Right or not? Pondering the Rhodes well travelled
In light of the news regarding Bermuda’s 2020 Rhodes Scholar, I am forced to consider the legacy of Cecil Rhodes and whether it is reconcilable to accept an opportunity founded upon a legacy of genocide and colonialism. I post these thoughts not in direct response to any particular criticism — I have been overwhelmed with support — but to share my own internal reflections on the conflict which has been playing out in my own head long before the announcement.
My first name: Ryan. Irish.
My mother’s name: Robinson. English.
My father’s name: Perinchief. Something to do with French, but we don’t really know because we can’t trace our ancestry beyond a free man from St Kitts&Nevis.
My nationality: British Overseas Territories Citizen. Holder of “Bermuda status”. Juan de Bermúdez. Spanish.
The black experience is an incredibly complex contradiction.
When Cecil Rhodes established the Rhodes Trust, he did not envision that it would be taken up by people who look or think like me. Even today, the perceived “success” of many individuals seems to be almost directly proportionate to the extent by which they are willing to compromise and contradict their own identities. No doubt, it is the same story everywhere.
Choosing Howard over Oxford would have offered little relief. For even such an historically black prestigious institution owes its name to an Oliver Otis Howard — a general who became famous for unspeakable acts against Native American men, women and children.
My high school, Bermuda’s most historic, is named after an Anglo-Irish bishop whose philosophies were steeped in colonialism. “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” George Berkeley declared. His mission to create schools for colonists and Native Americans reeks of Manifest Destiny.
I say this not to cast judgment on these institutions, but simply to illustrate that whether it be a Rhodes scholarship or a Bank of N.T. Butterfield one, an Oxford course or Howard, a job at Colonial or an insurance policy there, the difference is only a matter of degree, not of kind.
They are all different branches of the same root.
In the end, I won’t argue against anyone who says that attending the University of Oxford on a scholarship named after one of the most ruthless individuals in modern history is contradictory and problematic.
The nature of colonialism and imperialism is such that its legacy is inescapable and full of discrepancies. And every day, we are forced to make decisions about how best to navigate the world using the cards we’ve been dealt, without losing ourselves entirely.
W.E.B. du Bois described this dilemma as “the double consciousness” — the internal conflict experienced by subordinated groups in an oppressive society.
In A Fanonian Perspective on Double Consciousness, T. Owens Moore writes: “In an attempt to be mentally healthy in this insane society, the oppressed or exploited can develop adaptive as well as maladaptive responses. An adaptive response might entail an accommodating mentality that vacillates between being a ‘Negro’ or an American. A maladaptive response could be to change your reality and to take on the characteristics of the oppressor. In the midst of these two diametric positions is mental conflict. To ward off mental conflict, one must generate a fever of resistance.”
And so, it is important for me to affirm openly, as many other Rhodes scholars have also done, that in the end, this scholarship does not buy my silence. On the contrary, it was paid for in my ancestors’ blood. I pledge to continue to honour them, God, my community and those who have supported me in making use of whatever tools and benefits may come from it.
Ultimately, I do not think this question will be reconciled in my lifetime. It has been debated by much greater black intellectuals, long before me. If we consider the policy of “survival pending revolution”, perhaps it is not right or wrong. It just is.
All I can ask is that I be judged not by what opportunities I am given, but how I use them instead.
• Ryan Robinson Perinchief, the founder and director of Future Leaders Bermuda, is the recipient of the 2020 Rhodes scholarship. This commentary has been shared from Facebook with the permission of the writer
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