The legacy of slavery

9th June 1995 at 01:00
THE BLACK DIASPORA. By Ronald Segal Faber Pounds 17.50 - 0 571 16061 1.

Adam Lively on black people in the Americas and the Caribbean today.

Seventeen sixty was a turbulent year on the British sugar plantations of Jamaica. Sixty whites and a thousand slaves died in the course of various rebellions, with a cost to the planters of at least Pounds 100,000 "in ruined buildings, cane pieces, cattle, slaves and disbursements". One modern historian has likened its local impact to that of the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

The latest ingenuity was used by the whites in administering punishment to the captured rebels, particularly the spiritual leaders or Obeah men who were perceived as instrumental in inciting disaffection. "Upon other Obeah-men who were apprehended at that time, various experiments were made with electrical machines and magic lanterns, but with very little effect, except on one, who, after receiving some very severe shocks, acknowledged that 'this master's Obi exceeded his own'".

The use of electric shocks as a technique of torture is one of the horribly recurrent features of the modern age, and it is salutary to be reminded that it was developed in the context of colonial slavery. Black slavery, together with the racism that sustained it, is a phenomenon of the modern age, not of some long-past, Gone-with-the-Wind era. Its legacy is a living part of the present. A recognition of this fact has been reflected in recent years in the interest of novelists in that legacy. One need mention only the impact of Toni Morrison's work, or recent novels such as Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger and Fred D'Aguiar's The Longest Memory.

Since the Sixties, an enormous amount of detailed historical research has been done, particularly in America, on slavery and its impact, and this research has in turn generated both heated interpretive debates and attempts to synthesise this wealth of material. In recent years, in books such as James Walvin's Black Ivory, these syntheses have included attempts to compare slavery in different parts of the Americas. The latest in this line is The Black Diaspora, by the distinguished South African journalist Ronald Segal. In fact The Black Diaspora goes further, in that it encompasses also the legacies - economic, political and psychological - that have been left by slavery in the post-colonial era.

The Black Diaspora is really at least two books shoved into one. The first half is a history, organised both chronologically and geographically, of the Diaspora from its creation by the Atlantic slave trade to the present. This is a vast subject, and the treatment is necessarily bald and textbookish at times. Segal often leans heavily on already well-known secondary sources, such as C L R James' history of the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins, so that anybody already familiar with the literature will not find an enormous amount to extend their knowledge. Race and racial ideology are identified throughout as determining factors (hence "The Black Diaspora" rather than "The African Diaspora"), but the emphasis is more on presenting the facts than on arguing a thesis. In this respect it forms a useful complement to Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), a fascinating but highly theoretical survey of the same historical territory. For anyone entirely new to the subject, this first part of The Black Diaspora can be recommended as a professional and clearly written summary.

Having disposed of the history, The Black Diaspora takes a different turn and becomes a rather more interesting and unusual book. In a long section entitled "Travels in the Historic Present", Segal puts his journalistic skills to use in giving first-hand sketches and snap-shots of the diaspora. There are particularly vividly rendered impressions of Guyana, Trinidad (one of the more positive pictures in what is otherwise a litany of broken dreams) and Jamaica.

Segal has all the attributes of the best kind of reporter - an eye for the telling detail, an ability to draw out interviewees and a sense of political commitment to the subject.

He also has an ability to make connections that at one stroke open up a subject in new and unexpected ways. In the chapter on Brazil, for example, he draws a comparison between the habit of many Brazilian artists to represent blacks with a smudge instead of a face (a habit which, revealingly, had gone entirely unnoticed by the Brazilian art historians to whom Segal talked) and the homicidal campaigns of Brazilian police to "clear" the streets of homeless (and over-whelmingly black) children. Both - along with the invisibility of blacks on Brazilian television - are, Segal suggests, expressive of Brazilian society's desire to efface the black presence at its heart.

Also impressive about Segal's reportage is his sensitivity to the cultural dimensions of politics. For peoples denied many opportunities of verbal expression by political repression and educational disadvantage, music has been a particularly important outlet.

The Black Diaspora includes fascinating historical analyses of such forms as the calypso, the samba and reggae - whose oppressive rhythmic insistence (echoed subsequently in rap) Segal relates to Jamaica's particularly long and bloody history of slave rebellion and repression.

The last part of the book, inelegantly titled "Selections from an Anatomy of Achievement", takes a more methodical look at black contributions to sport and the arts, and marks a return to a more textbookish approach. There is, however, a good chapter on the fascinating subject of creole languages. In all, one can't help feeling that The Black Diaspora might have been a better book if Segal had concentrated on the reportage and incorporated the historical background into that context rather than separating it out into a matter-of-fact introduction. The final, somewhat broken-backed form of the book may, one suspects, be in part a publishing decision, an attempt to appeal to more than one market. But it is certainly a good enough book to wish it well in that.

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