Friday, 16 February 2007

Remembering Slavery

Two hundred years ago the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by British parliament. There has been much debate around Bristol, a city whose past is inextricably linked to the slave trade, about how to commemorate this event. I want to recommend several books that bring to light some of the horrors of that awful trade, the legacy of which still stains the society in which we live today...

First on the list is Roots by Alex Haley. I've been reading this book over the past few weeks and it is sensational. Alex Haley traced his only family tree back to an African man, Kunta Kinte, who lived in the Gambia in the 1700's. By means of the rich oral tradition of Haley's family, and of the Mandinka tribe from which his family descended, Haley has reconstructed many of the details of Kunta Kinte's life and of the circumstances which led to him being kidnapped and taken to America as a slave. The book is easy to read but no less compelling for that; "Roots" burns with Haley's anger at the injustices which have been inflicted on his family.

What's more, in providing a direct, documented human link from now back to the time of slavery, Haley has evidenced the ongoing effect of slavery today. Those whose hard hearts lead them to protest that apologies are irrelevent, because "it all happened so long ago", forget that there is a continuous human link through which cause and effect is seamlessly propagated. We breathe air polluted by the history of slavery.

It's worth noting that "Roots" is not the only famous book by Alex Haley. He is also responsible for "The Autobiography of Malcolm X". He published this shortly after Malcolm X died and it is based on many hours of conversation between Haley and Malcolm X. That book too burns with anger at the plight of African Americans; in its own way it is as much about slavery as is "Roots".

Like "Roots", The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron is a fictionalised account of the life of a real slave. Nat Turner was a slave in Virginia in the 1800s who lead a bloody slave revolt against his white masters. The revolt was quickly suppressed and Nat Turner was executed but, nonetheless, the revolt had a serious impact on Virginian society of the time, polarising public opinion and causing great alarm among the so-called respectable classes.

Styron's account of the revolt is skilfully written but controversial. He concentrates a lot on Nat Turner's religious motivations, as well as on some of his sexual ideations. For this reason it has been criticised by some black authors as perpetuating the "myth of the black rapist". The book has been defended however by such notable black authors as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison; reason enough to read it!

In fact James Baldwin's work is itself worth mentioning in the context of slavery. I have read two of his books - "Go Tell it On the Mountain", a novel, and "The Fire Next Time" which consists of two essays - which are both notable in their own right. First of all Baldwin's writing is beautiful; understated and yet forceful. Secondly the content of what he has to say is extremely powerful - he does not speak of slavery directly but, like Alex Haley, his concern is for African Americans and so everything he writes has the shadow of slavery hanging over it.

On no one did that shadow fall more heavily than on George Jackson. Jackson was a member of the Black Panthers; he was imprisoned at age 18 for stealing $70 at a gas station and he remained in prison for the next 12 years. He was killed, aged 29, whilst trying to escape from San Quentin prison. George Jackson's "Soledad Brother" is possibly the most angry, most inflammatory book I have ever read. If one wants to consider the legacy which slavery has left humanity one need look no further than these words concerning the struggle of black people for justice in today's America:

"The concept of nonviolence is a false ideal. It presupposes the existence of compassion and a sense of justice on the part of one's adversary. When this adversary has everything to lose and nothing to gain by exercising justice and compassion, his reaction can only be negative.

The symbol of the male here in North America has always been the gun, the knife, the club. Violence is extolled at every exchange: the TV, the motion pictures, the best-seller lists. The newspapers that sell best are those that carry the boldest, bloodiest headlines and most sports coverage. To die for king and country is to die a hero.

The Kings, Wilkinses and Youngs exhort us in King's words to 'put away the knives, put away your arms and clothe yourselves in the breastplate of righteousness' and 'turn the other cheek to prove our capacity to endure, to love'. Well, that is good for them perhaps but I most certainly need both sides of my head."

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