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Stop the ignorance

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“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None, but ourselves can free our minds.” – Bob Marley, Redemption Song.

“The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no-one else did.” Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.{{more}}

“You don’t treat people like animals when they are people. This is not Africa.” – These are the words of one of our young cultural ambassadors, Miss St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Miss Carival 2005.

Who should be blamed for the thinking behind this statement coming from a highly confident young woman who has just graduated from seven years of the very best secondary and tertiary education we have to offer?

Surely, not this accomplished 19-year-old. In fact, her views, in one form or the other, are held by many others in this country. They may not often be publicly articulated, but they exist nevertheless.

On the surface, it may seem that St. Vincent and the Grenadines escaped relatively lightly in terms of the length of time and scale of legal slavery here. The presence of our Carib ancestors and the protracted battles between the British and French for the control of St. Vincent delayed the establishment of sugar plantation slavery here until the late 18th century. So in 1838 when our country’s 22,250 enslaved people were set free, slavery had existed for just about half a century – less than two generations.

So how is it that 167 years after the emancipation of slaves here on August 1, 1838, we, the citizens of St. Vincent and the Grenadines still seem unable to shake off the mental shackles of this human tragedy? Why do we still have such a low self-image and such a negative view of our ancestral homeland?

Perhaps, the answer lies in the fact that we have, over the years, unwittingly intellectually legitimized the cultural disparagement of Africa and black people. This seems almost worse than the obvious human tragedy of slavery in which millions of black African men, women and children were torn from their families and brought to the Americas to engage in forced labour.

We need to purge ourselves of this type of thinking if we are to move on as a people. No one else can do it for us. We need to do some self examination to see if we have beliefs about our own selves which are a reflection of the views of the persons who once enslaved us. Do we believe that black women who wear natural hair styles need to “fix their hair”? Do we think the lighter a person’s complexion, the “better looking” that person is?

Why have we continued to allow the mass media to reinforce the negative stereotypes about ourselves and Africa? Do we engage our children in discussions about television programs and news items about Africa and its people? Is there more to Africa than the crooks who email you in an effort to try to empty your bank account, the massacres, rape and plunder in the Darfur region of Sudan, the civil wars, the scourge of AIDS, corruption in government, famines? Other than Kenya’s Wangari Maathai winning the Nobel Peace prize, what good news have we heard from sub-Saharan Africa in the last few years? Surely, there must be more.

Have we re-examined our textbooks and curricula to ensure that they have been cleansed of racist and colonialist ideology? When we teach about the settlement of the Europeans in the West Indies, the history books speak in detail about their background. We should ensure, if it is not already being done, that the same emphasis, if not more, is given to the background of the other people involved.

We must make sure that our students recognize that “slaves” did not come from Africa, but that Africans brought to the Americas were “enslaved”. We should be careful about where we source our information on African History. Most of the time we refer to textbooks written by Europeans to teach about Africa. Many times, for reasons of shame, guilt, racism and incognizance, these books deal lightly, and inaccurately with the slave trade and Africa. The African proverb puts it best: “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”

So on this 167th anniversary of the emancipation of our forefathers, let’s make a conscious effort to stop shaming them with our thoughts and our words. The fact that we are here today is testimony of their determination to survive the Middle Passage and the cruelty they encountered when they landed on our shores. The enslaved persons had nothing to be ashamed of, if anything, the shame should lie with the enslavers.

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