Now that the official Public Holiday and its observation is behind us, it may be opportune to reflect on what “Emancipation Day” should mean for us in Guyana. First of all, it was very clear that of recent an increasing number of persons across the country have been observing this special day wearing garments made from “Kente” cloth. This “basket weave” from brightly coloured silk and cotton yarn was originally the wear of royalty in the Akan and Ewe peoples of modern-day Ghana and Ivory Coast in West Africa from where most of people of African Descent originated.
In the modern period, as they determinedly tried to extricate themselves from the hegemonic structures that were imposed during and after slavery over their minds, they realised that everything of African origin had been denigrated as “inferior” even in the education they were receiving in the new schools that had been launched after Emancipation. “Proper clothes” were those of the Europeans – and in particular the British – who were our latest rulers before independence.
When one looks at the pictures of the descendants of Guyanese slaves during the late 19th century, the men are generally garbed in dark woollen suits with ties and the women, in the voluminous dresses of Victorian England, including the obligatory parasols. It was not until the 20th century that visionary leaders, like Marcus Garvey from Jamaica, began to teach an alternative view that things African could not, by definition, be “inferior” and in fact could be of equal value, if not sometimes better, than anything else. This idea slowly spread, interestingly by individuals who in the main had some connection to the West Indies, across the world. By the middle of the 20th century, the “Black Power” movement was launched. The garments made from Kente cloth come out of the new consciousness to signify that no one’s heritage should be degraded.
It is our hope, therefore, that the wearing of the Kente cloth garments in Guyana by Guyanese of African origin signals that they have moved beyond the mere annual donning of the garment to a point where they have freed themselves from “mental slavery” of which Bob Marley sang about so many decades ago. Beyond the clothes, food, drumming, and dancing, the peoples of Africa also evolved profound philosophies of life that provide cogent alternatives to the ennui that modern man faces after two centuries of Eurocentric “development” that unfortunately focused on the individual and not the collectivity.
In each part of Africa, on the other hand, one’s identity was acknowledged as arising out of the group and as such, the latter takes precedence. From Southern Africa, for instance, there is the concept of “ubuntu”. According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ubuntu can best be summarised as follows:
“‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity.
“This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance.”
Would that all Guyana heed this message.
After Emancipation, the miseducation of the People of African Origin continued, with the other peoples who were dragged here to work on the plantations being inducted into the hegemonic structures. It is time that the powers-that-be resuscitate all their heritages that were suppressed.