By Courtenay Barnett
Good day my beloved and welcome once more to the altar of the almighty truth.
Ah! – please, please – no standing ovation – no cheering. Not at this hallowed site. This is not a football game nor is it the American Congress. Please be seated – thank you.
The recent news cycle in America has featured the ‘Blackface’ issue concerning the Governor of the state of Virginia. As this sermon unfolds – and it shall be a long one today – the totality of Virginia’s immediate problems in its political leadership reads more like a soap opera than does it seem to reflect actual events occurring. A good place to start is at the beginning.
So, what is ‘Blackface’?
The idea behind Blackface, in relation to its comedic intent, is that persons of African descent, are such that they represent the epitome of stupidity, laxness, shiftlessness and insobriety. African-Americans were elevated to comedic prominence by a White man named Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808-1860). He would place black shoe polish on his face to ascend to the high degrees that his stage character would be at his best. His most famous and popular character, where he, Dartmouth, portrayed the ‘Blackface’ character both in the US and in England, was a stereotype stage figure named “Jim Crow”. A buffoon, a dunce, an ignoramus – and all those wonderful things that all Blacks are and would want their children to grow up to be. Dartmouth, to the amusement of fully entertained White audiences, expressed and explained the true nature of the African -American. “Explained”, for many a Caucasian at the time would not have met nor interacted with a person of colour of direct African descent post-emancipation of slavery – and so they were both informed and entertained by this stage figure’s “explanation”. The term “Jim Crow” became synonymous with the segregation of African-Americans. That is the background.
Now, we fast forward to the Governor of the State of Virginia in 2019 A.D. to one Ralph Northam, a White man who found comfort and pride in his blackfacing. He, in his college days thought that blackfacing with two prominent figures posted in his college yearbook as a ‘Blackface’ character standing next to a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan ( that all White humanitarian group) was – oh – so funny and was suitable as a picture for his college yearbook. He was found out and then he first profusely apologised. The next day he denied that it was him. He, at a press conference, even thought that having said that he also blackfaced for Michael Jackson was willing do his own little performance with Jackson’s famous ‘Moon walk dance’ moves. His wife thought better of it and reigned him in before he could get ‘on stage’ so to speak.
Are we serious here?
Based on the facts – Governor Northam could never have been. But – I am sure that I am speaking from the altar of the Almighty truth – so I definitely am quite unequivocal in my outright condemnation of Northam and people of his ilk and what they then, as now, represent. I even have gone as far as condemning President Trump for comparable sentiments ( see: below – the article ‘President Trump and past and present cognitive dissonance’). So, if in the largest all Africa online publication, I have so spoken, why then should I not be equally serious when I am speaking of Northam?
But, let me be fair, backtrack to the Caribbean, to Jamaica where I was born, then forward to England where I studied, and cross over to the US for just some quick personal examples of deeply engrained ‘racial attitudes’ then conclude today’s sermon.
My view is that in the Caribbean, when the Europeans were in colonial control there was institutionalised racism. Post-independence, I would say that there still is ‘shadism’. What do I mean?
Slave society in the Caribbean, in economic terms, on the global stage practised the world’s first form of industrialised production. It mass produced mainly sugar cane and cotton by way of utilising in the millions ( both in monetary and in human terms) the physical machinery accompanied by the ‘human manchinery’ of slaves, Africans. And so in the English form of colonial plantation society the slaves, in point of law were actually designated as ‘res’ –
things – not people – but – property to be bought and sold with no consideration for separation from loved ones, family, nor having any rights to develop and maintain normal human bonds. For, in point of English law, as the famous ( infamous?) case of the Zong, the jettisoned slaves were treated by His Lordship, the then Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield, as property as one might an animal- and – as he so said:-
“… case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard,”
In fact, based on Lord Mansfield’s designation – some 132 “horses” – not human beings, were thrown overboard.
That is where White European sentiments and historically shaped attitudes are coming from.
More specifically, in the Caribbean/Jamaica, post-independence, the plantation society populations had had their attitudes towards ‘race’ historically shaped for them. Whites at the top – owners, overseers and any European riff-raff or vagabonds who happened upon the soil of the West Indies ( you were automatically White and privileged). Next, the offspring of the raped slave women – the Browns (Mulattos) the next step down. Last – the broad base of the majority – the Blacks at the bottom of Caribbean societies. A truly colour coded society of socio-economic demarcations. That is what happened and relating thereto is how Caribbean attitudes on ‘race’ came into being – thus my turn of phrase ‘shadism’ versus overt ‘racism’.
