Over the past few days, social media in Guyana has been abuzz with the painting of a Black Lives Matter mural in front of the 1763 Monument. While no statement of intent has emerged from the painters of the mural, merely the words themselves and the usual clenched fist logo that accompanies it, the division that the public ‘statement’ has spawned consists of roughly two camps.
On the one hand, the negative reaction has been that the message is not only irrelevant to Guyana since the Black Lives Matter is an American movement spurred by police violence in the United States that has resulted in the unlawful killings of dozens of African-Americans over the past several years. The movement has highlighted not only that violence but also many of the structural issues of race in America, including notably attempts at voter suppression that would disproportionately impact upon African-American and other minority communities in the upcoming November elections. The key argument against the mural and movement here is that the African-American issues are not Afro-Guyanese issues and any attempt to bring it here should be seen as divisive at an already hyper-divided time.
On the other hand, the positive reaction to the mural, or rather the rebuttal to the negative reaction, has been primarily that it does not matter if African-America and Afro-Guyanese issues are not identical – one should not seek to define how and when solidarity for a good cause is defined.
The latter position makes infinitely more sense for many reasons. Guyanese have expressed solidarity, to varying degrees, with humanitarian and human rights causes over the years, from the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa to the more recent battle against homophobia, with the first Pride March held in Guyana in 2018 being attended by hundreds. The global impact of the Black Lives Matter movement is no different, not simply because of the reality of the need for solidarity among people of African origin, particularly in the International Decade of People of African Descent, but because, to quote the incomparable Martin Luther King, Jr., “ “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
In his final essay, written two days before his death and published, as he intended, posthumously, in the New York Times, King’s contemporary and Civil Rights icon, Congressman John Lewis addressed the Black Lives Matter movement:
“When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state… The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”
The Black Lives Matter painted in front of the 1763 Monument is precisely in the spirit of what is needed at this historical juncture, linking the injustice that was at the heart of Kofi’s rebellion in the Dutch colony of Berbice to the not unrelated systemic injustice in America, the world’s greatest democracy, almost three hundred years later. As Lewis intimated, the concepts of Emancipation and Democracy are inextricably intertwined. For example, the right to vote and participate was never afforded to the enslaved person and if a free person’s right to vote is thwarted or suppressed, then that person is denied a central and sacred right of freedom. Any machinery that is engaged in thwarting the democratic right of people to vote, or that is seeking to suppress their vote in its partisan interest is a machinery that is seeking to reverse the hard-fought gains of the fight leading up to Emancipation and all the battles since.
Emancipation Month is always an opportunity, indeed the best opportunity, to initiate a national conversation on race and equality and cohesion in Guyana. Our coastal region – the site of most of our Emancipation celebrations, and the place of residence of the bulk of our population – has been the site of the worst and most oppressive incidents of our history, where the status of one set of human beings was designated in brutal contradistinction over another set of human beings for over 200 years, almost four times as long as we have existed as an independent nation.
For example, at Parade Ground, young boys regularly play football at a place where, two hundred years ago, men who could easily have been their ancestors were slaughtered in relation for participation in what was mostly a non-violent rebellion. While the slave named Quamina is remembered as the leader of the rebellion, it was in fact his son, a 30-year-old named Jack Gladstone, who instigated and led, in August of 1823, what was one of the largest ever uprisings in British slave colonies. Quamina was executed on September 16th of that year, while his son was deported to St. Lucia. Implicated as involved in what is known and commemorated as the Demerara Rebellion was a white man, Reverend John Smith, whose church both Jack and Quamina attended. Smith’s death in prison, while awaiting execution would be the catalyst in part that would eventually lead to the acceleration of the Abolitionist movement in England and eventually to Emancipation in the British colonies. The struggle did not end there however.
Different expressions of cyclical, structural racism have been a stubborn reality of Guyanese life since independence, and there has been enough objective, credible evidence to support its most recent manifestations. For example, in her introduction to her report following her 2008 visit to Guyana, UN Special Rapporteur on Race, Gay McDougall observed:
“Afro-Guyanese with whom the independent expert met described feeling excluded from having a full voice and stake in the national polity and equal enjoyment of rights in many fields of life including employment and economic participation. They reported stigmatization of young Afro-Guyanese males and entire African communities. Derogatory stereotypes of criminality colour wider societal perceptions of Afro-Guyanese individuals and communities.”
No collective of people has had the burden of almost four hundred years of slavery, executed on a global scale. Consequently, no other collective of people has had to rebuild, recreate a civilisation from virtually nothing, recovering from what Derek Walcott referred to as that “deep, amnesiac blow” and creating a life, a culture worthy of commemoration, of celebration. Today, the gift of that burden is a responsibility, one not merely for the ongoing act of self-Emancipation but for recognizing oppression and exploitation and injustice in all their protean contemporary forms, and giving voice to the resistance against any system that would cultivate them.
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