“The situation of Afro-descendants [in the Americas] is atrocious.”
Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay did not mince her words yesterday. It was her presentation on the UN Decade of People of African Descent – which, in case you were not aware, is from 2015 to 2024. So, we’re two years in.
The theme for the Decade is “People of African descent: recognition, justice and development.” Commissioner Macaulay believes that Afro-descendants in the region are not getting much of any of those things, as we enter the third year of this special UN Decade. 151 million black people live in the Americas, she pointed out to participants in the civil society consultations with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). It was a remarkable, full and long day at the University of the West Indies Regional Headquarters in Kingston, skilfully negotiated by two brilliant Jamaican human rights advocates, Tenesha Myrie and Hilaire Sobers.
Margarette Macaulay is a Jamaican human rights advocate and former Judge at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. She is serving a four-year term as Commissioner, having assumed office on January 1, 2016. She is the Rapporteur on the Rights of Afro-descendants and Against Racial Discrimination, as well as on the Rights of Women. Without a doubt, she said, Afro-descendants – and especially Afro-descendant women – experience “the highest level of rights violations” in the region. In fact, she went further. They “lack personhood,” she stated. “They are invisible…They are not counted.” She recalled one Latin American citizen telling her with considerable conviction: “We have no blacks in our country!” This happened to be far from the truth.
Commissioner Macaulay turned a stern eye on the Caribbean, too. If any Jamaican tells you there is no racial discrimination in his/her country, she says, we must realise “That is a big lie.” As with so many social ills, we are in denial on race. We must “admit it…and deal with it,” said Ms. Macaulay. The problem is, though – we do not, and will not. It’s so much easier to ignore certain elephants in the room, especially when it comes to human rights.
I asked an obviously rather naïve question. On June 5, 2013, at the 43rd regular session of the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States in La Antigua, Guatemala, two Inter-American Conventions were signed. The first was Against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance and the second Against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance. Among Caribbean countries, the first was signed by Antigua and Barbuda and Haiti; the second was only signed by Haiti. In fact, many countries in Latin America and almost all those in the Caribbean have not signed either of them. I asked why, and was told that the usual reason trotted out is to do with “sovereignty.”
By the way, Jamaica’s record is unimpressive generally, in its accession to Inter-American human rights instruments. It does not recognise the jurisdiction of the IACHR’s Court (unlike Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago). It has lots of Caribbean company in not signing the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (unlike most of Latin America). Jamaica has not signed the Protocol to Abolish the Death Penalty (it’s still on our books); nor has it signed the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture (along with the rest of CARICOM, it seems); nor that on Forced Disappearance of Persons (not an issue in the Caribbean, one presumes). We have not even signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities! And that applies to the other CARICOM countries, too.
Am I missing something, here? Perhaps someone can explain all this to me. Is it politics, or what?
Commissioner Macaulay recalls the good old days, when Jamaica “used to raise Cain” at the United Nations over human rights issues, in particular racial discrimination and the evil apartheid regime in South Africa. Well, those days are gone. Cynicism has set in, it seems. Human rights is not something we need to bother about. We have terrorism, national security and budgets to worry about.
Well, I had wanted to look back at Black History Month (last month, of course) – a month which Jamaicans recognise in a half-hearted way, regarding it as primarily an African American celebration. Local television stations wheel out more or less the same “black films” every year. Roots is a perennial favourite, and indeed a classic. The TV stations throw a little Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley into the mix, with Malcolm and Martin. Fair enough. This year we had the President of the United States (you know, the orange one who has now turned yellow-blond) laughably telling us that “Hey, Frederick Douglass is getting pretty popular, these days!”
I have kept my antennae out for interesting black history stories in the past few weeks. Here are just a few – and it doesn’t have to be February for me to share them with you… You can click on the links for more.
Joshua Jelly-Shapiro (author of a book called Island People: The Caribbean and the World, which I’ve just finished reading and will review shortly) wrote an interesting piece for The New York Review of Books on the renaming of a college at Yale University named after a racist, slave-owning Southerner, John C. Calhoun. How should we look back at our history, the writer asks? We can’t pretend this man never existed. He writes about “the dangers of condescending to the past,” adding: “Our history may now include Barack Obama, but it also contains John Calhoun.”
Then I came across an article in the always wonderful New Yorker that describes a new book by white South African photographer Pieter Hugo called 1994. I’m not sure I am entirely comfortable with the idea of children – orphans and survivors of the Rwandan genocide – posing for their photographs in clothes that are mostly too big for them. It seems artificial and condescending (oh, that word again) – and just rather sad.
The film Hidden Figures is an absorbing true story about three black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA in the 1960s, during the so-called “Space Race.” It had excellent reviews, was nominated for a number of awards and won a Screen Actors Guild Award. But there were other hidden figures: African American women preachers (including Sojourner Truth and others) who decided that God wasn’t necessarily a man, after all. “The fact is that African-American women have preached, formed congregations and confronted many racial injustices since the slavery era,” this interesting article notes. It has lots of links to look up, so you can learn more about a little known aspect of black women’s history.
Closer to home… Harry Belafonte just turned ninety years old (on March 1). This lovely article (from the New Yorker again) describes the subtle power of his music, always a cool backdrop to his much less muted activism. Belafonte was born in New York but spent much of his childhood living with his grandmother in Jamaica. The Legacy of Harry Belafonte: When Colors Come Together is a just-released anthology of his work from Sony Legacy.
Trevor Noah, the witty man who hosts The Daily Show, has just published his autobiography, “Born a Crime: A Memoir of Love, Hope and Resistance.” The book chronicles his strong relationship with his mother (he was born to a Xhosa mother and a Swiss-German father) growing up in apartheid South Africa. There is plenty of humour in that relationship: “Laughter is an escape. I feel like laughter reminds you of your best self, your favorite self, your freest self,” says Noah. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
P.S. March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. As you can see, the page has not been updated with a 2017 theme, yet – not very encouraging. Well, perhaps the theme could be Denial.