'This is the Negroes' Jubilee'

'This is the Negroes' Jubilee'

Lance Neita

Sunday, August 02, 2020

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Emancipation Day is rightly celebrated as one of the most important anniversaries for Jamaicans. Sadly, this year's was not our traditional “Augus'1 jubilee style” commemoration. Last year this time celebrators had settled into their north coast resort accommodation, done the Saturday night party bit, and booked time out for Caymanas Park, cricket matches, beach outings, and family gatherings.

The West Indies team was struggling against a well-oiled Indian side (sounds familiar), Denbigh was summoning farmers from labour to refreshment, and for many a Red Stripe and a game of dominoes was sufficient to while away the time and reflect, oh so briefly, on the reason for the holiday.

That was last year, 2019. But this year COVID-19 has put paid to all that excitement and everything is now on virtual reality. A great effort has been made to bring the shows into our living rooms, but so much is missing from these events without the crowd excitement.

What a change we have witnessed when, in six months, January to July, a blanket of soberness and containment has curtailed the world's normal behavioural patterns as we seek to shield humanity from the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic.

The celebrations we indulged in last year have been toned down and, although we still danced, we danced with one eye open for the security forces who were placed on anti-COVID-19 alarms and crack down duties.

The Government allowed 'let up' to some extent, but to my mind the almost total abandonment of masks and social distancing which has reached peak during this holiday period makes it obligatory for a return to some of those restrictions, advisories, and guidelines issued by the Government and the World Health Organization at the start of the pandemic.

Comparing the lock down we went through at Easter to the wild abandonment we are revelling in at Emancipation makes one shudder to think that we could be laying ourselves open for the coming of that dreaded second wave we have been warned against.

The practice of wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing must be followed strictly. We have been through the initial importation, cluster and community stages, and the cycle has turned full circle as, with the reopening of our borders, we are right back into the importation stage.

There is one other stage we don't speak about much, and it's the complacency stage. The belief that, in spite of the increasing numbers (importation), Jamaica is doing so well that we can drop our guard. The complacency stage can be the most dangerous stage of all.

As was said earlier in this column, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has taken on the mandate of leadership and is not letting us down. He has been very much in charge; forthright and decisive.

Minister of Health Dr Christopher Tufton has taken on the responsibility for one of the heaviest burdens ever cast on a minister of government in the history of Jamaica, and continues to do exceedingly well.

Indeed, the latest Bill Johnson polls commissioned by this newspaper have given a vote of excellence to the Government for “the job they are doing to protect Jamaica from the effects of the virus”.

This vote of confidence must be shared by the unflappable Chief Medical Officer Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie, whose style we find to be engaging, comforting, compassionate, and, most importantly, inspires trust.

These three have been leading the fight for Jamaica, supported by Cabinet ministers, medical officers, the Ministry of Health and Wellness, the police, as well as thousands of workers stretched to the max across the country. Altogether they have earned the confidence of the people they lead.

Unfortunately, with an election prognosis now turning up the volume, it's going to be almost impossible to keep politics out of this health crisis. The ungracious and unworthy politicking that has crept in can be a diversion from the real issues that face us.

We simply cannot play politics with coronavirus, and where it has happened — and is likely to continue to happen — we must rein it in. Please don't play games with life and death.

Our big brother, the USA, has been involved in some amount of turmoil in that regard as it too prepares for elections in November. The excitement and enthusiasm around conventions and public rallies have been crowded out by the coronavirus outbreak and coloured by the Black Lives Matter movement spurred by the killing of George Floyd.

America has only itself to blame for allowing racism to play such a dominant role in the decision-making process to select a Government in the world's largest democracy. And, in 2020. A lot of battles have been fought and won down that road. The Civil War 1861-65, which ended in victory for the Northern states and the abolishment of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which legally ended the segregation that had been institutionalised by the Jim Crow laws, the decline of the Ku Klux Klan, the civil rights movement, and the historic march on Washington in 1964, all of which were important milestones on the way to eradicating racism in America.

But those accomplishments and seminal victories have not proven to be decisive enough. A 2013 report published by the Economic Policy Institute, which assessed the progress made by the original March on Washington, contended that the attainment of civil rights alone cannot transform people's quality of life unless accompanied by economic (and social) justice. It pointed out that much of the primary goals of all these historic victories listed above (housing, integrated education, and widespread employment at equal wages) have not been met. They further argued that, although legal advances were made, black people still live in concentrated areas of poverty, where they receive inferior education and suffer from widespread unemployment; hence, the unsettled, restless situation in America and the anger and pain now manifesting itself in mass protests all over the United States.

I was surprised to learn that there is no national public holiday declared in the USA to mark Emancipation. The District of Columbia observes a holiday on April 16 to mark the anniversary of the signing of Emancipation Act. Elsewhere in the United States, the emancipation of slaves is celebrated in sections of several states and on different days, including Florida (May 20), Puerto Rico (March 22), Texas (June 19), and in Georgia (Saturday closest to May 29), Mississippi (May 8) and Kentucky (August 8).

