Masks, Passes, and Privilege: Response to a Pandemic, by Rhoda Arrindell, PhD
By Nehesi House
Jun 15, 2020 - 6:30:08 PM
GREAT BAY, St. Martin —“Slave passes, also called ‘certificates’ or ‘tickets,’ were written notes granting slaves permission to leave the plantations on which they lived. Almost all slave societies in the New World required slaves to have written permission from their owners to leave the plantation, and they could not leave without it. Slave passes contained the slave’s name, the destination, the trip’s duration, the expiration date of the pass, and the master’s signature. Passes were most commonly given to male slaves who ran errands and performed transportation work beyond the plantation. Depending on the master, slave men might also be given passes to visit their wives on weekends.”
Thus reads an excerpt from the Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery in reference to Slavery in late 1600s America.
Today, after almost 500 years since the start of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and just short of two centuries since the abolition of Slavery and Emancipation, followed by landmark “actions” such as the Civil Rights Movement (USA), Majority Rule (Bahamas), abolition of Apartheid (South Africa), and so many others around the world where people of African descent have fought and died to be recognized as humans, for their liberation and advancement in all areas of human engagement, it is instructive how in the middle of a pandemic, vestiges of Slavery have emerged as symbols of managing the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis in 2020.
The fact that governments around the globe have had to scramble to come up with policies and structures to manage a new coronavirus disease that left no corner of the world untouched is remarkable.
And while people loathed and were affected by measures that severely restricted their movement, it seemed that, for the most part, the restrictions were or are generally accepted as legitimate, and were or are complied with, albeit in different degrees.
From the confusion of distinguishing quarantine from self-isolation, to orders like “shelter-in-place,” to mandated wearing of gloves, masks, and face-coverings, to travel bans and passes, most people made adjustments. But there were those who vehemently protested some or all the restrictions; for still others there was something ominous about the two most salient symbols of the pandemic: masks and passes.
Though at the onset of the outbreak, not all countries required the wearing of masks, eventually some version of face-covering became a requirement everywhere.
In some countries and territories, masks were either issued freely or at least made easily accessible, and in some countries, like The Bahamas, people were encouraged by their governments to support local entrepreneurship by purchasing locally made masks.
In other countries, like the USA, masks were in short supply, and people were left to their own creativity to secure them. With different states having different levels of restrictions, and a US presidential election looming in the year of the pandemic, mask-wearing became politicized.
In the US state of Michigan, armed White men and women, most without masks, were among the protesters of the stay-at-home orders, and some, emboldened by the Republican president in the White House, stormed the state’s capital demanding the Democratic governor to reopen the state.
A few days later in the same state, a Black Democratic lawmaker had to be escorted to work by armed Black men because she feared for her safety.
During another demonstration outside the Humboldt County Courthouse in the state of California on May 16, protesters at an “anti-lockdown” rally could be seen carrying signs comparing the stay-at-home measures to modern-day slavery, and making references to individual freedoms and violation of constitutional rights.
One image quickly made international headlines. It was an image of two White women holding up placards, on which were the words: “Muzzles are for dogs and slaves. I’m a free human being.” Next to the words was a drawn image of Escrava Anastacia (a African woman who was enslaved by Whites in Brazil), wearing a muzzle and a metal collar forced on her by her enslavers.
Covering the incident, a Newsweek reporter later wrote, “The image of Anastacia wearing a muzzle and a metallic collar has made her both an iconic image of slavery’s dehumanizing cruelty and a venerated unofficial saint in Brazil, noted for her defiant beauty despite attempts to silence her. Worshippers see her as a saint who can heal the sick, strengthen the oppressed and forgive oppressors.”
Needless to say, the image drew the ire of people around the world, but it was especially painful to people of African descent and a stark reminder of the value of their humanity in some quarters.
Many people took to social media to vent their outrage, with one Twitter follower, @primetime32, tweeting, “We’ll wait for their apologies!! Because I know it’s coming.”
And, true to form, a few days later, one of the women in the photo, Gretha Stenger, issued an apology: “‘Holding that sign up at the lockdown protest was a grave mistake and I ask forgiveness from all those who I have caused pain,’ she said in a statement to The Times-Standard. ‘As I had no sign of my own, it was handed to me by another protester and a photographer took the picture before I considered the racist implications.’” (Newsweek)
See, this is the thing with privilege. Like the men in Michigan, Stenger and others (like her fellow protester who was captured holding the sign and later identified in social media as Larkin Small) see themselves as being entitled to do whatever they want to uphold their privileges, without much thought, regardless to who gets affected, because their privilege is supreme. And every time the public backlash comes, they either cite naiveté, ignorance, or belligerence, and they can expect to be let off the hook either way.
On the other hand, the apologies have become so common that when they do come, they’re almost always brushed aside as insincere. This is not to say that people do not genuinely make mistakes and feel regret afterwards. But there is a pervasive sense of entitlement and privilege that (some) White people take for granted, no matter where they are.
In 1850, a New York Tribune reporter covering a slave auction wrote, “All these humiliations were submitted to without a murmur and in some instances with good-natured cheerfulness—where the slave liked the appearance of the proposed buyer, and fancied that he might prove a kind ‘mas’r’.” Like Stenger, the reporter was purportedly trying to do good by exposing the barbarity of Slavery to the newspaper’s readers.
