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history and identity


February 2014
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recently, the new mayor of new york elected stacey cumberbatch as commissioner of citywide administrative services and nytimes ran an article on it. the article mentioned about her bajan heritage linking her to benedict cumberbatch, who plays sherlock on the BBC drama sherlock. apparently, benedict’s mum told him to not use that surname to avoid lawsuits by descendants of slaves.

benedict cumberbatch is among those people whose history is traceable, but who don’t know necessarily their history, either by choice or ignorance and/or shame or imperialism/colonialism etc.
but for people like the stacey cumberbatch, history has become lost history, and that’s not due to historical illiteracy. the history of her people is not available to trace, is not google-able. history permitted benedict’s ancestors to trace their genealogy to find out that his ancestors owned slaves in barbados.

internet is great for recording or tracing something that has actually happened or been written about. but what about matter not recorded or written about? like oral cultures as stacey cumberbatch’s? or those cultures or peoples whose histories were forgotten or erased because they were too young and without family to propagate their culture or identity? or those who were too young and enslaved to document their history? internet is not to be blamed for this societal amnesia. if someone’s history is destroyed they simply never existed. how can internet keep a record of something which does not exist in print?

who are the translators of or to the past of those with forgotten histories?

the history of a people is their identity. our country’s history is our traditional history. for a long time, we’ve reproached the ‘africans’ for not knowing where they come from. for years we’ve blamed them for having a ‘chip on their shoulder’ and did not dig up history to comprehend from where that ‘chip’ or ‘lack’ originated. we did not seek ways to curb or stop it for years and now today, we are seeing movies which try to explain that missing history. but 12 years a slave, the butler, Amistad, django unchained, mandingo, the help, enslavement: the true story of fanny kemble, rrots, sankofa or uncle tom’s cabin cannot fill in the many blanks that history left out. monuments men is not a film about slavery, but it tries to give back great works of art to their rightful owners, but who who will “give back” to those whose history has been erased or forgotten or swallowed up in imperialism or colonialism? can such great movies tell you enough to reconstruct a whole history or past, down to the small details which make big ripples in comprehension? will they tell you about the difference between the indian diaspora and blacks in the caribbean islands where indians were brought with their families, birth certificates, religions and cultures intact, but the african peoples were ripped from their mothers’ breasts and put on ships for the long haul during the atlantic slave trade? will they tell you that some africans – out of sheer desperation and alone-ness – committed sucide on the salve ships by swallowing their tongues, which is impossible to do if you think about it ?

the indians – both muslim and hindus- knew/know where they come from, and what religion to practice -whether huinduism or islam- once they reached the islands, and that held them together. their identity followed them and they reconstructed india in their new homelands: temples, mandirs, mosques adorn some islands [in Guyana, Trinidad, suriname, Jamaica to a lesser extent, Mauritius, Pondicherry etc]. the knowledge of their past enabled them to soar in many ways as a group, as a culture, as an ethnicity, as a people. but what were the african populace in those countries? anglicans? presbyterians? catholics? baptists? protestants? whose identity were those? we know that slaves took their masters’ surnames – like di blasio’s commissioner stacey cumberbatch and platt [in 12 years a slave]- but did we know that slave owners ‘gave’ them religion too, if we didn’t see 12 years a slave? religion and name tell who you are, both of which DID not belong to the africans. their identity came from their masters’ religions and surnames which were imposed on them in the new land. but what was their past identity? how does a young child ‘know’ who he is without parents or birth certificate? could he have traced back his ancestry if he wanted to not knowing where to start when the african continent is so huge?

the history of the african peoples is lost in the annals of time and silence because they were forced to go it alone to the islands or america etc as slaves. today, americans, french, indians, greeks, chinese etc are proud of their history. without history there would be no wonderful greek or indian mythology to have or study. what history do those of african descent have to call their own? do we seek to know, at a deeper level, why in this post racial age they are still writing themselves into history? and screening themselves into cinematic history as films on slavery attest?

the african past [and other forgotten histories], has fallen within the abyss of a collective amnesia because of a lack of a past or history.

if you don’t know who you are, how can you know where you are going? without an identity and not just adopting someone’s name or religion, who are you? can you really “know” who you are with so many missing links to your past? can flashbacks alone – in cinema or real life- reconstruct someone’s history?


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