Austin Clarke’s Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack: Imperialist Education

 

Austin Clarke

Austin Clarke

On the first page of Austin Clarke’s Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, he writes the his mother told him that “Learning [was] going make [him] into a man” (5), a sentiment that sets the tone for the rest of memoir.  The work is an account of his formative years in St. James, Barbados and serves as a document that details what Frantz Fanon refers to as the colonization of the mind, often accomplished through language and education.  The memoir also details the kyriarchal system of oppression whereby the dominant culture would encourage the oppressed classes to become invested in their oppression by allotting a select few limited privileges.  In recording the practices of Britain, America, and imperialism in general, the work manages offer some interesting social commentary, and though lacking in character developing in stimulating plotting, it does serve as an insightful case study on the effects of imperialism on education.

 

THE ECONOMICS OF EDUCATION

 

The flag of Barbados.

The flag of Barbados.

Clarke is told at a young age that “Learning [is] going make him into a man” (5), a sentiment that is reinforced when it is noted that “Learning next to godliness” (37), but the cost of learning is a roadblock for many who seek to improve their standing under British imperialism.  Clarke notes that “books [were] priced at more than most… parents earned in a month” (7).  Aside from the books, there was also the cost of tuition fees, which to “those of… who did not win scholarships… were… devastating” (7).  Given that education was so highly valued and determined whether one would be working in a sugar cane field, or in an office, securing an education was central to class mobility, but because it cost money, it was only accessible to those with an intellect that could quickly excel and earn a scholarship, or those with money, leaving all others trapped in a cycle of oppression.  Clarke is fortunate that he is bright, but even so, his parents must still scrimp and save, and solicit contribution from relatives in Canada to secure the funds required to pay for his books.  Education is key to breaking the cycle of exploitation, but is not something everybody has equal access to.

 

EDUCATION AND SLAVERY

 

A dirtied version of the Union Jack, the flag under which Clarke was educated.

A dirtied version of the Union Jack, the flag under which Clarke was educated.

Because education is central to one’s advancement, those sitting atop the educational hierarchy have a special kind of authority, and in Clarke’s account, it is clear that though slavery had been abolished from the British colonies over a century before, it still cast a shadow on the education system.  Students who misbehaved, for instance, were “sent to [the headmaster] for a flogging” (8).  This misbehaving may be something as simple as not cleaning one’s nails, which Clarke notes was no easy task since many children helped with farm work.  Clarke alludes to a pattern of abuse, recalling “flogging orgies” (8), and noting how a strap soaked in urine, which Clarkes calls a “pee-soaked black snake”, was used to whip a child “six times across [his]back” (10), which resulted in the boy having to  “wash… faeces from his legs and pants” (10).  He also describes a teacher who “held [s] boy’s ear and looked inside… like an approved piece of merchandise” (12), a practice that would have been common on the auction block at a slave auction when potential buyers were inspecting the ‘products’.  The flogging and inspections are practices grandfathered in from the slavery era, but so too does the term ‘headmaster’ borrow from the institution of slavery as the teachers and principals were not referred to as teachers or principals, but rather as ‘masters’ and ‘headmasters’ (18).  The authority of the headmaster was also reinforced by the fact that he “always wore white”, and did so, as Clarke observes, “as it if meant something” (11), likely linking himself with white authority.  The experience of school is so antagonistic, that upon entering Harrison College, Clarke recalls a line from Virgil’s The Aeneid: “I sing of arms and a hero, who first sailed from the shores of Troy” (192).  In framing this scene as if it were an epic battle, Clarke notes the confrontational nature of the education system, whilst creating an analogy whereby he, like Aeneas, must forge his way to create a new identity after being defeated by an oppressing force (see Britain).  Though education was a way to empowerment, it was also one of the hegemonic tools imperialists employed to reinforce their authority.

 

 

COLONIZATION OF THE MIND

 

Frantz Fanon, who popularized the concept of the colonization of the mind.

Frantz Fanon, who popularized the concept of the colonization of the mind.

