by Professor Rojo Robles
The following stories are historical fiction created by students of my course LTS/BLS/LACS 4902 Latin America and the Caribbean: Cultures and Societies. In the class and in the assignment the students were surveying key points in the history and culture of Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America until the 19th century. During the Spring 2021 semester, we were deepening knowledge of the cultural values, traditions, and history of Afro-Latin Americans and Caribbean people. Another goal of the creative project and the course was to demonstrate knowledge of the dynamics of colonialism, race, ethnicity, class, and displacement. Lastly, they were articulating experiences of resistance to slavery and colonial rule in a trans-Caribbean context.
All the stories were inspired by the work of “hertorians” Stella Dadzie and Jessica Marie Johnson, and the fiction writers Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and James Carnegie.
Stella Dadzie’s book A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery, and Resistance delves into the nature, legacy, and impacts of African enslavement. She examines in particular how women disrupted the trade and forced labor economies in Africa and the Caribbean. In the first chapter titled “A Terrible Crying: Women and the African Trade,” Dadzie tackles the issue of African collaboration in the slave trade but also how political and military leaders fought against European colonialism and the violent capture of Africans.
Meanwhile, Jessica Marie Johnson in “La Traversée,” the third chapter of her book Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World, looks at the ways the Atlantic crossing or middle passage “tore at gender, intimacy, and kinship as they existed on the African continent.” By analyzing primary trade documents, she presents how agents of trade companies, investors, and slaveowners “purchased fantasies of mastery that redefined African ethnicity, gender, and age in ways that reduced people to flesh.” This chapter also looks at resistance in the ships and how this “laid the foundations for what would become practices of freedom in the New World.” (97)
We also discussed the stories by Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, “Wanwe” “Midwives” and “Arrowhead” from her collection Negras. These fictional accounts pay attention to the violence of the Atlantic slave trade from the capture in Africa, to the forced labor in Puerto Rico and the colonial punishments against rebellious women. Although slavery is the backdrop of the collection, Arroyo Pizarro emphasizes too the inner world, brilliant skills, and humanity of her enslaved protagonists.
Lastly, we analyzed Wages Paid, a short novel written by James Carnegie and published in 1976. Wages Paid is set on a sugar plantation in Jamaica during the early 1800s. Mr. Johnson, the owner, commands the bodies of any of the women he wants. He also owns enslaved men as studs and women as breeders. The novella explores gender and sexual abuses in the context of slavery, the colonial strategy of “dividing and conquering” and the construction of masculinity.
Both Arroyo Pizarro and Carnegie explore how enslavers would force the reproduction of enslaved people to increase their profits. Breeding systems included coerced sexual relations between enslaved men and women, forced pregnancies, and favoring women who could produce a relatively large number of children. The objective was to increase the number of slaves without incurring the cost of purchase and to fill labor shortages caused by the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade during the early nineteenth century.
The stories and the personal essay down below are an example of how creative assignments allow students to synthesize creatively different sources and a way to take ownership of the class materials. By courageously tackling these heavy historical issues they demonstrate the power of decolonizing the curriculum and recovering silenced stories of the African diaspora. While difficult to read, because of the historical trauma involved, this literary exercise empowered the student-creators as knowledge producers and wordsmiths.
The Slave Tale of a Tiny Twosome
by Christine Miro
I don’t know where I am or where I am headed but I am sad, scared, soiled, starved, sick, and solo. My solitude is sometimes comforted by a hand no bigger than my own which reaches out whenever adult size screams of agony and pain fill our tightly enclosed spaces. I have never smelled anything fouler, not even the smell of week-old rotting carcass being picked upon by surrounding vultures was this bad. I smelled just as bad and felt like death would come. So, I prayed it would come in my sleep as sweet dreams of my umm singing to me dance in my otherwise worrisome mind.
I lived through 5 full cycles around the sun and my umm called me Nur before I was ripped off her back near the river whose blue water suddenly ran red. I had been thrown into the arms of a crying elder with a strained voice and side limp. The jadda hushed my panic with the hum of her foreign tongue. With her was a boy no taller than me who walked weakly, his bones protruding, and a stomach filled with air. His eyes told a story no four-year-old should know. Heavy eyes of fear and pain but he smiled at me and offered his hand.
I named him Hilal, which means moon in my language. I gave him that name because the nights and days have become a blur and he is the only source of illumination through the everlasting dark moments. We communicate silently because we must and because we are famished. Even breathing is difficult to do. We hide quietly in dark corners to avoid the pokes and strikes of the overseeing pale skins. I wonder about what is to come and I know Hilal does too.
