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Wednesday 20 November 2019
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Remembering slavery

DEBBIE JACOB

I AM NEVER able to take an important holiday like Emancipation Day and confine it to one day. Those holidays tend to linger in my mind for days – even weeks later. For me, Emancipation Day is an important holiday that reminds us of the injustice of slavery as it pays tribute to all those nameless souls who suffered in a system of bondage that offered nothing more in life than unspeakable cruelty.

Of course these are lessons that we should remember every day of the year. Since Emancipation Day falls in the school holidays, it’s a good time for students – as well as their parents – to discover important books about slavery.

A form of slavery has always existed in some shape throughout history, but the slavery that defined the plantation systems of the Western Hemisphere was a particularly heinous crime because it encompassed most of the world. I have never been able to fully grasp just how that could have happened.

Just when it seems possible to somewhat imagine what slavery might have been like, another movie or book comes out and presents a new level of cruelty. I prefer those movies and books – even if they happen to come from outside of the Caribbean – that create a new revelation about the subject.

Two of the best books that have been turned into movies are The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by Victoria E Bynum and Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup because they provide little known information about slavery.

Bynum’s book about a county in the state of Mississippi that broke away from the confederacy during the US Civil War creates a new layer of complexity to the slavery/civil war story. Northup’s autobiography exposes another version of the slave trade where free blacks in the North were kidnapped and sold as slaves in the South.

Toni Morrison wrote my favourite novel about slavery, Beloved, about a former slave woman who lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, after the Civil War. Sethe is haunted by the baby she killed so the baby would not grow up to be a slave. Morrison uses magical realism to set the tone for this historical novel that shows how the soul can never be destroyed. Unfortunately, the Oprah Winfrey movie of Beloved failed to capture the magical realism that defined the story.

But we don’t have to depend on US authors to widen our knowledge of slavery. We are lucky to have important books about slavery written by West Indians. Much of that writing is heavily academic in tone, but there are books that transcend their academic role and reach out to a wider audience as well.

My two favourite books are The Language of Dress: Resistance and Accommodation in Jamaica, 1750-1890 by Steeve (sic) O Buckridge, an Ian Randle publication, and The Colour of Shadows: Images of Caribbean Slavery by Judy Raymond.

In a fascinating display of silent communication, Buckridge shows how Jamaican slave women fashioned statements of resistance through the clothes they wore.

The Colour of Shadows is important on so many levels: as a vivid example of literary journalism, history, research and biography. This book features Richard Bridgens, the English-born artist and plantation owner, who documented the waning years of slavery with his drawings. This is an important visual account of West Indian slavery for a region that doesn’t have endless money to make movies to drive that visual image home. Most importantly, The Colour of Shadows provides a voice for slaves whose stories had been buried in archives.

These are the books and images that make me realise how important it is to not only remember slavery and its place in Caribbean history, but also to delve deeper into that subject to discover the stories of resistance and survival that sustain West Indian culture.

As Nobel laureate Toni Morrison once said in an interview, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Slavery was horrific, but what I always wondered about is those that survived.”

Indeed, the survivors left a legacy of strength and creativity that we marvel at today.

As I write this, my friend Luesette, who is travelling to Chicago, messages me to say she just discovered The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan by Gisil Palsson. The author presents the story of a former slave living in Iceland, and the story of Danish slavery in the Danish West Indies, which are now the US Virgin Islands.

There is so much to read and discover about slavery.

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