(Pericles, act 1, sc. 4)
Cornel West is an African-American philosopher, academic, activist, author and public intellectual. He defines himself as a “blues man in the world of the mind, and a jazz man in the world of ideas.”
Recently, Cornel West commented on the impact of electing an African-American to the presidency of the US, followed by the appointment of other African-Americans to posts of responsibility in government – while the overwhelming majority of the minority saw no improvement (or chances of), in their life. He referred to this as “the niggerization of the plantation”. Meaning, a willful misinterpretation of the soul and message of Martin Luther King. A clever way of tinting racism with a coat of superficial dies, bright and pleasing to the untrained eye. But the primitive quality of discrimination does not suffer decay – it simply searches for alternative routes. In the instance, skin-color racism has fused with the unobjectionable, impenetrable and irrefragable economic racism. A belief, economic racism, made strong by the religion of superstition, the religion of greed and neo-liberal economics.
I did not write the following short story. I encourage the many internauts who kindly visit us to read it and to reach their own conclusions.
The Jones Plantation
Mr. Jones owned a cotton plantation and many slaves. One day he was talking with the owner of a plantation next to his and Mr. Jones was lamenting the fact that times were tough. He was having to work his slaves harder than ever, and was having trouble with some of them being disobedient or trying to run away.
The other plantation owner said he knew someone who could help.
One day Mr. Jones called his slaves together so that Mr. Smith could talk to them. Before beginning Mr. Smith whispered to Mr. Jones, “Whatever I say do not contradict me or interfere and I promise your slave troubles will end.”
“My name is Mr. Smith – he said to the slaves – and this may be the happiest day of your lives. From today forward you will no longer be slaves but free men.”
Mr. Jones was so shocked he started to step forward but Mr. Smith gestured to him to remain silent. He did only because the other plantation owner had spoken so highly of Mr. Smith’s skills.
“You are no longer property of Mr. Jones– Mr. Smith continued – you are free; no more you will be forced to labor for the benefit of Mr. Jones. Now you can work for yourselves. “
Now the slaves were all murmuring and looking at each other. Many were smiling, many were looking puzzled.
“In fact you are now free to leave the plantation, whenever you want, Mr. Smith said. However, since we are surrounded by other plantations, if you leave, some other plantation owner will likely claim you as his own the moment you set foot on his property. So I urge you not to risk your newly-found freedom by doing something so foolish. Instead I suggest that you stay here, no longer as slaves but as willing participants and part owners of this plantation, which is now your plantation.”
Mr. Jones bit his tongue, instead of objecting.
“For now we may just as well leave Mr. Jones in charge – said Mr. Smith – since he is the only one with any experience at running a plantation which is a quite complicate thing to manage, but he will no longer be your master but just another worker on the plantation. In fact he will now be using his organizational and management skills to serve YOU. Whatever problems you may have had with him before, you are now all equals and you need each other to make this work. If we all cooperate and work together we can all reap the benefits together. In honor of this happy occasion I present you this new symbol of togetherness and cooperation – this new flag which shall be the emblem of the new free Jones plantation.”
He held up the new flag with most of those listening were still too amazed to respond.
“And this will be our motto – Mr. Smith announced – we work together as free men for our mutual benefit, pledging our allegiance to the Jones plantation, which stands for prosperity, liberty and justice for all. To celebrate, everyone has the rest of the day off. Enjoy your freedom, do as you please and be back here tomorrow morning, bright and early, so that we may begin to work on this great and noble new endeavor, as equal free men.”
Finally thinking that Mr. Smith was serious the former slaves applauded and cheered.
“We all want this plantation to do well – Mr. Smith said, at the beginning of the next meeting – so that we all share the benefits. We all know that it takes a lot of effort to make a common plantation work. Just because you are all free, it doesn’t mean you can stop working. In fact, since you now are working for yourselves, I expect you to work even harder than ever before, but now with pride and joy, knowing that you are working for yourselves. Of course, there have still to be rules. If everyone does just what he wants, the plantation won’t produce anything. This experiment will fail and we’ll all starve. You should be thankful that Mr. Jones has agreed to stay on to lend his knowledge and skill to this endeavor and I trust you will all do your own part to make this work. Several of you have been chosen to act as project supervisors to manage different aspects of this operation, to make sure everyone is doing his assigned job, to make sure that the rules are followed and so on. The rest of you may head out to the fields to start your first day of work as free men.”
The next morning Mr. Smith had a grim expression on his face as the daily meeting began.
“I have an unpleasant duty to do today – he said – yesterday Charles was caught keeping some of the cotton he picked, presumably to sell for his own personal profit. That is against the rules, that is stealing. For that Charles must be punished.”
Two men tied Charles to the whipping post.
“I take no joy in this – Mr. Smith continued – but you must understand. If we do not maintain order, if we do not have rules that we all abide by, then the plantation will fail and we will all suffer.”
The whip cracked against Charles’ back.
“… But if all pitch in for the common good then we can all prosper. Being free doesn’t mean you should be selfish and greedy. We must each do our assigned duties and obey the rules and then we can all benefit and each of you will receive your appropriate share of the profits.”
A young man, named Samuel stepped forward, “But if you and Mr. Jones decide the rules and whip us if we disobey, how is it any different from what we had before?”
“How can you say that – Mr. Smith said – I am shocked. You were a slave before, now you are free. Things still need to be managed and organized by those best qualified to do so. Do you know how to run a plantation, Samuel?”
“Well no, he answered, but if we are free, why do we get no say in what the rules are, and how things work?”