One day the swaying stops, and the boat comes alive with chaos, more screaming, more lashes, blood, vomit, and stool everywhere. We are told to rise, but some can’t and they are stepped over and left behind. Hilal and I hold each other tight to avoid separation but a man smacks our hands apart when we begin to scream and shout relentlessly in our different native tongues. The pale face monster notices and pauses. With a blow to my face and Hilals head, he thrusts us back together dragging us upstairs as we cling to each other desperately. I beg Hilal to never let me go. He looks at me confused and together we cry.
Off the boat, we are put on display and watched by loudly yelling pale faces, some laugh, and cheer. A woman and man circle Hilal and I and they talk to the pale devil who hit us earlier. They point at us both holding up two fingers. Heavy conversations ensue, an exchange is made, and the couple pulls us towards them, scowls on their faces. They poke and prod us, checking our ears, examining our hands, looking into our eyes, and checking our teeth. And through it all, Hilal and I never drop each other’s hand. They spank us for nothing but their own sick pleasures and toss us into the back of their wagon, rihlat ‘ukhraa (another voyage).
We are in the wagon for a long period of time, and we sleep lightly fearing being torn apart once again. When the pale-faced couple returns the wagon is filled with 4 more captives and we set on the move. I pray to be returned to my village, I’m sure umm would welcome Hilal. But a day later we pull into a field of land covered in white flowers with black and brown faces working amongst them. Down a road sits a house big and white and I hope to go inside one day to see. Hilal and I are thrown out of the wagon landing on the earth’s floor with a hard thump. We scowl as we suffer a series of blows to our bottoms. We are led to a woman with a soft face and deep eyes. She leads us to a river instructing us to wash up, we do. My mind runs frantic as I search the river for my umm refusing to release Hilal’s hand. I think of the last time that I was at the river when the blue waters turned red, and I cry.
by Wandaly Capellan
My name is Jwabbi not to get it confused with Juana, but does it even matter? Here at Hacienda Pizarro, there isn’t much that matters to me other than just getting through the day. I live day by day and really, I have no choice ever since I was ripped from my home, sold, shipped, and then bought again.
My journey to La Hacienda Pizarro was gurgling. My horror began one hot sunny day when I was snatched in my village and has never ended. Before being shipped off to this unknown land I was part of what they call slave coffles. There were twenty of us just cuffed together like animals and it took us a few days of walking in the heat to get to the ship. Once on the ship, the group of people I had been cuffed with was all separated. I, just like everyone else was examined. They weighed me and measured me and poked at me. I did not understand anything they said, I was too tired and scared. I am still unable to recall a word, just the beating of my heart that pierced my ear. I was disgusted when they touched all of my body and I did nothing but stand in fear. I do not know how many days or nights I spent on the ship. There was no way to keep the time; it was just darkness, fear, and pain all around me. I do not know how I made it out of the ship alive. The fear alone should have killed mounted with pain from the cuffs, pain from being away from my family, and hunger. The next thing I knew I was in a market but not any kind of market, it was a slave market. I saw dozens of men and women being sold to white men and I was one of them.
Here at La Hacienda Pizarro, I spend most of my days if not all doing house labor. I am always cleaning and cooking. Master Gregorio, his wife, and sons were all really demanding, and they speak Spanish which I barely understand. I know simple phrases like cocina which means kitchen, comida which means food, ven which means come here, limpiar which means to clean, and dormir which means sleep. There is clearly a lot to learn but we are taught through punishments.
Master Gregorio “exams” my body almost every day. He touches all of me leaving a trail of disgust. He just takes his bottoms and boots off and I know what it means. At first, I would whimper but that just made things worse. Now I just stand and/or lay in silent disgust hoping it will all be over soon enough. He starts the assault by staring at me and looking at me up and down. As he silently roams by the body with his eyes, he burns my skin with them. He usually plays with my breast first and feels how firm they are, and I close my eyes trying to wish this interaction away. He continues by parting my legs like the sea and touching my pubis and my guts twist and turn. Soon enough I am laying on the bed, eyes closed, mouth sealed and legs open. Master Gregorio thrust into me in and out, in and out, and in a matter of minutes, he dressed and ready to go about his day like he has not done anything. I do not say anything but fix the bed and myself. My first few days here I would cry with every thrust but that made it worse because he would get angry and get rough. I have learned to be quick and do as Master Gregorio says.
