Bob Marley once sang “emancipate yourself from mental slavery…” a reminder that the march to freedom which began (in a legal sense) for Antiguans and Barbudans on Emancipation Day, August 1st 1834, remains a work in progress. Each year since 2007, Antigua and Barbuda detours a little from the Carnival celebrations (which pays, at best, a passing nod to the reason for the bacchanal). That detour usually takes us to Betty’s Hope for Watch Night. Betty’s Hope is an old sugar estate and we are watching and waiting as we imagine the ancestors (those who had some foreknowledge that freedom was coming) did. This year our first stop was Sea Breeze for (an all local) dinner,
sweet jazz music (courtesy Roland Prince), spoken word (a little history from Joy Lawrence – interviewed recently in a Wadadli Pen exclusive), and more spoken word (a powerful speech from featured speaker Mickel Brann). The latter is the first thing I want to share with you as it stimulated much introspection, discussion, and poetry. It begins:
“In a village in the small island of Antigua, big sister to Barbuda, an elder dons his dashiki and attends a town-hall meeting.
He’s there to listen to a lecture about reparations by Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Dr. Ralph Gonsalves.
He joins the usual crowd, all of whom beat the drums literally and figuratively. They acknowledge the tragedy, the dehumanization that was 400 years of chattel slavery and the residual effects 200 years after its abolition. These effects range from matters temporal to spiritual, physical and psychological, political and economic.
Around that same time, not day but by period, on a radio station that boasts as one of its taglines listen and learn, a female guest host, a regular staple of the show on which she is featured, roundly dismisses Watch Night, what it symbolizes, its aim and objectives and those who fan that flame.
As far as the host is concerned, slavery is long gone and it is pointless to return to any place to honour the ancestors, reflect on their sacrifices and their struggle and how that has shaped or, perhaps, misshaped descendants and other people’s view of them.
In her words, “if I were a slave and I got my freedom, why would I want to return to any place to talk about slavery?” In other words, forget, because remembering is of no useful value.
And the near silence of the callers who are usually vocal on any and every matter is maddeningly deafening.” READ THE ENTIRE Watch Night Speech final
We couldn’t stop talking about the night, the group of us who went together, or, as it happens, writing about it; a reminder that inspiration is all around and within us, in the reality of our past and the uncertainty about our future, and everything in between. For me, as we drove in caravan into Betty’s Hope, I had an inkling of something that I couldn’t grasp; the ancestors’ presence is strong on this night but we’ve moved so far away from them sometimes it’s difficult to hear. Brenda Lee Browne heard them enough to access what they might have been making of the spectacle we made:
“Did you hear them as they stood in the shadows wondering who are the people who look like us, yet smell like Massa on a Sunday morning.
Did you hear them whispering to the Earth Mother to bring their lost souls home
Did you hear the laughter as they looked at our clothes, too new, too well made, undefined by family, lineage or village and so many bare heads and covered breasts
Did you hear the wailing as a spirit connected with an ancestor standing before the fire and yet, could not understand all that is being sung
Did you hear the low music as voices mingled with the rustling of the trees as the ancestors gave thanks that at least they are visited and drums, the drums told them that not all is not lost “
“You are here!…even now! You never left and you, here, overwhelm my tiny-fraction-of-you spirit. And I want to know …want to feel… just what you felt that night 179 years ago? Did you lie awake willing the dawn of freedom to come swiftly or did you pass your last hours suspended between this world and the one your ancestors comforted you from? What did you feel baba? Was it hope? Did you know, remember, how to hope? What did you do that night mama? Were you raped, again?…the arrogant’s reminder that freedom would mean little for you. Did the cat-o-nine caress you that day?…the flesh peeled from your back as the skin off a too-ripe finger rose, desperately clinging to its source but powerless to prevent separation. What did you think? What did you feel? Did you dare feel…anything… that night?”
I have one more share. It’s not from someone I was with that night as we reflected but from someone who was moved to share after I posted on Watch Night on facebook (and if that post only attracted half as many likes as my other much more trivial post that night, then perhaps this share is reminder that it’s not the volume but the depth of feeling that matters in the end).
Waiting by Junie Webson
Stamped on this land of my birth
Is my reckoning with time.
Sitting at the water’s edge,
I made this day mine,
By wading through the rifts of time.
Trying to connect with my past
I coded my lineage.
Lost to me is my ancestral home.
Like the dancers under the stick
My heritage sits in limbo. ( It maybe emancipation day but we are still waiting)
Do you sense a common thread in these pieces (Mickel’s speech to Junie’s poem)?…perhaps a call not to
become remain complacent? an acknowledgment that freedom (in all the ways we can be free) still coming but we’ve got to work at it?
Happy Emancipation Day (belatedly).