Historians, and many of us lay people, may differ in our views about Emancipation, but there is no gainsaying that August1 has special significance for the people of the Caribbean, not just for the African slaves whose legal status changes as of 1838, but for the entire region; for in its wake came many economic and social changes, waves of immigration and social and class interactions which have forged current-day Caribbean society.
The pity is that we have over the years, not without external push of course, lost our appreciation of the date and event. Emancipation Day became twinned with the British “August Mondayâ holiday, and ironically the more we appeared to advance educationally, economically and socially, the more did the meaning and importance of Emancipation recede from our minds. No wonder that there is still some contention as to whether we were “emancipatedâ at all!
Thankfully, in some Caribbean countries, notably where the Afro-Caribbean population is not a majority, but in Jamaica as well, Emancipation Day activities are still prominent, even if not to the degree that they ought to be, given the magnitude of the event. However, in most of the region, the focus of Emancipation on August 1 has largely been forgotten. That would account for opposition, certainly in our own country, (aside from the usual politicking), to the reversion to the August 1 holiday and not the first Monday in August for convenience.
Few would dispute that it is more convenient to have a holiday at the beginning of the work-week, Monday, providing for an extended weekend and avoiding a mid-week disruption, but the significance of some days is such that, like December 25, dates like August 1 and March 14 are worth the inconvenience so that we recall their historical importance.
That level of understanding still needs to be developed in the wider population and in spite of the changes, not enough emphasis has been placed on why they were necessary or indeed on facilitating a greater appreciation of such milestones in our history. This has its implications for our own understanding of our history, our appreciation of our culture and our own self-confidence as a people.
It also partly explains our lack of understanding of our social and political evolution, the legacies of conquest, slavery and colonialism, and how all these have bearing on our present society and have a hand in shaping our future. This is the basis of the failure of so many of us to appreciate or support the Reparations initiative, finally taken up by CARICOM governments. We just do not understand what that has to do with us in the 21st century.
Given this situation, one would think that logically, those who are in the forefront of the Reparations thrust, our governments and the Regional and National Reparations Commissions and Committees, would seize the opportunities provided by such occasions as Emancipation Day to both further the understanding of the significance of such events and to garner more public support for the Reparations effort.
Sadly, right across the region, we cannot say that has been the case. Of merit, however, has been the stirring and reasoned address by Professor Hilary Beckles, chair of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, to the British Parliament on the issue. Shouldnât our governments, our respective Ministries of Education and various Reparations bodies, not undertake the responsibility to use the media in all its forms, as well as the formal education systems to publicize this address as a means of increasing awareness and understanding of the issue?
If we are serious about achieving the goals of reparation, then it must be firmly grounded in our society. Governments must make the resources, human, physical and technical available for advancing the initiative. It must run as a linking thread throughout our societies with connection with our day-to-day lives. It cannot be confined to occasional discussions or high-powered events; it must be grounded in our children for a start.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social com-mentator.