By Stephanie Leitch
Stephanie Leitch is an independent gender and equality advocate and a postgraduate student at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. Her work focuses on issues of gender equality through performance and organizing, with an emphasis on bridging the gap between traditional and modern forms of advocacy. In line with her popular alias Barefoot Contessa, Stephanie produces an online series Barefoot Trails for the region’s premiere art publication ARC, as well as special features for the Trinidad Express WOMAN magazine
On August 1, 1985, Trinidad and Tobago became the first country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery.
As an African via Trinidad, I am pleased that my country-folk have taken the lead in this effort and encouraged the celebration of Emancipation throughout the region in a formal and organized way. Former Dutch colony St Maarten is the newest territory to commemorate Emancipation, this year marking their second observance and having only received their independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 2010, we see that Emancipation remains a priority for most Caribbean people.
Understanding ourselves as Independent states remains a fairly novel concept, with Trinidad celebrating 50 years while for countries like St Maarten independence is brand new. As a region we are still learning how to be free people. Even though we are no longer enslaved, colonialism has been such a part of us and for so long that when our history books tell us that Christopher Columbus discovered our countries no one bats an eyelid. Still standing tall is a statue of this colonizer in our Independence Square; the irony and sacrilege are painful. We are reminded every day that Emancipation was not a onetime event and that August 1 1834 when the Emancipation Bill was passed, marked only the beginning of the Black struggle for freedom, at home and abroad.
Emancipation is used by many as a time for critical self- reflection of who and where we were and who and where we are now, an understanding that is well captured in the Akan (Ghanaian) expression, Sankofa! Constantly reading and learning about my past has helped me to remain hopeful about our future but I have seen many things within these past few months that have shaken me to my core. Under the United States President Barack Obama, who happens to be Black, we have seen the re-vilification of former Black Panther and revolutionary icon Assata Shakur, who has been placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Most Wanted Terrorists List, the murder of Malcolm Shabazz, grandson of Black Muslim Leader Malcolm X (peace be unto him), the killing of seventeen year old Black American Trayvon Martin and the even more shocking verdict that allowed his killer not only to walk free but to continue bearing arms. These events, among many others that get far less attention, have reminded me that justice and liberation have to be continuously sought, for and by Black people and their allies and they are not given freely, even to the free.
The most recent media blitz around the birth of His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, seemed for many to be an almost welcome change of pace from the drudgery of murder, hoodies and the proverbial ‘talk about race’. Quite a curious juxtaposition the baby provided, almost like a convenient plaster for an old and recurring wound. I wondered how my people could be enraged and overjoyed at the same time in their reckoning of these events from the United States to Great Britain, as if they were not the same strange fruit, deeply rooted in a colonial regime.
Around the world, on television and in the print and online media, we were bombarded with headlines like “UK prepares for the birth with Royal Baby” and “All Eyes on are England for Royal Baby Watch”, while the anchors of major networks announced that the whole world was celebrating along with William and Kate. Journalists camped out for days outside the hospital where the birth took place, and for hours audiences were treated to shots of the hospital door, waiting for it to open and for the couple and their new-born to emerge. I watched the footage as the proud parents exited the St. Mary’s Hospital and could not help but notice a black woman dressed in what appeared to be a nurse’s uniform, slipping out the front door moments later away from the flashing cameras. I wondered who she was. I wondered if she had any children and if anyone cared. I thought of Doreen Lawrence, courageous mother of teenager Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in 1993 on the streets of London just because he was Black, and who refused to stop fighting for justice for her son. I tried to imagine what the world would look like if all lives were valued equally and if the whole world could really rejoice at the entry of each new soul. I was confused by the sight of my supposedly free people who continued to celebrate a white monarchy that traded in our flesh less than two hundred years ago and whose contemporary privilege cannot be disentangled from that violent past.
In trying to answer some of these questions, I thought about the ways in which we have been taught to dis-associate with Black struggle. Bob Marley in his classic “Redemption song”, which offers arguably one of the most quotable lines of all time, Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds, delivers a much more layered response to the attainment of freedom than it is credited for. Marley calls on Black people to actively participate in their on-going liberation but there is also a deep sense of overwhelming fatalism attached to surviving in a system that is weighted against that very survival. By assigning terrorist status to Assata Shakur, or describing Trayvon Martin as “threatening”, Black people are taught to fear our own freedom. Although for fifty years many in our community have understood Assata as Black Liberator, movement builder and mother, our understandings of events, people and truth have never been validated or respected but systematically replaced by white-washed narratives that do not allow Black people to see themselves or their resistance. Whether or not Trayvon Martin smoked marijuana and what rappers he listened to became important to his murder. Even in death the black body was suspicious, he was the one on trial. To the people’s credit, a widespread movement emerged in defence of Trayvon and thousands worldwide put their hoodies up in solidarity, with the slogan “We are Trayvon Martin”. The impact of social media was critical in rallying young people, who were able to reject the idea that Trayvon was different from them and offered a very important and visually significant counter discourse.
Compare this with the framing of the birth of His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge (even writing this feels ridiculous) and how the media, along with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge worked together to neutralize their position as ‘similar to’ but ‘different from’. Kate emerged from the hospital clad in polka-dots, just as Princess Diana was after giving birth to Prince William. A deliberate action, aimed at firmly positioning her within the royal blood line but also an attempt to play on the affection for “England’s Rose” and the “People’s Princess”; an identity that fitted Princess Diana based on her ‘commoner’ background, similar to that of the Duchess. Commentators gushed at how the Prince was able to put the car seat into the vehicle in record time and just how affordable it was at £80, presenting the royal family as down to earth and normal. Kate worried about his head and how the Prince was holding him and told the cameras that any parent with a new born should know what they were feeling. Despite the well-rehearsed welcome of His Royal Highness and the words of the Duchess, the fact remains that they are not one of us nor we, them. No amount of pomp can distract me from the real situation of Black people, where there are no cameras to herald the arrival of new-borns and public concern is relegated to how much strain single mothers are putting on the British economy.
In the region, the recently established Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) Reparations Commission is beginning the proces of seeking reparations from European countries for slavery and the genocide of native peoples. While I support this action through an understanding of rightness, I am mindful of Assata Shakur’s caution that, “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Ironically it has been Brazil, the last bastion of the slave trade under the Portuguese, that has taken the lead in reparations by writing off $900M worth of African debt. We can no longer look toward the British monarchy, the United States or any other colonial administration for the validation of our past, present or future. Emancipating ourselves from mental slavery needs to move beyond the rhetoric of song and materialize itself through the unlearning of how we understand ourselves and our freedom. It is a process with which we must struggle every day.