Our continuing struggle for emancipation
Emancipation, the legal ending of chattel slavery in the Caribbean, is supposed to be one of the biggest days in the English-speaking Caribbean calendar.
However after almost two centuries it has been so taken for granted that, save for notable exceptions, (Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana), it is not as revered, commemorated or celebrated as it ought to be.
Here in SVG there is a long weekend holiday stretching all the way to next Tuesday, but the weekend is more likely to be marked with non-Emancipation activities and more of a catch-up for the Carnival that we lost to COVID. After all, these Monday/Tuesday holidays are supposed to be a compensation for those days lost when Carnival was cancelled. It only stands to reason that activities more reminiscent of that festival will take precedence.
A major weakness and impediment towards correcting this state of affairs is rooted in our shameful historical ignorance and thus failure to appreciate both what slavery was and thus the significance of emancipation itself. Those of us fortunate enough to understand sometimes fall into the trap of not just recognizing the limitations of the Emancipation proclamation but sometimes underplaying its significance. In so doing we end up watering down its role in our continuing struggle for liberation in a wider sense. Our educational system and continued failure to address its fundamental shortcomings in this regard result in our “persistent poverty” in understanding and appreciating our history.
The change of the official holiday from August 1 to the first Monday in August, hence “August Monday” not Emancipation Day, played a major role in the shift in focus, but even when it has been rectified as in SVG there has been no noteworthy change in emphasis. It still remains largely a day not just of rest and recreation but of “nice time” as we say.
The Black Power and consciousness awakening of the late sixties, seventies and early eighties had brought about some awakening in regard to our history. But even then, there was reaction on the part of the upper classes and their representatives in government to this re-awakening and identification with our African being. We were reminded that slavery and Emancipation were things of the past which should be put behind us.
In spite of all this, over the years valiant efforts continued to be made by brothers and sisters throughout the region in the fields of culture (poetry, kaiso, drumming arts and craft, steelband), religion (Baptists, Shango, Rastafarian) and political activism to keep the flame alive. There is a litany of relevant calypsoes which form an indispensable part of our non-formal education on the subjects of slavery and emancipation. Just check Brother Ebony’s classic, detailing how all the colonialists, slave-owners and planters were rewarded but “poor Brother Ebony (You and me) got nothing at all”.
Yes our calypso, still relegated to a pre-carnival spot, has played a vital role in our resistance to foreign domination and so have many of the other forms mentioned above. This past week, I was looking at a documentary on Al Jazeera television which reminded me of some of our own experiences here in creatively combating colonial domination and mis-education.
The documentary was based on life in Liberia where, faced with the lack of access to news and information by the mass of the poverty-stricken people, an enterprising Liberian took to organising a daily news service via a blackboard, the Daily Talk, in which he daily wrote up news on what was happening so those who could read would do so and pass on the news. It was a creative means of contributing to the struggle for national liberation, educating the people.
It took me back to similar efforts right here in SVG of which today very few would be aware. In 1972 when we could not afford to print newspapers or leaflets, we here, members of BLAC, used a blackboard to write up news stories and would place the blackboard in prominent places in Kingstown to provide information.
Creativity has always been part of our culture of resistance and it must continue to be employed in our ongoing struggles trying to overcome obstacles in our way. It was a major contributor in achieving emancipation and it must be in our just quest for Reparations. As we celebrate Emancipation we must never lose sight of Reparations as our goal.
Finally, belated greetings to the government and heroic people of Cuba on the 67th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks on July 26,1953 which led to the victory of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and its selfless support to countries like ours. Let us also remember and honour those who have contributed towards the upliftment of black people the world over. The courageous black American fighter John Lewis and former Barbadian Prime Minister Owen Arthur are the latest. May they rest in peace and honour!
● Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.