I really do not feel human. The way master Gregorio tends to circle around me like a predator ready to pounce on his prey. I know these people do not care. He sees me as the slave he thrust in and his wife sees me as the help. His sons always call me “Negra” in disgust, I don’t even know what they mean by that. Yes, I am black but what does that mean? How does that make me any different from someone with white skin? I really do wonder if I should continue this life. I should have jumped off the ship, I saw many people do it. They were brave and welcomed death with open arms because this is barely living. Those people knew the so-called life that was waiting for them in this land of the white men. It is hard to be here surrendered by unknown people, food, and language. I will continue to live day by day and hopefully one day I can wake up from this bad dream. I am tired of La Hacienda Pizarro, but I am determined to live through it all and hopeful this will be over soon.
by Devora Castillo
It must’ve been at least one hundred degrees outside this morning, my legs are telling me so. Whenever the sun gets too hot, the veins in my leg begin to swell causing some type of pressure on my ankle. I’ve learned that if I lean a little more to the right on uneven grounds, the pain isn’t as bad at night. Luckily, it’s the left one, I’ve always been more of a righty. Fortunate enough the master took mercy over me and made me a cook, considering it was his fault, it’s the least he could’ve done. Now I’ve been whipped and slapped a couple times before, but breaking bones is a different pain.
These nights he refers to his “special nights” where he drinks just enough poison to have him feeling like a real man. He was usually more aggressive, ripping my clothes off, slapping me repeatedly, calling me names. One time he even ripped a patch of hair right from the root, I thought he was trying to pull my head off my shoulders. He thought it would be spontaneous to do an activity on the balcony off the second floor that night. He swung me hard enough to throw me over, I went flying off the second floor straight to the ground. The man who was dressed as a monk heard my scream. He rushed out quickly to assist me and she was there too. She was not only a midwife but also a bone healer. Some of the others even called her a witch doctor. I never learned her name, but I called her T for all the different tongues she spoke. T made me a potion that she said she heard Zeza, the potion brewer, had taught some of her people to cure those injured during a battle. It made me go to sleep and allowed her to fix me up.
The master tried once more to have his way with me after that, but I was no longer the same and he knew it. He referred to me as “damaged” and I was no longer a midwife but a field worker. Shortly after he made me a cook which allows me to hear many things going on in the house. It has also helped me get closer to T who tells me about a mission we women are meant to carry out which involves killing our master. Many women in different plantations she’s been in are doing everything in their power to fulfill that mission including killing the offspring produced by the master and making it look like an accident. They’ve even taken some of our own down, those that side with the master and consider themselves as part of them. Those who have turned on their own and make things easier to carry out atrocities.
The good thing about T is that she speaks my native tongue. She learned it when she worked next to some of those who came from my region. She’s very smart because she’s even learned many of the different masters’ languages yet pretends not to know much. So far, the women have devised a plan they want to carry out Saturday night. That’s scheduled to be his next special night with two of the girls. What exactly is going down I think only T and the head cook know, it’s their plan. My job is to ensure the drinks that the head hook leaves out for me on the table make it into the room that night. I’m normally in charge of setting everything up, ironing the sheets, sweeping the rug, and making sure there is enough ron for the master throughout the night. The job of the girls is to get him to drink it and how they plan to carry that out only God knows.
Part of me feels wrong, I’ve never killed anyone nor caused harm. I think the part that feels worse is the joy I find in being part of the scheme and making him pay for a lot of the things he’s done. I think even his wife and children will be happy he is gone. They won’t see him now but through his absence, they will find freedom. Although we will most likely get killed for it as the suspicion will rise for anyone who was near the room that night, the sacrifice is worth it. Perhaps we won’t even get caught and maybe get sold off once they figure out what to do with everything. His children are far too little to run anything, and their wives are always so helpless with regular day-to-day duties, little will they know how to run such a plantation. He has no brothers nor sisters nor is his father longer alive. I don’t see anyone coming to rescue this place, but hell is never left alone. Someone is bound to take over but, in the meantime, we will finally take from him what he took from us such a long time ago, our lives and ability to live.
by Lourdes Buttigieg
Tshanwe was forced to carry heavy crossbows to the scrublands. She had to get used to the weight she had to carry, even though she suffered carrying the heavyweight. Tshanwe was forced to go to the shed by the master. She always had to do everything in fear and worrisome as she didn’t know what to expect every day. Tshanwe was left alone surrounded by butterflies and grasshoppers. Tshanwe saw many brutalities when the master’s son was fighting with another man. She was puzzled when she saw thick shiny blood and other liquids from the white man. This was a horrific situation to see because she didn’t know if she was going to be next.
