Sunday, February 22, 2009

Caribbean unrest has roots in slavery and colonialism past

POINTE-A-PITRE, Guadeloupe (AP) — Protests that have nearly shut down the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique are not just about demands for lower prices and higher wages: For demonstrators they are no less than a battle against the vestiges of slavery.

Afro-Caribbean islanders — most of whose forbears toiled in the sugarcane fields under the yoke of slavery more than 160 years ago — not only resent France's handling of the global economic crisis, they have long resented that slaveholders' descendants control the economy on both islands.

They also suspect that businesses earn too high a profit on goods, most of which are imported.

This resentment against slaveholder descendants, known as bekes (bay-KAY) has lent an especially sharp edge to weeks of demonstrations that at times have erupted in gunfire, arson, looting, and the death of one activist in Guadeloupe.

"They've got the money, they've got the power, they've got Guadeloupe," snapped protester Lollia Naily. "This is not a race thing. It is a money thing and it is a power thing."

Protesters in Martinique also have rejected the bekes, with frequent chants of "Martinique is ours, not theirs!" Bekes own most industries in Martinique — but represent only about 1 percent of the island's 401,000 residents.

Deep economic and social disparities divide France from its overseas possessions: Unemployment in Guadeloupe is about 23 percent, compared with 8 percent on mainland France, and 12 percent of islanders live in poverty, compared with 6 percent of mainlanders, according to the most recent statistics.

The conflict extends beyond the Caribbean: Islanders living in mainland France are relegated to low-level jobs and are absent from senior positions in business, the military and government, revealing a "color fracture in French society," said Patrick Lozes, head of the Representative Council of Black Associations.

Islanders demand that France treat them as equals — wherever they are living — and question why food is more expensive here than on the mainland.

"My ID says I'm French," said 28-year-old Philippe Delag. "Guadeloupe is part of France."

The island certainly looks the part: French flags fly from government buildings, and tiny Citroens and Peugeots whiz along well-maintained highways. Residents switch easily from Creole to French in conversations.

On one concrete median divider in Guadeloupe is the spray-painted message, "We want 200 euros," reflecting protesters' demands for a 200-euro ($250) monthly raise for low-paid workers, who now make roughly euro900 ($1,130) a month.

The French government, which has insisted that any salary increases must come from the private sector, announced it could provide extra government benefits totaling nearly euro200 ($250) extra a month for low-income workers.

And both sides in Martinique have reached an agreement that would lower prices on 100 products by 20 percent. Protest leaders and government officials are still negotiating to lower the costs of housing, gasoline, water and electricity.

But the problems extend beyond economics, protesters say.

Serge Romana, president of an association that commemorates the abolition of slavery in the French territories, said French President Nicolas Sarkozy "must absolutely abolish all traces of neocolonialism and vestiges of slavery in the overseas regions."

Sarkozy himself — who raised islanders' hackles when as interior minister in 2005 he endorsed a bill requiring textbooks to recognize the "positive role" of colonialism — acknowledged last week that old wounds still fester.

"I know the feeling of injustice that you have, given the inequalities and the discrimination," the president said in a television appearance on Thursday aimed at quelling the unrest. "How can we justify monopolies, overly high profits ... and, why not say it, forms of exploitation that should not have any place in the 21st century?"

In Paris, thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday to show their support for striking workers and to pay homage to Jacques Bino, the labor-union activist killed in Guadeloupe last week.

Despite such signs of solidarity, most of France doesn't understand the islanders' demands, Lozes said.

"They don't see it as a demand for justice, but rather as a demand for charity," he said.

Jean-Luc de Laguarigue, a beke, said tensions have festered over generations because France and its islands have not explored the painful past. He said he knows of no slavery museum in France. The subject is generally taboo in schools.

But Laguarigue insisted that bekes no longer represent power and colonial force, and suggested that the islands — not Paris — should decide what is best for them.

The protests are "not a call for war, but for dignity," he said.

On Sunday, mourners dressed in white packed a gymnasium in the cane-growing town of Petit-Canal to hear poems about struggle and rousing songs in homage to Bino, the dead labor-union activist, whose body has been displayed in an open casket on the island for two days.

"We want respect," said Adele Goram, 50, an islander from a nearby town who attended. "We live in France and there should be no difference between France and Guadeloupe."

Several islanders blame the arrival of 450 French riot police for the violence that has erupted during protests — and say it shows how France treats the islands like colonies.

Martinican painter and intellectual Victor Permal described Paris' proposals as "general and blurry" and criticized the decision to send force, saying France has often overreacted when problems arise on the islands.

