Reparations, Slavery, and Language Attitudes

On Wednesday, the 30th of September, 2015, David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland visited my island home and addressed the Parliament of Jamaica.

Cameron

Cameron

He urged the Jamaican people to “move on”. From what, you may ask? From the issue of (reparations for) slavery. He encouraged us to, as the Jamaica Observer records, “look towards the future”.

He’s quoted as saying:

Slavery was and is abhorrent in all its forms. It has no place whatsoever in any civilised society, and Britain is proud to have eventually led the way in its abolition. … I acknowledge that these wounds run very deep, indeed. But, I do hope that, as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.

Mike Henry, a longstanding member of Parliament says, though, “I still stand resolute that Britain has not apologised for slavery,” and that Cameron added “insult to injury.” (ibid)

Henry

Henry

Jamaicans have been abuzz with the fact that this same Cameron, just last year, has said that Britain must make sure that “memory and the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten,” and a desire that “that the memory and the lessons of the Holocaust live on for generations to come.” (Huffington Post)

Ah, the slickness that is politricktians.

Cameron comes bearing pounds and pounds of gifts so we may build a new prison where they can send the Jamaicans they have in their UK prisons. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s much interest here in building us, but to get rid of their own burdens; garbage that they believe is rightfully ours.

PJ Patterson, a former Prime Minister of Jamaica wrote in an open letter to Cameron: “the [British] government agreed to compensate the slave owners £20million, and passed an Emancipation Act in which the enslaved had to work free for another four to six years in order to pay off the £27million promised slave owners,” (emphasis mine) since, after all, slaves were valued at a total of £47 million. I find it hard to believe that Britain, as “proud” as it is to have “led the way” to abolition in its territories, really did it for the enslaved. Is that truly something to be proud of?

But, Mr Multilingual, what’s that got to do with language? Your blog’s about language, after all.

A lot, actually. Think about it. What language am I writing in right now? The Queen’s English.

Language is a fossil of history. As are language attitudes. The fact that my de facto national language is looked down on by so many of my own people, and that it’s not even considered ‘proper’ or true language is the result of the colonial powers that were. Many Jamaicans bleach their skin, and straighten their hair because that is considered more beautiful. Lighter-skinned people are often treated with more respect, and even are chosen before darker-skinned people for jobs.

Just as the so many of the words of the languages of the peoples who were forcefully brought to this region were lost, so was their history: In school, we learn of Greek history, but little about Africa. Ancient Egypt gets a pass because it’s been so whitewashed that Hollywood often depicted the Egyptians as white, and many people don’t even know that Egypt is in Africa. But what do we know of the Yoruba gods, history, people…? The Ashanti? Any others? To the West, it’s as though black history starts with slavery.

Africa_satellite_orthographic

How can we ‘move on’ when there’s so much that still needs to be repaired? At the very least, an apology on behalf of your predecessors would be in order for more than a century of genocide (of people, languages, history, and dignity) rather than an attempt at sugar-coating such a scar on our memories, and pretending that these forebears tried to fix it for our good.

Don’t you think?

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