Badmind and Bondage: A Caribbean Story

Few historical events have impacted the world as much as the Transatlantic slave trade has. Taking place from the early 1500’s all the way to the late 1800’s- a period of about four hundred years and involving the transplantation of upwards of twelve million souls from Africa to the Americas and resulting in the deaths of millions more in Africa and in the treacherous waters of the Atlantic. The trade impacted the Americas demographically, botanically, linguistically, culturally, genetically, economically and materially. It also had a major impact on the psychology of the region -a factor largely ignored by academia. The experience of the transatlantic slave trade and its concomitant tribulations played a significant role in the development of what is popularly referred to in the Caribbean as ‘badmind’.

Badmind is the Caribbean equivalent of the German schadenfreude and can be defined as ill-will – a consuming desire for the downfall of others. It is a common trope in popular Caribbean music. From reggae to Soca to Dancehall and Calypso and everything in between, singers can be heard bemoaning the ubiquitous badmind who seeks to impede their progress and derail their dreams. Badmind is often touted as the reason for failure- for not getting a job, for being fired, for a failed relationship. It manifests in manifold dimensions; gossiping neighbors, tyrannical bosses, oppressive spouses, and bullies. Badmind is the ogre that blocks the gateway into the golden city of success.  It is the behemoth that thwarts the plans of the little man. 

The slave plantation represented more than just physical bondage; it also represented, more perniciously, psychological bondage. The enslaved people of the Americas were subject to vicious and arbitrary brutality at the whims of their white overlords. People were hung, had their heads chopped off at the guillotine, burned, quartered, broken at the wheel, fed to ants, chopped, whipped to death, had their tongues and feet cut off, raped, isolated, ostracized. The overwhelming terror of the plantation suffused every square inch of land and almost every quarter of the consciousness of the enslaved. The whimsical brutality of the slave plantation was designed to cripple the will of the enslaved-to dehumanize them and to cower them into conformity. It worked to a large extent. Large populations of enslaved Blacks were kept in check by relatively small populations of Whites. This was due to more than the fact that the Whites were well-armed. It had a lot more to do with the psychological conditioning of the enslaved population. Slaves were kept in check by their own minds. 

The plantation was a place of alienation. Enslaved people were alienated linguistically, ethnically, religiously, culturally and in every other possible way. They were taught to mistrust each other. Divisions were created based on shade and occupation. The mulatto was given a higher status than the quadroon who was way above the Black. The house slave was treated better and perceived to be superior to the field slave. The slave driver or overseer was made to brutalize his fellow Blacks and consequently was hated by them.  This mistrust weakened solidarity among the enslaved population. Slaves were encouraged to report plots of rebellion, to report attempts at absconding from the plantation-to protect their masters by any means.  

The mistrust fostered by the experience of slavery didn’t magically disappear with abolition. While the shackles were broken the psychology of the plantation persisted. This mistrust and ill will manifest themselves today in endless iterations of badmind.  Today, many in the Caribbean feel threatened by the success of their fellows. It is the same visceral fear that the enslaved African felt that his brother, if he gained the ascendancy by becoming, let’s say an overseer or slave driver, would become a tyrant and ill-treat him. This, of course, was not a baseless fear. Kindness was never a virtue in the slave economy and it was most certainly not to be associated with power.  The plantation taught that power was about domination and tyranny. Consequently, the people of the region, conditioned by the psychology of a bygone era and the very present poverty of their day learned to despise and fear the success of others.

Of course badmind wasn’t the preserve of the enslaved people. The slave owner was undoubtedly the greatest purveyor of badmind. He epitomized badmind. He kept individuals, families, entire plantations in their place. He turned them against each other. The diabolical tradition persists today. The slave master has metamorphosed into the manager, the CEO, the politician. 

In 1802 on the island nation of Saint Domingue, today known as Haiti, a most pernicious manifestation of badmind was to manifest. Toussaint L’Ouverture the leader of Haiti’s Black masses against the European colonizers was betrayed by some of his own men including the pugnacious Dessalines. Invited to a meeting he was arrested and shipped off to France where he would die forlorn in the cold Fort de Joux prison. Napoleon Bonaparte, having imprisoned his dusky nemesis in the ultimate act of badmind refused to ever meet with him. The aforementioned Desaillines would himself fall victim to badmind when in 1804 he was brutally slaughtered by some of his countrymen. Marcus Garvey too would fall victim to badmind when trumped-up fraud charges were brought against him by the US government and he was summarily deported back to his native Jamaica.

