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Death and the Black Man

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 04, 2008

Some scholars argue that the history of slavery should be told alongside the history of death. In fact, the death of black people during slavery was so prevalent that many young men faced the prospect of dying before they reached forty years of age. The voyage across the Atlantic was so traumatic that it was considered a good trip if seventy percent of the Africans reached their destination. On the plantation, according to Lady Nugent, there were only three topics of conversation: debt, disease and death.

Although we talk about the savagery that was inflicted upon Africans during the separation from our homeland and the violence of the middle passage few persons speak of the psychological scars this traumatic period inflicted upon black people and how it shaped our existential view of the world. Today little consideration is given to how the spate of deaths among young black men in our society impacts upon the psyche of those they leave behind (both men and women) and how such damage is likely to play out in the decades to come.

A week ago Janet (not her real name) one of my cherished nieces, called to say that John (not his real name), a cousin of one of Kenneth, one of her dearest friends, was killed in front of the latter's home. I asked Janet how Kenneth was talking the death. She said, "Not too good." She, too, was not taking the death very well. She seemed to be bewildered by the suddenness with which death struck and its close proximity to her life. She said the village was in a mess but rued that the politicians didn't really seem to care about the death of ordinary citizens. "When those in high places ride around with their body guards, they feel safe. They don't ever worry about the ordinary man in the street who is exposed to brutality each day."

I felt for her. She is twenty six; Kenneth is thirty. They are both decent young people trying to make it in the society. Kenneth has a decent job at Point Lisa, makes a decent salary and tries to make two ends meet. A month ago he bought his new car for which he will have to pay for the next five years and he and his mother (he is an only child) are trying to complete the building of their home.

"How did Kenneth respond to his cousin's death?" I asked.

"Not too good." When I spoke to him, he told me of the murder. "I heard some shots. I looked outside and there I saw the body right in front of my house. I could not believe it was him. We had grown up together and did everything together." His voice faded into the distance as he imagined the land to which his cousin had gone. He may have been re-enacting the psychological journey of his ancestors' encounter, the savagery of their violent deaths, and his having to come to terms with the uncertainty of his being-in-this-world.

When our African ancestors came to this land (many of them from Ghana), they brought with them a symbolic understanding of the world in which they lived. Inherent in this belief was "Nyame nwu na mawu," an Akan adinkra symbol and philosophical icon which translates as "I die only when God is dead." It alludes to the implied perpetual existence of man's spirit in so far as it is a part of God or the Supreme Creator's spirit. It reflects an Akan's belief in the circularity of life and in the connection between the living and the ancestors who remain major players in the societies in which they lived.

In the early days of our sojourn in this land we, too, believed in the circularity of life and death. Even as we prepared for their departure of our loved ones to a new world we sang at our wakes: "Tonight is the bongo night, feed de wake, feed de wake." The dead had to be fed as it undertook the journey to the other side.

As these young men are cut down in the prime of their lives the nation needs to ask how do these savage deaths impact upon the national psyche and how are we implicated in this socio-psychological drama. The society cannot remain untouched as so many young black men are killed. Sooner rather than later, it will have a devastating impact upon the self-worth of our young people and the destiny of our nation.

If life is not worth living and nothing means nothing (I deliberately use the double negative to emphasize the point) then the entire basis upon which we anchor personal and national values becomes skewed toward nihilism which suggests that existence has no meaning, life has no purpose and an individual possessed no intrinsic value.

If life means so little then death is not something they are likely to fear. Such a scenario suggests they may be a re-living the slave experience. Is this the future we envision for the people of our nation?

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