On the first Monday of August, Kadooment Day, I am usually drunk before noon. Yesterday, in any other year, I would have woken up sometime around 6 a.m., donned my costume which would have been little more than a bikini with feathers, and made my way down to the national stadium where a few thousand other bejewelled revellers would be gathered. Then, from sunup ‘til sundown I would have danced, flag in the air, the sun sweltering and unimpeded against bare flesh.
On August 1st 1834 slavery was abolished in the British colonies. In my home, Barbados, this day is called Emancipation Day and is celebrated during the Crop Over season. Crop Over has its origins in colonial times when slaves would celebrate the end of harvest but was revived in the 70s as a cultural festival and tourist attraction. Because Emancipation Day falls during Crop Over season, the two are often conflated and the commemoration of the abolition of slavery, at least for me personally, is often lost in the spectacle of carnival. And perhaps there is nothing wrong with this. Perhaps the fact that each year the entire island comes alive with celebration is a tribute to our ancestors, whose freedom came after more than two centuries of back-breaking toil. Perhaps if they were here now they too would dance.
This year, however, I am four thousand miles from home and I spend the day fastidiously avoiding social media so as to spare myself the pangs of nostalgia and regret that inevitably plague any Caribbean person who is away from home during carnival season. I am rereading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” and thinking about emancipation.
Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the compounded effects of slavery, Jim Crow and discriminatory housing and lending practices in the United States have prevented African-Americans from accumulating inter-generational wealth. Laying out his case for reparations in unequivocal prose, Coates compels us to question the narrative which has relegated the reparations argument to the political exile of leftist liberal inanity, so much so that Congress has continually rejected HR-40, a bill calling only for the creation of a commission to study the effects of slavery on African – Americans.
I do not know what reparations might look like, nor do I know for certain if reparations are in fact appropriate. I do believe however that talking about reparations is critical, if only for the sake of raising to the level of national consciousness the reality of the injustices inflicted upon the black population in the US, from slavery to present day, and, perhaps more importantly, of reminding Americans of the extent to which the wealth of their nation is attributable to generations of free labour stolen from black people. I believe the conversation is much overdue and the resistance to the call for just this, a conversation, is telling of the degree of selectively to which the American historical memory is subject.
In the case of Barbados, the issue of reparations is further complicated by our independence from the UK. Whereas in the United States, where slavery evolved into institutionalized racism and has been perpetuated by the US government through systemic discrimination to this present day, in Barbados, our independent government has fought a long and hard battle to raise our majority black population out of poverty and to overcome the legacy of colonialism.
I don’t know how much slavery cost my country. I do not believe calculations have been made, though in his book Capitalism and Slavery, the brilliant Trinidadian historian Eric Williams elucidates in economic terms the extent to which the Industrial Revolution was financed by slavery. But beyond the benefits to England I cannot begin to sum our losses. I don’t know what our soil, long depleted from years of mono-cropping sugar cane, would be worth today. I do not know how much our economy could have grown had we been allowed to refine sugar ourselves rather than be relegated to that of producer of raw materials. I do not know what the contribution of those men and women who died, lost beneath rows of cane arrows, could have been. How many greats minds did we lose? When I think about the intellectual strength and creative capacity it must have taken to build Barbados into what it is today given this deficit, I am left in awe of my ancestors.
So on Kadooment Day, though I am far from home, I think of my friends who make their way down Spring Garden highway in dancing bands, the Caribbean Sea a glittering blue in the background and I can almost hear the soca music, almost feel the hot pavement beneath my feet. I picture them smiling in the sunshine, so beautiful in their regalia, so free. And I think of my ancestors who made it so, I think of all we owe them.
I think of my ancestors and of what they are owed.