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Shackled to the past trapped in the present *LINK*

by Wendel Abel


THE ENSLAVEMENT of our people for almost four centuries destroyed our ethnic, national and social identities. Many of the problems we face such as underachieving males, interpersonal violence, fragmented social systems, dysfunctional family patterns and a preponderance of single female-headed households are part of the psychosocial legacy of slavery and are experienced by many post-slavery societies.


Out of slavery evolved a class system which was determined by colour. Blacks were denied their humanity and deemed inferior to all others. Consider the aphorism, 'if you are white you are right, when you are brown stay around and when you are black stay back'. Are we then surprised that in 2004 the browning is still glorified, that many still aspire to marry someone of a 'browner' hue, that our people continue to bleach their skins and that the brown or white person is still preferentially treated in many quarters? That in many families the darkest person is abused emotionally and physically and anything black is degraded.


The plantation system was designed to generate wealth for one class. A stable family life was never encouraged, men were separated from their women and children from their mothers. The dominant family patterns characterised by visiting relationships, a preponderance of single-headed households and absent fathers have evolved out of slavery.


The West Indian negro slaves were devalued. Lowell Ragatz in 1928 wrote, 'he had all the characteristics of his race. He stole, he lied, he was simple, suspicious, inefficient, irresponsible, lazy, superstitious, and loose in his sexual relations.' Such was the perception of slaves and their descendants. These are concepts many still have of blacks, especially poor black persons. Many of these traits,described as negatives, were some of the strategies used to survive slavery. These strategies were considered adaptive but have become maladaptive in modern society.


Slavery was characterised by hard labour, brutal punishment and constant separation from loved ones. Here are some examples from the literature of how humans were punished: 'flogged him, had him rubbed in salt pickle, lime juice and bird pepper'; 'gagged him, locked his hands together, rubbed him in molasses and exposed him naked to the flies all day, and to the mosquitoes all night'; and 'a slave caught eating cane was whipped and another slave told to defecate in his mouth'.

Punishment by the master was harsh and brutal and the life of the black slave was worth nothing. Such was the level of dehumanisation, indignity and enforced powerlessness. It has generated resentment for authority and a devaluation of human life. Are we surprised at the high levels of interpersonal violence and the lack of respect for human life in Jamaica?


Power and sex were integrally linked in the plantation system. White men and higher-ranked men exploited the black woman. Historian, Barbara Bush noted that 'the sexual exploitation of slave women by white men represented a natural extension of the general power of white over black'. In one historical review a white overseer had sexual encounters with 87 different women in one year.

The greater the sexual exploits of the black male slave and the more children he had, the more valued he was. Black women also manipulated relationships with white males as they saw themselves as being able to achieve social mobility by sleeping with white men and having 'brown children' who could achieve social mobility by virtue of their colour.


The black male was encouraged to sire as many children on the plantation. The fact that men would have their women and children separated from them discouraged the development of strong emotional bonds in families and fostered 'the irresponsible black male'.

As we grapple with the scars left by slavery, we equally need to devise strategies to overcome them. This society must go through a period of deconstruction and break from the psychological chains that shackle us to our past. This deconstruction is necessary as we reconstruct ourselves into a caring, just and less violent society.

Dr. Wendel Abel is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer, University of the West Indies.


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Shackled to the past trapped in the present *LINK*
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