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Commentary: Emancipation Day and Belize
Published on August 4, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Frank Edward Paco Smith, Jr.

August 1st is celebrated as a holiday by most of the Caribbean nations that were once possessions of the British Empire. The occasion is Emancipation Day. This commemorates the enactment of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which nominally ended slavery throughout the British Empire on 1st August 1834. Of course the reality is that conditions quite similar to those which characterised slavery persisted for several more years. But nonetheless, August 1st is a noteworthy day.

Paco Smith staunchly advocates the emergence of civil society to serve as a proactive force toward positive change within the policy development arena. Among his many involvements, he is a co-founder of the group Belizean Patriots against the ICJ.
Of course, we are aware that Belize (once known as British Honduras) is a former British possession, yet much to my chagrin, we don't commemorate Emancipation Day. I say, "much to my chagrin" because I am of the opinion that such an occasion must be formerly acknowledged, not solely because it would mean yet another public and bank holiday (to which I have absolutely no objection), but the significance is much deeper.

The enslavement of black Africans, in my opinion, ranks among the most diabolical, destructive and inhumane enterprises that was purposefully conducted and perpetuated against a people. Its effects are undoubtedly widespread and persist to this day. After all, it was the systematic displacement of Africans from the continent, to the New World, which inevitably: broke-up families, fragmented communities and damaged cultural linkages. Just think how different the Western Hemisphere would look, if it were not for the African slave trade.

With that said, I being an avowed "Caribbeanist" have always found the formation and development of my nation (from within a Caribbean context) rather peculiar. Indeed, due to our geographic location, unlike our sister Caribbean nations (save for Guyana), we live what amounts to that of a duality of sorts. Nonetheless, the imprint of our Caribbean-ness cannot be refuted. When I say that I am a "Caribbeanist", it simply means that I am one who readily acknowledges the uniqueness of our Caribbean reality and also embraces the fact that like our sister Caribbean nations, we share a common history and culture.

As a point of clarification, it doesn't mean that I believe that all Caribbean nations are carbon copies of one another. Nothing could be further from the truth. But it means that we share some commonalities, both historic and current, which cannot be ignored. It is for these reasons, that I am quite disconcerted that Belize does not commemorate Emancipation Day.

This is where the inherent social scientist in me, comes into play. Although, by no means do I claim to be an historian, I shall reflect on an issue that has stuck in my craw for quite some time. This involves the manner in which Belize was and continues to be governed, based on that of an ethnocentric perspective. Now I know that Belize is a multi-ethnic society and that, to me, is a good thing.

But I must also extend that, given the historical realities that have shaped the “black” communities in Belize, at least for me, it is imperative that a level of: acknowledgement, consciousness and discernment is fostered among Belizeans who are of African descent. Please bear in mind that this is in no way calling for one group of Belizeans to look down upon, nor castigate other groups.

It is, in fact, a call for Belizeans of African descent (mind you, this is not dependent on the colour of your skin), to recognise their uniqueness and the significance of our realities -- historically, at present and into the future. After all, maybe, just maybe such a paradigm shift might see some sort of change that might result in a lessening of criminality among our most disenfranchised citizens. Maybe that is wishful thinking. Yet, that which both, establishes and reinforces a sense of self-worth, is something that is sorely needed among the aforementioned group.

Getting back to the manner in which Belize was and continues to be administered, one of the things that an older cousin of mine brought to my attention, was that over the years, many of the visible/tangible elements that dated back to slavery in Belize were intentionally destroyed. I say "intentionally" because there is no doubt in my mind that efforts were made by whomsoever to erase these life-sized reminders of our colonial past. The old saying, "out of sight, out of mind" comes into play and insofar as I can see, based on the overall condition of Belizeans of African descent, unfortunately that tactic appears to have proven successful.

One such example that was brought to my attention involved what was once located near the corner of Hyde's Lane and North Front Street in Belize City, across from the Holy Redeemer School, along the riverfront. I was told by someone, older than I, that many years ago, one could see the actual area where slaves were staged as chattel for either auction or further transfer. This, to me, is something that I believe is part of Belizean history and should have been salvaged, much like how some of our Maya temples are protected.

