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Securing the history of people of African descent

Barbara
Gloudon

Friday, August 09, 2019

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This week it was announced that Jamaica was stepping up activities in recognition of the United Nations (UN) International Decade for People of African Descent (IDPAD). You may ask what does that mean, and why is it necessary?

The UN website states “in proclaiming this decade, the international community is recognising that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected. Around 200 million people identifying themselves as being of African descent live in the Americas. Many millions more live in other parts of the world, outside of the African continent”.

The activities for IDPAD here at home are to take place between August 6, 2019 and August 6, 2020. The Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, through Jamaica Information Service ( JIS) News, has said that they will “highlight and commemorate the important contributions that people of African descent have made to the Jamaican society”. The news report also stated that there will be a travelling exhibition curated by the National Council on Reparation to inform the public about the trauma of slavery and the reason for the claims for reparation.

This question has been raised in some quarters: Why are people of African descent still talking about slavery? Those people insist we need to move on with our lives and leave “slavery days” in the past.

The late Professor Rex Nettleford wisely counselled us that when we drive, we don't only look ahead, we use our rear-view mirrors. Add to that the words of National Hero Marcus Mosiah Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

We cannot shrug off what happened to our ancestors, just so. The effects of slavery are still with us today. It is also important that we take a deeper look, further back in time, to see what African cultures accomplished before transatlantic slavery changed our lives and trajectory.

We weren't always slaves. Africa is not the “Dark Continent” they told us about in school. There is a rich history of kings and queens and nations with learned philosophers and inventors. There were places of learning and creative expression — art, music, dance. Africa was not always plagued by drought, famine, and war.

Today, Africa is rising. Many of the countries on the continent are advancing in technological development and putting in modern-day infrastructure that compares with cities in the West. Hopefully, the local activities will include chances for Jamaicans to learn more about the Mother Land. Despite the advancements and improvements, there are still difficulties that are faced by African nations and Diaspora nations. Some of those challenges are firmly rooted in the history of colonialism and slavery.

There is no denying that the enslavers and colonisers took the best of what each country had to offer. They took possession of the prime land and resources, making themselves rich while leaving our ancestors with the scraps. An example of this is in South Africa, where the Government is run by the predominantly Black African National Congress; however, the gold mines are still largely owned by companies which are owned by whites. Adjusting that balance is tricky. Zimbabwe is a reminder of how things can get mixed up and end in bangarang. Some will say Robert Mugabe was wrong in how he went about trying to level the playing field. Others will say he fell prey to larger forces, determined to see the failure of his policy of land redistribution to the black population.

While our black brothers and sisters can claim self-rule and governance in many nations, we are still shackled to the systems that hold us back. Racism, prejudice, unequal distribution of wealth, and reduced access to health and education still plague people of African descent across the world.

I don't know how much difference a declaration such as that made by the UN will make in the overall picture. A decade of recognition can't overturn centuries of injustice. But maybe by acknowledging that the problems still exist and persist will be a step to breaking down the obstructions that our people face.

Barbara Gloudon is a journalist, playwright and commentator. Send comments to the Observer or gloudonb@gmail.com.


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