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Black History Month and its meaning to us in 2011

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At first I had some reservations about the idea of a Black History Month. I felt that Black History should be a fundamental part of our education and living throughout the year, and not relegated to a particular month. I have had to change my mind because we pay little attention to Vincentian history, much less Black History, and at least its celebration gives us an opportunity to at least focus on it then.{{more}} We celebrate Black History in February rather than in October as the British do, but then we forget all about it until the next February. Sounds familiar!

This year is special for us where Black people are concerned. First the United Nations has declared it “International Year for Peoples of African descent.” But the year also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the achievement of adult suffrage when descendants of persons brought from Africa were able to vote without having income or land qualifications. True enough in this year when the UN wants us to focus on peoples of African descent, we in St.Vincent and the Grenadines, with a population that is overwhelmingly black, have as our Prime Minister someone who is not of African descent. This in itself is not such a big thing, depending on how we look at history, because it demonstrates the process of creolisation and the populating of our country by different peoples and the contributions that were made and are being made by them. But there are other matters of concern that should cause us to reflect on who we are and where we have reached and what we are about. For about 26 of the 32 years since Independence, we have been under governments controlled by Prime Ministers who were not directly of African descent. Again, perhaps this means little, but let us put some other things into the box. Our present Prime Minister not too long ago was suggesting that he was the only one who at this time could run the country. A lot of our black people clapped. There are really many ways in which we can look at this statement, but none of them smells good. Then the former Prime Minister of St.Lucia who is of mixed ancestry had the effrontery to call the Leader of the Opposition here, who is of African descent, a ‘manicou’, again to the delight of many of our people. Do these things not have a meaning? Are they simply said by chance? These are matters that we really need to reflect on, for they obviously have deeper meaning than we are at first led to think.

The first set of black people who arrived in this country came either through escaping from slavery in Barbados, the French islands, from slaves captured by Caribs from plantations in the northern islands or from the group that was shipwrecked off Bequia in the 18th century. The Frenchmen who came later had some African slaves, but the overwhelming majority of people of African descent came after the conquest of St.Vincent by the British in 1763 and the consequent development of the sugar industry. Slavery in St.Vincent was for a relatively short period of time compared to other countries in the Eastern Caribbean that came under European control in the early period of the 17th century. Slavery was, however, no less vicious and oppressive. There are not many examples of attempts at violent overthrows, but resistance in many different forms occurred, and there were individual acts of violence against slave owners and managers. On the eve of Emancipation, estates in the Carib country area reported on concerted slave resistance to the extent that this was raised in the British parliament during the emancipation debate.

Our foreparents, in the period after emancipation, struggled to make meaning of the new life that was promised to them, and in so doing carve out a better life for themselves. They sought to test the limits of the freedom that was offered them and to transform themselves from being chattels. This year is the 60th anniversary of our acquisition of the right to vote as adults and citizens of this country and to formally participate in governing ourselves and setting directions about the path we want to follow. Adult Suffrage was not handed on a platter. It came after years of struggle and protests, 1838, 1841, 1855, 1856, 1861, 1876, 1879, 1885, 1902, struggles by the local branch of the Garvey movement and the Representative Government Association, and particularly of the riots of 1935 which were part of a regional challenge to colonial rule in the 1930s. The uprisings of the 1930s throughout the region set the stage for constitutional changes that came for us in 1951 and for the movement to independence that was set in train but was seen first as a regional operation only to be diverted by the collapse of the Federation in 1961/62.

1951, however, set us on a path of party politics that continues to entrap us. Nkrumah’s dictum for Ghana was to first seek the political kingdom. We have, however, not gotten beyond that kingdom. Our people of African descent have lost their souls as they get caught up seeking the political kingdom that brings rewards only for a few. In the process they denigrate their own, making derogatory remarks as if they are not comfortable with any leadership that emerges from their ranks. It is also as if this is what it is all about, ascending the political throne.

Peoples of African descent in St.Vincent and the Grenadines and the Caribbean have nevertheless achieved a lot, even though we tend not to recognise this. One has to recognise, too, that even though the Caribbean is overwhelmingly black, they interact with others who came here by different means. We say that we are one Caribbean people, as distinct from being peoples of African descent. There are divisions among us that are largely in our minds which are then played out in our everyday lives. A region populated by a few million people has produced Nobel laureates, St.Lucia contributing two. What an astounding feat! The struggle goes on. Our people came from Africa through slavery into a colonial environment. Slavery ended 173 years ago, Colonial rule a mere 31 years ago. Their legacies remain; that of slavery, in our minds. We have still not dismantled the colonial society because some of us benefit from it, and that is what matters. Some of us also think like true colonials.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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