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Emancipation Rising

By Terry Joseph
July 28, 2006

Up to just ten years ago, annual Emancipation observances ranked for little more than public holiday value, even beneficiaries of African heritage avoiding overt connection with the cause, prevaricating on whether it wasn't simply street theatre and even so, of fleeting merit.

The street procession audience largely comprised curiosity seekers, detractors openly jeering at how much sweat issued from the pores of participants dressed in elaborately embroidered agbadas, cynicism endorsed not so long ago at parliamentary level by Trade and Industry Minister, Kenneth Valley who, in response to a query about his avoidance of such clothing, said it would make him look like a "mook".

Even more recently, a radio talk show dedicated much air-time to discussion on why the Lidj Yasu Omowale Village was so named, evidently ignorant of the tremendous contribution to education of the poor by the man in whose honour it is so titled but concluding regardless that its expected trans-tribal impact would have been better served by simply calling it the Emancipation Village.

Other residuals of the 1970 social revolution, like assumption African names, also provided soft targets for those who found such identifiers excessive. "Education is key," the mantra of Emancipation Support Committee (ESC) chairman Khafra Kambon has certainly begun to bear fruit, as evidenced by a dramatic turn around in public understanding and appreciation of the observance.

Now in its 35th year since revival, Emancipation celebrations have truly come a long way, expanding from narrow focus on Port of Spain and Point Fortin to nationwide commemoration. Over the past five years, the number of remembrances developed exponentially. "You measure these things by what you were up against at inception," Kambon says.

Stage agencies, government and private sector workplaces (including the Central Bank and Attorney General's office), otherwise patently conventional in responding to non-religious observances, now consider it imperative to develop public-interface programmes to mark Emancipation; events no longer limited to only fashion shows.

Even the prison system has come on board, with inmates at the maximum security facility teaming up with their custodians to produce banners for processions around the country and, inside the walls, staging their own event in collaboration with the ESC, this year under the inspiring and pertinent theme: "Emancipation Through Rehabilitation."

Reacting to unambiguous public response, government funding of Emancipation activities has also taken a significant leap upward. Last year, the major procession in Port of Spain attracted more than 20,000 participants, a far cry from the straggling bunch that, back in 1971, braved derision to implement this aspect of the celebrations.

It has not been difficult to appreciate the increasingly creative presentations by groups hailing from just about every village, improving not only numbers but the procession's aesthetic and doing so in a non-competitive environment.

Although the procession and rally can claim centerpiece status, much broader perspectives in both education and entertainment inform design of the festival agenda. Among a number of internationally acclaimed acts brought here to share the marquee with local stars was revered African composer Bongani Ndodana, who visited in 2002 to present the world premiere of "Songs of Remembrance, Songs of Freedom", a symphony specially written for pan. On Monday night, Africa's first lady of song, Miriam Makeba will join that list.

Parallel educational activities, including lectures and symposia by Pan-African scholars and activists, a business symposium offering opportunities for networking and development and other such presentations complete the festival programme, bringing another level of integrity to annual observances.

Among us will always be those who sneer at outpourings of respect for heritage, shielding themselves with the unassailable argument that we are all Trini, as if such concepts were mutually exclusive but even that diminishing group must regard strides made over the past 35 years by determined keepers of the flame.

One thing is certain: With each passing year, more Trinis of African heritage are joining in the celebration and consequently fewer are left to scoff at it and, at every sequence, the festival's form and content have risen to match its still-evolving circumstances.

Although the psychological damage left by centuries of enslavement will necessarily take time to be completely erased from the thinking of descendants of the shackled, Bob Marley's urging (in "Redemption Song") remains the critical first step: "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds."

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