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Emancipation – Not Just Another Event on the Calendar

Emancipation – Not Just Another Event on the Calendar


We have just observed yet another Emancipation Day holiday, marked with various activities. Sadly, while it is reassuring that at least we are reminded of emancipation, instead of the previous “August Monday” approach, we are no closer to trying to address the fundamental issues pertaining to such an important date in our history.

Of major concern must be the continuing lack of understanding of the meaning of emancipation and its relevance to our society of today. Thus what place does emancipation command in our education system? Is it treated as just another historical occurrence of which students must remember the dates? Over the almost 200 years since emancipation there have been undoubtedly major improvements in our quality of education, yet core issues relating to our heritage and very existence as a people — colonialism, slavery, native genocide, emancipation — have not been suitably addressed. They are too often regarded not as matters essential to our understanding of our development and role in history but as subject matters for some historical research or treatise.

The implications are enormous. Thus, when steps were taken locally to change the date of the traditional August holiday from the first Monday in August to August 1, there was some negative reaction. Arguments were advanced about the “inconvenience” of the shift, away from the first Monday in August. It reflected a fundamental lack of understanding of what emancipation meant to the people of the Caribbean and the consequent lack of appreciation of it.

Now, each year we have two holidays for Christmas and Boxing Day, never mind that few among us have a clue of what “Boxing Day” is all about or why we should have a holiday for it. Those holidays, and New Year’s Day the week after, fall on any days of the week, no quarrel about “convenience” there. We are happy to go along because of the historical significance of Christmas to the Christian community. Had there been similar understanding and appreciation of what emancipation means to us, those arguments of convenience could not have held water.

Emancipation for us is not a mere academic issue, not just another event in our calendar. The understanding of its strategic importance to development issues in the Caribbean is an indispensable element in charting our way forward. In so doing we begin to grasp the underlying and continuing causes of our underdevelopment and avoid the shameful spectacle of trying to grab on to any idea which seems as though it would produce ready cash.

It is true that emancipation failed to address the serious imbalances in society brought about by slavery and colonial plunder. For his reason there are some among us who downplay its significance in our history. Though far from complete liberation, it is nevertheless an important milestone in our historical journey. What it points to is that it is still an unfinished task, recognition of which should serve to guide us in our forward march.

It is time to treat this milestone with the reverence it deserves, to imbue our young ones with a deep appreciation of its significance and a commitment to continue the journey. It inevitably leads to a connection with the just claim for reparations, a concept still badly misunderstood in our society and hence not embraced with the enthusiasm of which it is worthy. Yes, Emancipation Day deserves much more attention than we pay to it.