So to my mind, when, as in the current US case, the good Governor is so misunderstood in his conduct, it is to be much ado about nothing, for nothing should so offend the “Negroes” as like animals they are (or should be) devoid of feelings. What about my feelings? Well let me share five racial experiences. Four from England and one from the US.
At age sixteen, my father sent me to England to obtain my matriculation subjects, under the English educational system – then called “Advanced level subjects” – or “A levels” for short. I needed two to enter the Inns of Court and then could proceed to my English Bar examination to become a Barrister (what the Americans call a trial lawyer).
Approaching examination time the college student counsellor, Mr. Gill, a man from the north of England, who had lived and worked in then Apartheid South Africa, did his counselling with me and it went like this, his blond hair and his blue eyes and his pipe being puffed:-
“So laddy, what are you going to do after exams?”
“ I want to be a lawyer, but I think that I want to go to university first”
“Which one do you have in mind?”
“ London University Sir”
“Oh, its very hard to get into London; maybe you should try …” and he proceeded to rattle off a list of ‘no-name’ second to third tier universities.
I listened but did not respond.
At the time I only needed two good passes and London would consider my application. To make sure of my place I sat and obtained four A levels. My thoughts ( never uttered) were thereafter – well fuck you Mr. Gill.
And on to my attendance at a concert in the ‘West End’ ( i.e. London’s equivalent of Broadway) with my then Jamaican girlfriend. I took her to see the African-American soul singer, Lou Rawls.
As these shows go there will be minor pre main show performances.
The curtain was pulled back and there was a man sitting at a piano with a gorilla mask on. He started to play the keys and then began singing the famous Ray Charles song, ‘Take these chains from my heart’ while pulling from his pocket a long chain with a big red heart at the end.
Laugh – it was supposed to be funny, the ‘monkey man’ singing that famous song.
A voice in an America accent blurted out from two rows behind us, “That is disgusting; if this were the States, this could never happen”.
I looked over my shoulder and saw a blond girl who said it sitting next to her blond female friend discussing how outraged and disgusted they were.
Well sweeties, it was the 1970s when I attended London University; the 1980s when Governor Northam went to his college; and it is the year 2019 and he still wanted to do a ‘Blackface’ Michael Jackson for his audience – the people of the US and more particularly the State of Virginia.
So, post- graduate London University and now Law School, still during the days when Apartheid South Africa existed.
Adrienne, was her name, a fellow post-grad student who said to me while we discussed the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of Apartheid South Africa:-
“ Courtenay, you do not understand, the Africans are stupid”.
“Well Adrienne, I am of African descent so I guess I am stupid?”
“I don’t mean you, I mean the Africans in South Africa.”
So, if we reflect on this for a moment – with the then White racist regime spending on average some eight times as much on the education of every White child versus the state expenditure on any Black child – duh – huh?
In effect South Africa constituted an explicit form of ‘racial capitalism’ and Adrienne’s whiteness made her a primary beneficiary. She simply did not comprehend that fact and as with attitudes towards ‘race’ across the ‘white world’ many people still do not comprehend the historical sources of contemporary socio-economic disparities. There has been a colonial process wherein conquest after invasion, led to expropriation of both resources and identity in the Caribbean and similarly elsewhere on the planet.
Law School revelations and learnings did not end there. Now we get to the Dean’s husband, Mr. Jack Phillips, a lecturer in Trust Law and the student advisor. Kathryn Cronyn, an Australian, a bit older than the rest of us, who was in her late twenties and had completed her doctorate came over to a cafeteria table where I was sitting with fellow students and said:-
“ Do you know what Jack Phillips just said to me; Kate why do you worry about them so much and they have only just come down from the trees?”
Well – this ‘monkey’ decided that he would not share any more of the peanuts he had to get from each of us to be a lecturer in the law school; some were on scholarship, others on partial state grant, others paid for by their parents. However received it was our attendance and our ‘peanuts’ that kept him in a job.
So, we called an urgent student meeting which seemed to be a mini-UN. A vote was called and by a majority of one – the vote ended as 18 to 19 and the 19 decision vote ( mine included) ousted him from the Law School and “ta..ta..Jack Phillips and no more peanuts either”.
I am big, I am grown, I am a lawyer, I am earning and I am earning well. So well from an offshore insurance owner who my law firm represented and I had earned some substantial legal fees – not – mere ‘monkey money’ and my US client convinced me to bank and invest in the US in the bank he used in Coral Gables, Miami. I took his advice and he set up some paperwork and my money was wired into account.