Tshanwe was taken by surprise when she was cornered by the masters. She was extremely tired, and this showed on her body. She had marks on her skin because of the heavy bag. Before the masters came on her, she planned to get away during the return from the slope. She was forced against her will by intimidation and used an arrow to threaten her. The master Gregorio, struck her with the object in her thigh, arm, and other parts of the body. Tshanwe was so scared that she even closed her eyes and tried to summon guardian spirits. The boys told her that she was “like a dog”, “Black blood is not the same.” These words would have been much more hurtful to her if she understood them. They treated her like a piece of garbage, even though she didn’t do anything wrong. After many struggles and attempts, she managed to snatch away the sharp object from Trino’s hand. Tshanwe managed to wave the object and successfully hit Trino in his middle finger. Tshanwe did everything in her power to save herself. She knew that if she fought for self-defense the situation would be worse. She literally fought for her freedom and faced every hurdle coming her way.
The beating didn’t stop, she was punched and kicked to her face and after a while, she lost her consciousness. Later on, when she heard the order for mass execution, she knew what was about to happen. She rejected her own death. She was encouraged by her ancestors not to die especially this way and believed the time would come when God chose to. The men ordered by the count’s instructions were forced to bury her where the dogs and the Blacks were buried. The way Tshanwe was living through the last minutes of her life was unacceptable.
Wanwe, Born Warrior
by Margarita Hogans
During the nineteenth century, a young warrior was discovered. She was a born warrior. Wanwe was an African woman warrior, from “Tribe Namib,” a tribe that was built on strong cultural roots. Wanwe had trained from a young age to possess the skills of survival, to be a protector of her homeland, a leader and to use her mind to withstand pain. She possessed strength and determination. For example, when it came to hunting for food, she was able to maneuver a knife or ax like it was chopsticks. She would catch her prey with ease and determination. She practiced tribal dances to display her courage and bravery, which psychologically speaking made her fearless. Wanwe led by example, she stood up for justice and humanity. She led by using her voice and didn’t back down, she showed pure resilience. She used her skills and intelligence as a way to strategize a defense plan against the captors. The captors were invading the nearby lands, destroying homes and the secrete burial grounds of the elders that passed on.
Wanwe was a protector warrior. She was skilled in how to make use of the natural environment. As a warrior she would paint her face with a paste made out of the earth mixed with her tribe’s blood, to remind her of the selfless position, the sacrifice that she vowed to uphold as a protector. Wanwe would survey her homeland and the sand dunes, which served as a hiding place for her and her friends as kids. She made traps to help from trespassers that were violating the neighboring land. The women from adjoining tribes would see her and admire her strength, focus, and determination as they watched her display her agility exercises. They too wanted to protect their land and home from violators; people that wanted to uproot and disrupt their way of living. Wanwe would talk to them and explain: “We are not weak; we are strong and sharp as a knife.” Wanwe was indirectly teaching and preparing the onlookers for creatures with lighter skin, those who came in ships and put them in chains and coffles and led them like animals in a row. Little by little more women gathered and join her in preparation for a day that will change them forever.
At the break of dawn, each woman was in position. Coated with stealth and patience they each waited for the signal to strike. They screamed with anticipation of the battle that would soon commence. As the women lurked and waited in the distance far to the East, shadows preceded the captor’s vast approach. The signal finally sounded, the whistle loud and clear. It was time for war!
Wanwe was the first one to draw her weapon running with the strength and precision of a lion. Her mind was set on victory. She was determined to lead these women warriors into a battle that implied freedom, survival, and hope. Immediately, the captors were stunned, reacting in fear surpassed by surprise, they had no choice but to retreat. The captors were in a position of inferiority, something they knew nothing of. They knew how to impose on others, stripping away the dignity and self-worth of the enslaved. But not this time, not today!
Colonization, Enslavement, and Borders: A Personal Essay
by Shamma Sidika
Year 1947, the Indian subcontinent gained independence from the British rulers. This was the first time they could hoist their tri-colored flag proudly. Also, in the year 1947, the borders of modern Bangladesh were established with the separation of Bengal and India, when the region became East Pakistan as part of the newly formed State of Pakistan following the end of British rule in the region. The tyranny of the British colonizers did not end here it was just the beginning of a new kind of despotism. The colonizers left of course, but they made sure that the savagery and slavery continued. Unlike Africa, where the Europeans discriminated against people according to their complexion, in Asia they divided nations and their dwellers according to their religion. The majority of Muslims with Indian nationality were forcefully sent off to Pakistan and the same fate befell the Hindus of Pakistan. Another side of the story is that there was a big language barrier between these people. The people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) spoke Bengali and the people of West Pakistan spoke Urdu. The West Pakistanis were educated, rich whereas the East Pakistanis were uneducated, poor farmers. Here, the chronicle of another enslavement begins, and my account.
