You are here
WHY EMANCIPATION IS IMPORTANT TO US
I read Raymond Ramcharitar’s column of July 27, “Emancipation and the First Trinidadian,” and for me it was the last straw that broke this camel’s back. I am sick and tired of “others” telling us of the African-descended community how they think we should, or should not, commemorate emancipation; and so, in the spirit of the very JJ Thomas who Mr Ramcharitar (mis?)interprets for us, I feel obliged to say: It is time to get off, you are out of order, you have gone way past your place. First, as a woman of African-descent, I would love the luxury of getting “bored with the slavery thing,” as Mr Ramcharitar does, but in 2011 all across the world millions of men, women, and children are still being trafficked and used as slaves—real genuine slavery. The traffickers and users of slave labour are not “bored” with this slavery thing yet. Therefore, it is not at all redundant for people to be reminded of the brutality and immorality of slavery. Rather, it may help us to develop a permanent distaste for it, a distaste that we encourage the rest of the world to adopt, so that future generations might finally see slavery coming to an end.
Second, Mr Ramcharitar, let me tell you the reason for the anger you see: We vex because today in lovely T&T we still face far too many of the same challenges that our forebears did. In this T&T, which is claiming to be multicultural, we are still being asked to justify our culture and our expressions of it
We vex because we are not “free” to be as African, in all its diversity, as we choose to be. We vex because in the glaring presence of high academic achievement, contemporary and past, local and international, people are still treating us as though we are lower-intelligence beings. We vex because in national discourses T&T refuses to acknowledge the value of our past and present economic contributions. We are simply “a drain on the State, looking for handouts.” Right? We vex because we still face discrimination and snubbing in social affairs. Yes, after almost 200 years we still vex, and we have every reason to be. It is “sad,” but not in the condescending way “sad” seems to have been used in your article. It is genuinely sad.
We still suffer from the deeply subliminal belief here in Trinidad that “the African is like a child,” so much so that on this extremely important occasion to us, people who have not shared our historical experiences feel completely comfortable in insulting us “children” by telling us how we should feel about our own experiences, how we should commemorate those experiences, even how we should dress, and how we should live our lives. What fastness. This subliminal belief that the African is a child especially seems to rare its ugly head at emancipation when we, the African community, patiently suffer fools who feel compelled and emboldened to tell us what is “mature” and “appropriate” behaviour for the occasion. Every emancipation we patiently suffer the insulting “advice” of our “superiors” who dust off old condescending slave-owner admonitions such as “with freedom comes responsibility,” and “well-wishers” who stand on high and cleverly twist Bob Marley’s words into a condescension that we “must emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.” Such “advisers” and “well-wishers” think of us in such lowly terms that they need not pause to consider whether they offend us. No one tells East Indians, for example, “that there are alternative responses” to Indian Arrival Day, or how they should feel, or what they should wear on the occasion.
Third, the view that “the idea of emancipation is now, like all “Creole” culture, resentful, backward looking, poisoned by the PNM’s post-independence cultural policy...” is reductive and myopic. Since August 1, 1838, there has been no single way of commemorating the occasion in T&T. We are a community of creative, reflective, diverse people, and as such we commemorate in myriad ways within our homes, schools, places of worship, and community centres. There is no singular formulaic mode of commemoration, no prescribed “meaning of emancipation.” Fourth, Mr Ramcharitar did not say anything in his article about the appropriateness of wearing “ethnic costumes,” but the reference reminded me of the larger social debate on the “ridiculousness” of the practice. The reference evoked some niggling questions for me: Why is it that African and African-inspired fashion seems to trouble people so much in Trinidad? Why is it so disturbing? Why does it have to be “othered” by such designations as “ethnic costume” or “garb?”
Is it the clothes or the message behind the clothes that is so troubling? Are the clothes making a statement that you do not like? Are you interpreting the clothes as a non-verbal assertion of dignity and worthiness? Is it disturbing that men and women who in their everyday lives are marginalised people choose to “dress the part” of “people of importance,” emulating the dress of celebrities and dignitaries?
People are not simply “playing African” as many dub it, they are “playing important Africans.” What if these “players” do more than “dress the part” of “worthy people,” but actually demand that you treat them with the respect and human dignity they feel entitled to as worthy people? Is it disturbing to us that some people feel free to be different, to choose and craft their own identities, and to represent their choice through their clothes to the rest of us? Do you find them too brazen in doing so?
If what other people choose to put on their own bodies upsets or irritates you, it is time to search yourself. Ask yourself specifically: “What is it really, about other people’s clothing choices, that upsets me so?” The practice, by the way, is nothing new. African-descended people in T&T have been “wearing their African identities” at least since the 19th century. Finally, to my African-descended brothers and sisters, it is our duty to commemorate the lives of our ancestors. In our tradition, we do not simply forget our relatives who have passed just because they died. Centuries of African and Afro-Caribbean teaching have taught us better than that. We recall them, we memorialise them, because we recognise that in the confluence of human experience each life is worthy and important. From a humane and spiritual perspective, we acknowledge our ancestors and their value as human beings. We acknowledge the sacrifices they have made for us, and honour these sacrifices with a commitment to being a generation that moves the next generation forward and upward. This is why emancipation is important to us.
• I am sick and tired of ‘others’ telling us of the African-descended community how they think we should, or should not, commemorate emancipation.
• We vex because we are not “free” to be as African, in all its diversity, as we choose to be.
• Is it the clothes or the message behind the clothes that is so troubling?
User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment writer and are not representative of Guardian Media Limited or its staff. Guardian Media Limited accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.
Please help us keep out site clean from inappropriate comments by using the flag option.
Guardian Media Limited reserves the right to remove, to edit or to censor any comments. Any content which is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will be removed.