“I am surprised at your ingratitude, Mr., Smith answered, none of you know how a plantation is run so you are in no position about making decisions about how things are done here. You don’t seem to appreciate all the things that Mr. Jones provides for you; from protecting you from all the outside threats you know nothing about – those who would come here, capture and enslave you, if it were not for Mr. Jones’ protection – to making sure that you all have food and housing, tools to work with and you are cared for when you sick and injured and so on. There would be no plantation at all, no cotton to pick, no land to plant and harvest, if not for him. You should be grateful that he has made possible the level of comfort you now have – your lives would be far worse if not for him. Nevertheless, as free and equal participants in this endeavor, from now on at each meeting, any worker will have two minutes to ask questions, or voice suggestions or complaints.”
With that the workers seemed to be satisfied and headed out again to the fields to pick the cotton.
“I have a big announcement, Mrs. Smith said, as the daily meeting began. Mr. Jones’ cousin is here, not just to visit and see how our project is coming along. It has been decided that from now on, you will be deciding who will manage the plantation. Of course this job cannot be done by just anyone. But every three months we will have a special meeting at which all the workers will vote on whether we think Mr. Jones should run the plantation or weather we think his cousin, Mr. Johnson should run the plantation. That means that, ultimately, you are in charge, because you will be deciding which man you want running things on your behalf. If you don’t like the way things are being managed, you now have the power to change it.”
Amazed and pleased, the workers headed again out to the fields, to pick the cotton.
A year later
Days passes, months passed, a year passed, and the plantation continued to operate as before. Sometimes Mr. Jones was in charge, sometimes Mr. Johnson was in charge – but the day-to-day routines stayed exactly the same. The workers worked hard, long hours every day and still had little to show for it. Every day the meeting would begin with them all reciting the John’s plantation motto, “We work together as free men for our mutual benefit, pledging our allegiance to the Jones plantation, which stands for prosperity, liberty and justice for all.”
One day Mr. Smith announced, “Samuel has asked to say a few words, this morning and whatever the rest of us may think of his ideas and opinions, we are all free here and that means we are all allowed to speak our minds. So Samuel, you have two minutes. Begin.”
Samuel stepped forward looking scared.
“I was excited when all this started – he began, glancing nervously at Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones – but don’t you all see what’s happened here? Nothing has changed. We are all still slaves – there were grumbles of disagreement from the crowd – they tell us what to do and whip us if we don’t. They still make all the rules and punish us if we disobey. They let us make suggestions and complain about things, but they really never change anything. They let us choose between Mr. Jones and Mr. Johnson, but what’s the difference? The situation stays the same. We do all of the work and they take as much as they want, and decide how much they’ll let us keep. They live in luxury made rich by the cotton we pick. We do all the work, and have to build our own huts, grow our own food and take care of ourselves. They leave us just enough that we don’t revolt or run away. This is not freedom, we are all still slaves. They have only changed the words they use, but nothing else is changed. They say we are all free and equal but we are not. They command and we obey. That’s not freedom, that’s not equality. They say we are free to leave, but all that means is that we are free to be someone else’s slaves. Why should we work or obey the rules? We didn’t agree to this. They made the system. They forced it on us. They control and rob us and call it freedom. They deceive you into thinking that being able to choose which slave-master you all work for, is the same as being free. It is not. Open your eyes. If you keep what you produce, they call it stealing. When they take what you produce, they call it sharing and fair distribution. Can’t you see that this is all….”
“Your time is up, Samuel” – Mr. Smith announced calmly – At his gesture two supervisors grabbed Samuel by his arm and led him to the whipping post.
“I am sorry, Samuel, but you have broken the rules. There are rules against encouraging others not to work and encouraging others to break the rules. You are only hurting all of us with your discontentment and your complaining and your disobedience.”
The whip fell and Samuel let out a grunt.
“Without rules, without order, all would be lost. Without law, there would be chaos. We can’t just behave like wild animals, each doing whatever he pleases. We must all follow the plan and all do our duty, for the betterment of everyone. And those who do not must be punished.”
The whip fell again and blood flowed freely from Samuel’s back.
“Samuel, it is you who are stealing from the others. When you don’t do your assigned work, you are making more work for others. When you disobey the rules, it is you who are endangering the future of everyone else here. You are the thief, you are the criminal. You are the one who tries to destroy the arrangement that keeps us all safe and prosperous.”
At every lash of the whip the other workers cheered, louder and louder, some yelling curses at Samuel.
“Being spoiled and selfish, you complain about everything, talking as if you are oppressed. But you are the one ruining things – you are the one keeping us from being all we could be. It is your greed and your rebelliousness that is hurting all of us. They all play by the rules – Mr. Smith said gesturing at the others – what makes you think that you don’t have to. You think you are above the law?
There were louds yells of agreement as the whip fell again.
“We must maintain order – Mr. Smith proclaimed – to make this plantation great, to make it so that we can all be happy and prosperous. To have the society we want there have to be rules. We all have to contribute our fair share to this great endeavor, and we cannot tolerate actions and attitudes that seek to undermine the amazing things that, together as free men we have achieved and will continue to achieve.”
Mr. Jones was smiling as he gave Mr. Smith a pat on the back. The crowd was cheering so loudly that none of them had noticed that Samuel had died.
In the play. A lord has brought news of the sighting of approaching ships. The lord thinks the ships seem to come in peace, but Cleon is suspicious. The fleet is Pericles’ who, having heard of the problems of food shortages at Tharsus, has arrived with supplies.
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