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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

August One.

Today is Emancipation Day--a bank holiday, a time for rest, as I overheard someone say early this morning. In the English-speaking Caribbean most of the islands will be taking this day off, and many will use the time to remember the freedom that was given to slaves by the British. Many of course will think of nothing in particular. At dawn today, Browne's Beach was full of walkers, runners, exercisers, talkers. A day of leisure was starting early and would continue, even though the rain was doing all it could to spoil the start to the day.

With Crop Over just coming to its end, red plastic bag was much in evidence. Not RPB (aka Stedson Wiltshire) the singer, but the essential piece of ladies' beach wear in Bim. I have to be honest that I find this kind of headwear hilarious in the ways that it gets adapted by people in the Caribbean. Today's fashion highlights included one lady's clear plastic rainhat that was made-to-shape fitting over a sunvisor; that's kind of hedging your bets. The usual array of colours was evident, and one did look like a plastic tea cosy. I love the way that some ladies tuck the bag rakishly into the hip area of whatever they are waring, which would allow it to just double as a real shopping bag. One lady went too far for me: she had the bag hat, the plastic rain cape, and a golf umbrella, and all we were having was a drizzle. But, in the Caribbean, we are afraid of rain. Still, people were out in numbers, presumably feeling proud to be the sons and daughters of freed slaves.

The Esplanade was already set up and decked ready for celebrations later in the day. Amongst those already milling around for these, I saw many Rastas, or at least people with dreadlocks and tied heads; they were equally numbered with people who were dressed in west African style clothes. Each group was outnumbered by vendors at this early stage, as they set up and started cooking: the smell of the fish fritters was really hard to resist, and I had to focus on getting me some Ital food as soon as I got home in order to keep striding on purposely.

I am often interested to know and see how people celebrate this day. No surprise, it's not a day that was ever celebrated in Britain, and for that reason a lot of immigrants and their children lost sight of the dates and their significance. August was and is a time for celebration, with the last Monday being a bank holiday. For Caribbeans, it's even more special with the Notting Hill Carnival, which has been held in London since the mid-1960s. Because, I did not spend all my youth in the Caribbean I did not focus on this date until much more recently. The celebrations always seem rather subdued and there is really more revelling and talking about events like Crop Over, Carnival and Junkanoo. I must admit that, having enjoyed Junkanoo in The Bahamas, and the way that the bands integrate social themes into the costumes and music, I was surprised at my first sight of Kadooment that it had no themes like that. Someone can do some research on why we in the region are less emotionally involved in celebrating the origins of the freedom we enjoy than just fete-ing.

I'll be very surprised if I hear many words about emancipation during the day, except during the radio or TV broadcasts related to the day's celebrations, and that strikes me as sad. For most of us there is nothing august about this day--nothing majestic, dignified, or grand. It is very ordinary. Maybe freedom has made us all complacent about what bondage really represented. Many black people only focus on the slave heritage imposed on their ancestors by Europeans and so see it as a white-on-black "crime", and know little or nothing about the long history of slavery (practiced by Romans in Rome and on natives where they conquered; Greeks; black Africans, who were very instrumental in facilitating the trans-Atlantic trade, and who practiced slavery for centuries; Africans more generally,who still practice slavery to this day--for example, in Mauritania and Sudan, where that has morphed to a logical extreme in genocide). Even in modern-day Guinea--one of the west African countries that was used as a point from which to trans-ship black Africans across the Atlantic--when I was living there a few years ago, it is still part of modern discussion (tongue-in-cheek?) that a person from a particular tribe was/is a slave to someone from another tribe. More disturbing were the reports that modern-day slavery was alive and kicking in that country (see Reuters report), with young girls in servitude as "domestic servants". So, while we can loll around complacently with the freedom that we now have, we ought to get sight of its absence in many, many places. Remember that slavery is an international injustice, that has racial and ethnic aspects far removed from black-white relations.

2 comments:

Celebrater said...

Happy Emancipation Day!!

Ann (MobayDP) said...

The powers that be here in Jamaica are trying to 'bring back' the meaning of Emancipation Day - with programmes on tv (movies & documentaries) about the horrors of slavery, the joy of emancipation and the injustices or discrimination which ultimately followed emancipation day.
Parades were also organised in various communities and there was a grand parade in Kingston.

I applaud them for the effort.

Unfortunately, most of that effort was lost on most Jamaicans who viewed the holiday as just that : a holiday. A time for going to Negril or Ochie, drinking, partying and general merry making -especially in light of the fact that it was a three day holiday weekend.

Independence Day is Wednesday the 6th of August here. I'm sure the response to the holiday will be the same, though muted, as most people will have to go to work the following day.