A New World Is Possible If We Can Imagine It So

– An Interview with James Early * (article available in this week’s Mail & Guardian)

James Early is a friend of Cuba. No big deal around here but still an issue in 21st Century America. What’s more Mr Early has long been a friend of Cuba.

Finding a launch pad for critical thinking is always difficult. In the US of A it is doubly difficult because free thinking is often compromised by so many powerful forces, before it can even take off. But James Early fires off his challenges no matter what and then turns the retaliatory salvos into an admirable display of intellectual fireworks, albeit somewhat one-sided some days.

Mr Early is Director of Cultural Studies and Communication at the Center for Folklife Studies at the renowned Smithsonian Institution of Washington DC. The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum complex. In keeping with the Institution in which he is based, Mr Early is broader than most academics in his approach to the issues of politics and culture or rather the politics of culture.

James Early is one of the main speakers at the launch of the global Human Bondage Project at Input 2008. Human Bondage is an ambitious, five-year project that will develop a drama series, feature films as well as documentaries… stories of an enslaved people told from the perspective of the slaves. With UNESCO as one of the main partners it will also have significant extensions, mainly educational. We spoke with Mr Early shortly before leaving Washington.

M&G: How do we help people understand, especially those who are the gatekeepers of the mainstream media industry, that stories of slavery are as important as the war in Iraq?

JE: Just as the anti apartheid struggle in South Africa gripped the consciousness of the world, just as the civil rights movement gripped the consciousness of the world, this story in the modern world of mass communication, has the potential to be huge in advancing world consciousness about the legacy of slavery and about the dimensions of democracy that we must envision for all people at this moment in the early part of the 21st century. This project could carry that load if we will imagine the possibilities of that.

M&G: You recently attended the UN commemoration of the anniversary of the abolition of Slavery. What did that occasion mean to you?

JE: It was a heartening experience. One, to see our ideological father, our patriot of 81 years old, Harry Belafonte, most eloquently sitting there next to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. He had not been invited by the US elected representative but by the representative form Barbados. The US government is trying to bury its history of slavery in the hope that it will go away, in the hope that it will perpetuate a so-called colour blind philosophy.

M&G: What does it mean for you to be coming to South Africa for the launch of the Human Bondage Project?

JE: Anytime the victims are able to become the protagonists, it is a potentially powerful step forward… (But) we have to wrestle with the accuracy and detail of what slavery was actually about. The sociology of that, the horror, the terror, the murderous nature of that and we have to situate that very carefully so that we don’t get into this attempt to suggest that because there was complicity on the part of some Africans in the slave trade that it was a complicity of equity. The system of slavery and its interface with capitalism and the ends to which the great philosophers and the great theologians of the world went to rationalise the dehumanisation of black African people is quite a different order of magnitude than the complicity of the Africans who were involved in the selling of their brothers and sisters.

M&G: When we look at issues of class and race in Africa and in other parts of the world, the descendants of slaves are invariably poorer and they have a kind of restricted social mobility. What are your thoughts on the fact that slavery in that sense has not been abolished completely?

JE: Slavery has not been completely addressed. I would say that chattel slavery characteristically in the sense of the Atlantic slave trade in which people were turned into objects, into property like animals or like field tools, has been characteristically abolished There is however a socio-cultural and economic hold over. Let’s take the Americas for example, from Canada to Argentina right through the United States, through to the Carribean and including socialist Cuba where I spent a considerable amount of time. The correlation between skin colour and marginalisation and poverty and low self esteem and lowered access to education, lower statistics in the defining dimension of state power and public institutions are hold-overs of slavery. What we are still struggling with is the social, cultural, economic strictures that carry over from slavery.

In fact there’s a whole new order of health investigation now across class lines. Issues of anxiety and physical issues, issues of what enslaved people were forced to eat and how that is transferred through the genetic pool and future generations even when those generations might emerge in middle and upper classes. Their health statistics tend to be characteristically lower than those who came from freer dimensions of society. So, in that regard we are still dealing with the legacy of chattel slavery.

M&G: So much of our society has been built on slavery and we have inherited a racist culture… people like you are doing a lot of work in order to raise awareness and to change that. Do you think these changes are taking effect globally?

JE: A New World is Possible, my own slogan. A new world is possible if we can imagine it so. We joined the African people and defeated colonialism. We joined the struggle and defeated apartheid in South Africa. We all wanted SA to be free not only because it represented the struggle of the enslaved darker people exploited and oppressed but because it also helped us to confront the unfinished social revolutions in our own country, particularly in a place like the US. Mandela became a metaphor for all humanity. The reconciliation process that played out in SA was not just something for us to observe from afar, it was a way for all of us to think back through all of the struggles that we had been involved in and to try and avoid the vengeance that so many of us may have wanted to exert on those who had exploited us.

We must take stock of those victories. We have come a long way yet we have a very long way to go.

* James Early of Washington’s Smithsonian Institute is a main speaker at the launch of the Human Bondage project at Input 2008.


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