"The people are starting to gain a clear notion of what belongs to them," Permal said. "So they become conscious that it is not France who should define their path and needs."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

John Legend responds to NY Post cartoon

R&B singer John Legend has blasted a New York Post cartoon as racist in an angry letter to the editor.

In the Feb. 19 New York Post, an editorial cartoon compared the author of the federal stimulus bill to the crazed chimpanzee shot and killed by police a few days earlier after attacking a woman in Stamford, Conn.

The singer responded to the cartoon with the following open letter to the Post:

Dear Editor:

I'm trying to understand what possible motivation you may have had for publishing that vile cartoon depicting the shooting of the chimpanzee that went crazy. I guess you thought it would be funny to suggest that whomever was responsible for writing the Economic Recovery legislation must have the intelligence and judgment of a deranged, violent chimpanzee, and should be shot to protect the larger community. Really? Did it occur to you that this suggestion would imply a connection between President Barack Obama and the deranged chimpanzee? Did it occur to you that our president has been receiving death threats since early in his candidacy? Did it occur to you that blacks have historically been compared to various apes as a way of racist insult and mockery? Did you intend to invoke these painful themes when you printed the cartoon?

If that's not what you intended, then it was stupid and willfully ignorant of you not to connect these easily connectable dots. If it is what you intended, then you obviously wanted to be grossly provocative, racist and offensive to the sensibilities of most reasonable Americans. Either way, you should not have printed this cartoon, and the fact that you did is truly reprehensible. I can't imagine what possible justification you have for this. I've read your lame statement in response to the outrage you provoked. Shame on you for dodging the real issue and then using the letter as an opportunity to attack Rev. Sharpton. This is not about Rev. Sharpton. It's about the cartoon being blatantly racist and offensive.

I believe in freedom of speech, and you have every right to print what you want. But freedom of speech still comes with responsibilities and consequences. You are responsible for printing this cartoon, and I hope you experience some real consequences for it. I'm personally boycotting your paper and won't do any interviews with any of your reporters, and I encourage all of my colleagues in the entertainment business to do so as well. I implore your advertisers to seriously reconsider their business relationships with you as well.

You should print an apology in your paper acknowledging that this cartoon was ignorant, offensive and racist and should not have been printed.

I'm well aware of our country's history of racism and violence, but I truly believe we are better than this filth. As we attempt to rise above our difficult past and look toward a better future, we don't need the New York Post to resurrect the images of Jim Crow to deride the new administration and put black folks in our place. Please feel free to criticize and honestly evaluate our new president, but do so without the incendiary images and rhetoric.


John Legend

Thursday, February 19, 2009

New York Post Editorial Cartoon Insults Obama and African Americans

Reverend Al Sharpton had the following to say about the New York Post's editorial cartoon: Statement by Reverend Al Sharpton, President of National Action Network

New York, NY (February 18, 2009) --The cartoon in today’s New York Post is troubling at best, given the racist attacks throughout history that have made African-Americans synonymous with monkeys. One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual inference to this form of racism when, in the cartoon, the police say after shooting a chimpanzee, “now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.”

Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has become synonymous with him it is not a reach to wonder whether the Post cartoonist was inferring that a monkey wrote it? Given that the New York Post cartoonist has come under heavy fire in the past for racially tinged cartoons including the infamous cartoons depicting 2001 mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer and me in very unflattering ways (that ultimately was used as a campaign tactic to inflame racial prejudices), one cannot ignore that history when looking at this morning’s cartoon.

The Post should at least clarify what point they were trying to make in this cartoon, and reprimand their cartoonist for making inferences that are offensive and divisive at a time the nation struggles to come together to stabilize the economy if, in fact, this was yet another racially charged cartoon.

What do YOU have to say about this?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Frederick Douglas House at Cedar Hill

Frederick Douglas was arguably the most influential African American of the 19th century. A statesman, newspaper publisher, abolitionist, husband, father, orator and women's suffrage advocate, Douglas was a man of strong convictions. Born in slavery, Douglas escaped from his master after refusing to take a beating from an overseer on a Maryland plantation. He became a leading spokesman for the abolitionist movement. He turned down an invitation from John Brown to join the Harper's Ferry raid because he believed lawlessness did not help the anti-slavery cause. In 1865 he gave a speech at Hosanna Meeting House in Oxford, Pennsylvania that prompted my great-great grandfather, two of his brothers, and many of his friends to join the union army during the civil war. He was named ambassador to Haiti in 1889. Douglas and his wife Anna purchased this home in 1877, breaking a whites' only covenant. On February 20, 1895, shortly after attending a women's rights rally, Douglas died in the hallway of this home. He may have been the greatest African American leader in American history.