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Happy Emancipation!

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 31, 2008

The Airports Authority's emancipation exhibit in its atrium proudly proclaims, "Happy Emancipation" and informs us that "in 1985, Trinidad and Tobago became the first country in the world to declare a national holiday, Emancipation Day, to commemorate the abolition of slavery on August 1, 1834." As I am neither a linguist nor a logographer, I wondered why the use of "happy" to describe Emancipation Day and in what sense it should be described thus.

I don't want to be picky and I understand why enslaved persons were happy when they were emancipated–there was great rejoicing–but I cannot understand why, in 2008, it is still considered a "happy" day. Are we supposed to rejoice and sing; get ecstatic because emancipation happened; or commiserate with the happiness our ancestors felt when they were emancipated?

When a stranger comes up to me and exclaims "Happy Emancipation!" how should I respond? Is he telling me I should be happy; does he wish to tell me that he knows I am happy; that he is happy because I am happy; or that he rejoices because my ancestors were freed from slavery?

The narrative of the exhibit continues: "Throughout their adversities Africans slaves retained a strong sense of their people's history. While slave masters believed their stories, chants, songs and dances were a sign of their contentment; to the slaves they were far more significant. This is how they could keep their history and culture alive. As slaves from different tribes mingled together they even developed new dances and stories, creating their own unique culture."

A few no nos. It is better to refer to Africans who were ensnarled in the European slave trade as enslaved persons. We should characterize groupings from which they came as ethnic groups rather than tribes. One seldom hears of European peoples (the Basques, for example) referred to as tribes. Even in Iraq, they speak of ethnic violence. In 1834 Africanness (or our being Africans) was a diasporic rather than a continental concept. Those who were taken from the homeland identified primarily with their ethnos. In other words, an Ibo captured and brought to America never saw himself as an African. He was an Ibo, plain and simple.

People, enslaved or freed, maintain their ways of life by keeping their culture alive. They could not do otherwise. Literally, they are their culture. A culture defines a person's sense of self or his being. The trick is to determine how that identity changes over time as he or she adapts to a new land.

After Africans were freed formally, their immediate challenge was to ensure that they were rewarded adequately for their labour. As a consequence, they went to their former masters and began to bargain for wages. As they bargained for wages and better working conditions the cost of labor increased and the slave masters had to find a plaster for that sore. They promptly set their eyes on India and got some fresh laborers whose primary function was to undercut the gains Africans made after formal freedom. Some of the enslaved stayed close to the plantation; others formed new villages.

The first indentured Indians were brought to these shores in 1845. Then, there was a lull until about 1865 when they began to come in droves. By 1917, over 237,000 Indians had come to the island. They worked hard. According to the terms of their indenturship they were given lands in lieu of their passage back to India. When the English tried to stop that practice there was big panchayat in Tacarigua in 1899. Indians declared that John Morton could speak for them no longer.

Malcolm X once declared that liberation/revolution always revolves around land. Fast forward to the end of the twentieth century when my government decided that apart from giving the Indians (well mostly Indians) billions of dollars to compensate them for the termination of planting sugar cane it also gave them additional lands. Workers who were laid off by BWIA and the Port Authority had no such luck. One would not be surprised if they do not take too kindly to this massive land transfer.

When one realizes that the energy and food crises are the two most pressing crises the people in the world face today formally–freed Africans are bound to ask if they are to be held in fiefdom for the rest of their natural lives and remain perpetual consumers. A people without land may be heading towards another form of enslavement.
"Happy Emancipation Day," you say.
The cynic answers, "What's so happy about the day?"
"You were freed," he says.
"My ancestors were freed but I is still catching hell."
"You should be happy on Emancipation Day," he insists.
The ambivalence remains.
As we commemorate this important event, we remember our ancestors' struggle and pay homage to their courage. It is a day of combustible emotions: happiness; pain; longing; and frustration. These emotions cry out to be stilled and to find comfort in a constellation of forces that undermines the sentiments that inheres in "Happy Emancipation Day."

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