The 1619 Project and the Caribbean experience
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(29 December 2021) –The day after Christmas 2021, I started reading the book, “The 1619 Project” created by Nicole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine. My daughter included the book among the gifts I received. I was completely blown away by reading the Preface, even before getting into the depths of the chapters. I love history, but this was a new experience which exploded my intellectual curiosity beyond anything I had heretofore imagined. The purpose of this article is not to expound on the value of “The 1619 Project” in changing the narrative about slavery in America and the exploitation of its continued debilitating effects on the economic and social well-being of African Americans.
In fact, what struct me immediately is that as a Jamaican and Caribbean person, like the students before my time and after, I was not exposed to the history and the lasting psycho-sociological and economic effects of the institution of slavery on today’s Caribbean people and societies. The brief history of slavery and the narratives surrounding its brutality to which we were exposed in the Caribbean were shaped and circumscribed by the former enslavers and the enabling sovereigns who exploited human slavery for the treasure derived from one of the most heinous acts ever perpetrated for nearly two hundred years. They taught the descendants of enslaved persons to blame themselves if they failed to succeed in a socio-economic system designed for most to fall and a few to succeed.
Only a few were accorded the opportunity to escape the legacy of enslavement and colonialism, during the post-emancipation period of more than a hundred years. The former enslavers determined the curriculum in Caribbean grammar schools for a privileged few who were trained to provide loyal service as determined by and for the British crown. The few who escaped were trained to eventually replace the former enslavers who were now colonizers. They were empowered, perhaps psychologically prepared, to see themselves as superior to the masses, to maintain the disparities and inequities in Caribbean societies, and to see exploitation of the masses as a privilege and a right attached to their pseudo-superior class. Upon release of the shackles of colonial exploitation by the former enslavers, native-led Caribbean governments have failed during almost sixty years of political independence to make the fundamental changes necessary to build equity and inclusive societies across the Caribbean. A few who tried to change the dynamics faced fierce opposition.
After reading the first few pages of “The 1619 Project”, I began to understand why the former enslavers and their enablers would wish to perpetuate their system of educational ignorance. Not that I was oblivious to this dynamic, but it was never fully focused in my academic or personal experiences. I could understand why by keeping most Caribbean people in perpetual darkness about the history of the enslavers and the inherited system’s effects on succeeding generations of the enslaved persons, the sovereign enslavers’ conscience would not be aroused and they would not feel obligated to pay the debts they owed – reparations. By controlling the narrative on the historical truths about slavery and the years that followed, they have managed to avoid a groundswell of support for reparative justice.
We often hear repeated, the refrain, “None but ourselves can free our minds.” I believe we should be asking instead, “Why have succeeding generations of enslaved persons been denied the educational tools and economic opportunities to equip them to free their minds?” This process of emancipation of the minds of the descendants of enslaved persons begins with offering the masses a clear historical narrative and understanding of the underlying causes which created this “enslaved mentality” which has permeated throughout succeeding generations of former enslaved persons. Understanding the issues enable solutions.
There is an urgency to hasten a change to the current dynamic. Our generation has an obligation to force our governments to change how the history of slavery and its lasting effect on generations of Caribbean people is narrated and taught to each generation at an early age. I am neither an historian or an educator, but our generation must ensure the generation that follows is guaranteed a society characterized by equity and inclusion as the norms for all citizens, not just for a few. Our generation has an obligation to ensure they inherit independent nations populated by people whose minds are liberated by the education they receive and opportunities they are afforded.
It will be a mammoth task to change the values and attitudes of those who are in control and those who are controlled in the short-term. Unless the citizenry demands changes of political leaders the dynamics will remain stagnant. But I am encouraged by the Chinese proverb which states, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step!” I am taking that first step, and I hope others will join in making change happen.
For too long, far too many Caribbean people, including Caribbean immigrants in the United States, viewed the African American experience as alien to the Caribbean. As Caribbean people we tend to deny the role of race in the economic and social constructs of Caribbean societies. Caribbean people tend to conceptualize the prevalence of inequities and exclusions as a matter of class, divorced from race. As Caribbean people we need to take a deeper look at how the legacies of the enslaved has transcended time and space to be endemic in Caribbean societies. An end to imposed, and self-imposed, deception and obfuscation of Caribbean history is long overdue. We the people of the Caribbean must force the changes we seek.
© 2021/2022 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post