The education system is not only used as a delivery system for physical violence that reinforces imperialist authority, but also for the colonization of the mind.  Part of this colonization of the mind is the curriculum’s exclusion of the history and culture of African. Clarke notes that he and his classmates loved Hannibal, but also observes that “no one told [them] he was black like” them (49).  In denying Clarke and his classmates this information, educators prevent them from being able to identify with their own history.  In place of this history, the system celebrates British conquests.  Clarke, for instance, states that he and his classmates disliked America because “in [their] history books… the English had fought the greatest battles of all time” (154).  The exclusion of their own culture extends beyond history lessons and into their culture.  The schools, for instance, teach the classic works of antiquity, as well as the works of Milton and Shakespeare (180), but there is no mention of works by people of colour.  Though African did not have the volume of written works that Greece, Rome and England had, there were at the very least popular slave narratives by the likes of Olaudah Equiano, or collections of poetry by the likes of Phillis Wheatley; however, this literary wealth is not mentioned in the curriculum.  Likewise, the school does not value language from Africa.  Though Arabic, which is spoken in parts of African, was the language of science for centuries, and it is only Latin, a dead language, and Greek, a language with far less currency in contemporary politics, that is taught to Clarke and his classmates (180).  This Eurocentric curriculum serves to devalue the history, culture and language of people of colour, and teaches youths that the only culture of value is white culture.

 

LANGUAGE

 

A map of Barbados; the memoir is set in St. James.

A map of Barbados; the memoir is set in St. James.

The colonization of the mind is often reinforced through language.  In framing the goals of the youths, the positions they aspire for are often couched in the language of servitude.  Should Clarke do well in school, he is optimistic that he could be turned “into a civil servant” (6), and notes that “to be a civil servant, that was beyond [his] wildest dreams” (7).  Rather than a specific job title, the youths aspire, not to be engineers or doctors, but rather to be ‘servants’, and though they are positions in the government, they word ‘servant’ ensures that their identities are a still rooted in servitude.  Alternately, those who have authority over them are likewise given titles grounded in the servant-master dichotomy, such as headmaster for a principal (11), or master rather than teacher, which Clarke makes a point of highlighting (18).   Signifiers such as colours are used to reinforce the authority of white society as well, as the head master always wore white (11), and the youths that Clarke went to school with adopted the prescription that a ‘white Christmas’ was ideal, and though “snow never fell” in Barbados, the “all loved Bing Crosby” (26); even their constructs of holidays and cultural figures were framed through ideas of ‘whiteness’.  The ‘Christian’ values of the Anglo-Saxon culture also shaped their familial relationships through language.  Because Clarke was born out of wedlock, he had a different name than his mother, and in order to protect him from ridicule, his teachers referred to his mother as a guardian that other youths might not tease him for being ‘illegitimate’ (107).  This framing of Clarke as somehow being illegitimate is an extension of the Anglo-Saxon/Judeo-Christian culture, but the framing of his own mother as a guardian exacerbates this as it discredits her efforts as a mother and encourages Clarke to look at his mother through the lens of the Anglo-Saxon value system rather than allowing their familial bonds to define their relationships.  Through the system of language, the ‘white’ system is constantly being uplifted, people of colour are perpetually being taught to view themselves in terms of servitude, and the authority of ‘white’ society seeks to take precedent over familial bonds, showing how language reinforces this colonization of the mind.

 

KYRIARCHAL SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION

 

growing up stupid under the union jackImperialistic oppression is also validated by offering degrees of privilege to the oppressed within a kyriarchal hierarchy, making the oppressed complicit in the oppression of their own people.  Clarke, for instance, notes that should he be unable to secure a job as a ‘civil servant’, he might get a job as a lead hand on a plantation where he would “drive some of [his] less fortunate friends… to work in the fields” (6).  There is a willingness, then, to participate in the oppression when one is given a slightly higher positon in the hierarchy, and though Clarke demonstrates this through several peripheral characters, it is best exemplified through the way he frames dogs are being analogous to people of colour.  Early in the work, Clarke frames dogs as being on a par with people of colour, at least in the eyes of white society whose doctors post signs like “Indians and dogs not allowed;  andBlacks and dogs not allowed” (39).  Structurally, then, dogs and people of colour are put in analogous terms, which is reinforced when Clarke describes a dog as being black (68), calling on the language of colour as he did by describing the headmaster with the colour white.  Clarke recalls that his “mother knew the deep, dark, deadly secrets of dogs”, which was that “They belonged to the rich” (68).  Such guard dogs, like the men of colour who would take on jobs as civil servants for the government and enforce imperialist authority, would guard the homes of the wealthy, and as Clarke observes, many of the children “believed the dogs… were taught to eat black boys” (132), so when the dogs chased them, they would chase the dogs “and sometimes threw stones into their ribs and made them yelp” (93).  This dichotomy is demonstrative of the divisive relationships between people of colour who work on the plantations, and those who worked as civil servants.  Though both groups were marginalized under imperialism, they battled more directly with each other, rather than their mutual oppressor.  This was perhaps most succinctly phrased by Pras, of the Fugees, who said that it is “easy for cats to kill other cats; it’s just the dogs they got trouble with”.  By creating a hierarchal system that is based on more than skin colour, and creating intersectional oppression, it becomes possible for the imperialist system to encourage many to accepts and become complicit in their own oppression.

