LETTER TO THE EDITOR:The importance of controlling the narrative

History is commonly defined as the chronological record of events (as affecting a nation or people) and usually presenting an explanation of their causes.

Controlling the narrative enables one group to exercise mind control over another group by influencing the way they see the world around them and the way they perceive their place in the world. The profound importance of a people being in control of the narrative regarding their history was understood by the character Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” when he came to the realization that “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.”

It is clear that this realization is at the forefront of the thinking of the governors of the two most populous southern states in the USA who are working diligently to re-write the history of race relations in the USA with particular reference to slavery, Jim Crow and race riots including ‘La Matanza’. In this regard, the Roman Catholic church was ahead of the game by trying to rewrite the history of the church’s involvement in slavery.

In the movie ‘Trumbo’, which was about Martin Dies Jr of the House of Representatives who was that chamber’s equivalent of McCarthy in the Senate, targeting and persecuting movie makers in Hollywood as being ‘Communists’ and ‘Unamerican’ one of the colleagues of Chairman Dies commented “It’s just a movie”. Dies’ response was “A movie isn’t just a movie. It’s about perception.” This is a really profound statement that deserves to be discussed fully because the same can be said of books and all other media which influence not only how others see us but also how we see ourselves. Children in the developed world grow up on stories of their heroic ancestors and this shapes their perception of who they are. We owe it to the children of the Caribbean to also shape their self-perception by introducing them to the heroism of their ancestors.

In the late 1970s to early 1980s there was an effort in the Caribbean to publish adventure novels based on actual events in Caribbean history targeting the 11 – 14 age group. By the 1990s this effort had petered out and books such as ‘The Young Warriors’ and ‘Sixty-five’ both written by V.S. Reid had disappeared from the shelves of bookstores in the Caribbean. I can personally attest to this, because in the 1990s I visited the main bookstores in the capitals of The Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Trinidad trying to purchase these two books for my son.

I enquired of each store owner/manager why they were not carrying these books and, in every instance, they explained that they used to carry the books but eventually stopped because nobody would buy them. We in the Caribbean need to understand and appreciate the importance of introducing our children to their history so that they can grow up with an awareness of our heroic ancestors and adventure novels based on actual events and the lives of real people are an excellent way to do this. In Caribbean history, there is a superabundance of individuals and events that provide suitable material for adventure novels.

Be it the valiant struggles of the Tainos and Kalinago to retain possession of, and to survive on the lands of their ancestors, the determined efforts of the maroons to maintain their hard-won freedom, or the courageous uprisings of the enslaved Africans seeking to end their servitude. As Historian Rebecca Hall explains “If you’re a black child, you learn about slavery, but you don’t learn about slave resistance or slave revolt in [America].”

“But if you’re taught the history of resistance, that our people fought every step of the way, that is a recovery that is crucial to our pride in our humanity and our strength and struggle. So, the issue of slave resistance is something I think everyone should know about.”

It is not by accident that the stories of our ancestors’ bids for freedom are not well known. It is the result of a deliberate and concerted effort by the enslavers and oppressors to blot out these events from the narrative. It made absolute sense for the enslavers to suppress news of conspiracies, insurrections, plots, rebellions, revolts, and uprisings by the enslaved at the time these occurred because of their well-founded fear of the “Demonstration Effect” – that is that news of bids for freedom in one territory would inspire or incite similar activity in other territories. It should be noted that the highest number of revolts or planned revolts by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean occurred during the tumultuous decade of the 1790s which was when the people of St. Domingue were fighting for their freedom.

The Anglican Church steadfastly opposed an effort to evangelize among enslaved Africans. However, by the 1820s the planters came to see the gospel not as a threat to slavery but rather a means of mind control through the dissemination of the ideas of obedience. To achieve this end, they insisted that evangelization was not to include teaching literacy, because of their well-founded fear that the enslaved Africans would become aware of the subversive teachings of the French and the Haitian Revolutions.

Recognizing the importance of exerting mind control over the enslaved Africans, the British in 1807 published what became known as the ‘Slave Bible’ – actual title  “Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands”  (which coincided with the promulgation of the Act of Parliament abolishing the ‘Slave Trade’) with the goal of convincing the enslaved Africans that they should meekly accept their lot and await their redemption in the afterlife.

This attempt clearly didn’t work because three of the biggest revolts by enslaved Africans in the British colonies, indeed in the entire American continent, occurred after this bible was introduced to the Africans. What is particularly ironic is that two of the three revolts were instigated and led by a preacher or a deacon who clearly interpreted the heavily truncated bible very differently from what the enslavers had anticipated.

With the end of slavery, the colonial ruling classes and their acolytes moved to erase the story of those bids for freedom from the narrative as a means of continuing to exert mind control over the majority population, instilling in our minds the notion that we are only free because of their good intentions. As I am at pains to explain in the free online course ‘Freedom Fighters of the Caribbean’, this was most definitely not the case. So, it is our responsibility to ensure that we tell our story from our perspective, because when we allow others to write the narrative, then their interpretation of the events that make up our past may be influenced by their biases whether implicit or conscious.

Follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/desmondbollers2 or visit https://www.caribfree.net/

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  1. Patti
    March 22, 2024

    Wow, if this write up could be above the heads of our people that it won’t even get a comment for or against, then we are in serious need for our own history written by our own people, in all our schools. Your People need to be able to at least read and understand their own history and how it was distorted to pacify them. This is super serious.

  2. Without Sanctions
    March 19, 2024

    Thank you for that piece Desmond. Until The Lion tells his own story, every story favors the hunter.

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