October through to November 1st (Independence Day) is Independence season in Antigua and Barbuda. Of course, if you’re Antiguan and Barbudan, you already know this; and if you’re a blog subscriber, you’ve already seen the 2017 Independence programme.
This post is about some back and forth that first erupted on social media and then made its way on to traditional media concerning the Harriet Tubman activities – three of them on the programme. The gist of the criticism was that Independence should spotlight Antiguan and Barbudan history and that while Harriet Tubman – a hero who shepherded many blacks to freedom in America – was not without relevance to a majority black country with its own history of enslavement and rebellion, the workshops and theatrical production (reportedly proposed by the Leonard Tim Hector Memorial Committee) would have been a better fit for Black History Month while Independence focused on our own icons. I do think the media should have sought (or maybe they did and it wasn’t reported, or it was reported and I missed it) the perspective of the group that proposed it. But the only official explanation came from the Culture Minister, Chet Greene, who was quoted in the Daily Observer media as saying, among other things, “There are no plays that are written on the lives and works of Nellie Robinson, George Walters and Prince Klaas King Court…The offer that was made to us was on a play, which has value to a Black Civilization; value at a time of rebuilding and uniting, and value in exposing our young people in terms of who we are in time and space…I would want to throw an invitation out to some playwriter, or poet in our space, perhaps, for next year or as part of work beginning now, to seek to provide short plays or skits on the lives and works of Antiguans and Barbudans.” The Minister in particular rebuked Senator Aziza Lake, herself an artist, activist, and media producer, for a facebook comment in which she was quoted, in the same article, as saying, “Tubman is an African American hero who risked her life to free slaves, but she has no place in the country’s Independence celebrations with three separate events.” His quoted comment: “Harriet Tubman’s name is an important name in the history of Black people. And to make an issue of having her name surfacing at Independence time, at Carnival time, or at any time of year in Antigua and Barbuda, by someone who is supposed to be a leader of the nation, it really is disconcerting…When I see comments like that coming from persons like the good Senator Aziza Lake, it makes me wonder if people are aware of their own history. I find that she is just using the opportunity to make mischief.” The article also quoted Carol Hector-Harris, an African American journalist, as saying, “I really appreciate the fact that Harriet Tubman is going to be included in this year’s Independence celebration. In the States, we look to our Caribbean brothers and sisters to celebrate a variety of things in our history…And every achievement that is made by our Caribbean brothers and sisters, we consider them to be our achievement too. And the achievements that we make are your achievements too. We are the same people. We just got off the ‘ship’ at a different port.”
In a follow up article in the same paper, creative artist Alister Thomas pushed back. He was quoted as saying, “There should have already been commissioned individuals who could write the history of this country. There should have been various publications as far as the personalities who would have made contributions from slavery, colonialism, post- colonialism to independence. That would have been helpful…I don’t think we should be, in 2017, saying that we do not have drama featuring local personalities who would have made invaluable contribution to our development, our growth and where we have progressed from slavery…These things should have been an integral part of the education system from first form and even from pre-school. We need introspection. Those things should have already been in motion.” He did not seem, as reported, to object to the inclusion of Harriet Tubman, remarking that “It (Independence) is traditionally the time of year when the nation and its people seek to celebrate its accomplishment from post-colonialism to present. But if a decision is being made to feature a Black personality, who would have made an invaluable contribution in writing our history, I could not be critical of it in any sort of way…I would have preferred [however] that personalities here…, because there are Antiguan and Barbudan descendants of slaves here who are not featured who should be featured, not just at Independence time.”
I then received a call from Big Issues, a Sunday news-discussion programme on the paper’s sister station Observer radio. That panel, hosted by Kieron Murdoch, also included playwright and novelist Dorbrene O’Marde
visual artist and former Culture Director Heather Doram
writer and book store owner Barbara Arrindell
I didn’t want to be a part of any bashing of Harriet Tubman or of the group which reportedly proposed the project, nor of discrediting our intersection as black Caribbean people with African-Americans, but I did have opinions on the role that arts could play in our society and in our Independence (I have been very vocal on this site on the ways in which arts could be better served and used in service in Antigua and Barbuda). The latter was largely the focus of the conversation. Here are some excerpts (I would have liked to share the audio clip of the entire programme or transcribed all of it but this is the best I could do in the time I had and within fair use boundaries):
“I’m a firm believer that we need to be pushing more of our own, we need to establish who we are as Antiguans and Barbudans, we need to support…all of the artists a little bit more…and those persons should be supported to produce (pieces on local culture)… I don’t think we have touched the tip of the iceberg yet when it comes to us digging in to our culture, our history.”