The noteworthy Martiniquan psychiatrist and revolutionary writer Franz Fanon in his book “Black Skin White Masks” writes “The negro enslaved by his inferiority, the White man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” It is out of a psychological bondage that this neurosis is born. This neurosis frequently manifests in the phenomenon of badmind. Badmind can be likened to a psychological virus, disseminated through the ether of human consciousness.  Like all viruses, it is self-replicating and infectious and so badmind is transmitted across racial, gender and class lines from generation to generation in innumerable iterations feeding off the consciousness of mankind. The eliding of Black people from their own histories as is too frequently the case in modern history is surely a manifestation of badmind. Where they are not elided they are dehumanized and reduced to mere pawns on the game-board of history-not actors but rather mere objects of history, without morals or agency.  

The erasure of Black people from the annals of history, the bleaching of the Ancient Egyptians, the pathologizing of blackness is nothing but badmind. The badmind is perpetuated by a steroidal propaganda machinery that consistently manufactures images (written and visual) which perpetuate the mythic pathology of blackness. This is evident in film, music, visual art, journalism and literature. The Black is essentialized as the eternal subaltern- a natural heir to poverty, ignorance and every human vice. 

The bondage of the slave plantation birthed the bad mind we see in our midst today. We still harbor a fear and mistrust of the other-the other who looks just like us.  Our internalized hate is projected on those who look like us. We pronounce curses in our minds and plant hexes. We use obeah and prayers to impede the progress of others. Because we hate and mistrust ourselves we hate and mistrust each other. The success of our fellows is seen as an opportunity to gloat and to victimize us and we secretly wish for their failure. We secretly long for the opportunity to become their betters and to show off and belittle others. We secretly admire those who oppress us, the wealthy who prey on our poverty, the politicians who prey on our ignorance. We embrace the ugliness that was foisted upon us through the doctrine of White Supremacy and inflict ourselves with it. 

With the badmind however came the resilient spirit of the West-Indian- the indomitable will to survive- and the realization that others wish us ill- that they want to see us flat on our backs- in itself spurs us on to succeed and though many may fall to the maljo and obeah, to the mauvais langue and bad mind we still find a way to smile and even laugh through the struggle to triumph even in failure. We fight each other like crabs in a barrel but ever so often a crab makes it out and we celebrate his/her triumph even as we envy it.

Badmind is part of the human condition, not confined to the heads of the descendants of the enslaved but manifesting among us in a rather virulent strain. We are not merely purveyors of badmind but also very much victims of it and in fact it is the sheer violent brutality of our experience under the bondage of slavery and indentureship, alienation and colonization which has wielded in us this badmind, this schadenfreude that has us perceive each other as rivals rather than allies, foes rather than friends. It makes the success of our friends and colleagues seem threatening to us and spurs us to envy and acts of sabotage which really are (at the psychological level) acts of self-sabotage. 

Badmind is really born of fear, a deep visceral fear born on the plantation, that we will be left behind in our misery, our ignorance, our poverty but it is also a fear of our own inadequacy. We have so internalized the dogma of white supremacy that many of us have a latent fear that we cannot overcome our circumstances, cannot excel academically, cannot have healthy relationships, cannot attain wealth and power and so the attainment of such by our peers creates cognitive dissonance. Badmind is really us trying to maintain the status quo in our consciousness-to keep everything and everyone in his/her place.

To overcome bad mind we need a shift in consciousness, a dismantling of ingrained mythologies, a change in paradigms. It will perhaps necessitate the creation of new or alternative mythologies or perhaps better yet the exposure of objective truths for at the root of all mythology is really truth. Perhaps we can never totally eradicate badmind but we can diminish its prevalence and intensity. We can rediscover our self-worth and beauty and accept again that we are more powerful-much more powerful than we believe.

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