Our collective history

President Donald Ramotar’s statement in his New Year’s message that the 250th anniversary of the Berbice Slave Uprising, the 175th anniversary of Emancipation and the 175th anniversary of the arrival of Indians in Guyana “are significant to all Guyanese,” is most welcome.

And if we might permit ourselves a burst of New Year’s optimism, we would like to think that the President’s affirmation that these anniversaries “must be used to allow us to foster a greater understanding of ourselves and a deeper appreciation for each other” might even hint at a resolution of the controversy surrounding the location of the 1823 monument.

We have heard, over the years, repeated allusions to George Santayana’s famous dictum that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – itself a reworking of an Edmund Burke statement, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” It is time that we paid more than lip service to the idea. In this respect, we need not only to remember our collective history but to understand it, warts and all, and appreciate the lessons for the present. In other words, we need to keep open the window onto out past if we are to see our way clear towards the “bright future” that the President invoked in his message.

After all, a people without a sense of history are rootless and a nation without history has no foundation on which to build. History is our collective memory and we must ensure that we do not lose it. Anniversaries are milestones that serve as markers for memory and reflection. We should therefore use this year’s commemorations as opportunities for revisiting our history to set the record straight and dispel distortions where necessary. As we suggested in our Sunday editorial, the Ministry of Education should review its social studies syllabus for primary schools. In addition, it should also review the history curriculum at the secondary level and should give the teaching of history and scholarly research at the University of Guyana the importance and resources the subject deserves.

A young nation such as ours needs to write, and rewrite as needs be, its own historical narrative. Otherwise, we will never be able to move forward together. We may be a people with different origins and different stories, but there is no reason why the different strands of our history cannot be woven into one tapestry. Of course, there have been attempts to do so before but perhaps the time has come for a new, concerted effort. As long as there is no continuously reinforced, unified history, there can be no collective memory and national unity will continue to be a pipe dream.

President Ramotar is therefore right when he says that the forthcoming anniversaries “can help us promote our uniqueness as a Guyanese people and promote our Guyanese culture that has emerged and is enriched by all of our ethnicities, and the collective experiences of our people who have made this land their home.” We are all the products of our history and a process of cultural syncretism – creolisation if you will – that is the unique blending of cultures that is our colonial legacy.

We do not need to whitewash the past. Even amidst the shared history of exploitation and degradation, there are stories of heroic achievement and dignity. Even among the differences, there are similarities. As our forebears struggled against the odds, we can draw strength from their example and strive to adapt in today’s brutally competitive international environment. But we first need to foster belief and we need look no farther than to our common and collective history for inspiration.

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