U-N-I-T-Y Part II

A note to me readers: It has been over a month since I’ve updated DimunitiveDiva. I truly apologize for the delay, as I did not intent to allow so much time to elapse before posting the second part of my Unity series. A sudden increase in my hours at work has kept me from devoting as much time as I would like to my writing but hopefully that will change soon. Thank you for your support and patience; I hope you enjoy today’s post. With that out of the way, let us proceed.

In ‘U-N-I-T-Y Part I’  I discussed my frustrations and concerns with the rallying cry to unify and support all black men without qualification. In this installment I am going to take the question of unity beyond the gender divide and discuss my qualms with blanket demands for unity with all people of the African Diaspora. From the time I first read the autobiography of Malcolm X at eleven years old, I’ve had a deep and abiding concern for those of my community. The words of Malcolm X nourished the seeds of loyalty and love to my people that Mother had already planted in my years before. But as time went on I have found that reality has intruded upon my idealism, and I’ve had to make painful compromises with my dreams of Black unity. Interestingly enough my latest shift began in the most unexpected way. My interest in the horror of New World slavery would lead to read a variety of books this year. Two in particular would have a profound effect on my concepts of unity and kinship.

It began with ‘The Book of Night Women’, a work of a historical fiction penned by author Marlon James. Set on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the early Nineteenth century, ‘The Book of Night Women’ is an unflinching account of the wretched degradation of chattel slavery. I am usually a fast reader, but it took me a good two weeks to finish this book. There were times I simply had to shut it and stop reading, my heart full of such sorrow and my eyes so blurred with tears that I could not continue on. What caught me in the beginning of the book were the graphic accounts of intimidation and rape suffered by enslaved women-not just at the hands of the white men who owned them but by the enslaved African males given roles as overseers. Now the systemic rape of enslaved women at the hands of their owners is a topic that my people do not mind discussing. That tragic episode of our  history lives on in our collective memory. But to read of enslaved women suffering such violence from those who were in chains with them deeply unsettled me. The very idea that male slaves would use the little privilege that they had to terrorize women challenged the rosy idea of noble black manhood that I had constructed in my head.

As gut-wrenching of a read ‘The Book of Night Women’ was I forced myself to finish it. In a way reading it helped me as it gave me the fortitude to finally conquer Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved'( a book that I’d been avoiding completing for over a decade). In the wake of these readings I was overcome with a desire to truly study what my ancestors went through. Through consultations with knowledgeable friends and Amazon I compiled an extensive list of academic works on New World slavery. One of my first reads on this list was “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World” by David Brion Davis. In “”Inhuman Bondage” I would learn of an event that completely shattered any remaining naive notions that I had regarding solidarity among my people: the St. John slave insurrection of 1733 led by the Akwamu people.

The Akwamu were of the Akan people located in present-day Ghana.  The Akwamu were often in conflict with their neighbors and had a reputation for oppressing them. Like many in West Africa at the time they would become victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, sold into slavery as a consequence of war and ending up on a sugar plantation. The Akwamu survived the Middle Passage and made it to the island of St. John. As many of these Akwamu formed the elite of their people back home, they took particular umbrage at their current condition. In November 1733 the Akwamu would launch a rebellion that would not be quelled until May of the following year. Now generally the knowledge of slave uprisings brings a smile to my face. Indeed, the image of enslaved Africans standing up to fight for a freedom that no one had the right to take to begin with makes my back straighter, my head higher. But the aim of the rebellion launched by the Akwamu knocked me down. Unlike the enslaved Africans in Haiti who would rebel fifty-eight years later, the Akwamu did not seek liberation for the entire island. No, the Akwamu fought for their own freedom and wanted to keep chattel slavery in existence on St. John, ruling over Africans of other ethnic groups.

My mind struggled to grasp this. I wasn’t naive enough to expect that Eighteenth century West Africans would have a very Western, 20th century view of Pan-Africanism. I was aware that there was no unified ‘Black’, or even ‘African’ identity in West Africa itself at the time. But by this time they were no longer in West Africa, safe and secure in their own land. They had survived the violence of capture and sale, the nightmare of the Middle Passage and the hell of the plantation. But even that experience didn’t breed a sense of shared struggle in the Akwamu elite. The Akwamu simply wanted to replace the Danish slavemasters; they didn’t want to liberate everyone that was in chains.