“Let’s take one of our national heroes Prince Klaas, I know of three plays that have been written in the last 20 years about him…but in general these pieces that we’re looking for should be encouraged and commissioned by the government and the best opportunity to do that would be independence, when better…we need to be celebrating these people so that our young people understand who we as a people are, that we are not Americans, we are not, we are Antiguans and Barbudans, (and) we have a proud history and heritage.”
Joanne C. Hillhouse–
“I do feel that Independence should be specific to our journey as Antiguans and Barbudans. But I don’t want us to take that to mean that we’re not a part of the broader global community, broader African diasporic community. For me, Harriet Tubman is somebody who I respect and admire, I think she’s iconic. I do take issue with that being the central theatrical production of our Independence when we have, as Barbara just said, several plays that have been written, no commissions that have gone out for these artistes to produce these plays, because art is expensive, and this is the thing that is missing from the minister’s comments, this understanding that artists toil day and night in Antigua and that the greatest gift you can give an artist is time. Time to write, time costs money because artists have bills just like everybody else…putting on productions costs money and a lot of the time the artists are doing what they can but then they need someone else to help them get, whether it’s grant funding, whether it’s state commissions, whatever, to help them push things across the line, but artists are creating in Antigua every day. I remember a few years ago attending a street theatre production put on by the Antigua Dance Academy…it was a production centred on the story of Prince Klaas…it was our story…I don’t know that a production like that couldn’t have a place in our Independence.”
“Just to go back a bit, the whole idea that nothing exists, the 1972 Antigua Carifesta production was a play called the Legend of Prince Klaas that was written by Oliver Flax…we have Rick James …who years and years ago… staged a one act piece about Olaudah Equiano, and I think he enlarged that subsequently and did a large production in the King George grounds… (Montserratian) David Edgecombe just within the last three or four years wrote and produced a piece called The Lady of Parham about the human tragedy surrounding the legend of the ghost of Parham; so material exists, and even though material doesn’t exist in …theatrical form…we’ve had a large number of writers in this country who have written biographies…or have put together a whole set of stories…there’s a lot of material that if the festivals commission or the whole ministry of culture etc. was interested, and let’s assume that they are, in really getting these things on stage…there’s space for leadership here, there’s space for commissioning such works, there’s an opportunity, a golden opportunity to support the writers in this country…we need to give that credit to understand the process of writing and to understand the challenges that we as writers face in this country…there is material there, converting the material to stage is, of course, the challenge and that is what needs the support of the commission..”
“My feeling is that I have lived under several administrations and I really do not get the feeling that there is that widespread support for the visual and performing arts…you just use them when you need them…we do not even have a national gallery in Antigua and Barbuda so we the artists are there producing work in sort of isolation. I’ve seen it in many other countries where the national gallery would commission work; this sort of spurs the whole generation and activity of work and then the artists start to feel that sense of involvement and that their art work can actually support them…the same thing I’m sure applies to the literary artist…something like the cultural development division should be that nexus of that sort of leadership, this is where the cradle is…I would really like to see more support for the arts generally.”
“It has survived so far without the support of government… or with very little support…but it’s surviving, not thriving…you have people like the Reverend John Andrew Buckley…the first black Moravian minister anywhere in the world, and he came from Antigua…you have Elizabeth and Ann Hart…free coloured women who helped first established the first system of education for enslaved people…in the hemisphere…the building at Bethesda…these sisters got people who had to toil all day to come out at night and early morning to put up this structure so that their children could have an opportunity for education, how could we not celebrate them. …let’s say she’s the subject of our next independence…we’re talking about building up our knowledge base, our understanding of who we are.”
Joanne C. Hillhouse–
“What’s missing a lot of the times… is continuity…and that will continue to be missing if there’s no master plan; and development, you can invest in a major prize or you can invest in the development of the arts…literary arts development is not an annual competition, it is day to day programmes in the schools, in the communities which foster creative thinking, which foster the imagination, which then bleeds in to other things…if we had ongoing programmes utilizing the artists in the community…then we could say we’re actually having continuity, that we’re having investment in the development of the arts. I know, because I have and I’m sure others have to, have made proposals and have seen those proposals fizzle or stagnate and go nowhere…not only have the artists been doing, but the artists have been proactive about proposing things and those things have gone nowhere. So I do think that we could be doing a lot more in terms of not just the big show pieces but in terms of actual investment in the development of the arts, in utilizing the talent that we had here on a continuous basis.”
