Letters & Opinion

Can COVID-19 erase Slavery’s Legacy across CARICOM?

Image of Earl Bousquet
Chronicles Of A Chronic Caribbean Chronicler By Earl Bousquet

COVID-19 has so overwhelmed the world that almost everyone has forgotten everything else, many actually fearing this is the beginning of the end — of the world.

Nothing else seems to matter anymore as people take remarkable steps to measure distances and ensure relative isolation.

But as minds turn away from other realities, even memories are starting to fade away too.

Memory is becoming a distant factor.
Take this week…

March 23rd was International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination and March 25th was International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The two universally-observed anniversaries address the continuing global fight for elimination of racial discrimination and the date when the British Parliament finally voted to end Slavery by passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.

But (subject to what would be welcome correction) apart from a statement issued on March 25 by the Jamaica-based Center for Reparations Research (CRR), I’ve seen nothing else in the Caribbean media referring to either anniversary, both of which are of such vast import to the vast majority of Caribbean people.

The CRR invited the University of the West Indies (The UWI) and the wider Caribbean Community (CARICOM) ‘to pause, even amidst the COVID-19 crisis, to mourn the victims of slavery, as well as celebrate those whose resistance against colonial British terrorism forced the hand of the legislators to end the state-sanctioned trafficking in enslaved Africans from the 17th to the 19th centuries.’

The 2020 theme for March 25 was/is Confronting Slavery’s Legacy of Racism Together and according to CRR, ‘The theme underscores the reality that lasting effects of slavery continue to divide societies across the globe and hamper the achievement of true respect for human rights and sustainable development for all.’

The lasting effects of Slavery do continue to divide societies across the Caribbean in the 21st Century.
Racism exists and Racial Discrimination is expressed in many open and subtle ways, but the incidents of public exposure and discussion are few and the subject is therefore not today as central a theme of wider Caribbean politics like it used to be before Independence, except (for the sake of this discussion) in Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, each to varying and similar degrees.

The Slave Trade however touched every Caribbean shore and shaped the history of every Caribbean country touched by the Europeans who erased the region’s First Peoples through Native Genocide to make way for Slavery.

Yet, over 200 years after ‘Freedom’, ‘Emancipation’, ‘Abolition’ and all the other declarations that never translated into actual Liberty, the history of Slavery and the continuing struggle against Racial Discrimination are quickly being erased from Caribbean memory by the most politicized global health crisis the world has ever known.

Human life and thought have never been so shaken before by an invisible force.

In Guyana, a living canvas of an ever-shifting landscape of the everlasting effects of Slavery and Indentureship in the Caribbean, can be a center of world attraction to and interest in how racial discrimination plays out in the 21st Century Caribbean; and how a country and people progressively carved by both (Slavery and Indentureship) has or can be developed through peaceful coexistence, with or without oil.

But instead, what exists across that vast homestead for a brighter Caribbean future is a fast-forwarding to the near and distant past of post-election battles in a complex war for democracy cloaked in shades and shaped in clothes that do not make bright the varied national fabric.

My heart churns to hear, see and read words and statements undisguised in their racial utterances coming from the mouths, pens and keyboards of men and women who will actually not hesitate to take you to court for calling them ‘racist’.

It hurts to the bone when I read writers like myself only and of a different complexion crying dead over re-living and seeing the past become the future, forty-plus after years after escaping being killed by an armed political mob of another complexion by hiding in a ‘stink hole’ — just as a priest was murdered by a similar goon squad not too far away, for protesting for democracy.

It therefore bleeds my heart to see and hear my fellow chronicler, a veteran university lecturer, be written-off, by a fellow citizen of another complexion, as a mere sucker of sour grapes crying crocodile tears only because his lecturing contract was not renewed.

I sorely witness over time how so many Diaspora Guyanese of different complexions take with them the invisible fence that divides them at home, too many fearing to even make their true voices heard about how they really feel about what’s happening back home.

I slowly read the hundreds of comments attached to articles in Guyana today about the situation since the March 2 elections and it remains clear that in a country where almost everyone has a relative repatriating remittances from the USA, Canada and the UK, most are concerned about living under threatened US sanctions that can affect them directly if a new government is elected on the basis of incredible election results.

I listen to distinguished Caribbean diplomats with more than just a passing relationship with Guyana warn that even the CARICOM Secretariat can be removed from Georgetown if its biggest, most prosperous and best-placed member-state to lead the path towards a New Caribbean is allowed to become a pariah state.

It therefore ‘shivers me timbers’ to hear well-placed Guyanese political apparatchiks tell CARICOM Chairman Mia Mottley, her four fellow Heads of Caribbean Governments who visited Guyana on a democracy rescue mission — and indeed the rest of the regional community — to climb Mount Roraima and jump off its highest peak, or dive in freefall into Kaieteur Falls.

Elections in Guyana extract and bring sunken and anchored sentiments driven by race into full public view every five years, eventually flowing through loose tongues from minds charged with distant memories on constant refresh mode, the past usually fast-forwarded to the present and post-facto happenings used to justify rubber-stamping erasure of happenings yesterday and yesteryear.

Everywhere in CARICOM, the transatlantic slave trade is still very much a distant memory painted into dark shadows by mind-bending European historians, which has now been rekindled with new and brighter lights by CARICOM governments’ 2013 decision to pursue Reparations for Slavery and Native Genocide from the UK and the European Union (EU).

The unlimited development possibilities in vast and vastly underpopulated Guyana that’s big enough to easily house every CARICOM nation and the entire regional population in the event of a Climate Change catastrophe, are also threatened by the ease with which strong minds can be weakened by prisms on life colored by race.

Then there’s the complex question of complexion and/or hair texture.

President David Granger, still in office pending which legal or political pendulum swings what way, is a retired career soldier – an ex-Brigadier General of one complexion who headed the Guyana Defense Force (GDF).

The ex-army chief currently still occupying the seat of the presidency is being called-upon by a fellow retired brigadier and ex-army chief, of a different complexion and hair texture, to lace his boots and force coup-plotters in his party’s ranks to fall in line and respect the results of an election that can result in a third ex-brigadier and fellow former army chief, of another complexion and hair texture than his, becoming the next Guyana Prime Minister and Vice President.

Complex, right? But that’s life in Guyana, where race comes in different forms – and expressed through different adjectives.

Mr Granger is a historian with an authoritative take on the origins and legacies of Slavery and the effects of Slavery and Indentureship in the Caribbean.

He will always have that rich residual wisdom to share at home and abroad regardless of whether the current impasse reaches a political, legal or weaponized conclusion.

If history allows, he can help sincerely address these issues of regional historical and actual import across CARICOM in this age of pursuit of Reparations for Caribbean people who still need to know and learn so much more about our past to better understand our present.

Or, if he is wont so to do, the soldier out of uniform can allow himself to drift or be drifted more towards a ride down the river of no return by other fellow ex-soldiers of like complexion, in pursuit of a future lubricated by oily factors fueled more by dollars than sense.

Race is not only about skin colors, complexions and/or hair texture; and racial discrimination has so many changing faces it can be (almost) as invisible as a virus.

But not even the latest Corona Virus should allow us to ever forget important anniversaries that will forever mean everything to us.

After all, no matter what, we never forget our birthdays.
Do we?

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