My awareness of the multiple ways in which my people had struggled and hurt each other during chattel slavery-the most wretched and abysmal stage of our existence-permanently altered my view of those I share descent and color with. With all that we have been through there is a tendency to forget that we are not angels. We are subject to the same negative human impulses. We can be violent, craven and selfish. We can stab each other in the back, sell each other out, rape and brutalize each other. As much as I would like to hold onto my pan-African dream, as much as I would like to believe that all people of my ethnic group will stand with me, history shows that such notions are foolish. Indeed, given how often slave rebellions failed due to the snitching of other slaves, such trust can be dangerous. Our color and African descent alone cannot make us brothers and sisters; nor can I expect solidarity based on it.

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A native Seattleite and recent East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been. I reside in the suburbs of NYC with my husband, daughter, and our two feisty but deeply loved cats.

5 thoughts on “U-N-I-T-Y Part II

  1. Hello! Glad to see you posting again. What a thought-provoking post. It made me remember posts I’ve read from Arabs talking about family names/clans/tribes being the most important thing. Like, to the extent, parents would look for marriage partners for their children within the family so that cousins would marry to keep the family name strong, to keep the blood line pure, to keep the wealth within the tribe.

    Since Africa is made up of hundreds (thousands?) of people groups perhaps this holds true for many of them as well. Especially back in 1733 when the Akwamu were only thinking of themselves and how THEY could be on top. Apparently people don’t always identify with “hey, we are both black, we need to stick together.” Because, of course, reading your blog I have picked up on this fact even as it relates in current times.

    Also this reminds me of my dear Syrian friend who had often lamented the fact that Arabs from other countries (and now even within his own) don’t stick together. The rich gulf countries won’t allow in any more Syrians while I as an American can visit Dubai, for instance, without a visa and they build all these fancy places while their Syrian “brothers” live in refugee camps. Millions are displaced, but the UAE doesn’t really seem to care.

    People sometimes talk about underneath we are all the same. We may have different skin color, but underneath, we all have bones and blood, and fat and organs. Well, I think you pretty much summed up the commonality all people groups share with this:

    “We are subject to the same negative human impulses. We can be violent, craven and selfish. We can stab each other in the back, sell each other out, rape and brutalize each other. As much as I would like to hold onto my pan-African dream, as much as I would like to believe that all people of my ethnic group will stand with me, history shows that such notions are foolish.”

    1. Hi Susanne :),

      It’s good to be back; thank you for taking the time to read and comment. There definitely are parallels between African and Arab cultures when it comes to the importance of lineage and blood. Given our different history in the United States, I think Americans don’t always appreciate how much these concepts mean to those from other cultures. Marrying an African man REALLY opened my eyes to this reality.

      “Since Africa is made up of hundreds (thousands?) of people groups perhaps this holds true for many of them as well. Especially back in 1733 when the Akwamu were only thinking of themselves and how THEY could be on top. ”

      PRECISELY! There are so many different ethnic groups even within regions in Africa. The idea that everyone of African descent is the same, that we can all be thrown under the umbrella of ‘Black’ is one that is relatively new. Some would argue that such a view is actually an alien, Western idea. I have heard some West Africans state that this mentality does not take into account the history and view of Indigenous African cultures; that such thinking is a consequence of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the Colonialism that followed in its wake.

      With that in mind, the plans of the Akwamu really disturbed me. I could certainly understand the mentality of the Akwamu in their homeland. But the idealistic part of me thought-or should I say hoped-that living through the terrors of a slave ship and the brutality of the sugar plantation would have at least dulled the sharp difference in their minds. After all, the Europeans who purchased the Akwamu certainly didn’t treat them better or different from enslaved Africans of other ethnic groups. Also the process of labor on plantations in the Caribbean was so grueling! It was hard to conceive that a group could go through that and still see nothing wrong with subjecting others to such suffering, you know? But it goes to show how human we all are and how we are all capable of such cruelty.

    2. “Also this reminds me of my dear Syrian friend who had often lamented the fact that Arabs from other countries (and now even within his own) don’t stick together. The rich gulf countries won’t allow in any more Syrians while I as an American can visit Dubai, for instance, without a visa and they build all these fancy places while their Syrian “brothers” live in refugee camps. Millions are displaced, but the UAE doesn’t really seem to care.”

      This is a fascinating topic as well Susanne. The treatment of Syrian refugees by the Gulf countries sounds awfully similar to how they have treated their Palestinian brethren since Israel came into existence.

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