When Stella Dadzie, the famous British activist in “A Terrible Crying” said, “This thought [of slavery] preoccupies me as I step down into the steps of Elmina Castle in Ghana… stench of hundreds of thousands of captives still clings to the wall”(16). Her words gave a jolt to every cell of my body, I saw myself standing, not in the dungeons of Ghana but in Rayer Bazar Bodhyo Bhumi, Dhaka where my ancestors were taken blindfolded and were slaughtered by West Pakistanis in one night. Today, 25th March 2021, marks 50 years of that jinxed night.
The word “bravery” to me is like a ball made of fire, there is the risk of burning your palms, but once you hold it, letting go is impossible and bravery is unbiased, it cannot choose between male and female. Otherwise, we would not have women like Taggeba, Yaa Ashantewaa, or Jahanara Imam. Tagebba was one of the powerful African women who resisted European encroachment in the early 17th century. Yaa Ashantewaa, born in 1840, was an elected female leader of an army of 5,000 people, who fought against the British in the Ashanti war. She has been described by the British as “the soul and head of the whole rebellion. She remains a Ghanaian she-ro, and a figure of inspiration to this day for her refusal to bow down to the colonial rule” (21). Like her, there was another woman named Jahanara Iman of Bangladesh. Soft-spoken, well-read, a housewife, and a mother of two children. But, when her husband and children were taken hostage by the West Pakistanis, the soft-spoken Jahanara Imam turned into a fierce lioness. She dragged the war criminals to trial and did not give up until the death sentence was passed. For her undaunted courage, she had been awarded the title of “Shaheed Janani” which means mother of the martyrs, and until this day, she remains as the epitome of gallantry for Bangladesh. These women lived centuries apart but still, they had two things in common “pain” and “intrepidity.” Pain is very powerful, it can break us, make us, or pull out the latent hero in us. These women were in pain, some lost their beloved ones, some were chained like zoo animals, some were flogged brutally and raped, but the very pain which deformed their bodies transformed their souls and turned them into the most prowess women of all time.
Freedom to the enslaved people of Africa or to the poor farmers of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) did not come in one day. They had to fight for it. It took centuries for the African slaves to get rid of European shackles and for Bangladeshis, it took 9 months (the freedom war lasted 9 months). However, in every battle, there are some traitors, who despite being your own, work for the enemy. Bangladesh called those back-stabbers “Rajakars”. And Stella Dadzie mentions in her essay “A Terrible Crying” “Trade has been a complex transaction…without significant African involvement” (16). This shows that there were few Africans who worked for the colonizers and fueled the slave trade. But they existed. However, the holistic approach of being African came from the Europeans, before and even colonization there were different tribes in Africa and at times there was enmity amongst these tribes for natural resources. That could be a reason why they helped the Europeans. The trade of guns, alcohol, and goods from Europe was also an incentive. And, in the case of Bangladesh, the enmity was due to religion. The Rajakars were the Muslim extremists, they viewed the East Pakistanis (now Bangladesh) as atheists and West Pakistanis as pious pure Muslims. Therefore, to save religion they fought along with West Pakistanis against East Pakistanis. Stella Dadzie said that more heinous killings were done by Africans to other Africans. Likewise, those Rajakars raped, slaughtered, and killed the poor farmers of East Pakistan. Reports say that the Rajakars raped daughters in front of their mothers and mothers in front of their daughters, then slit their throats and poured the mother’s blood on their daughters and vice versa.
The Europeans did not only rule Africa, their reign of terror haunted the entire world. The Europeans left the continents but left behind every trace of moroseness and violence. The superpower USA was once under the whippings of colonizers and became an empire itself. A similar lust for power and extermination can be found in US history.
British rulers divided the border of Bangladesh in such a way, that if one’s house was in Bangladesh, the kitchen was in India, these people were called “Chitmahal Bashinda” or “India-Bangladesh enclaves.” British colonizers were not bad at drawing maps but they did that intentionally, to keep the war on lands going, so they could sell weapons to these countries.
People are blind in power or for power. God, created all of us free and equal, even the earth was created without any borders or metal barricades. The lust of materialistic pleasures drove people to draw lines, measure, and say “this place is mine and that is yours, your body is mine no longer yours.” Our happiness or validation should not be in the control of old or new colonial entities. True independence, success, will come when we decide to walk and stand up together, not alone.