May 2012 Volume 9

Dr. Orlando Patterson visits Georgia State University in Atlanta

Anthony Williams
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The Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics in the Philosophy Department at Georgia State University (GSU) recently sponsored a one-day Faculty Seminar led by Kingston College alum Professor Orlando Patterson. I felt honored to be at the seminar as I was the only undergrad student invited to attend. My appreciation goes out to my Social and Political Philosophy professor, Dr. Andrew Altman and my Modern Philosophy professor, Dr. Sandra L. Dwyer.

Professor Patterson is a Kingston College alum and John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. A full curriculum vitae of Professor Patterson can be found at the following link:

Professor Patterson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary degrees from the University of Chicago, U.C.L.A., and La Trobe University.1 For eight years, he served as Special Advisor for Social Policy and Development to Prime Minister Michael Manley of Jamaica and was awarded the Order of Distinction.2 

The discussion at the seminar revolved around two books Professor Patterson wrote, Slavery and Social Death and Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. One of the points made by Professor Patterson on Slavery and Social Death that intrigued me was the concept of slavery as "social death" for the slaves. In Roman society, a slave was a "socially dead person", a "legally dead person." In Haitian society, according to Professor Patterson, Haitians developed the term Zombie to refer to slaves working on the plantations; slaves were seen as living dead. In slave societies, the slave was not accepted as fully human by the non-slave society. Professor Patterson makes a strong case that even though slavery has been legally abolished in virtually all countries of the world, there are still instances of its practice and the culture of slavery still exists and still affects American blacks.

One of the lasting effects of slavery observed among American blacks is the relation between honor and violence; high rates of violence exist among African-American because of this honorific notion. Even if the non-white population does not honor African-Americans, at least African-Americans will have honor among their own according to Professor Patterson. One notion among American blacks is that if you "disrespect" them or "diss" them, they will use violence to restore their honor.

Is this relation between honor and violence also applicable to Jamaican society? What do you think?

Professor Patterson also discussed the notion of freedom and its relation to slavery and Christianity. In fact, one of the reasons Professor Patterson is known as a world expert on Slavery and Freedom is his claim that the modern idea of Freedom actually originated out of slavery. An early example of this idea comes through the influence of Roman civilization on the development of Christianity. One concept of freedom among Christians is that true freedom or Grace is a submission to God's power; also, the idea of Christ's death on the cross gave you freedom. Freedom came to include the notion of equality among men. Once slave rulers realized how powerful these ideas were and that they were communicated through reading the Bible, the rulers tried to keep the Bible away from slaves. So exposure to these ideas is believed to have fostered slave revolts as those evidenced in Caribbean and other slave societies.

While writing this article, I reflected on the words from one of Bob Marley's song: "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds." In another song, Marley wrote, "No chains around my feet but I'm not free, I know I am bound here in captivity." Through music, Bob Marley was also making his own commentary on freedom. Like so many other Marley songs, there is a lot of meaningful discussion one can have about Marley's music. Maybe one day we can have an academic and philosophical discussion around the music of Bob Marley. I'll be reaching out to Professor Patterson and other notable persons to elicit their input/participation in one such venture.

1 Dr. Andrew Altman Professor of Philosophy Director of Research, Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics

2 Dr. Andrew Altman Professor of Philosophy Director of Research, Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics

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