• Why is race so black and white?

    Why is Barack Obama more black than white? The question of race and the ownership of different racial and therefore cultural spaces is a vexed one. As someone most people would look at and identify as ‘white’, I feel the exclusivity of the discourse. 

    The American banjo player and roots singer Rhiannon Giddens – talking about her latest project Songs of our Native Daughters in Songlines magazine – spoke about the slavery of “my ancestors”. She is the daughter of a European American father and an African American mother. 

    I’ve never taken a DIY DNA test

    If I did, I might discover some unforeseen racial mix. We’re all African if you go back far enough. So why the segregation? And why, when that segregation is defined, is the black identity so wide, and the white identity so stunted?

    For a clue, consider what V. S. Naipaul had to say about ex-slavery societies in the Caribbean, such as Martinique, where he travelled before writing his book The Middle Passage in 1961:

    “Pedigrees are so carefully watched that there is no possibility whatsoever of anyone with the least tincture of Negro blood, however unapparent, passing as white.” 

    This fear of miscegenation runs deep in all American ex-slavery societies, as it does elsewhere in the world. Even in black or Indian communities, an instinctive preference for a lighter shade of skin in pervasive. 

    Perhaps this is at the root of the keen divide in US society today, where anyone with any amount of black ancestry therefore becomes designated, and self-identifies, as black?

    Where does this leave me?

    If my DNA showed up traces of African blood, what then? Could I claim the slaves of the Americas as my ancestors? Or am I condemned to forever be the descendant of oppressors? 

    And can I ever claim fraternity with Barack Obama? He is a politician I hugely admire. He stands for what I stand for. He is culturally my brother. Yet by current social mores, he is ‘black’ and I am ‘white’. We are divided. 

    Read this post for more of my musings on V. S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage

  • Christianity for export

    Naipaul book The Middle Passage sitting on a travel trunk
    Travels in the West Indies

    Christianity is an imported religion to anyone who’s not from the Middle East. This may be a historical fact, yet it’s often overlooked. I am reminded of it by V. S. Naipaul’s reflections on “the faith of the heathen convert” in his 1961 travelogue of the West Indies, The Middle Passage

    “Indian girls not good.”

    Naipaul is being led through the Guyanese jungle by two Amerindian teenage boys from a local Christian mission. One of the boys says he wants to marry, but not an Amerindian girl: “Indian girls not good. They don’t know anything.” By anything the boy means, of course, anything of Western civilization. 

    “The missionary must first teach self-contempt.” 

    For anyone outside the eastern Mediterranean to embrace Christianity wholeheartedly, must they inevitably renounce something of their own heritage? Is there something fundamentally alien to the land in which it lies that a British country church is full of references to Middle Eastern places and people? 

    Naipaul was reflecting on the more visceral import of Christianity from a colonizer to the colonized, and from the slave-owner to the slave. Christianity was initially a racial faith in the West Indies. It enabled the European plantation owners to divide the population into (white) Christians and everyone else. 

    “The Berbice slave rebellion of 1762 was a war between Christians and rebels. The captured rebels were tried for ‘Christian murder’.” 

    This reflection of course makes the conversion to Christianity across the entire ex-colonial world problematic. Is it a final vestige of European domination? Can it ever be detached from that history? And to what extent is the Christianity of Britain a vestige of its subordination to Rome? 

    All quotes: V. S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage, p. 160, Picador, 2001

  • Why do we go on holiday?

    Sunshades and loungers on a beach
    Claim your spot (Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel)

    Everyone loves a holiday, right? Sun, sea, sand, surf…

    There is a brilliant moment in The Mystic Masseur, the debut novel of recently departed Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul. The main protagonist, Ganesh, is bettering himself in rural 1940s Trinidad, and his long suffering wife Leela begins to think out loud to her female acquaintances about taking a vacation.

    Such airs and graces!

    The reaction is swift. Who does she think she is? The social presumption of thinking yourself worthy of a holiday, or just taking off, forgetting the housework, and doing nothing for days on end but, what…?

    It got me thinking.

    Other than religious feast days, not so long ago a holiday was unheard of outside the ruling elite. Industrialisation gave birth to the idea of taking a day trip to the seaside, and later on, maybe even an extravagant week in a deckchair.

    Foreign pleasure trips are even more recent – thanks to the power of the low cost airfare. Yet I know people – especially from poorer countries – who are still uncomfortable with the idea of the modern holiday.

    For them, leaving the home to travel means visiting family members – however distant. They must trust strangers to drive the bus, fly the plane, make a meal on the way – but as soon as possible, a family member will be there to escort them.

    To pass freely without let or hindrance…

    The modern holiday is a construct of the era of the nation state. It requires stable infrastructure in which we trust strangers to service our needs, not rob, poison or otherwise injure us. It also requires that we have surplus wealth.

    Ski tan

    Which gets to the other essential element in the modern holiday – the display of status. The tan – despite all the health warnings – still has street cred in Western cultures. Every ex-school kid remembers the cache attached to a ski holiday.

    Holidays. Just sun, sea, sand, surf*!

    *And stuff.