The long song

Peace & Security30 Sep 2011Ellen Lammers

Coincidence landed me in Williamsburg, Virginia. The town serves as a proud testament to 18th century US history, as it was here, in the carefully reconstructed Capitol building and Raleigh Tavern that the American colonists became infected with the spirit of revolution, which led, in 1776, to the Declaration of Independence from their British government.

The actors in the streets of historic Williamsburg – wigmakers, weavers and blacksmiths, a wandering road scholar, the governor and his cook, and a black slave who just bought his freedom – play their parts with passion.

The eighteenth century patriots, who greet you ‘goodday ma’am, come see, we sell the best soaps in the colony!’, are as cheerful as their 21st century fellow countrymen and women, today’s tourists – and hey, is this historically accurate?, as wide-bottomed and bosomed too.

But what really transports me back into the past, more than this picturesque replica town of bygone days, is the novel I’m reading by Andrea Levy. The Long Song was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and it was a last-minute pick from my pile of want-to-reads that I took with me for the long flight to Atlanta last Sunday.

Incidentally, it feels a near perfect match with my surroundings. The story is set in another former English colony, Jamaica, and starts a few decades later in around 1820. And while Virginia became the richest British colony of its time thanks to the lucrative growing of tobacco, English planters in Jamaica made their wealth from sugar. Neither, however, would have had even a fraction of its success without the slaves that worked their plantations. Andrea Levy has plotted a vivid, heart wrenching yet full of humour story around her main character, Miss July, the house slave of the missus and massa at the plantation called Amity. She has had me engrossed in her life for two days and 398 pages.

Yesterday, the poor white farmer on Great Hopes plantation on the outskirts of historic Williamsburg, tells us that every so often she has an audience of American tourists who think that all that slave business is exaggerated and that ‘we were doing them a favour, really’.

These same contemporary Americans probably wouldn’t frown when reading the welcome brochure in our hotel room which says that here, in Williamsburg, ‘more than 200 years ago, the pursuit of equality, freedom and independence began a revolution that continues to shape the world’.

Now, the above diversions only have one clear link to what I actually meant to do in this post, that is, point you to an article we published earlier today about the evasive national and failing international response to a recent massacre in Gatumba, Burundi. The prevalence of racism and not least, impunity, is that link, one that cuts so effortlessly through history.