Emancipation and unified purpose
Today is the one sure day that Guyanese of African ancestry will don their finest garb that reminds them of their ancestry, and assemble at the various locations where there will be Emancipation Day activities.
In Georgetown, the major meeting place will be the National Park, where the people will cook foods that came to these shores from Africa, play folk games, hear the pulsating beats of the African drums, and dance the many folk dances that their parents and their parents’ parents, and even ancestors of yore, danced during their various celebrations.
There is more. Some parents will take time off to explain to their children some of the things that they will see in an attempt to help them remember their ancestry. The irony is that there is hardly anyone who could say from which part of Africa they came. And Africa is a large continent.
Visitors from that large continent look at some of the Afro-Guyanese and determine that they look as though they come from a particular location or country. They say that their features are predominantly Senegalese or Nigerian or even Ghanaian. But with the mixing of the slaves and the various marriages across tribal and national lines, one must wonder whether there is any pure breed left.
Yet for all this, as we observe yet another anniversary of emancipation, we cannot help but reflect on those early Africans who came, dug the miles of canals, erected the sea defence, died fighting for their freedom and bought villages so that their offspring would never know what it is to live in bondage.
It is our hope that Guyanese of all ethnicities and origins will reflect deeply on the meaning of Emancipation. Slavery is now almost universally denounced as a blot on the face of humanity. For hundreds of years, people from Africa were sold as chattel in the Americas to provide labour for the European empire builders.
What Emancipation did was to compensate slave owners for ‘losing’ their slaves: the ex-slaves were expected to continue working for ‘wages’ set by their former masters. And this was the first fly in the ointment. Slavery had not been abolished because of the benevolence of the British towards the slaves; it was abolished because the British had decided it was in their interest to support ‘free trade’. In this system their newly ascendant manufactured goods could find new markets – if they opened up their markets, including sugar – to other countries.
The British planters in the West Indies now had to compete with sugar from India, etc, and many of them took their money and ran. Those who stayed were allowed to bring in imported indentured servants at wages that ultimately cost the planters below that which had supported their slaves. In the then British Guiana, most of the freed slaves left the plantations and attempted to establish an independent existence. They founded the village movement – the basis of modern Guyana – on abandoned plantations they bought with their hard earned savings.
One such outstanding village, Hopetown, West Coast Berbice, is being duly featured during this year’s observances. And those who came up with the noble idea of recognizing these famous communities must be commended. This should also be a catalyst for something even more beneficial.
Now more than ever, the proclaimed leaders of the Black communities in Guyana should consciously seek to instill in the young, the values that made many the best the country ever produced – the scholars who in turn became role models and so spawned other scholars.
There must be the farmers once more so that the young should not feel that they are unemployed, instead becoming the money spinners in the society. And there must be a constant recall to the days of yore when the freed slaves bled so that those alive today should not be hounded by the authorities in subsequent societies.
The African Cultural and Development Association (ACDA) is hosting its 16th Emancipation Festival today, under the theme “Reclaiming our rights through unified purpose” and the words of one of its senior representatives are instructive:
“We have a lot to celebrate, the right to vote, the right to participate in the process, the right to be free and to work for just wages; those are things to celebrate. Slaves had no such privilege, none at all. Emancipation is worthy to be celebrated by all Guyanese because emancipation made it impossible for other groups that came to Guyana to be made slaves.”