In contrast, Jamaica has long recognised August 1 as a day for national celebration. And even when Emancipation Day, for a while, has been subsumed by the August 6 Independence celebrations — 1962 to 1998 — Jamaicans still continued to honour and observe August 1 in communities all over the country with sporting tournaments, parties, fairs and picnics.

The holiday is more than just a welcome break from work when one can lounge around and relax in preparation for Independence Day. For Jamaicans, the day is a very important date in our history as a people, as it represents the time when our forebears were 'freed' from the shackles of chattel slavery.

On this day, August 2, 2020, let us spare a sobering thought for what took place in Jamaica on the night of July 31, 1834.

On that night, 186 years ago, thousands of enslaved Africans flocked to places of worship all over Jamaica to give thanks for the abolition of slavery.

In 1834 many of the slaves could still recall the time when they were uprooted from their peaceful villages and forcefully taken to a port of departure, where they awaited the arrival of a slaver.

The journey to the West Indies was horrible. The ships were overcrowded and unsanitary, resulting in the breakout of various diseases. Many of them died. Others thought least likely to recover were chained, ankle by ankle, and thrown overboard, weighed down with cannonballs…alive.

Those who endured the journey were then forced on to the plantations to begin their sentences of slavery, with multiple whippings, torture, and instances of sexual abuse. Many were killed for daring to seek freedom. The enslaved African was now mere chattel.

So here comes freedom in 1834 from all these unspeakable horrors. Their joy was not to be just another Red Stripe beer, a day at the track, or a Sunsplash night at the park. This was genuine, heartfelt, deeply emotional joy and thanksgiving celebrations: That overwhelming feeling of thanksgiving to the Almighty God who had intervened in the machinations of man and had finally “set the captives free”.

The Emancipation Day holiday, as we celebrate it in 2020, can never fully pay tribute to, or recall the passions and the immensity of the feelings that must have overwhelmed the Africans who, that night, were to hear the “proclamation of liberty to the captives”, and experience for themselves “the opening of the prison doors to them that were bound”.

And can you imagine how our forefathers and mothers celebrated? And did they not have more cause for natural joy than we have today? Those former slaves, yes, our 'owna' family, set the pace for grand times to be had by all when they left church that night to spill out into the streets for joyous celebrations and thanksgiving.

“Queen Victoria gi wi free, tiday fus a Augus', tenky Massa,” they sang, as the women paraded around the rural neighbourhoods in their tailored petticoats “with tashan lace edging”. The Bruckins party songs and dances which have been handed down to the present generation were the highlights of any celebratory gathering: “Jubilee, Jubilee, this is the year of Jubilee...”

We are fortunate to get a first-hand description of what took place in the churches that night from a parson, Reverend Henry Bleby, who was an eyewitness to the event, and who actually conducted the service of thanksgiving and freedom in one of the churches in his charge. From an address which Rev Bleby gave to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1858 we glean how he remembered, in detail, every second of the service, every sob, every gasp, and, at the end of the night, every soulful prayer that sang and ran through the congregation.

“Sirs,” he told his audience, “I was there when slavery was abolished. I saw the monster die. This day, 24 years ago, I stood up late at night, in a very large church (unnamed), and the aisles were crowded, and the gallery stairs, and the communion place, and the pulpit stairs were all crowded, and there were thousands of persons looking in. This was at 10 o'clock at night, on the 31st of July.

“I took my text from Leviticus 25: 10. By and by, the midnight hour approached. When it was within two minutes of the first of August, I requested all the people to kneel down, as befitting the solemnity of the hour, and engage in silent prayer to God.”

A moment of the highest drama was approaching.

“By and by, the clock began to strike: It was the knell of slavery. It was the stroke which proclaimed liberty to 800 souls. And, Sirs, what a burst of joy rolled over that mass of people when the clock struck, and they were slaves no longer.”

Over at the Baptist church in Falmouth a similar procession of time in motion. As the clock started to strike the first chime of midnight, Rev William Knibb said quietly, “The hour is at hand, the monster is dying.” There was silence. Then when the church bell outside struck midnight, he shouted: “The monster is dead: The Negro is free!”

At Rev Bleby's church there was also a heavy silence that had gripped the congregation. Then when the midnight hour struck “a burst of joy rolled over that mass of people as they realised they were slaves no longer”. He told them to rise from their knees, “And, Sirs, it was really affecting to see, in one corner, a mother, with her little one whom she had brought with her, clasp her baby to her bosom. And there was an old, white-headed man, embracing a daughter. And, here again, would be a husband congratulating his wife.”

This is what you call unspeakable feelings. One great, large, significant, unforgettable moment in history. Outside the churches the people gathered to bury the chain shackles all over the countryside.

Rev Bleby, again, takes the platform. “I cannot tell you the feelings which with which those people, just emerging from freedom, shouted. And they literally shouted the hymn which was sung in the church that night:

“Send the glad tidings o'er the sea,

His chains are broken, the slave is free

This is the Negro's jubilee...”

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant and historian. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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