The cadaver and the child


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Category: Reflections Date: 03 May 04


The pregnant woman, particularly soft and fetching in the black blouse that camouflaged her gently swelling belly, spat out with a vehemence that was putrid because it was directly at odds with her condition.


"The next time I see my father-in-law he'll be in a coffin."


What, I wondered, did he do to arouse that sort of hatred?


He mocked the Jews, she said. He doubted that the holocaust ever took place. Said "they", meaning the Jews, made it all up, made up the gassing of six million Jews. Even when she disclosed she was part Jewish, he didn't take it back. Worse, this Englishman had it in for every minority, the "Asians (including Indians, Malaysians, Japanese, Chinese etc)" were "untrustworthy money grabbers", the Eastern European refugees were "prostitutes", the Hispanics were "parasites", the Blacks were "criminals" and on and on. Her own son from her first marriage is part black, part Jewish, part white, part Hispanic. Recently I read somewhere, and I think I mentioned it in this space, that it's okay to have every wicked thought in your head about anyone. It's ugly, but let's face it, it's human. What is evil is to act on it. To discriminate against somebody by refusing to do business with them, refusing them employment, denying them their civil rights and liberties, because they are a different colour, a separate race, that's nasty. Torturing and killing them because they are not like you, that's devilish.


The pregnant woman wasn't asking for reparations. She wasn't asking for special treatment. She was simply saying acknowledge what happened to an entire race.


Acknowledge the bile racism produces, acknowledge the ugliness that each one of those six million deaths represents. He wouldn't. He won't. The fact is, and we all know it, the men with the guns, the bucks and the brawn can do anything to those without guns, bucks, brawn. And get away with it. And do. And they and those who are so insecure in themselves that they need to support the brutish can simply pretend afterwards that it didn't happen. Just wipe it clean like chalk on slate.


Leaving what? Loss of faith in humanity. Muck. It infects the viscera, gnaws at our insides. Enough to make a lovely, young, vulnerable, pregnant woman think of a cadaver in a coffin with hatred.


Last Friday in Port of Spain was a reminder that the spirit can fight back. Nelson Mandela's presence in this city burst through the dark clouds, whispered through the leaves in the Savannah. I wasn't at the Oval where the children were lining up to see him. Neither was I at the Hilton or the President's House.


No, I wasn't so privileged. But that face on the billboard on which an entire history of a man intertwined with the history of a country is etched, was a reminder that he was here. To struggle against evil is one thing, to do it successfully is another.


To emerge from that evil with such generosity of spirit, such forceful alchemy that makes former enemies, pro-apartheid fiends, murderers, torturers into friends-that is hair-raising stuff of which icons are made. This man, who lived a huge chunk of his life in jail, is able to tell us not to be afraid of our own light, to remind us of our capacity to be big, is a reminder of what resources we need to fight any injustice, whether it takes the form of a man who exploits his workers, an official who pockets money belonging to the poor, a wife batterer, a name caller, or someone who hates because he can.


I digress. For 600 words I have digressed. I meant this week to write of the news that Britain's role in the slave trade is, according to the Guardian Weekly, "about to resurface in "a sensational fashion" in a New York courtroom for allegedly financing trading fleets that dragged Africans from their homeland and condemned them to generations of slavery in the New World. The concept is not new. What is different is that this time ten black Americans who traced their ancestors to specific slave trading episodes are using DNA technology to link themselves with slave ships financed by Lloyds Bank. Better yet. This time Edward Fagan, the New York lawyer who extracted huge Nazi gold settlements from German and Swiss companies, will lead the case.


Damn good. I have read enough about slavery to consider it one of the worst crimes against humanity.


It is distasteful to compare slavery with the holocaust. Both are nightmares we would rather forget.


Visit Israel and the mountains of spectacles, shoes, baby clothes, hats, umbrellas, the photos of the gas chambers, the half-dead survivors are everyday reminders of that time. The Jews have not forgotten as they should not, that time. In fact many believe they have aggressively re-established their identity in a manner that is trampling on another race. But they have not forgotten. They will not forget.


What then, do you do with a people who were shackled on ships, vomiting on one another, sitting next to their dead, brought to the New World where they were branded like animals, brutally separated from their families, made to breed like cattle, denied their language, stripped of their identity, denied dignity and basic human freedom?


Some say that was hundreds of years ago, time to move on. Everyone has the same rights and opportunities now. But can you bring back the generations of culture, of a psyche, of tradition that has been erased, that is being painfully cobbled together now? Can you try on an identity like a pair of shoes?


They may win the case, which will mean millions of dollars in compensation, they may not. The fact is, they remember, they remind.


As does Nelson Mandela. No matter what brute you need to face up to, it need not corrupt you. Don't think of the hateful cadaver. Think of the child growing inside you. Don't be afraid of your light, said Mandela. Don't allow anyone to put it out.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur