Malcolm Gladwell's Jamaican roots

First aired on Writers & Company (04/06/12)

malcolm.jpgWriter Malcolm Gladwell has sold millions of copies of his books and is arguably one of the most influential thinkers of our time. But if he ever needs to ground himself, he just has to look back on where he came from.

Gladwell has family roots in Jamaica, which he recently discussed with CBC's Eleanor Wachtel as part of a special talk about the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's independence. His mother Joyce was Jamaican-born and had what he describes as a "middle class" upbringing during the 1930s and 1940s. She and her sister received scholarships to a Victorian English boarding school where they were raised to be part of the British middle class. Joyce would eventually meet Malcolm's father, Graham Gladwell, a British math professor, while attending school in London.

But Joyce's privileged and "idyllic" childhood had some morally complicated origins. She was the descendent of a young slave woman from Africa who had been sold to a British landowner in Jamaica during the mid-18th century. In the family history, she was said to be the "mistress of a slave owner." But Gladwell thinks that description glosses over what the reality probably was.

"At the start, what are the odds that he just raped her?" Gladwell said. "I can't imagine that this was an entirely consensual relationship in the beginning."

But something positive emerged from this. Her children fared better. As the offspring of a landowning British man, they were granted special privileges. In Jamaica, having mixed blood didn't preclude you from that, unlike in the U.S., Gladwell said. The privileges were "sustained and accentuated over the years," to the point where his mother was able to get a university education in England and meet his father.

"It is an odd thought to think you owe your privileges to rape."

To Gladwell, his family history illustrates how arbitrary it is that some people are born into privilege.

"People who are privileged like to pretend that there is some logic to their status. They got there because of their own virtue, and their own hard work, and their own whatever. But, in fact, if you begin to poke around, you find that there's no logic there at all. A random series of events happen -- some of which shocks you in retrospect -- that lead to your own position. And it is a reminder that we have some humility about what we've accomplished."

CBC Live caught up with Eleanor to discuss her interview with Malcolm Gladwell. Check out the video below.