by Kellon Bubb
The International Council on Monuments and Sites defines Cultural Heritage as “an expression of the ways of living developed by a community and passed on from generation to generation, including customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values. Cultural Heritage is often expressed as either Intangible or Tangible Cultural Heritage (ICOMOS, 2002)”.
So that when the Ministry of Tourism and Culture in Grenada concluded — after what they suggested was careful thought and deliberation — to observe the reenactment of slavery during the worldwide commemoration of cultural heritage month, they have essentially insulted and dishonored the dignity of our African ancestors whose legacies far outstrip the atrocity that was in the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries.
We must first begin from the premise that the history of people of African descent didn’t begin with slavery, and as such, attempting to define slavery as a form of cultural heritage, or a starting point from which to understand our collective memory is an affront to black Caribbean history and is a disservice to youth who deserve to be imparted with historically accurate and nuanced knowledge around slavery, colonialism, post-colonialism, resistance to slavery, our black ancestry predating the arrival of slaves from Africa, and all other important historical events that have come to define our collective identities over the many centuries.
One would imagine that government officials tasked with staging events to observe cultural heritage month would have at least consulted with other more experienced countries who have experienced systemic oppression to develop best practices for commemorating one of the darkest periods of Caribbean and world history. There are important lessons to be extrapolated for example from the Jewish community and post-Nazi German governments who treat the sites of the Holocaust as sacred burial grounds. Modern Germany commemorates the German Holocaust every year with deep reverence and respect for the Jewish dead. There is no reenactment of the events surrounding the Holocaust, and by extension, the Jewish people would never define their cultural heritage through the oppressive lenses of the Holocaust. Minister Hood and her ministry could have also learnt instructive lessons from post-apartheid South Africa which would never re-enact the events of the minority white South African apartheid regime of decades earlier, as a starting point to educate and empower its majority black population on the history of apartheid, let alone use these events as a tourism promotional tool. The best practice for commemorating any act of atrocity against a population has to be situated within an educational, solemn and reverential context and ought not to be used as a pretext for tourism promotion.
The committee, which may be dismissive of the criticism offered here and by other opinion leaders and civil society voices as exhibited by their contempt of the actions of Attorney-at-Law Jerry Edwin who was arrested after attempting to protest the event (he has a constitutional right to free expression under the Grenada Constitution), and their stubborn refusal to acknowledge how tasteless this bad idea was, may benefit from some cogent suggestions which would ensure that such a folly is never repeated.
Firstly, the slave plantations which are still present on the island should be sacred ground, and it might be a good idea for government and the current owners of these structures of oppression to not only treat these facilities as historical monuments but to also utilise these sites as spaces of honour and solemnity. Erecting proper memorials honouring the untold thousands of African ancestors brutally killed in the process of supporting an unjust economic order against their will, is a very important starting point. Every former slave plantation where these “great houses” built by slaves now stand should have such a memorial. One cannot reflect on the colonial past without giving proper voice to the free labour that was responsible for the maintenance of such an order.
Secondly, the committee and other heritage stakeholders must give serious reflection to the quality of history that is taught to students at the primary and secondary levels, and should also empower homegrown intellectuals of history with the tools to rethink the preservation of cultural heritage, and to redefine the veracity of history that is taught to the descendants of African peoples in the Caribbean. For too long, we have taught history using the lenses of the white man — the victor — while the stories of the victim are never properly ventilated and given equal academic and historical treatment. Winston Churchill, perhaps not acknowledging the role of the British Empire in the destruction of diverse regions of the world once said: “history is always written by the victor,” and it is that history which must be dismantled in our academic curriculums. For example, we have always been fed the egregious lie that the first settlers of the Caribbean, the Carib and Arawak Indians were cannibals, and were uncivilised. I grew up with the now-debunked assertion that native Caribbean people were in fact, savage beasts when that is far from the truth. We were also fed the half-truth that the Carib Indians committed suicide at Leapers Hill, using the historical account of the savage Frenchmen who wrested control of the island of Camerhogne (Grenada’s original name) from the native people, to then make the assertion in our history books that they “discovered” the island, when in fact, a civilisation existed in the Western Hemisphere (not the Americas or the “New World”) hundreds of years before the murderous Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain to the Caribbean.
Thirdly, any commemoration of an island’s heritage must seriously consider how we use spaces in which we bring our history alive. There is a serious opportunity for Grenadian authorities to perform comprehensive overhaul of the Grenada National Museum to include every aspect of our islands’ heritage such as the stories of the indentured servants who arrived here after Emancipation, a proper documenting of the culture which evolved in the post-emancipation era such as Carnival, the Jab Jab, Sailor Mas, Wild Indian, Short-Knee, etc. We should systematically trace the development of calypso in Grenada in the early 1900’s, well as use the space to properly document the introduction of steel pan in the 1930’s from Trinidad into Grenada. This space should honour our artists, musicians, freedom fighters, black rebels who resisted slavery outside of the Julien Fedon story and a celebrate the range of diverse aspects of cultural heritage which ought not to be reduced to a tasteless annual reenactment.
If heritage tourism is a priority for the Government of Grenada, then this is a perfect opportunity to mobilise the best and the brightest citizens at home and in the diaspora, with the talent and imagination to bring our heritage alive outside of the annual celebration of carnival. Having a haphazardly planned one-time event should not be a badge of honour, or a checkmark for the purposes of publicity or tourism promotion. Jewish citizens in former Nazi strongholds in Europe do not use former Holocaust sites to reenact gas chamber deaths for tourists to gawk at. Similarly, we should not use former killing fields as sites for reenactments. These stunts always backfire in spectacular fashion.