 

 

ANTI-WESTERN SENTIMENTS

 

Jim Crow laws, and laws like it, made the Americans and British imperialists little different than Nazis in the eyes of the people such laws oppressed.

Jim Crow laws, and laws like it, made the American legislators and British imperialists little different than Nazis in the eyes of the people such laws oppressed.

Though the imperialist system does an effective job of rationalizing their authority, there seems to be an innately anti-Western sentiment among the citizens of Barbados that is present throughout the memoir.  This sentiment is perhaps most overtly manifest in anti-American attitudes.  Clarke notes that they “despised Amurcans” (154), in part because “Amurca lynched black people” (155).  Because Britain had abolished slavery long before America, Britain was viewed as the lesser of two evils, but this anti-American sentiment was also a product of the colonization of the mind, as their hatred of America was in part the result of their being English, and their being taught that Britain participated in all the great historical battles (154).   However, the view of English rule was not entirely positive.  Clarke describes white people as lawless (79), and catalogs a list of services ‘black hands’ provided the white people; among the items were ‘white orgasms’ that were “brought on… through love or through rape” (167).  He also aligns the people of Barbados with the Israelites who sought to disentangle themselves “from the bonds of Egypt” (150), framing England as an oppressive force akin to the Egyptians in Exodus.  This sentiment is so strong, that during WWII, many of the youths he interacted with sided with Germany, believing that should Hitler win the war, the oppression of the people of Barbados would come to an end, a belief the exhibited itself through graffiti on the school walls that took the form of swastikas.  Though the youths did not understand or know of the eugenics programs of Nazi Germany, the fact that Germany was presented as the antithesis of Britain fostered some support among those the British oppressed.  This highlights the overt hypocrisy of the West, who fought the oppression of the Germans, but who themselves, especially in America and the British colonies, had legislation regarding people of colour that was no better than the Nuremberg laws (see Jim Crow).  Though hindsight suggests that any kind of allegiance to Nazi Germany is fool hardy, this narrative point illustrates how oppressive imperialism and American segregation were, and how, among oppressed persons, there was little difference between the Germany, America and Britain.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Austin Clarke

Austin Clarke

The work is not without its flaws.  I see no real narrative in the memoir, and the people that surround Clarke are universally underdeveloped. I don’t get a sense of who these people are, or what they meant to him.  They are almost caricatures, even in instances when he is speaking of the people closest to him, such as his mother.  As a result, the reader is not pulled into the narrative, or engrossed in the characters, and even Clarke himself remains aloof.  Perhaps Clarke was making an effort to remain objective, in which case he has succeeded, but in terms of storytelling, the book leaves much to be desired.  Still, as a document, the work is invaluable.  It offers insights into the perspectives of people who are often underrepresented, and documents their experience whilst highlighting the hypocritical nature of the domestic policies of nations like Britain and America in the context of broader, international conflicts.  It speaks to economic issues, noting how the government relied on unemployment to increase enlistment (14), and notes that the source of crime is often the oppressive political institutions that fosters poverty, which leads to theft (36), and even touches on gender issues, noting that girls were not given the same opportunities as boys (71), thereby reinforcing the intersectional nature of oppression, though this element remains underrepresented in the work.  As a case study of education under capitalist imperialism, the work is a success and demonstrates why the education system must function outside of a capitalist structure.  Though perhaps not a work that will entertain, it certainly is one that will enlighten.

 

If you enjoyed this review and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

 

Works Cited:

Clarke, Austin.  Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack.  Amurca: Vintage.  1998. Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php