Emancipation Day, then what? A Freedom Agenda for the Caribbean by Damion Trent
I come from the nigger yard of yesterday
leaping from the oppessors’ hate
and the scorn of myself
I come to the world with scars upon my soul
wounds on my body, fury in my hands
I turn to the histories of men and the lives of peoples.
I examine the shower of sparks the wealth of the dreams.
I am pleased with the glories and sad with the sorrows
rich with the riches, poor with the loss.
From the nigger yard of yesterday I come with my burden.
To the world of to-morrow I turn with my strength.
In the capital city of Georgetown, Guyana last year African Guyanese wearing the clothes of their Akan ancestors were beating drums as they approached the statue erected in 1976 to honor Cuffy the leader of the 1763 Berbice Rebellion.
The video of those paying homage to Cuffy and singing in a language that could not be understood was shared on various social media outlets. A good comrade of the writer Ta’Seti said he asked a brother from Nigeria what they were saying and he explained they were singing about freedom in Yoruba. The song was a song of honor was passed down by our ancestors and to propitiate the great ancestor Cuffy, an Akan from Ghana, who fought to liberate our ancestors.
On August the 1st people will, once again, descend upon the national park to hear the music of freedom in various forms: most notably calypsos, folk, and reggae. Adorned with African clothes, jewelry and hairstyles we will be seeking to embrace “we ancestors dem” and revel in their achievements. We will honor our people who died fighting against , the over 200 years of enslavement, and the 128 years of so-called flag independence.
It has been 181 years since we have been “emancipated”. However, as Dr. Kimani Nehusi has noted, “up till now many of us are still mentally enslaved”. This is why when we wear African themed clothing at various events before or after Emancipation Day, we will hear some Afro Guyanese folks say, “wha wrong wit you, ya think dis is Emancipation Day”. This cultural insecurity and to a lesser extent cultural shame shows that we still have much work to do in order to see Afro Caribbean folk reflexively embrace African culture. It is clear that we must be aggressively disseminating and recreating Afro cultural forms to achieve the organ level of cultural buy in necessary for this cultural dimension to be a tool to be used against the continued cultural genocide that continues to upend the progress of African people throughout the globe.
The challenge for our community is truly “emancipating” ourselves. We need to meaningfully collect, organize, describe, and analyze data on the emancipation experience across the Caribbean, with a view to prescribe actions for Caribbean people, today, 2019, in furtherance of our genuine emancipation.
I note that the theme of emancipating ourself from mental slavery appears in the work of many Caribbean thinkers. It is clear that for us to successfully do this we must engage this challenge on a number of levels. The late great African/Jamaican Reggae artist Bob Marley once sang in “Redemption Song” we must liberate ourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds. One can draw a line from the Redemption Song to Afro Guyanese Historian Walter Rodney’s statement from Groundings with my Brothers, “By what standard of morality can the violence used by a slave to break his chains be considered the same as the violence of a slave master? By what standards can we equate the violence of blacks who have been oppressed, suppressed, depressed and repressed for four centuries with the violence of white fascists. Violence aimed at the recovery of human dignity and at equality cannot be judged by the same yardstick as violence aimed at maintenance of discrimination and oppression.”
As we embark on the Emancipation celebrations in Guyana and all over the Caribbean we must keep in mind what the late John Henrik Clarke once said and that is freedom is not given by our oppressors but rather it is taken by the oppressed. The late Afro-Trinidadian scholar Tony Martin reminds us that so-called humanitarians advocating for the end of enslavement and economic reasons could not have ended the inhumane captivity, as Menes De Griot, an African Guyanese cultural artist , describes it without the constant rebellion of Africans in every place in the Americas our ancestors were bound to.
Hence, as we celebrate emancipation from enslavement, captivity, i.e. the Makumbo (great annihilation) on August 1 to commemorate the British “emancipating” Africans in 1834 (It only applied to those under the age of 6. Everyone else had to remain as so-called apprentice on plantations and received payment for their work only after having worked more than 6 hours with the exception of Antigua and Bermuda because the enslavers thought it cheaper to pay Africans rather than keep them enslaved) it is wise for us to remember the late Afro-Vincentian Maxwell Haywood who constantly held up the hypocrisy of “emancipation” and reminded us “that at the end of the enslavement period in 1838, the British government awarded the European slavers a £20 million compensation package for freeing the enslaved black population who worked for them for free for hundreds of years. Black people got nothing! This compensation given to the European slavers is a historic and grave injustice, and it is at the heart of the major socio-economic challenges faced by the former enslaved black population. It has been estimated that the £20 million given to those who enslaved black people is worth approximately US $200 billion today.”
This is part of why today we still suffer in a Neo-colonial existence based on the lack of reparations for the children of the enslaved war captives. The latter is how it was described by Walter Rodney, as our esteemed elder Eusi Kwayana reminds us. Once we get to the date of August 1, 1838, which is the more accepted date for Emancipation, the British began to bring in Indentured laborers from India, Africa, China, Portugal and the Caribbean due to the avaricious planters wanting to depress wages.