The Bank Manager had never met me, but obviously saw some substantial money and a message came to me that when next in Miami, I should come in and meet him. So said, so done, and it was a morning meeting and I was on time. He was in a back room; there was an opaque glass divider for the cubicle where the secretary sat, and in the front were chairs for visitors/attendees to the Manager’s office. There I sat on time all alone and well dressed in a business suit when his secretary looked out and saw me:-
“Mr. Barnett is not here yet Sir.”
About fifteen minutes later with two White males now present she looks out and this time comes out. She goes to the nearest White male:-
“Are you Mr. Barnett?”
Then to the next.
“Are you Mr. Barnett?”
She retreats and her voice is heard, “Mr. Barnett is still not here yet Sir.”
About five minutes later she comes out and – having watched and played the game of assumptions long enough – I simply stood and said, “I am Mr. Barnett”. Says a lot.
Too much money; wrong colour.
I conclude from my years as a youngster until now, with such that I have experienced and/or learned from my tutors, my lecturers and Professors and life itself in its entirety, that a largely victor’s history has been false fed.
The current world does not go as far back as Egypt and beyond, if one listened only to that ‘white narrative’. It starts with Greece and Rome and it advances without any Caribbean labour, as in Haiti having had at the time of its slave revolution contributed and constituted fully 40% of the wealth of France. The industrial revolution in England bears no reference in terms of capital accumulation to the slave labour and its produce exported to Britain to build universities, cathedrals, factories, libraries, schools etc. while the slaves languished in poverty. Oh no! It was Lord Mansfield who set the Black, James Somerset, free. But, only him, Somerset alone, a case specific decision, so that his fellow slaves in the West Indies could continue to labour on to generate more riches for Britain. And so all the accomplishments, the capital accumulation of which Dr. Eric Williams so brilliantly analysed in his tome, ‘Capitalism and slavery’, is to be historically disjoined as irrelevant ‘fake news’ ( in modern Trumpian terminology) and never be acknowledged as the actual monetary umbilical chord linking the development of Western European societies to the slave plantations of the Caribbean. So upset were the British with Dr. Williams revelation, that not one publisher could be found ( not one in Britain from extreme conservative to liberal and even radical left publishers) would embrace at that time, the truth and let it be told and widely known. Dr. Williams had to take the product of his Oxford University doctoral thesis to the US to get it published and he taught there as a Professor for about a decade until he returned to the Caribbean to become the first Prime Minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago.
In our contemporary world the White men, descended from Europe, have been the victors and continue to write and expound victor’s histories and accounts. It is only they who can craft any accurate account of history and thus to them our understanding is beholden. Someone thus wrote this:-
“Using the modern-day weapons of capitalism and war-time technology they have dismissed diasporic Blacks, Indigenous New Worlders, women and the monoliths of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Entire dynasties were eradicated. The number of genders was winnowed down to about one and a half.”
I prefer to be the pleasant dissident who speaks of, writes of, experiences his own personal history and understands with open eyes the place, the history, the destiny of my people – then extrapolate therefrom, as did the White men before me, to an epistemological place I designate accurately and truthfully as my own. For, if I did not so do, I would become an apologist for people such as Mr. Gill or Jack Phillips or Adrienne or even for Governor Northam. That is my choice, my place to stand with human dignity intact, my point of departure from the White man’s history. I am aware of race discrimination but can think well beyond that about climate change, nuclear arms, manufactured wars (e.g. war in Iraq or subterfuge in Venezuela for their oil) and many other global issues. For as the famous biologist Edward O. Wilson so eloquently stated:-
“Humanity today is like a walking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”
And, all said and done, my place on the planet does have room for not just me, for the Asians, the Africans, the White man, and all other life forms, but I do not see as the White man sees ‘others’ – for ‘they’ too are my people; it is as if at my mental best I am one with ‘them’, yet psychologically not one of ‘them’, viewed through my telescope looking back at history and thinking from the past and envisioning a more promising future.
Governor Northam and your associates and people of that ilk – do take advice from a good lawyer and may you one day be redeemed – but only after demitting office and then rejecting racist fantasies. The real world of the UK, the US and the entire planet needs to move on to a better place.
And so endeth my sermon for today.
* COURTENAY BARNETT is a graduate of London University. His areas of study were economics, political science and international law. He has been a practising lawyer for over thirty years, has been arrested for defending his views, has been subjected to death threats, and has argued public interest and human rights cases.