Time to make Emancipation Day more relevant
July 27, 2018
Time to make Emancipation Day more relevant

For descendants of African slaves in the Commonwealth Caribbean, and indeed for our societies as a whole, next Wednesday, August 1, is another important milestone. It marks 180 years, less than two centuries since the inhumane system of slavery officially came to an end, a date that is commemorated as Emancipation Day.

In several countries the occasion is marked by a public holiday, on August 1 in Guyana, Barbados, St Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, while in some others the holiday is on the first Monday in August, popularly known as August Monday. Traditionally, August Monday has been one of the most festive holidays, but encouragingly, in some countries the significance of the occasion has not been forgotten.

Largely spearheaded by civil society organisations, impressive activities are organized annually, in Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, for instance. However, it appears that with economic development and social progress, most Afro-Caribbean people seem to be moving further away from the significance of Emancipation Day. Some among us even question the relevance of the occasion, relegating it to a long way back in history. This was offered as the reason why Emancipation Day should not have been shifted to August 1 when we had the public debate 16/17 years ago.

By contrast, the Jews never forget their emancipation from Egyptian slavery over 800 years ago, an occasion which we, in keeping with Christian traditions, continue to remember. Our own emancipation from a far more brutal system is not considered worthy of such commemoration. In the same way, we are forever reminded of the Nazi holocaust in which an estimated six million Jews were exterminated. Reparation was demanded and paid for this crime against humanity.

However, when it comes to our shared Caribbean experience, slavery and the extermination of many times more than six million Africans, indigenous people and the oppression of Indian indentured `servants’, it is considered ridiculous to speak of reparation for these heinous crimes. What manner of hypocrisy is this? Or is it that the lives of some are worth more than others?

Black lives do matter, and in that lies the significance of Emancipation Day and of its linkage to the just claim for reparations. For this movement to succeed however, we have to pay more attention to commemoration of dates like August 1. In the case of our own country, it is time that we demand more official support for such activities. In particular, the Ministry of Culture needs to be suitably staffed and funded to be able to spearhead the public education needed to develop the consciousness of our people and to adequately partner with relevant civil society organisations in the effort. The Ministry of Education, and, indeed, the entire education system, formal and informal, must play important roles in making Emancipation and Reparation integral to our daily experiences.