“EmancipateYourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” Bob Marley – Redemption Songs
I’ve just recently seen the new documentary film on Bob Marley. Usually when I see these kind of conscious docs, I put a review of it up on my blog, but since this film has had so much exposure in the mainstream media, I don’t think it’s necessary – after all the Blakwatch is supposed to offer an alternative to the mainstream, not follow it.
Never-the-less, it was a revealing film which I’d recommend. Even for the long-time Marley fan like myself, there were plenty of tasty tit-bits of trivia. Like the fact that when his white English father met his Black Jamaican mother she was just 16 and he was in his 60s! Or the fact that when he married Rita, he moved to Delaware the very next day, to work in a factory as a fork-lift driver. Or the details of the time he spent in an exclusive clinic in Bavaria at the end of his fight with cancer.
But my favourite anecdote was about when he performed at the Independence Day celebration in Zimbabwe in1980. When the throngs outside the stadium forced their way in, tear-gas was let off and Marley’s band fled the stage. But Bob remained, defiant and alone. When the melee died down and the band returned, Marley apparently turned to them and said “now we see who the real revolutionaries are.” This nicely shows that Marley, like those other 70s musical icons James Brown and Fela Kuti, did not just regard himself as a pop star or an entertainer, but more a Black revolutionary.
But this film got me thinking on a deeper level (as all good art should do). The early part of the film makes much of Bob’s mixed parentage, his white absentee father, and the stigmatisation, discrimination and ostracism he suffered for being the only ‘red-skinned bwoy’ in the district. The suggestion of the film was that the ostracism that he felt, pushed him on a search for identity that eventually led him to embrace the philosophy of Rastafari. But anyone who is familiar with Jamaican society knows that, far from being a handicap, being light-skinned or of mixed racial heritage offers immense advantages. As Malcolm Gladwell reveals in the epilogue to his excellent book ‘Outliers’.
“whites saw mulattoes – the children of those (mixed) relationships – as potential allies, a buffer between them and the enormous numbers of slaves on the island. Mulatto women were prized as mistresses, and their children, one shade lighter in turn, moved still further up the social and economic ladder. ”
The same is still true today. You’ll be watching MTV Base a long time if you’re waiting to see a dark-skinned girl in a hip-hop video. From Josephine Baker in the 30s, to Lena Horne in the 40s, and Dorothy Dandridge in the 50s, to Pam Grier in the 70s, to Vanessa Williams and Lisa Bonet in the 80s, to Tyra Banks and Halle Berry in the 90s, to Beyonce today, when it comes to our Black beauties, it seems the lighter the better. In this Eurocentric world in which we live in, mixed race is the acceptable face of Blackness.
Those who are dark try their hardest to look as European as possible with hair weave and colour contacts. Black models with strongly African features like Alex Wek get no love.
Gladwell continues ……….
“Mulattoes rarely worked in the fields. They lived a much easier life of working in the ‘house’. They were the ones most likely to be freed. It’s not surprising then, that the brown-skinned classes of Jamaica came to fetishize their lightness. It was their great advantage. They scrutinized the shade of one another’s skin and played the colour game as ruthlessly in the end as the whites did.”
It is a direct result of this process of racial hierarchy that, despite gaining independence in 1962, it was not until 1992 that Jamaica had its first dark skinned Prime Minister in the shape of P.J.Paterson.
And African-Americans are no better. Have you noticed that their leaders, no matter how radical and pro-Black they may be, from Elijah Muhammed, to Malcolm X, to Louis Farrakhan, to Martin Luther King, to Jesse Jackson, to Obama today, tend to be light-skinned? It seems that African-Americans are unwilling to follow anyone darker than themselves.
Such shadism occurs across the diaspora. Wherever white slave masters plied their evil trade and propagated their wicked doctrine, the descendants of those slaves still carry the mental scars.
“Every time I hear the crack of a whip, my blood runs in me cold. I remember on the slave ship, how they brutalised our very souls.” Bob Marley – Slave Driver
Laws entrenching the separation of the races have been long repealed, and slavery long abolished, but sadly many in the diaspora still carry the shackles of slavery in their heads.
When the white boss of Island Records Chris Blackwell got white musicians to over-dub more instrumentation on the Wailers ‘Catch A Fire’ album and wanted to promote them like a Black rock act, founding members Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh weren’t as willing as Bob to compromise. They eventually left the group, stayed in J.A. and joined the long list of roots reggae artists, while Bob toured the world and became an international superstar.
We see that same willingness to compromise from that other modern day, international superstar of dual heritage Barack Obama. Recall that after a bitter campaign to be the Democratic Presidential nominee, Obama was quick to strike a deal with Hilary Clinton, offering her a top job as Secretary of State in his future government, in return for her endorsement. And since becoming President, he has bent over backwards to compromise with his right wing opponents.
Was Bob’s international success due to Chris Blackwell favouring him over the other Wailers, or was their own relative lack of success down to their unwillingness to compromise?
Is it due to the advantages conferred on the light-skinned, or simply not being weighed down by the mental shackles, that has allowed bi-racial sporting heroes like Tiger Woods in golf, and Lewis Hamilton in F1, to break through barriers into sports previously the exclusive preserve of whites?
Do so many Black men in this country struggle to progress because of outright discrimination, or is it down to an unwillingness to do what is required to advance?
I really don’t know, but as a sign on the wall of the office of my old tele-sales job put it, “maybe the thing that’s holding you back is you?