The Ambiguity in Racial Injustice
Written by: Jasmini Mangrue
What had started as a small collection in New York, photo archivist Patrick Montgomery acquired the largest known collection of Caribbean indentured servitude artifacts from 1840 to 1940, illuminating the change in the economy, environments, and communities in the post-slavery and pre-independence period of the Caribbean. Montgomery recovered these historical Caribbean photographs largely from British and French colonies in the United Kingdom but was inquisitive of the extreme lack of photo collection spanning the Caribbean itself. Presumably, it was due to “the climate and economy [who largely] did not support that kind of archive.” (Sandals) In 1883, the Parliament of the United Kingdom abolished slavery throughout most of the British Empire, soon after replacing freed slaves with a system of indentured servitude, promising laborers of a better life. (Seghal) Since then, turning a blind eye to the history of British and French slavery and other acts of colonialism had been common practice for both colonizers and laborers through society's understanding of slavery, what is known regarding ethnic demographics, and the implied power dynamics within a European centric system. White men had brushed this uncomfortable chapter under the rug, as had the brown, black, and Chinese servants due to the humiliating mislead that they had been tricked, changing the course of their heritage forever. Now known as the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs, obtained the Art Gallery of Ontario, will display 3,500 artifacts of daguerreotypes, albums, and photographs in 2021, bringing to light the rebrand of abolished slavery that had been fueling the British capitalist system for the next century. (AGO & Seghal) Exposing the existence of such a collection subsequently changes the perspective on the Caribbean presence and its representation within Canadian art collections. (Sandals) “Thousands of biographies written in celebration of notable 17th and 18th-century Britons have reduced their ownership of human beings to the footnotes, or else expunged such unpleasant details altogether.” (Olusoga) Exhibiting “contemporary views [that had been] long ignored or erased by mainstream culture” institutes public access and demand “the same people who have been most obsessed with slavery to be in the front line of its full scope.” (AGO & Olusoga) Publicizing an unrestricted use of photographic artifacts constitutes the rights of millions of diasporic individuals to recognize the artificial unavailability of their cultural identities and the fallacy in the ethnic inclusiveness that mass culture proudly dons on.
Montgomery’s Collection of Caribbean Photographs makes it a condition that viewers elaborate on what they’ve accepted as the truth; what was previously foretold on slavery and the extent of maltreatment towards ethnic minorities. It calls into question the generality and literalness of how ‘slaves’ and ‘slavery’ is defined in the eyes of the privileged and demands members of western society to be suspicious of the particularities of enslavement. The interrelations of slavery and other forms of enslavement, namely the difference between a ‘slave’ and an ‘indentured servant.’ By UN definition, slavery involves “an element of control over another’s life, coercion and the restriction of movement, and by the fact that someone is not free to leave or change an employer,” while indentured servants were seen as a civil agreement, bonded by contract for typically 4-7 years. (Chilton) Essential features of indentured servitude were very reminiscent of slavery, and intimidation, coercion, and deception were very often used to recruit laborers, some recruiters resorted to illegal practices of kidnapping and forced detention. (Roopnarine) What must further be noted is the way the status quo recognizes Caribbean people and culture are not inherently Caribbean. Caribbean culture is vastly different from that of indigenous peoples; first belonging to the Ciboney, Arawak, and Carib peoples. (PortCities) Much of what society recognizes as ‘Caribbean-influenced’ are influenced by the modern inhabitants of the Caribbean islands who are descendants of African, Asian, and European ancestry. Additionally, there is the misconception that the trauma involved with generational slavery can be claimed by only one race, speaking on behalf of the entire slavery experience. While it is not a matter of “who suffered more” or to establish racial tension is ultimately a matter of confronting the status quo for only wanting to accept one contemporary view. The experience is not just exclusive to Africans but involves people from multiple continents which the status quo has deemed such experiences insignificant. “Most presentations that have been done highly focused on individual countries—like Autograph UK’s 2017 show “Making Jamaica: Photography from the 1890s”—or on the African diaspora in general. “I mean, I think African photography, definitely since 2005, has had a lot of attention,” says Julia Crooks, [the assistant curator of photography at the AGO]. “…This kind of historical material has largely been erased. It’s hard to pinpoint another show or institution that has presented this level of material on the region.” (AGO) This is especially apparent when looking at photos and the appearance of the first servants brought to the Caribbean in Montgomery’s collection, highlighting the expansive search for indentured servants of latter 19th century Britain. In Montgomery’s photos, some servants wear turbans, dashikis, kurtas, saris, etc. from their respected motherlands. Photos are titled with derogatory names for every race enslaved, forcing today’s white demographic to take responsibility and acknowledge the plentiful number of derogatory names they’ve given to minorities, rather than only partially acknowledging the oppressive etymology for a single race. British daily newspaper, The Guardian, also lends their point of the matter, where it is infamously known that the history of British slavery and other acts of colonialism has been glamorized. “Today, across the country, heritage plaques on Georgian townhouses describe former slave traders as “West India merchants”, while slave owners are hidden behind the equally euphemistic term “West India planter.” (Olusoga) It should be recognized that what is accepted within the status quo are predominantly doctrines of a white demographic. This further unveils the fallacious stance of the status quo, exaggerating their contributions to ethnic inclusivity in Western societies and the world.
