chapter  8
Black redemption, not (white) abolition
ByRobbie Shilliam
Pages 18

A good place to start is with a story. This one is from Erna Brodber (1980); it is set in Jamaica and it follows Nellie. She is in the process of liberating her body, psyche and spirit from slavery. To do so, Nellie must come out of her kumbla. A kumbla is a disguise, a protective device that you weave around yourself for survival. In a kumbla “you can see both in and out. You hear them. They can hear you. They can touch you. You can touch them. But they cannot handle you” (Brodber 1980: 123). A kumbla protects by functioning as a disguise, and more so, as subterfuge by dislocating its wearer from the harsh points of a dangerous reality (see Cooper 1990: 284-86). The kumbla “blows as the wind blows it, if the wind has enough strength to move it”; “it is a round seamless calabash that protects you without caring” (Brodber 1980: 123). In other words, the powerful protection that a kumbla provides is of a kind that ensures survival but does not nurture. Nellie was born into her kumbla. Although Nellie’s great grandfather Will was from a poor background he came

from white stock, and in Jamaica that fact allowed him to improve his lot. Will continued his family line with Tia Maria, the black god-daughter of the black maid who raised him. Will did not need to fashion a kumbla; however, the discrepancy between his social position and personal relations must have also produced a significant-but differently felt-disconnect in his orientation to the world: “[h]e was an abstract being, living in his head and his family and totally unaware of other tunes and innuendos” (Brodber 1980: 138). By contrast, Tia Maria did not look to the far-flung abstracted future as Will did; she could only look to her direct and immediate reality. She knew that two roads lay before her: Will’s people or her own people, “and she knew who had power.” To take that road for her children, “she’d have to learn to bob and weave” and spin a kumbla out of Will’s white skin (1980: 138). In the end, ponders Nellie, all that

Will willed to his offspring was “his abstract self and what cocoons we could make out of it” (Brodber 1980: 141). To come out of a kumbla is to dispense with an un-nurturing protection. It is

to reconnect with and creatively embrace a heritage that has been kept distant, because, while that heritage is infused with pain and sorrow it also possesses healing powers for the living. To come out of the kumbla is to do more than physically survive; it is to redeem your past. So as Nellie comes out of her kumbla her ancestors tell their story. Some of them had refused Tia Maria’s weave, while others reacted badly to the material and had to shake it off. What is more, these spirits tell Nellie of the hidden sites-in thatched or open air tabernacles rather than stone churches-where they redeemed their humanity, and of how they exorcised the ills of slavery with sciences, arts, songs and practices not taught to them by slave masters. This practice of redeeming one’s own humanity is absent from the narrative

of abolition, the dominant story used in the Western academy to imagine the coordinates of modern freedom and to guess at its content. The abolition narrative posits a rupture: the before-of-slavery and the afterwards-of-freedom. It also presents quintessentially white European and American elites as the agents who inaugurate this rupture between barbaric and civilized rule by fighting a fratricidal war with their un-Christian-like white European/American brothers/ cousins. As such, their leadership of civilization is self-correcting. White abolition silences black redemption. In this chapter we will refuse this silencing and retrieve and journey with the practice of saving yourself. Just as the fates of Will and Nellie are bound together, all of us who

are implicated in the legacies of the enslavement of Africans are bound on this journey. The journey must, though, be sensitively undertaken. For some of us implicated via personal heritages it will be of importance to acknowledge that even if Nellie’s kumbla cannot liberate, it can sometimes aid survival through its ability to disguise intellect and soul. And it should never be demanded that saving oneself is an exercise entirely open for all to observe. For some of us implicated through socio-economic legacies, it will be of importance to remember that Will’s relatively privileged positionality came at the cost of a disconnection from his surrounding environment and family. Will could not adequately understand the struggles for freedom in which he himself was implicated. Similar disconnections exist in the lofty abstractions of European Enlightenment and promises of modernity upon which we measure the worth of our thoughts and actions. But, however we are implicated in the legacies of slavery we must consider the following: if the audacity of freeing the individual from natural and social bonds underwrites the canons of modern social and political thought, and if in this day and age all progressive practices must proclaim to be humanist, then for the love of humanity we must all undertake some kind of journey in and with the world of black redemption. As a hermeneutical device, worlding proposes that the fundamental task of

understanding is not to grasp a fact or even to interrogate a social relationship

but to apprehend a possibility of being-to be oriented (Ricoeur 1981: 55-6). Orientation is not a task to be started and completed. It is a constant requisite for reasoning and imagining. By these terms, orientation is outlawed by the abolitionist narrative that demands its blessed subjects continue to face forward for fear of uncovering their own authorship in ongoing unfreedoms that they enrage over. But for Nellie, there can be no separation between the cumulated lived experience of her people and its worldly meaning. Hence, those implicated in the struggle, like Nellie, will more wilfully use the past as their vision of action for present-day redemption-redemption here means both deliverance from and the making meaningful of the suffering of enslavement (Shulman 2008: 259, fn 14). In this chapter we will cast out the lofty abolitionist narrative and ground,

instead, with some of the orientations of the enslaved and their descendents. “Grounding,” in the Rastafari faith, is a form of reasoning wherein amongst other strategies, interlocutors produce knowledge and understanding of the world through the hermeneutics of the sufferers rather than via the abstractions of privileged and detached philosophers. We will therefore dwell in wooded, thatched and zinc tabernacles rather than stone churches; read parchment scrolls of black supremacy rather than definite articles of perpetual peace; and come to know the black god of earthly redemption rather than the transparent god of ethereal reason. Following Nellie’s path, we shall witness the growth of universals through the reasonings of the enslaved and their descendents as they articulate the meanings of liberation, justice and especially accountability. We will come to understand how these reasonings resist the categorical segregations found in the abolition narrative regarding unfree-past/free-present, savior/victim and damned/blessed. And we will realize that, unlike Enlightenment thought, humanitarian discourse and the pretence of the “ international community,” these reasonings call everyone to account for themselves in the liberation struggle.