Black feminism

Abeng: The Jamaican Maroons and the Instruments of Antiracism

Abeng by Michelle Cliff
Abeng by Michelle Cliff

I think our current understanding of racism, specifically the ‘institutional racism’ our Democratic presidential candidates appear to want to eradicate,assumes that people of color do not have access to resources and therefore no power.

Take for example, as stated in an earlier blog, Europeans labeling indigenous people and Africans as ‘savages’ during the colonial era. Labeling people of color as savage served to reinforce notions of European superiority and civility. The belief that indigenous peoples and Africans lacked civility relied on pointing to a perceived lack of material resources as a form of primitiveness. Equating non-Whiteness to inferiority and noncivility allowed Europeans to justify the displacement and enslavement of people of color. Take this quote from Christopher Columbus speaking about the Arawaks, the indigenous people of the Caribbean:

They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignoranceThey have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. 1

I define antiracism as a reclamation project manifested through the set of practices that people enact in everyday life to mitigate and confront the hegemonic racialization2 of their social identity3 I deconstruct this definition below and describe how it relates to the false notion of materially disadvantaged people of color.

The Reclamation of Social Identity With Tools of Everyday Resistance

As stated previously, antiracism involves a set of practices, meaning that antiracism requires both action and interaction. Since antiracism occurs in everyday life, those who practice it use ordinary tools to achieve their goals. For instance, the Maroons 4 cut the top off the horn of an animal to make an ‘abeng,’ a means of communicating across long distances between their communities in Jamaica. In addition to the abeng, the Maroons also made use of metallurgy as J.W. writes:

Ogun in Jamaica: metallurgical skills were integral to the rebellions of enslaved Africans in Jamaica.

— J.W. (@beingpurposeful) May 13, 2016

“Around 1791, cutlasses were reportedly being manufactured in Maroon communities and lead shot was secretly cast” Out of Many, 2011, pg 152.

— J.W. (@beingpurposeful) May 13, 2016

“Jamaican Maroons were armed with guns, and every man, woman, and child reportedly carried an iron hoe.”

— J.W. (@beingpurposeful) May 13, 2016

“Iron technology was at the heart of resistance, empowerment, and survival for Maroon Communities.” #ogun #afrofuturism

— J.W. (@beingpurposeful) May 13, 2016

I also described antiracism as a reclamation project. The reclamation involves the confrontation and deconstruction of racism in an effort to reposition their social identity outside of what colonialism imposed upon them. I call it a project because antiracism involves a series of actions requiring coordination and group solidarity. The significance of antiracism as a reclamation project is the acknowledgement that the disenfranchised do make use of material resources. If we think of power as material, then we must acknowledge generalizing about material disadvantage and access to resources leads us to make assumptions about real people based on notions of disadvantage. This way of thinking echoes colonial logics about the agency of people of color.

Social Identity Theory and Hegemonic Racialization

Judith A. Howard gives an overview of social identity theory in the Annual Review of Sociology article “Social Psychology of Identities.” According to Howard, social identity theory centers on how individuals define themselves as a member of a group. According to this theory, people define their personal identity based on how unique they are from others. People also adopt a social identity, identifying themselves as a member of a group with shared characteristics. My understanding of social identity is further informed by Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, a book written by social psychologist Claude Steele. He writes:

The sense of having a given social identity arises from having to deal with important identity contingencies, usually threatening or restrictive contingencies like negative stereotypes about your group, group segregations of one sort or another, discrimination and prejudice, and so on, all because you have a given characteristic. What raises a characteristic we have to a social identity we have are the contingencies that go with the characteristic, most often, threatening contingencies. (p. 74)

The quote above relates to how dominant groups define subordinate groups in terms of social identity. I propose that members of the dominant group do not define members of disenfranchised groups in a way that prevents them from defining themselves. After all, people do not arbitrarily get organized into dominant and disenfranchised groups. Instead, groups get shaped by deliberate attempts by members of one group to take power away from others (i.e. colonialism). In this process, they create their own way of defining others as inferior and attempt to impose these definitions on society as a whole.

When this process of creating the other involves racialization and this racialization serves to justify social inequality, we call it racism. As history tells us, however, people who are racialized actively fight against it. Therefore, in order to understand the social psychology of race, we have to acknowledge the disenfranchised actively combat hegemonic racialization .

  1. Quote taken from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Emphasis added. ↩︎
  2. Hegemonic racialization refers to how a group in power uses the social characteristic of race to reinforce inequality in society. This process privileges members of the dominant group over all other groups. Read more in Nancy Ehler’s Racial Imperatives↩︎
  3. I consider antiracism to be distinct from other concepts such as ‘social justice’ or ‘racial justice.’ I feel as though the concept of justice used in this sense implies a focus on the systemic rather than social nature of racism. Unlike ‘social/racial justice,’ antiracism centers people of color and indigenous peoples who operate from the margins and (most often) independent of the institutional structures. ↩︎
  4. The term Maroon refers to Africans who escaped enslavement in the early colonial period. They established several communities through the Caribbean and the Americas and some maintained their freedom and autonomy to present day. To learn more, read here:↩︎