In just a few days St Vincent and the Grenadines joins other Commonwealth territories in celebrating Emancipation Day. This is on Monday August 1, 2011.
This year marks 177 years since our foreparents on the Caribbean plantations were first allowed any semblance of a life on their own. In the existence of any entity—be it real or imagined—lasting 177 years is a most noteworthy feat. Yet, year in and year out, the August 1 public holiday comes and goes and it seems the Caribbean region as a whole couldn’t care less.
I am saying that it is a killing of our history when we recognize historical dates only by the obligatory remarks from the relevant MP under whose portfolio the commemorated event falls, and then give out one or two news releases. Is that all our past means to us? Certainly not! I am sure more will be done if this living generation really understands what the struggles of the past entailed.
In the 1990s I specifically walked the eastern or windward side of St Vincent to garner the level of knowledge and appreciation that citizens had of the August 1 holiday. Just as the enumerators are going from house to house polling information for our 2011 census, I talked with all households, people liming on the block, the drinkers in the shops, and all accessible persons at the time.
Back then, I was expecting that there would be some persons who did not know what the holiday was about. But the overall percentage left me baffled: I found that two thirds (66%) of those questioned had absolutely no idea what the August 1 holiday was about. And this I thought was significant because my survey was done during the day in the most rural of areas. All the highly educated persons would have been long at their workplaces. I instantly realized that we have not done even a mediocre job of sensitizing and empowering our 20th and 21st century generations about their past and, hence, about their identity as a people in this global village.
Additionally, one of the questions I put to the respondents was whether or not they thought the Emancipation holiday was important. Close to 100% replied in the positive.
Our people wants to be educated about their history, their heritage and the legacy that is theirs.
I am glad that the holiday itself is once more being observed on the actual date of August 1, and not on “the first Monday in August” as was the case a few years ago. Observing the actual day is important for a historical lesson to be taught and appreciated.
In the Caribbean, when we think of history we generally think of slavery, and an almost unwelcome sigh suggesting, “Oh no, not the slavery story again,” seems to be the non-verbal reaction. We have associated slavery with so many of our negative situations that even Caribbean citizens are becoming fed up with hearing the S word.
It is my opinion that we are getting tired of the slavery talk because the history of our Caribbean people has not been told from or by our Caribbean people.
Keith Joseph, a Caribbean socio-political commentator, said several years ago that the international community was responsible for creating our Caribbean and that it is likely that those who formed the Caribbean as we know it may very well “delete” the Caribbean. I use the word “delete” because of its common ITC usage.
I raise the above point to say that everything in the modern Caribbean’s existence has a foundation of some sort in the actions of European activity. Britain, France, Holland, Spain—they all seemed to have determined what we know and, indeed, who we have become.
A few years ago, Disney selected St Vincent and the Grenadines as the site for the prequel of its trilogy Pirates of the Caribbean. While the movie was an economic shot in the arm for the island, it also injected an historic misconception that we still need to immunize ourselves against.
Historical documents show that when the Spaniards came to the land they found some human remains. The news was “tweeted” (or that time’s equivalent) that the islanders were cannibals. Our modern historians have found no substantial supportive evidence of this. And Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean continued the stereotyping of our Caribbean ancestors as leaving a legacy of eating human remains.
I vehemently oppose this!
But until we begin to publicize this with fervor, passion, and a Caribbean tenacity that flourishes with pride and reflective love, the world—and our own offspring—will only see us and our existence through the eyes of the myopic European history.
Just as the Americans have for years used Hollywood to promote the adventures of the wild wild west, we in St Vincent and the Grenadines have to begin to showcase the rich history and exploits of our foreparents.