Yesterday Guyana observed the 182nd Anniversary of the end of chattel slavery in the Anglophone Caribbean. Because of the Covid19 pandemic, the usual observances were muted; many organizations confined their activities to virtual platforms. Nevertheless, the significance of the day was not lost on the masses of Guyanese who offered their reflections wherever they could. It is a testimony to the growing consciousness of the importance of Emancipation to Guyanese independence; that it is not a moment but an ongoing process.
This anniversary comes in the midst of a global movement for racial justice which was triggered by the murder of George Floyd in the USA. That incident and the movement it spawned are a brutal reminder that the promise of emancipation is still to be fully attained. The world is still to come to grips with the equal value of the lives of the descendants of the formerly enslaved. Here in Guyana, while we have made tremendous strides in that regard, we are still far behind when it comes to recognizing the profundity of slavery.
How many times have we not heard Guyanese dismiss slavery as a thing of the past that should be forgotten? It is that simplistic sentiment that stands in the way of a more cohesive Guyana. If we silence our history, we open the door to a grave distortion of our collective identity which inevitably flows from that history. Slavery was particular to African Guyanese, but its effects have shaped the experiences of all ethnic groups. Further, emancipation meant freedom not only for African Guyanese, but it meant that those groups who arrived in the colony after 1838 did so not as enslaved people.
It is undeniable, then, that Emancipation is perhaps the most important stop sign in our independence journey. As Guyana continues its experiment od a joint nationhood, it could draw strength from the emancipation example. The example of persistent resistance—never giving up, always fighting back against injustice. The example of overcoming against great odds; the often-muted narrative of emancipation. The example of thinking beyond chains of bondage—the source of the historic village movement. The example of love—the love that was necessary to repel the urges for bitterness.
Emancipation is a reminder that Black lives matter. Those words are more than just an empty slogan. They are an affirmation that seeks to highlight the continued inhumanity towards Black people. The ask the question—what it is to be an equal human being? Those who seek to amend the affirmation to a baseless universal slogan, are justifying the inequities that gave rise to the need for it in the first place. Black Lives Matter is an emancipatory doctrine emanating from the bowels of Black alienation and aimed at a world which is still to slow to acknowledge its sloth when it comes to racial equality.
We observe this year’s anniversary in the midst of an ongoing electoral impasse with ethnic and racial undertone. In the last four months, race relations have deteriorated considerably. One just has to peruse social media to get a feel for this development. The ugly words and images remind us of bygone days. The assault on Blackness, in particular, has sunk to new lows. It would take an intentional campaign of reconciliation to repair the damage.
Finally, as we remember those who made Emancipation possible, let us do so with an appreciation for the odds they were up against. They are the heroes and heroines of Emancipation—the living ancestors. May their spirits continue to inspire us to be better than we are.