Global Voices

‘My Freedom Is Mine’ — Caribbean Netizens Discuss Emancipation Day

"I choose to question myself every day and put down other people's loads that are no longer mine to carry. That is my freedom. What is yours?"

Redemption Song Statue, Emancipation Park, Jamaica. Photo by Mark Franco, used with permission.

On August 1 each year, several Caribbean territories — including Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica — commemorate Emancipation Day in honour of the day in 1834 when the British emancipated enslaved Africans. The day sparked passionate dialogue on the holiday's meaning and the manifestation of enslavement in contemporary society.

On Twitter, Jamaica's governing party remembered its significance:

Others shared this focus on a way forward:

Emancipation as a product?

Cultural appropriation immediately came to the fore in online debates about Emancipation Day. Facebook user Rhoda Bharath shared a link to an article pleading with Black America to “stop appropriating African clothing and tribal marks,” noting that “if we are ignorantly using a culture that is not ours, we are appropriating.” In the comments thread Bharath added, “To me, the thing to remember is which culture had power and which culture was dominated […] Appropriation occurs when a dominant culture takes over or lays claim to a subordinate culture.”

In the same vein, Bharath bristled when she read a news report quoting Khafra Kambon, chairman of the Emancipation Support Committee (ESC) in Trinidad and Tobago, who said, “It is important to recognize the unexploited value of the Emancipation product.” Bharath countered:

Was Khafra Kambon quoted correctly here in today's Express?
I just got a nosebleed.
Product? For whom?
Unexploited? For who to come and exploit? And turn it into a commercialised pappyshow?
Emancipation celebrations should not be a product.

How do we remember?

Netizens also discussed the enduring effects of slavery. On Facebook, Trinidadian playwright Tony Hall linked to an interview with Black American attorney Bryan Stevenson, who summed it up by saying, “I don't think slavery ended in 1865. I think it has just evolved.”

Journalist turned filmmaker Kim Johnson posted an article he wrote a few years ago, triggered by a picture he kept, which details the history of the abolition of slavery and how Emancipation Day came to be marked in Trinidad and Tobago:

When I first came across the photograph of the slave it felt white-hot with meaning, as if it would burn the New York Times page on which it was printed. […] Neither the subject nor the photographer was named, only the date and the place: 1863, a Louisiana cotton plantation. And the fact that the man was a slave who had been flogged by his ‘owner’. […]

On the Holocaust Monument in Israel, dedicated to the victims of the Nazis, is the inscription:
‘This must never happen again.’

We in the Caribbean have been more ambivalent towards the horror and shame that was plantation slavery. The sons and daughters of both slaves and slave-owners must live together, and indeed have gone far towards building a civilisation from the charnel house of history. Our monument is ourselves, our society and culture. Its inscription: ‘Do you remember the days of slavery?’ […]

It is a memory which changes over time and which, according to UWI Professor of History Barry Higman finds ‘its most complete expression in the celebration of the anniversary of emancipation’.

Deeply affected by the injustice of slavery, Johnson remembered a trip he made to the slave port of Badagry in Nigeria, which highlighted the complicity of Africans in the Transatlantic Slave Trade:

Chief Bowei explained, ‘The descendants of the slave masters talk with so much pride and they show you the graves of the slavemasters, their ancestors and show you the grave of this man, he was a slave master and they are so proud and I get so disgusted, that’s me. My very first time to Trinidad I just laid low to study the people in Trinidad. To see if they had any bitterness in them especially toward pure Africans as a result of the slave trade and all that.’

The power of statuary

Jamaica-based blogger Annie Paul curated tweets about the type of monuments used to mark emancipation in various parts of the world. It was inspired by the following tweet from Samuel Sinyangwe, who, on a trip to Barbados, was enthralled with a statue depicting Bussa, who led a slave revolt in 1816:

In a follow-up tweet he explained:

Paul found this Twitter thread “fascinating because in Jamaica the curatoriat was dead set against what it considered clichéd representations of the enslaved bursting out of chains. This directly influenced the selection of Jamaica's Emancipation Monument.”

Sinyangwe added:

Twitter users from all over the region soon began posting photos of monuments commemorating emancipation in various countries, such as this one of Cuffy in Guyana:

…another depicting a slave revolt scene in Curacao:

…a beautiful shot of Le Marron Inconnu in Haiti:

…and of course the iconic statue at the entrance to Jamaica's Emancipation Park:

Claiming freedom

Emancipation Day also prompted discussion about the importance of claiming hard-fought freedoms. Activist Tillah Willah said:

What Emancipation mean, we still enslaved, who is a born again African and cote ci cote la and guinea hen bring ram goat.
Hear nah, my grandmothers’ knees were too bruised by prayers and cleaning people floors for me to do anything else but be who I am.
My freedom is mine. I choose to give thanks. And do work. And help people. And weep. And dance. And remember joy. I choose to question myself everyday and put down other people's loads that are no longer mine to carry. That is my freedom. What is yours?

Journalist Wesley Gibbings summed it up by saying that the freedom of emancipation belongs to all of us:

The way I see this is like living in the same village with other people. Do we say ‘one third is yours and another his and one third for me?’ Or is it that all of the village or town is for all of us?
I therefore do not lay claim to a quarter this and a quarter that when it comes to my mixed heritage. I am a quarter nothing! All of them are all of me.
I don't feel compelled to do something ‘African’ to commemorate our emancipation. I listen to the music every day and I have been there (more than once) so I know there is no monolithic version of ‘African’ dress and, especially today, of ‘African music’. Most of all, it is who I am in totality.
So much to explain to the man who once warned me about ‘allyou’ being at the Emancipation Village in Port of Spain. Too much to explain on this important day. I lay as much claim to this freedom as anybody else. It is mine.

Originally published in Global Voices.

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