Yet due to determinations made by the powers that be, such a valuable piece of our history is lost. The decision may have been made based on commercial reasons or maybe due to more nefarious deliberations. Irrespective of the underlying motivation, that part of our history is no more and with it went a tangible reminder with which Belizeans could identify, albeit some more than others, as part of our national culture. In sum, elements such as those helped to form our Belizean identity.

I acknowledge that some remnants of the not-so-palatable, yet still relevant elements of our colonial past remain. For those who may not have known, the bricks used to build the St John's Cathedral in Belize City are reported to have been transported to Belize, via slave ships, and were used as ballast. In addition, some of the ground floors of the older structures on Regent Street in Belize City are reported to have served as former slave quarters. If you look hard enough, you can see some of the old bricks that were used in the foundations.

In any event, despite their significance, it is along the lines of that which I mentioned earlier, that is a clear example of our historic realities, that have been systematically taken away from us and dare I say, with ominous effects to our cultural and national psyche.

I am not being naive in relation to this observation because I realise that many, additional elements have contributed to the fundamentally dire state in which most Belizeans of African descent currently find themselves. But by virtue of my penning this piece, I acknowledge the salience embodied by the lack of consciousness, as it relates to our Belizean history and how that contributes to the many bad habits and socio-economic ills which affect the community.

This all leads to the fact that Belize does not formally acknowledge Emancipation Day. I view this as being derived from a purposefully ingrained systemic effort by the powers that be. What I find even more disgraceful is that even beyond our becoming an independent nation, that seemingly no government (of the day) has demonstrated a level of consciousness and deemed it fit to formally acknowledge the significance of Emancipation Day.

From the looks of things, it does not appear to be anything that is remotely on the radar of any of the two, predominant political parties that are accustomed to playing musical chairs, as it relates to who the people elect to govern us.

As I am a staunch believer in the notion that "virtually all things are inter-connected somehow" in one fashion or another, this brings to mind the laudable effort of CARICOM, as it relates to seeking reparations from Britain due to their part in the insidious institution of slavery.

Bearing this in mind, as with most things involving the 'brain-trust' at our ministry of foreign affairs (MFA), I pose the question, "How can you rightfully be party to and supportive of CARICOM's efforts, in this regard, when you fail to recognise the significance of Emancipation Day?" In effect, I believe it is appropriate for Belize to support the effort, but on the home front, it is advised that some soul searching is conducted and that those in the MFA attempt to connect the dots!

As a student while studying in Jamaica, I was really moved by the level of consciousness demonstrated, presumably by the Jamaican government, in the form of Emancipation Park. The sculptures depicting two Africans, a man and a woman, are a moving testimony to this. In addition, during my time in Barbados, I came across an equally moving artistic tribute to Emancipation at the Bussa Round-A-Bout.

There are other noteworthy testaments to the significance attributed to the reality of African slavery, resistance and our subsequent emancipation that can be found throughout the Caribbean and South America, but alas I have seen no such one in my beloved country of Belize. Again, this signals a lack of consciousness on behalf of the nation and it is something that definitely needs correcting.

In closing, I hope that Belizeans who do not consider themselves of African derivation, do not misconstrue what I have expressed. It is important to note that I employ the view that love of one's ethnic and cultural origins is mutually exclusive and in fact completely different from espousing hatred or disdain toward those of a different ethnic or cultural group. Therefore, kindly don't feel threatened as a result of my call for a higher level of consciousness among Belizeans of African descent. After all, "all ah wi mek up Belize", with the exclusion of none, nor the emphasis of one over the other."

All the same, it is fundamental to acknowledge when, as in this instance, Belize has fallen woefully short in recognising and formally acknowledging something as important as Emancipation Day. With that, it is my hope that Belizeans begin to realise its significance and move toward righting this wrong by taking the necessary steps toward bringing Belize into the fold among our Caribbean compatriots that are seemingly ahead of us in this regard.

Therefore, I wish all CARICOM citizens and residents, Belizeans included, an Emancipation Day that proved both reflective and instructive in a variety of fashions!
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