“We’re definitely not doing enough…you talk to groups today and mention Tim Hector…in schools, the name is not know; what he does has not been heralded…my interactions with young people…points to this particular void…history clearly is the subject of interest here, that we know who we are…the decisions about where we’re going will be made on the basis of that knowledge…if you understand the history of how we came to own these lands…then we wouldn’t behave the way we’re behaving, for example, with our land…”
“I think a government has a responsibility number one, to help develop these skills in the population…I don’t think in our developing of our young people we can just focus on the academic…and wouldn’t that (art) really enrich the lives of our people…I don’t think we’re developing these well rounded individuals…we need a balance.”
Joanne C. Hillhouse–
“When Heather was culture director…I remember her starting a national collection where she commissioned pieces featuring Antiguan and Barbudan icons…what has become of that? What has been the continuity with respect to that national collection?… things like that, like you can have someone with a good idea start something
…things happened before but there was no continuity, so if there’s no continuity it’s like you’re starting from scratch every time someone gets fired up and passionate about something so that’s the whole point…if you have that continuity then this person’s efforts will connect with that person’s efforts and we’ll have progression instead of starting from scratch every time…one of the things I do on the Wadadli Pen website is I have a project where I record the books that are put out and the plays and the songs that are put out by Antiguan and Barbudan creatives and there’s no shortage of stuff in the last 10 or so years, there’s a lot of people just feeling inspired and doing their own thing… there is stuff happening independently by artistes who feel inspired and creative but not by any system that’s giving them foundation or supporting their efforts.”
“Nellie Robinson, Dame Nellie Robinson is listed somewhere in our history as being the first chairperson of the artists association of Antigua and Barbuda, but so is a lady named Elizabeth Pickney…back in 17something… I found one in the 18th century too… we’ve had an artists association here many times and it’s been so far apart that each person thinks of themselves as the first chairperson of… in terms of history, there’s a book called A Brief History of Antigua written by Brian Dyde. Brian Dyde wrote brief histories for about four or five islands around the Caribbean, if it was five, four of them are still in print, guess which one is not in print, the other four were taken on and used in the school systems in the other islands, guess which one they couldn’t even sell one print run for…?”
“We must be thinking about the journey that brought us to that point in 1981…what does that mean to us…1981 is really just the start of a journey, the start of a process…the discussion we’re having here is the absence of guidance from our institutions, the ministry of culture…what independence in this particular world means, what it must mean, how we protect it, and the role clearly that artists, those of us on this panel, that artists have in doing that, that that role must also be encouraged, must also be supported, must also be helped, be guided in many ways…this is where we must be.”
That’s just some excerpts and here’s some post chat coverage in the paper:
And that’s that. Or it was, because now (October 20th 2017 update) there’s this I saw this play when it was staged in the King George V grounds in 2007 – I remember thinking it was quite ambitious, especially as James was the only cast member (really) with professional theatrical background and given that it spanned pre-Colombian times to the then present. If you missed it, this is an opportunity to catch a screening of it inspired, I understand, by that Big Issues episode; so that’s something.
Oh, one last thing, on the Observer programme, I mentioned that you could find here on this site the open letter read by Barbara Arrinell when she resigned her post as literary arts comp coordinator at the 2011 awards ceremony, the last time any type of literary arts anything (to my knowledge) was held during Independence until last year when there was a lit arts forum and an essay competition. There is no 2017 lit arts activity – apart from the Harriet Tubman workshops and play listed on the programme – and no visual arts activity apart from the fashion competition and show. You can, of course, double check the link to the programme linked earlier in this post.
I think that’s everything.
p.s. the slide show at the top is some of the works produced or co-produced – and/or projects with which they were involved – by the panelists quoted in this post.
As with all content on Wadadli Pen, except otherwise noted, this is written by Wadadli Pen founder and coordinator Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, With Grace, and Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out http://jhohadli.wordpress.com Please note that, except otherwise noted, images on this site also need to be cleared if you wish to use them for any purpose. Thanks.