Why honour and celebrate August 1?Friday, July 23, 2021
Louis E A
There is still fear surrounding the idea of a real black majority in Jamaican politics. It was this fear that inspired the abandonment of the August 1 holiday in 1962. Emancipation Day is sacred and should not be left to the whims and fancies of politicians. Emancipation Day must be organised as a point of activation for the reassessment of our politics in terms of race as a neglected force, and it ought to become a central feature in national politics, especially in the present discussions on constitutional change.
The decision to celebrate Jamaica's Independence Day on the first Monday in August was accompanied with the abandonment of Emancipation Day. The displacement of this tradition of honour and celebration reflects the reluctance of our political leaders to fully accept and recognise our history, folk tradition, and culture. If the logic is that our future is guided by our sound interpretation of the past, then we must recognise the importance of deliberately and continuously honouring our history and its legacy.
Race and the constitution
In late July 1938 there was a newspaper editorial calling for the abandonment of the planned celebration of the 100th anniversary of Emancipation. This request was grounded in the history of white fear in Jamaica. The issue was that the celebrations may stir up the ugly past of the ex-slave society. In other words, the blacks would become violent.
August 1 was the first holiday for the ex-slaves in Jamaica. In fact, it was the first established holiday that stemmed from Jamaican, rather than British heritage, but the rejection was grounded in the hubristic qualities of the white elites in Jamaica. The ex-slaves began their celebrations from midnight on July 31 – some had religious services, others observed the occasion with lots of drumming, killing of animals for the festivities, as well as various forms of civic activities. It was at this time that they were able to express how it felt to be free.
As a boy, I learnt that Emancipation is when the slave duppies come out to enjoy their freedom. We were instructed not to go to bird bush on that day. I do not know what the generations of the 1970s and 1980s learnt about this sacred day.
One of the first black traditions to fall victim to the 1962 constitution and Independence project was the discontinuation of the recognition and celebration of Emancipation — the free people of Jamaica celebrated their liberation from slavery from 1838 to 1961.
What is the relationship between this perception of race and the constitution? The history of white fear continued into 1962 and was reflected in the writing of the constitution. Against this background, I have described it as a conservative document because it neglected the history and culture of the majority of people living in Jamaica. For example, there isn't even a preamble that speaks of the history; the struggles of the past.
The seminal words of the Jamaican Constitution of 1962 are about the Order In Council, the British Queen, and Buckingham Palace. How can there be democracy when the majority in the country is discriminated against by the country's constitution? It is racist? Where is the evidence? The proof is in the constitution document. For example, colonial laws, by and large, were developed out of racism. These laws were not changed in 1962; they were carried forward into Independence, including the criminal sentence of lashing.
Rejection of black majority
The discontinuation of the celebration of Emancipation Day in 1962 was a great error committed by the Government and political leaders of independent Jamaica. Deeper neglect and denial of the race and colour issue became visible in the development of the national symbols, especially in the crystallisation of the national motto: “Out of many, one people.”
There is a view that the adoption of the national motto is an indication of the intent to “reject race, colour, and class problems” in Jamaica. Another view states that, at the time of Independence, the bipartisan support for the national motto reflects a deliberate and distinctive search for a racially neutral formula or unifying symbol that would not unduly excite racial conflicts.
One leading political scholar argues that the ideology of multiracialism should, therefore, be seen as an attempt to neutralise the hostility of the black masses towards a situation in which whites and other racial minorities dominate and control the local economy. There is also the view that the design of the flag reflects both the problem of denial and rejection of race. The colour black appears in the flag, but not as a representation of the ideals of the black masses. The leaders of independent Jamaica considered the black in the flag not to be symbolic of race or the skin pigmentation of the vast majority of the population, but to be symbolic of the “hardship we must face and overcome”.
The other national symbols are similar; they bear no reflection of the history of black people in Jamaica, their victories and vision. There are clear justifications to make the charge that the 1962 Jamaican Constitution is conservative and racist due to its failure to recognise black history and the struggle for freedom, the carryover of slavery/colonial laws, and the neglect of human rights of the majority of the Jamaican people.
If we use our creative imagination we can envision how it must have felt to be free after midnight in Jamaica on July 31 to the dawning of August 1, 1838. Let Emancipation Day become the platform for discussions on the transformation of Jamaican politics. We will not be alone. People all over the world are looking deeper into their history to come up with alternatives to the societies created by slavery, conquest, colonisation and the plantation society – the 'old world'.
The 'new world' will emerge through the collective energies of the peoples who comprise the sovereign nations. The people of like colour and culture are coming together to develop a critical mass in service of change. Dates are important in the lives of people as well as the history of societies. We celebrate religious holidays, national holidays, birthdays, and other important anniversaries. The first of August is a most significant date – almost sacred.
Today, we need history more than ever to lead the way. As a people we can all express the wish that successive Jamaican governments had made better use of history in decision-making. Let us make a small step, let us continue to give recognition to an occasion that will be a point of activation and a force to galvanise the collective energies of our people towards a more meaningful future. August 1, make it our day!
Louis E A Moyston, PhD, is a consultant and radio talk show presenter. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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