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Emancipation deserves much more respect


The records of the specific date/s when slavery was instituted in the English-speaking Caribbean may be vague, with Barbados the oldest slave colony in this part of what used to be the British Empire. What is crystal clear though, is that after more than 400 years of this inhuman practice, there are definite dates for the abolition of the slave trade and for the freeing of slaves, commemorated as our ‘Emancipation’.{{more}}

August 1 became by far the most significant date in the history of our part of the Caribbean, a date with profound implications for the shaping of the history and development of our peoples. We can argue today, and indeed do so, about the content of that emancipation, whether it went far enough, and whether we are truly ‘emancipated’ today; but the undeniable fact is that had it not been for August 1, 1838, that debate would not even be taking place.

Now, one would assume that given such historic proportions, August 1 would be, save for the Christmas and Easter dates where Christians are concerned, the single most important commemorative date for people of African descent in this part of the world. Unfortunately, things are often not all they ought to be, logically. That is the case with Emancipation and with us, as a people.

Another Emancipation Day has just passed with varying degrees of commemoration in CARICOM countries, but certainly nothing remotely earth-shattering. Carnival, a festival tracing its own origins to our slave and colonial history, is the most significant common denominator throughout the region at this time of year. Not even at the highest regional level, that of the CARICOM Heads of Government, have we been able to institute a common meaningful act of respect, reverence and commemoration.

In some countries, notably Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana, due to the noble actions of some non-governmental organisations with some support from governments, Emancipation activities are somewhat at a higher plane than others, but nowhere can we truly say that the descendants of slaves seem to value richly their own emancipation. In a world where information is a mere finger-tip away, consciousness seems to be light-years distant.

There are some brave efforts, seeming to resemble rituals, by virtually the same group of ageing males, a throw-back to their consciousness-rising days of four decades ago, plus a smattering of women and younger folk, valiantly trying to keep the Emancipation fire burning. This also happens with related events like National Heroes Day, African Liberation Day and the anniversaries of the uprisings of the thirties; but generally, these events have entered the realm of “endangered species”.

A whole host of factors is responsible for this state of affairs – historical, cultural, educational etc. Quite a bit of time and energy is expended in “blame games” on the subject, but these bring no fruitful conclusion. We have to face up to our reality and literally adopt the old biblical teaching of “take up thy bed and walk,” where Emancipation is concerned.

In this, the Governments of the region must shoulder their responsibility, for after all, they owe their very positions to the heroic efforts of our forebears which led to the Emancipation proclamation of almost 180 years ago. In this regard, I must commend our own Prime Minister Gonsalves for his comprehensive statement to mark the anniversary of emancipation. What is even more commendable is that the statement was tabled in Parliament, our highest legislative body, on the eve of the anniversary. Not many of our prime ministers are of this mold, neither those of today nor yesterday.

The Ministry of Education now has the duty to ensure that this document is fully utilized in all educational establishments, and that it becomes compulsory reading. We have to start somewhere, and what better places than in our formal and informal institutions of learning. If we do not know, do not understand, how can we appreciate? This same Gonsalves administration had from day one, tried to infuse national consciousness by going against the popular grain in changing the annual holiday from the traditional August Monday to the first day in August, so as to highlight the significance of Emancipation. It must now step up a notch or two.

For instance, if Government does not want to lead the process, it can certainly facilitate it. In Trinidad and Tobago, where the section of the population of African descent is a minority (37 per cent), the Government there provided TT$ 4 million for this year’s Emancipation celebrations, spearheaded by a non-governmental committee, and itself financed and hosted a visit of an official delegation from Nigeria, headed by the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. We do not have petro-dollars, but couldn’t we put some meaningful cents where our mouths lie and make a realistic budgetary allotment for Emancipation, beginning 2013?

Finally, Emancipation is of such fundamental importance to our entire nation, that it requires a united sense of purpose. It is definitely no time for partisan activities, so both political parties must restrain themselves from organising party-led events on Emancipation Day, as was done by the ULP this year. It is certainly most welcome to see at least one party recognising the importance of the event, but such is its significance that it demands a national show, with Gonsalves and Eustace, Leacock and Caesar, Friday and Francis, all side by side, giving praises for this momentous occasion and stimulating truly national celebrations.

Emancipation demands no less.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.