Guyana: The art of anti-Blackness – By Akola Thompson

Stabroek News – By October 29, 2021

Despite our own rich local history, traditions and beliefs, Guyanese have for some time, been known as “culture vultures.”

Maybe it is a lack of national pride, feelings of inferiority, cultural imperialism or a combination of all of these things – whatever it is, we are not necessarily known for leaving our original mark. We instead seek to constantly rebrand ourselves with the customs of outsiders. This is not to say that persons cannot enjoy aspects of cultures that are not their own, but when these alien cultures are imported wholesale and take up much more relevance than our own local traditions, it might be time to start thinking about how we are doing ourselves a disservice and why we even feel it necessary.     

Imported by entertainers looking for themed event opportunities, the observance of Halloween is one that continues to grow in Guyana. Recently, MovieTowne Guyana had several art displays in their “Haunted House,” as part of this observance. In this haunted house, African dolls in African prints were seen “levitating,” amongst different scary characters. A lot of the initial feedback on the haunted house questioned why the Black dolls were seen as being hanged, reminiscent of lynchings that were used to terrorize and control Black people during and after enslavement. Both MovieTowne and the artists responsible for the display clamped down on this point, offering explanations that the intention was not to hang the dolls, but rather to have them suspended in the air. Way too much effort went into that point, rather than addressing the pertinent questions at hand – why are representations of Black people in their cultural wear deemed appropriate to be in a haunted house? Why did no one responsible for creating and approving this display think to question its inclusion?

The danger in adopting Western traditions as Caribbean states is that often, we lack the discernment to know what is for us and what isn’t. In Western countries, particularly the South in the USA for example, there are often depictions of Black people as ghouls and creatures during Halloween. This is very in line with the residents’ beliefs about Black people being less than human and as such, scary beings. While only the artists really know what their motivations were to display Black persons within the context of a haunted house, it cannot be denied that elements of anti-Blackness were definitely present within the display.

Both MovieTowne and the artists in statements wrote that it was never their intention to be insensitive to any race or culture. It is understandable that navigating intent vs. impact is not always easy, particularly when you are not socially conscious about the history and dynamics of certain issues such as race and class – but intent does not negate impact. MovieTowne, for reasons known only to themselves, shortly after posting their statement, removed it and continued to post as per normal. That was more telling than the lacklustre statement guised as an apology as it is indicative of the way that we continue to treat conversations surrounding anti-Blackness in Guyana.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, there continues to be the accepted belief that anti-Blackness does not exist here. Many believe that those who speak to anti-Black practices and beliefs are merely importing the narrative of the West. If we as a country have imported countless things that have absolutely no significance to us at all, why is it so hard to grasp that with our history of colonialist expansion, enslavement and targeted policies and beliefs against Black and dark skinned people, that anti-Blackness still remains as present here as it does anywhere else? Anti-Black racism does not disappear nor decrease when you ignore it; rather it festers, grows and becomes norm. As long as people – particularly creators, businesses and those in power do not practice discernment and engage critical thinking, the narrative that Guyana is a beautiful country of six races all living together in harmony will continue to take centre stage. All this will do is keep us from doing the necessary work of addressing anti-Blackness and its harmful impacts on us all.

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