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…The need to pay deference to the distinct wretched experience of African slaves
To be honest, I stay away from extensive social media commentary on ‘Arrival Day’. The reason being, as a student of history who is supremely aware of the passions some historical issues evoke, I hardly play the ball on this one. I stay in the crease, forward defensive if necessary. If you know the history and context in which this holiday emerged, you would emulate the writer.
In my view, anyone who holds a leadership position of much consequence, at any level, must proceed with prudence when attempting to issue statements that seek to commemorate this very important holiday. It deservedly and rightly acknowledges the contributions of our Indo-Guyanese brothers and sisters. However, this little gaffe is not too fixated on another ad nauseam sojourn into Guyana’s intractable ethnic question. It is a simple caution about communicating on this holiday and making the perennial mistake of lumping the experience of descendants of African slaves in the feel-good oratory which seeks to glorify the arrival of all groups on these shores.
ORIGINS AND CONTEXT
I am afraid, I must bore you and re-litigate the past with a bit of not too distant history. On April 14th, 2003, the PPP-led government established a Special Select Parliamentary Committee to review the Public Holidays Act, Chapter19:07. After several meetings which were fraught with numerous discussions on the pros and cons of proposing an Indian Arrival Day, the Committee produced a final report. Members such as Ravi Dev unanimously supported the idea of having an ‘Indian Arrival Day’ in Guyana. Without a doubt, their recommendation was spot on and no one ought to have had an argument against our Indo-Guyanese brothers and sisters having a day in which we stop and celebrate their achievements, from indentured workers to Presidents. After all, this is has been done for years in countries such as Trinidad, Fiji, Jamaica, Grenada, Mauritius, St. Lucia, Suriname and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
But here is the thing: between its journey, from Parliament to Shiv Chanderpaul Drive for assent at the desk of President Bharrat Jagdeo , the recommendation had to grapple with public debates over the issue and in the end, it was finally renamed ‘Arrival Day’. It appears, concerns about the recognition of one group’s achievements at the exclusion of other groups, were considered at the highest level.
THE ART AND THE COMMUNICATION PROBLEM
With all that has been articulated above in mind, consider this. The concept of arrival conjures happy faces of economic migrants arriving on new shores with great aspirations in a new place. Thus, it is easy to be tempted to liken this situation to men and women freely leaving their place of birth for better living and working conditions. As a consequence, on May 5th in Guyana, in haste to issue feel-good statements on the matter, some leaders are of the view that there can be no possibility of committing a faux pas or communication problem if you say: ‘Happy Arrival Day to all groups who came’ or ‘All groups who came here, did so for betterment’. To the dangerous contrary, it is a major mistake and callous disregard for African slaves when one lumps them with those who had the luxury to exercise their right to arrive. As you are well aware, slavery was not fraught with freedom of choice.
But again, here is the problem: I suspect arrival day earnestly and skillfully tries to include Afro-Guyanese insofar as those Africans who arrived from Sierra Leone in 1841 are concerned. In this, the proponents say: ‘African indentured workers arrived in 1841, hence all speeches on Arrival Day that say all groups had the choice are correct’. That might be the case but communicating this has to be fraught with some artistry and prudence. If not, it comes off as condescending or more so, engaging in the dangerous business of revisionist history.
INADVERTENT REVISIONIST HISTORY
Therefore, an educated and prudent leader in a highly polarized society would make the clear distinction between Africans who arrived from Sierra Leone in 1841 and Africans who were dragged from their villages and taken to Barracoons and placed in chains to take the involuntary trip aboard the sailing death traps. There was no happy arriving in this. So here is the thing: if you can’t get the communication right or you lack the linguistic art, it is wise to stay away from saying anything on the matter, lest you find yourself inadvertently engaging in revisionist history.
Revisionist history is a dangerous business that has been and continues to be practiced by ignominious leaders with deadly dishonorable intentions. Understand this: any communication which seeks to pacify or justify slavery, whether intentionally or inadvertently, has to be confronted and debunked with precision. Due to the fact that a cursory glance at history would reveal: the persecution of a people begins with tinkering with history to suit the program to dehumanize, deny and destroy. Therefore, the Afro-Guyanese intelligentsia cannot allow miscommunication on this holiday to simply pass us by.
There is an art of officially communicating on ‘Arrival Day’ when referring to all groups in a highly polarized society. If you do not have the ability, stay away from the subject. Any official communication on the matter which includes all groups, must pay deference to the distinct ignoble experience of African slaves.