What the Stenger situation shows is that despite the strides that have been made in some places like the USA since the auctioning of enslaved Africans, the humanity of people of African descent is still not regarded as equal to the humanity of others, particularly White people.
Sadly, colonialism and Slavery have left the world with an anti-humanity hierarchy, with White at the top and Black at the bottom. However, it’s not just White people who have this sense of White supremacy; other racial groups, including Africans and people of African descent, recognize and embrace it as well.
The global discussion surrounding world population and mandatory vaccines to treat the pandemic reek of White supremacy and privilege. And 26 years after the collapse of the Apartheid regime (a system of legal segregation designed by descendants of the Dutch in South Africa), one of its prominent symbols, the passbook, emerges in my homeland of St. Martin during the pandemic.
The “local” governments of the Caribbean island, consisting of two territories controlled by France and the Netherlands, invoked the pass as part of the island’s response to the pandemic and another reminder of the ugliness of colonialism that prevails in parts of the world.
On the Dutch-controlled southern part, people were required to go to the government’s website, download, print, and have signed by the prime minister either a Professional Travel Proof Form A, B, or C, while authorities on the French-controlled northern part required people leaving their homes to have an “attestation” form.
In stepping up efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, authorities of both parts of St. Martin agreed to close the border between the two territories on March 29.
By April 6, iron trailer containers at two locations blocked the frontier, which has generally been unguarded for centuries, and the two main roadways were “jointly patrolled” by police authorities and soldiers, physically separating St. Martiners who, notwithstanding the realities of colonialism, had lived as one people for over 200 years.
The pass policy was later modified as follows: residents of the Dutch-controlled half had to request permission from the prefet, the French state representative in Marigot (capital of the French controlled part), while those living in the French part needed to obtain authorization from the prime minister or chief of police in Great Bay (traditional name for the capital of Dutch-controlled part) to move across the island.
Thus, the pass effectively became a form of travel “visa,” affecting the vast majority of people on land, while a minority of “residents” with access to boats did not experience the same restrictions.
The mobility issues escalated when the authorities in the Dutch territory removed the barriers, iron trailer containers, they had placed at two border points, and the authorities in the French territory did not.
An example of the escalation, before the four “border crossings” at the frontier would become free of any blockade on June 2, occurred when a beloved St. Martin doctor of French nationality, who had worked for over 30 years on the Dutch-controlled part, was questioned at the Union Road border crossing by the (maskless) French authorities about the authenticity of his “C-waiver.” A number of people immediately took to social media to express their outrage.
The argument that restrictions were necessary to prevent the spread of the virus and severely overwhelm ill prepared healthcare systems seemed reasonable enough to most.
For others, even when reasonable adjustments were made—including a number of the island’s poets, such as Lasana M. Sekou in the following poem posted on Facebook after an elderly person was stopped at the border when attempting to leave the French territory to go and buy familiar medicine in the Dutch territory—the pass requirements conjured up images of plantation Slavery and privileges:
and so the disease reason for blocking the border
that is owned by france and the netherlands,
on the occupied land of st. martin,
begins to pitter to its political raison d’etre,
all the pieces of reason that we’ve been bawling ’bout
&battling off some way or t’nudder since the divide
since when we come to know how to walk
through kosha hill&diamond estate run
&belvedere pass/ages since,
for petit marronage&lohkay-like looking freedom
from which ever way&side
so it be then, like each generation must come to not hear
till we butt up on the gun-toting line, it drawn
&buried open in the sand.
i wonder if the blow to we haadn forrid each time
is like we marching ’pon a long road to union
marching to feel up way pass their frontier
marching ... marching ... marching ...
till jericho wall come bruckin’ dong ... dong ... dong ...
The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the best and the worst of humanity. What has been particularly instructive is the level of insensitivity and racist implications of so many of the responses. Whether they are carried out in ignorance by individuals like Gretha Stenger or intentionally by governments, including those made up of descendants of formerly enslaved Africans, a number of these measures have caused anguish in a people who often do not have the voice to express their anguish.
Like the Africans forced to endure humiliation on the auction block and on the plantation during Slavery, today their offspring continue to suffer indignity in the middle of a pandemic.
The historic movements noted above, that issued in significant changes, are arguably instructional for the people of today, subject to the various forms of an oppressive knee on their individual and collective necks.
These movements and others like them are part of the complex of engagements to be explored and developed in organizing forward to realize greater victories in areas such as social justice, affordable and quality health care and education for all, labor rights, immigration laws, human rights, political independence, defense of sovereignty, and reparations.
Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Volume 1; Volume 7.
Sekou, Lasana M. “when old people can’t get the medicine they know.” (May 14, 2020). https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=3197392066986010&id=100001457448741.
“Slave Auction, 1850.” New York Daily Tribune, March 9, 1859 reprinted in Hart, Albert B., American History Told by Contemporaries v. 4 (1928), cited on EyeWitnessHistory.com.
Villareal, Daniel. “California Woman Apologizes for Holding Sign at Lockdown Protest Comparing.” Newsday online. Retrieved May 24, 2020.
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