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Emancipation in TT

I’ve now experienced my first Emancipation Day in Trinidad. In my usual research, I discovered Emancipation Day was first recognised in TT on August 1, 1985 – making it the first country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery on a set date.

There is, however, a bit of debate. It may be argued that Jamaica was the first to declare it a national holiday. However, while TT had the specific date, August 1, Jamaica initially marked it on the first Monday of August each year, referred to as “Auguss mawnin’.”

I always thought Jamaica declared it a national holiday first, and so, on learning of this debate, I had a hearty laugh with a Trinidadian who I believe knows almost everything there is to know about the history of TT.

Two days before, I noticed people wearing clothes with African aesthetics – but somehow I failed to make the connection immediately.

It was not until the day before the big day that I had the ‘aha’ moment. By that point it was unavoidable. I would’ve had to be blind not to notice Port of Spain turn into a scene from Black Panther, or better yet, that scene from Coming to America when Prince Akeem throws a party to find a wife.

On Tuesday, walking through Port of Spain, I must admit I felt a little bit left out. I wondered, “Why is this not a thing in Jamaica? What is it about Trinidad that makes everyone so excited to put on African clothing and proudly come out into the city? “Is it because the people of TT really just revel in any opportunity to dress up in what may feel like costumes? Or is it because the multi-cultural landscape gives 41 per cent (and more) of the population a reason to represent their ancestry with pride?”

In Jamaica, there were always cultural shows and other events, but I could never recall seeing a parade of the kind that TT stages. Nor could I recall the whole nation, or most of it, showing that kind of display of pride in our African heritage.

Out of genuine concern, I contacted my mother to confirm that I was not merely oblivious to Jamaicans doing the same; but she confirmed, “It is not a thing here at all. People just wear our colours (black, green and gold) on Jamaica Day.”

From what I saw on social media, and heard from people, Emancipation Day in TT has been of this magnitude for over ten years, generally opening a series of events with cannes brulées, followed by a parade through Port of Spain. The Prime Minister and other officials were part of the parade, dressed in the finest African attire. Drummers paraded, and women and children of all shades and ages marched and danced along. A wide range of African cuisine, fashion and music was available at the Queen’s Park Savannah.

Emancipation Day parade in Port of Spain. PHOTO SUREASH CHOLAI 01-08-18

Viewing the videos and photos from the parade online was surreal. It was almost like another kind of Carnival. I smiled to myself, and again I thought, “Trinis are something else.” It was magnificent.

On the other hand, I noticed that days like these open conversation on an underlying issue of race in TT. Going through social media, I saw outbreaks of racial slurs. Many resulted in exchanges I would not have imagined seeing shared by people who all form part of a tiny collection of islands.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, centre and his wife Sharon, left, and Culture Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly brave the rain to participate in the Emancipation Day parade in Port of Spain on Wednesday.

It opened the floor for a long conversation with friends, who told me the same thing happens during Divali, the Festival of Lights, which is of East Indian origin. During this time, the people of TT come out in East Indian attire, and there are commemorations throughout the islands. And in a similar way, racism or racially influenced negativity rears its ugly head.

I thought it unfortunate that such a beautiful display of our magnificent differences could become something to trigger “othering” and unkindness. It reminded me of many Jamaicans who would prefer to latch on to some parts of their ancestry, while separating themselves from others. It reminded me of the deep lack of emancipation from mental slavery that still chains so many of us together and apart in this magical region of everything.

I look forward to wearing my Prince Akeem next year. And hope to see more of everybody celebrating our differences as much as we celebrate our similarities on the Savannah stage.


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