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Emancipation: Not getting it right

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Fri, Jul 29. 2011

Monday next, August 1, is Emancipation Day, commemorating 173 years since enslaved people were emancipated in the former colonies of Britain in this part of the world. That emancipation was brought about by a combination of factors, chiefly slave resistance, but also the changing economic system.{{more}} It took several more years and bitter struggles before this abomination was ended in other parts of the hemisphere – French and Danish colonies, the United States and Brazil for example.

Originally, Emancipation Day was a cause of annual celebration for the former enslaved people, the horrors of human enslavement being vivid in the memory of those who had endured it. With the passage of time however, a combination of deliberate colonial policy and our own economic and social “advancement” have resulted in the commemoration of the ending of chattel slavery being pushed further and further down the ladder of our own priorities. Although today, in some countries in the English-speaking Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago notably, there are still significant activities to mark the occasion, it is true to say that, generally, Caribbean people do not seem to regard August 1st with the reverence that it deserves.

More and more, August 1 has become ‘August Monday’, one of our biggest public holidays, but devoid of any historical significance. In Barbados, for instance, the significance has been substantially diluted by the festivities accompanying the Crop Over Festival which climaxes on August Monday. Jamaica’s celebrations are intertwined with independence anniversary activities, while in most of the rest of the region, it is not Emancipation, but party-time, for which August Monday is best known.

This is not to say that there are not valiant, on-going efforts to keep the memory of Emancipation alive and to make the connections between our present and our past. In almost every Caribbean country, there are those who steadfastly uphold the emancipation banner and proudly proclaim our roots, but sadly, even where those activities have official sanction, they are yet to make the kind of impact that they ought to. It is as though we are still not conscious of the enormous significance of the event.

Here in SVG, those who have been most consistent in keeping the Emancipation flame burning have been members of the Rastafarian movement and some local activists and cultural artistes who have stuck with it over the decades. Former Culture Minister Rene Baptiste, during her term in office, also played an important role in ensuring that the Emancipation link is not lost, but, given the failure to integrate this historical perspective into our educational system, generations are growing up with little appreciation of their historical roots.

It is all well and good to organize the kinds of activities being planned for Emancipation Month, yet we need to go much deeper. A fundamental change in our approach is needed lest we continue to restrict Emancipation activities to a cultural minority. It cannot be left up to a few, it must become an important landmark in our calendar, impacting on our consciousness, just as events of lesser historical significance, Carnival for instance, touch the lives of all our people.

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