In the case of Guyana, Eusi Kwayana writes that the importation of indentured servants was actually financed by taxing African Guyanese, but this also happened throughout the English, French, and Spanish colonized Caribbean. Haiti had to make a huge payment to France to stave off being re-enslaved by the French in 1825.
However, in the case of Guyana, the village movement began and Africans collectively bought land and started to prosper but colonial laws informed by racism, preferential treatment of other groups and malicious sabotage would soon stymie this self-reliant movement, which saw most African Guyanese employ the African communal idea of susus in order to save enough money collectively to buy lots of land together to live and farm. This is long before the ideas of Karl Marx came into being.
Dr. Nehusi posits in A People’s Political History of Guyana 1838–1964, “Afrikan Guyanese were …first Guyanese to begin planting rice, founders of the village movement, retail trade, of the gold and diamond industry and of homesteading along the banks of rivers and creeks.”
Preceding Emancipation were many revolts throughout the Caribbean against enslavement by Africans were raged and fought for self-emancipation in the form of Afrikan maroonage in places like Hispaniola in 1502, St. John 1733 -1734, Saint Vincent, Dominican Republic, Suriname, in the 16th century St. Kitts, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Antigua, Tacky rebellion Jamaica 1736, Cuffy Berbice Rebellion Guyana 1763, Mackandal Haiti 1758, 1791- 1804 Haitian Revolution Rebellion, Sandy Trinidad 1770, Quamina a Cormantee in Demerara, Guyana 1823, or the Rebellion in Pointe A- Pierre Trinidad 1832, Damon led a passive peaceful vigil on August 2, 1834 in Essequibo Guyana that caused him to be hung because he unfurled a flag and it was said to be illegal and too rebellious.
Forty revolts would occur from 1794 to 1834 all across the Caribbean. Many were put down in extremely inhumane and brutal fashion by Europeans. Even the women rebelling in various cases were shown no mercy and brutally murdered and also sexually assaulted for fighting for Emancipation since in some cases they were seen to be more troublesome than their male counterparts.
There were also countless rebellions to achieve the full prospects of freedom as Emancipation was a farce in many cases after 1838 Martin describes many revolts by Africans to have their rights honored as in some cases their housing, livestock and provision farms were destroyed by Europeans who did not want them to have autonomy to govern themselves and many even had councils set up to govern their respective villages, lodges, and political organizations.
Afrikan Guyanese scholar Dr. Nehusi writes about Afrikan Guyanese creating the British Guinea African Association in 1842 to represent the interest of Afrikan and mixed race Guyanese in the face of the White plantocracies oppression. As Dr. Nehusi writes the mistreatment of our ancestors meant that they received a partial freedom at this time.
Trinidad and Tobago had countless rebellions to achieve and expand the emancipation franchise and some of this helped to erect and was incorporated in the carnival and J’ouvert celebrations, as they struggled for freedom. Rebellions inspired each other and this would influence revolts in America as evidenced by a recent report on NY1 of a 1855 celebration of 5000 Africans in America at the Stapleton U.A.M.E church Staten Island. The Emancipation Proclamation signed by then President Lincoln in 1863 would only free those in states not in rebellion against the union like the border states.
The Afrikan participation in the Civil War and the passing of the 13, 14 and 15 amendments culminated at the end of the war. Leading up to this would be Gabriel Prosser in 1800, Denmark Vesey in 1822, Nat Turner in 1831, John Brown’s raid in 1859 and in all cases revolts included the usage of African religious practices a form of cultural resistance in forms of Vodum, Yoruba practices, Obeah and even Christianity which they sometimes used to disguise their Afrikan religious practices and many have argued that all these battles against enslavement/captivity in many ways motivated others to come. Thus, this is one of the major reasons why learning to read was made illegal during enslavement.
As Walter Rodney once wrote and Kimani Nehusi emphasized in his work the humanizing of the Guyana water ways “entailed the moving of at least 100 million tons of soil of mud … slaves [enslaved Africans] moved 100 million tons of heavy, water — logged clay with shovel in hand” during the period of the ritualized barbarism known as chattel plantation enslavement.
Hence, during Emancipation celebrations we reflect on the path blazed by our ancestors who should be venerated and propitiated through the practice of Libation on August 1. We must build a curriculum to mandate that all children going to school in Caribbean learn about the movements toward emancipation all year. It is our history and culture and we must teach our children the truth so they can redefine themselves and build a Trinidadian, a Guyanese, a Jamaican, a Barbadian, an Antiguan culture that seamlessly integrates and affirms our Akan, Congolese, Yoruba, Igbo, Mandingos, Fulani, Golas from Angola, Krus, Fulani Ewes, Fons, and other ancestors.
You come in warships terrible with death
I know your hands are red with Korean blood
I know your finger trembles on a trigger
And yet I curse you — Stranger khaki clad
British soldier, man in khaki
Careful how you walk
My dead ancestor Accabreh
Is groaning in his grave
At night he wakes and watches
With fire in his eyes
Because you march upon his breast
And stamp upon his heart.
Although you come in thousands from the sea
Although you walk like locusts in the streets
Although you point your gun straight at my heart
I clench my fist above my head: I sing my song of freedom