Watch Night is July 31st into August 1st annually. August 1st 1834 is Emancipation Day – the day the enslaved people of African descent in Antigua and Barbuda got their figurative freedom paper. Watch Night was held, as it has been in more recent years, at the Botanical Gardens/Victoria Park just outside of town instead of the traditional home, former sugar plantation Betty’s Hope. A highlight of the night was the reflections by main speaker Dr. Natasha Lightfoot, a US based Antiguan and Barbudan professor and author of Troubling Freedom.
As she demonstrated on Watch Night, Dr. Lightfoot dips in to the shadows, beyond the legends and big moments of history to find the personal stories of people robbed of their voice and their humanhood. On Watch Night 2018, she told of pre-Emancipation rumblings in the St. George’s area which made the ‘masters’ antsy enough to call out the national guard. She told, too, of a woman from McKinnons who found herself adrift post-Emancipation. This is in contrast to the McKinnons family in Britain, who received their portion of the 20 million pounds paid to the former exploiters of enslaved people as compensation for their loss of ‘property’. The woman at the centre of the tale Lightfoot, meanwhile was cut off from her home and work post-Emancipation (due to age) and from the piece of ground she worked to sustain herself (due to it not belonging to her); so that as she claims her personhood, she loses everything else. Her daughter, who had her own children to care for, helped her as best she could but it was a poor hand to mouth existence. This was freedom for her, and yet her voice rang out that she was free – and in its echoes this 184 years later, we hear the affirmation that freedom (however imperfect) beats enslavement any day of the week.
In addition to Troubling Freedom for insights in to Antigua and Barbuda post-Emancipation, I also recommend Keithlyn and Fernando Smith’s To Shoot Hard Labour, which is the first person accounting of the life of Antiguan workingman Papa Sammy Smith.
Listening to Dr. Lightfoot, I remarked that this history needs to be taught; so too the history of Africa, home of the ancestors of the majority of the population. There is inarguably a knowing of self that comes of knowing one’s particular history. To Shoot Hard Labour in particular, I believe and I’m not alone in this, should be required reading in our schools. I remember when it was introduced to me in secondary school in the mid-1980s by my history teacher. It was a visceral experience. To this day I remember Harty Bab, a woman in To Shoot Hard Labour who more than 40 years post Emancipation was whipped and locked in a cellar where she died, her mouth and nose eaten off by a rat, for perceived insubordination. I remember the determination to reconnect with family post-Emancipation and to build a new life away from the plantation. Villages like Freemansville, where there is a road named for Papa Sammy, are testament to this. We learn (about our selves and others about us) from reading books like To Shoot Hard Labour and Troubling Freedom. We learn that 1834 wasn’t an end but a new beginning – and a rough one. The legislative shackles tying our ancestors here in Antigua and Barbuda to their former lives as chattel slaves would only really truly begin to slacken with the labour movement of the early 20th century. How well do we know that history?
These are the kinds of reflections Watch Night inspires and for that reason, primarily, it’s a shame that it’s not printed on and promoted as part of the official Carnival programme, and not more integrated into the festivities. Forgive me for feeling it’s a bit disingenuous every time a Government Minister comes and in the obligatory remarks suggests that it should be. Because if they don’t have the power to make it so, who does?
Watching the dancing and listening to the singing and spoken word, one has to wonder why Watch Night can’t be brought more centre stage opening up its audience and meaningfulness. Don’t get me wrong, I love Carnival; but who’s to say we wouldn’t all love it more, drawing some of the meaning underscored by Watch Night back in to it.
My personal highlights of Watch Night 2018 include Dr. Lightfoot’s speech, singing along to Rivers of Babylon with the Nyabinghi Drummers, King Frank I calling out the names of the martyred heroes of the aborted 1736 revolt in Antigua as he does every year, King Zacari’s performance of his classic hit calypso Guilty of Being Black, and Kiyode Erasto rap-singing the reggae-tinged Strength and Power which, to my mind, has become the official theme song of Watch Night.
This sponsored post originally appeared on Jhohadli; contact Jhohadli/Joanne C. Hillhouse. This installment is sponsored by the Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project, a creative writing workshop for teens/pre-teens which will run from August 13th – 17th 2018 (contact Hillhouse for registration information). If you wish to sponsor a future post in support of coverage of Antiguan and Barbudan arts and culture, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. All Rights Reserved.
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