I’m reading this exciting new book about Alexandre Dumas, the French general who was the father of the novelist by the same name, Alexandre Dumas, who wrote such all-time classics as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Alexandre Dumas, the general, was the son of a white French nobleman father and a black Haitian slave mother. In other words, he was a mulatto. Alexandre Dumas, the general, married a white French woman, who was the novelist’s mother. So, in the complicated racial categorizations of the eighteenth century, the novelist was a quadroon. If he, in turn, married a white woman, then his son would have been an octoroon – one eighth black.
Over the centuries, however, it has become the norm to refer to everybody of mixed European and African blood as “mulatto.”
In the United States, they divided everybody into white and black. If you had so much as one thirty/second black blood, you were legally a Negro, which is to say, nobody. But in French Caribbean possessions like Haiti, and British Caribbean possessions like Jamaica, the difference between the blacks and the mulattos was very important. Blacks fought against mulattos during the course of the Haitian Revolution, and that dislike remains up to the present day. In Jamaica, blacks are about 90 percent, but the minority mulatto class in Jamaica is much better off than the blacks.
The same is true in Belize, but the differences between mulattos and blacks are more subtle in Belize than in Haiti and Jamaica. From the outside, it’s not so easy to see that Belize is not a meritocracy. Some children start out life with advantages over other children, and such children with advantages are much more mulatto than they are black. If you start from the bottom as a black child, the fact that you may be talented is no guarantee of success. The discrimination in Belize is real, but it is beautifully, successfully, disguised. Discrimination favors browns over blacks. Straight up.
This discrimination started back in the days of slavery, partly because the white fathers in the settlement of Belize often created special opportunities for their children with black or colored mothers. In the United States on the other hand, most white fathers allowed their black children to be raised as slaves without lifting a finger to help them. One reason for the difference between Belize and America in white fathers’ attitude to their black children, was the fact that in America the slavemaster usually had a white wife on the plantation who ensured that his black progeny received no special treatment, whereas in the settlement of Belize there were very, very few white wives on the scene.
As time went by, as generation followed generation, and slavery became colonialism in the mid-nineteenth century, brown children here began to take their advantages for granted. Those advantages became, for lack of a better word, “institutionalized” through organizations like the schools, the churches, and the public service.
There was also the matter of culture, and mating practices. The brown class eagerly embraced all things European where culture was concerned, while the socio-economic pragmatism of marrying someone of a lighter skin than yourself became so embedded it was almost a religion. Garveyism challenged British Honduras’ Eurocentric culture and extolled things African in the 1920s, then UBAD declared in 1969 that “black is beautiful.” These were absolutely revolutionary concepts on the ground amongst the people of Belize.
I read with interest in Tom Reiss’ book about Dumas, the general, that Napoleon Bonaparte was known for destroying many institutions in territories he invaded, like Malta and Egypt, but he also insisted on establishing meritocracies. A meritocracy is a structure within which merit is the most important qualification for upward mobility.
What should be a true meritocracy in Belize is sports, but the mulatto class has collaborated with other enemies of roots people in undermining sports and sporting institutions in Belize. The little football success we are presently enjoying in Costa Rica could have been achieved a long, long time ago, decades ago. The mulatto class in Belize is afraid of sports. That is my thesis, and I challenge them to refute it.
I always understood, and I suppose I accepted, that some mulattos, especially those with more European features and lighter skin colors, found it well nigh impossible to conceive of themselves as “black,” or of African origin. So, that is a fault line in what outsiders would consider the “black community.”
Human relationships are devilish things, especially when it comes to macro groups. Consider the violent animosity between the Indians and the Pakistanis. The two groups look exactly the same to us Belizeans. How about the Chinese and the Japanese, who are talking very aggressively to each other about some islands over there in the Pacific? From here, they look so similar to us. Likewise, we Belizeans look like one people to outsiders. But, we are divided in various ways. Some of this division is the colonizer’s fault, and division was indeed his cynical intention. But, it is for sure that, in the independent Belize, we ourselves can do a better job of working together and living together without discrimination and injustice.
Power to the people.