant to put the shackles on and obey the same Bible they thump which supported slavery (see here).
Barbados was recently in the news for offering people the chance to work remotely from their shores for 12 months to protect their tourism industry from the effects of COVID-19. However, this is the country with the worst laws around same-sex behaviour in the entire Caribbean region. It has been dubbed “one of the worst countries for LGBT travellers”. To face a life sentence for engaging in homosexual acts is incomprehensible in 2020 when even the coloniser has abandoned this way of thinking. Notice that in England, Scotland and Wales, same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014. Even the hyper-religious Northern Ireland legalised it in 2020. If the colonizer who enslaved and ill-treated us, destroyed our culture and forced us to be like them can evolve to become more tolerant of difference, why are we procrastinating?
I am aware that buggery was a form of social control of black men during slavery with the horrific practice of buck breaking wherein men were beaten and buggered in public to humiliate and control them. Was this traumatizing? Absolutely! Is there a generational revulsion towards homosexual anal sex as a result? Quite likely. BUT, that does not mean that we have to stay in this state of frozen trauma forever. I am not daring to suggest that we simply “get over it” because, as a black woman, I know that is an unreasonable ask. What I am inviting everyone to do is to start a reasoned discussion about this glaring flaw in our human rights lens in the Caribbean. We need to free ourselves from internalised oppression and start to think for ourselves from a place of compassion, and a recognition of every human’s right to live in peace, love whomever they want and wear their hair in any fashion they please.
This is what Garvey was referring to about mental slavery. The view that the ideas of old should still be used to control behaviour and the legal system today, literally hundreds of years after emancipation, is wilful mental inertia. It is a stubborn refusal to engage in introspection. It is immature and insecure and not a good look for a region known for its warmth, (literal and figurative), vibrant cultural identity and the spirit of rebellion and resistance. I firmly believe that we are better than this and therefore, we are required to do better than we are doing now.