In challenging the status quo through mass culture’s use of historical photography one must consider identifying the reasons society continues to adhere to such values and social structures when they do not always consider the connotations or genealogies of what is normalized. Having considered white European idealism holding the utmost authority in the status quo, there is exists a phenomenon where tracing ancestry is more detailed for white people than any other race. DNA tests, like AncestryDNA and 23andMe, run risks of racial bias for people of color, creating a gap for lost or insignificant data. “ISOGG (International Society of Genetic Genealogy) estimates that four-fifths of people who have taken DNA tests are U.S. citizens, meaning their data reflects a population with majority European ancestry” making it impractical and unavailing in tracking ethnic heritages. (Holger) Sarah Tishkoff, the University of Pennsylvania Professor in Genetics and Biology, elucidates that currently, the exact sources of ancestry in those of African descent are not possible to infer and it would be “unfortunate to expect that they would be able to get this information.” The pervasive need for a comprehensive history is a natural right for those who have lost clarity that comes with having a single heritage. (Berger) The importance of having accessible historical artifacts through collections like Montgomery’s Collection of Caribbean Photographs is that slavery is so permeative. In Nikole Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay to The 1619 Project, she says “[slavery’s] residual effects can be found in everything from the stock exchange to our prison system. [It was instrumental in the formation of western societies.] We must understand its inner workings and aftereffects; only then can we create a moral, economic, and social roadmap to achieving our democratic ideals.” (West) Such artifacts are critical in the study of humans and how civilization has shaped itself. Artifacts are concrete items, primary evidence, and it is vital to understand the difference between such and potential biases in secondary evidence. (Courrey) Advocates for publicizing the documentation of POC history existed parallel to the indentured servitude in the Caribbean as well. Carter Godwin Woodson, African-American author, journalist, and historian, believed he must exercise “history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift” and by 1916, he had established the “Association for the Study of N**** Life and Culture,” an organization whose goal was to make black history accessible to a wider audience. Woodson had two goals. One was to use history to prove to white America that blacks had played important roles in the creation of America and thereby deserve to be treated equally as citizens […] His other goal was to increase the visibility of black life and history, at a time when few newspapers, books, and universities took notice of the black community, except to dwell upon the negative.” (Woodson) Conversely, one must question if the history and experience for people of color are simply reduced to platitudes within the status quo today. Is it truly a “vehicle in racial transformation” or perhaps now is it limited in its meaning? By continuing to expose the sweep of forms of enslavement in the world, history in the maltreatment of minorities stays relevant to maintain peaceful societies. It is becoming increasingly important to exhibiting Montgomery’s Collection of Caribbean Photographs, and artifacts alike because it anchors the ambiguity that comes with being a person of color. In analyzing a photograph of Coolie Woman, Trinidad by Felix Morin, one can identify distinctive jewelry representative in West Indian culture. With a lack of information for these histories puts a series of questions to the origins of Caribbean cultural items. Are they items from the respected motherlands? Were servants allowed to bring such belongings? Are these specific items given by captors? Was there a commercial purpose behind these photos? All important questions in colonial history buried beneath and growing is the importance for ethnic groups to understand heritage. Inevitably this equivocation becomes unjust for people of color, warranting the search for historical documents. The hyper-focus on European chronology like the Baroque, the avant-garde, or society during the Industrial Revolution in a hemisphere that prides itself on diversity is hypocritical. It diverges and buries coexisting history for millions of others who are not included within these movements but are forced to pay attention to as part of the authority and the status quo. This solidifies the ‘phenomenon’ of history being more detailed for white people. “You can tell a great deal about a country and a people by what they deem important enough to remember, to create moments for — what they put in their museum and what they celebrate.” (Woodson) Montgomery’s Collection of Caribbean Photographs is an example of Europe’s great unmentionables, and it is crucial to appropriately honor ways people of color have survived and preserved their culture away from home. For equality to be a chief characteristic within mass culture, there cannot be information hidden from members of society. The existence of these historical artifacts challenges mass culture by liberating minorities, as well as catapulting the individual autonomy of millions of people of color in discovering their apparent lost ancestral history.
Furthermore, in following the steps of Montgomery’s Collection of Caribbean Photographs, having the history of underrepresented ethnic groups known allows people of color to be free from authority as they can begin to understand ways in which European infrastructures and the status quo have flattened the meaning of their existences. Themes in philosopher and social theorist, Michel Foucault’s Law, Power, and Knowledge, judges the normalities in the status quo which can further suggest the dogmatic slumber society ethnic minorities have been forced to assume. (Clarke) “In modern society, law combines with power in various locations in ways that expand patterns on social control, knowledge, and the documentation of individuals for institutionally useful ends.” (Turkel) Aforementioned, people of color have succumbed to the norm that their history is no longer important to interrogate as they have been long deprived of significant information of their identities. Consequently, powers in the status quo attempt to provide empirical knowledge of every aspect and every fiber of society. “It is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based on wherever he may find himself, subjects to his body, his gestures, his behaviors, his aptitudes, his achievements” are all within the limits of the status quo making works like Montgomery’s contributions critical in defying the classification of Caribbean and POC bodies.
The Montgomery’s Collection of Caribbean Photographs indirectly challenges what the status quo accepts as righteous and democratic within the sphere of multiculturalism and ethnic inclusivity. This has been called into question by exposing the knowledge gaps of a society that claims to have been “most obsessed with slavery, to be in the front line of its full scope.” (Olusoga) It challenges what the status quo considers enslavement, the access to ancestral data readily available for non-white individuals, and through recognizing the inner workings of a power dynamic that choose to benefit some people over others.
Examples of Montgomery’s Collection of Caribbean Photographs:
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