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International Year for People of African Descent

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Following the proclamation by the UN General Assembly of the year 2011 as International Year for People of African Descent, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in December launched the year. The Year, he said, “seeks to strengthen political commitment to eradicating discrimination against people of African descent. It also aims to promote greater awareness of and respect for the diverse heritage and culture of people of African descent.{{more}} I welcome this effort to pay tribute to the vast contributions made by people of African descent to the advancement of the political, economic, social and cultural development of all of our societies. At the same time, we must remember that people of African descent are among those most affected by racism.” The Secretary General highlighted the issue of discrimination and racism and also saw the occasion as one in which to recognise the contributions made by people of African descent to the development of our societies.

In SVG we can perhaps not talk about racism and rampant discrimination, but recent reports coming out of Jamaica should put us on the alert. What surfaced was that employers had a preference for lighter skinned people and appeared to have been quite open about it. We still suffer some of the legacies of slavery and are still trying to eradicate the colonial framework and transform the education that served as its buttress. So we are still hung up on matters of light skin, type of hair, thickness of lip and notions of beauty that are irrelevant to the culture of African peoples. When I speak about slavery I never attempt to divorce it from colonialism because colonialism served to cement it. When slavery ended, the values that shaped that system remained in the context of colonialism. The colonial world and values had been part and parcel of the slavery framework. Let us not forget that the Church supported the system. There was little education for the slaves but post-emancipation education cultivated a framework that attempted to divorce peoples of African descent from themselves. Our education was to help us to cultivate values that were not African but European.

The more educated a person was, the more removed he was supposed to have been from his African self. It did not fully work like that because one is dealing with human beings and the slave system did not completely destroy the African culture which was recreated and kept alive in the slave quarters. The slave religion brought a different interpretation of life to the slave. The struggle against slavery never died and there was always that different vision that was never destroyed. Efforts were made after slavery to recreate or rather to retain a society that was as close as possible to that of a slave society, but the emancipated fought against it. Despite all of this, slavery’s legacies continued to hold a powerful place among our people. Many of our people were not comfortable with their African self and aspired to a world that their Anglo-Saxon education and the missionaries drew for them. A lot of water has passed under the bridge. The struggles against colonialism and the Black Power Movement have done a lot to removed some of the legacies, but the battle is not fully over.

We need to celebrate the contributions made by black people. In our part of the world, the Caribbean, poor as we are, there is much to be proud about. We have produced two Nobel Laureates of African descent. Some of our people have played outstanding roles in the movement for independence in Africa. Our writers are recognised the world over. Our Sportsmen are recognised internationally. One of the problems we still have is that we continue to see this as a demonstration of brawn, meaning physical strength, as opposed to intelligence. This is a mistaken view, for outstanding sportsmen can hardly achieve the feats they have achieved based only on physical strength. Our act of surviving the perils and horrors of slavery is in itself a major achievement and something for which we should be proud. When one considers that we were first exposed to education a mere one hundred and seventy three years ago we have to take satisfaction in what we have been able to achieve, not only in what we do at home but in what our people who have migrated have been able to do.

When we speak about people of African descent we are not speaking about a uniform body. There are divisions of class, for instance, and this was a major factor just after emancipation when coloured people tried to distance themselves from the slaves. In the early years, those exposed to education also tried to demonstrate their difference. Even today, an education is not seen as an opportunity to help others but as a symbol of where one has reached and also a means of acquiring a passport to a different life uprooted from the society to which we belong. The fate of people of African descent following slavery is a very complex issue, with a multiplicity of factors impacting on the lives of our people. We can continue to speak for a long time about the forces that shaped our society and made us who we are. Moreover we live in a society that is not all made up of people of African descent. As we live our lives and relate to others we need to be comfortable with whom we are. We must not be ashamed of our ancestry and must try to understand some of the myths and lies that were designed to make us uncomfortable with ourselves.

This year we should celebrate our accomplishments as a people not in an effort to separate ourselves from others but to be able to relate as a people who know who we are and are no lesser mortals than any other. We have a society to build and must do so with others who live among us. The year is moving quickly by. We should try to have at least one major activity in recognition of the UN declaration. There is a local committee that has been meeting to plan activities for commemorating the year. The committee needs our support and our ideas. Let us at least try for one major activity to bring our people together and to demonstrate pride in ourselves and our accomplishments.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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