Do public celebrations commemorating emancipation, heritage and history help to instill a private consciousness in the people of the communities that host the events?
This is the main question I’m left with after our final lecture in Trinidad and participation in the Emancipation Day festivities. Emancipation Day, which is celebrated annually on August 1, has been an official national holiday of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago since 1983. It commemorates the end of enslavement for Africans in 1834, when Britain ended slavery throughout its empire, and the end of “apprenticeship” (the four years of additional free labor that was given to the planter class to help ease them into the concept of actually paying people to work) in 1838. According to our lecturer, no one is really sure why Trinidad, where the institution of slavery (that is, in a plantation society) arrived late, lasted only about 60 years and lacked the clear delineations between master and enslaved so prominent in the U.S. and in other Caribbean countries, has this day as a national holiday, but here it is.
And it’s an amazing celebration of Africa, Trinidad, and Africans in Trinidad. On two nights of concerts, I heard protest/freedom songs in the form of Calypso, a genre created in Trinidad from French and African rhythms. Legendary Calypso artists like Valentino and The Mighty Gabby sent messages from the stage. I tried to hold my camera/video phone steady as drums, dancing, and Afro-beat made me want to move.
I watched Nigerian artist Seun Kuti (yes, he’s one of Fela Kuti’s sons) accidentally throw and break his saxophone but perform with all he had anyway. I gasped as I heard him say that 77 percent of the women in his country bleach their skin, and I laughed as he explained the difference between white people going to a tanning bed to get darker (using a machine to recreate what should happen when you stand in the sun) and Black people bleaching their skin and adding 15 inches of straight hair to their heads overnight (unnatural).
On August 1, our group leader found the loudest, most crowded music truck and jumped in beside it to dance several miles along the parade route. I recorded with audio and video sometimes just to have a record of the music that was filling my soul.
I snapped pictures of every beautiful person I could catch, and the beauty of African people—bought people, surviving people, thriving people—was everywhere. I felt again as I had in Tobago, but this time with music and celebration instead of sand and ocean.
But our lecturer, whose anonymity I’m maintaining for a reason, feels differently. This old Black man with white hair has never attended an Emancipation Day celebration. When asked why, he quoted a friend of his who said, “Of the 4,000 people who have died in Trinidad from homicide over the past 10 years, 3,999 of them were African. So what is the point [of celebrating freedom]? We still haven’t found our way.” He went on to talk about Earl Lovelace’s theory of African people in the Caribbean accepting “second-classness” and pondered how we “find a way to get to the private consciousness.”
“Emancipation is a matter of individual and collective responsibility,” our lecturer said. “Beyond the ceremonial, there’s hard work.”
As someone who works in public history and is seriously considering the field as a career, this was a disconcerting discussion. In the U.S. I often hear Black people complain about the images of African Americans in the media and the lack of awareness of our history. We had hundreds of years of slavery—the brutal kind that George Washington traveled to Barbados to learn about and implement in the U.S.—and yet, we have no federal holiday marking our emancipation day, and certainly no national public celebrations that commemorate our freedom and that every African-descended person in the country would be expected to attend. And I and many others have often thought that if we did, we would have the very sense of pride that I felt parading down the streets of Trinidad and swimming in Tobago. But this country has it, and Black people are still killing each other.
I’m that aggravating liberal who blames systemic racism for the disproportionate present-day suffering of black people in the U.S. and who refuses to pathologize blackness, but I don’t negate the need for personal responsibility, and I am at a loss for how to reach the private consciousness of the masses. I asked our lecturer if thought these public celebrations did anything to instill that private consciousness. He wasn’t sure. He related it to teaching a class of 30 students and only one really understanding and applying the lesson. You don’t stop teaching, but is one enough?
These lessons about race and culture and heritage on this trip have reached me, but I’m already privileged, and I’m not enough to save the world. Conditions for Black people throughout the Global South are bad, but I still think that without this public spectacle of freedom, it would be the U.S. Or worse.