Cognitive dissonance refers to the internal conflict between mind and body that can exist within each of us. It is an example of feeling misaligned about a situation, where the feeling of a deep sense of discomfort represents an alarm clock calling for our full attention towards a situation. By directing our attention to a situation, this creates the space to assess healthier ways to address said conflict and move forward. The work of Dr Joy DeGruy Leary draws attention to the impact of the removal of cognitive dissonance in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. By noting the impact of dehumanising black bodies to justify favouring profit over people, she highlights the psychological, social and spiritual impact of such a process which has passed down through generations for hundreds of years.
The removal of cognitive dissonance and its impact in the context of transatlantic slavery is a theme that emerged in my thoughts as I watched the BBC drama series, The Long Song, an adaptation of a novel written by Andrea Levy. It is set on the island of Jamaica and focuses on the period between the pre-abolition and post-abolition era of the 19th century, centring on the experiences of a young black woman called July. There are countless examples that point to the removal of cognitive dissonance in practice throughout the drama, here are three themes that I identified which convey this:
Child abduction – As a young girl July is taken from her mother by the sugarcane plantation owner and his sister, who stumble across them as they venture home. The owner grabs her mother’s leg to show his sister how ‘sturdy’ the legs of black women are. This scene brings to mind the work of Harriet Washington in Medical Apartheid, where she provides a thorough breakdown of the history of medical abuse towards black people in the U.S. In one of the chapters, she remarks that “blacks were believed to sleep more, feel pain less, endure heat better and cold worse…Their skins were thought thicker, their brains smaller; they were characterized as sexually precocious and intellectually retarded”. The dehumanised perception directed from the plantation owner towards July’s mother is very present in the scene. Such a view is then used as a basis for the owner taking July from her mother to become the personal item of his sister. The plantation owner justifies separating a child from her mother by claiming that black women do not really feel any type of attachment because they have too many children.
Restricted affection – A romance develops between July and Robert Goodwin, a British man who is introduced in the drama as a vehement abolitionist sent to convince the plantation owners to change their attitudes. Their encounter is laced with elements of removed cognitive dissonance, from the part of Robert Goodwin. Despite the feelings of love and deep affection that he claims to harbour for July, this does not prove to be enough for him to declare it publicly. He opts for marrying a woman deemed as ‘proper and more acceptable’, which reveals his difficulties to perceive July as a woman that he could be seen with publicly in that way. Removed cognitive dissonance provided a chance to continue his romance with July whilst still not viewing her as a woman that was suitable for marriage.
Hierarchical engagements – Robert Goodwin is introduced as a ‘blue eyed and kind soul’ that is committed to removing the stain of slavery that has tarnished the image of Britain. The viewer is given indications that he sees black people in a more positive and humane light, in contrast to the attitudes of the plantation owners. However, a hierarchical engagement is still at play highlighted in his attempts to take on the responsibility of ‘saving and civilising’ the black people on the island. As his time in Jamaica extends and he acquires land, he becomes a sugarcane plantation owner. His attention quickly shifts towards the accumulation of more profit at the expense of the wellbeing of his employees. It is an encounter that reveals the entrenched rigid viewpoint that framed perceptions of blackness from a Eurocentric perspective, whereby Africans were still regarded as implicitly and explicitly inferior to Europeans by abolitionist and plantation owner alike.
These are some of the examples from the drama series that point to the impact of removed cognitive dissonance. It was something that permeated and enabled the transatlantic slave trade to thrive, with the constant message being relayed that black people were not human. This was then used as a basis to carry out actions honouring the dehumanisation of black bodies. The Long Song is an excellent display of the many themes that emerge from such a process, which relate to colourism, workers’ rights, child loss, social hierarchy, the fear of the other as well as motherhood. It is a drama which acts as an attempt to humanise the experiences of slaves, which are often untold or overlooked in history. I see it as a prime example that highlights the importance of engaging with the past and using this as a vehicle to fully understand the present and promote healing as well as meaningful change for the wider collective.