Dedicated to our young students of History and my former classmate B.J. May we always remember how truly a proud, courageous, and intelligent people our African ancestors were, and that we must claim their spirit. All that is left, is for us to use it to fully emancipate our minds!
The expression Caribbean culture conjures up in the minds of the ill-informed, images of carnival, rum and coconut water, happy-go-lucky smiling people, rastafarians, reggae, calypso, marijuana, and so on. These stereotypical images are due in part to the Caribbean governments’ proliferation of avid tourism campaigns often void of any African references, the unwillingness of the Europeans to learn about and respect the cultural make-up of other peoples, and the acceptance and perpetuation of these stereotypes by Caribbean citizens themselves. Sad to say, so many of us often engage ourselves, quite aggressively, in petty nationalistic debate over who has the best albeit commercialized carnival, best food, best beaches... Further, the adherence to the above stereotypes serves another agenda, whether intentional or not, it helps to conceal the multiplicity of interacting cultures in the Caribbean, and the inherent conflicts in these cultures competing for scarce resources.
Culture in the Caribbean as I prefer to refer to it, is multi-faceted, dynamic, and rich. At a broad level, culture in the Caribbean has emerged as a result of a forced marriage between European and African cultures, and a later osmotic fusion of this marriage with cultural elements from Asia. At a more definitive level, culture in the Caribbean spans among others, pop, folk, resistance, religious, and class cultures. It is the pop culture of the Caribbean which is amplified, while resistance culture for example, which has played pivotal roles in the emancipation of enslaved Africans and the fight of the underclass, receives little fanfare. It is this culture which heralds people like Sam Sharpe, Miss Lou, Paul Bogle, Marcus Garvey, Uriah Butler, Maurice Bishop, and Walter Rodney. It is this culture which I would like to highlight in this article.
One of the primary motivating forces behind early resistance culture among African-Caribbeans, was the search for an African identity. The Maroons in Jamaica, St. Kitts, and Barbados, for example, waged 50 years of resistance against plantation owners, and formed their own communities with their own leaders. In addition to the relentless pressure on the sugar plantations by the Maroons, there were numerous other rebellions. Toussaint L'ouverture led Haiti to independence in a war against the French. Sam Sharpe led a plantation uprising in 1831 protesting the harsh treatment under slavery. Paul Bogle led the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica in 1865. All these individuals were protesting dehumanization and deculturation brought about by the European Slave Trade. Even after the Africans were freed, they continued their resistance movement, refusing to work for former slave owners in an attempt to destroy the plantation economy.
While there were several other bloody uprisings in throughout the other Caribbean islands, Africans waged their resistance to slavery and cultural domination on other fronts. They fought back through music to express anger and frustration. The blaring of the abeng (cow horn) was a call to take up arms. Drumming was used to dispel the forces perpetrating self-hatred and a rejection of Africa. And though the drumming was forbidden, Africans resisted vehemently. They adapted European music to suit their own needs, being forced to participate in it. Several forms of folk music in the Caribbean reflect the fusion of African and European musical forms: the beguine in St. Lucia, mento in Jamaica, salsa in Cuba, and bossa nova in Brazil, are all examples of this fusion.
Several other musical forms have emerged. Calypso which originated in Trinidad, provided and continues to provide an excellent vehicle for social commentary. Jamaican reggae music has its roots in the plight of the underclass, and is by far the most internationally known form of Caribbean music. Artists like Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, Steel Pulse, have all been international ambassadors of reggae music. Reggae music is also at the root of protest culture in Jamaica, as well as some parts of the Caribbean, England, and North America. It is largely the Jamaican populace in those countries that help to maintain the use of reggae in protesting racism and other forms of social injustice in England, Canada, and the United States.
In Trinidad, Africans invented the steel drum music which was dismissed by the upper class as noise. The steel drum music has its roots in the stick-fighting tradition. Stick-fighting was a way for Africans to demonstrate and maintain their skill and prowess. When they participated in Carnival processions, Africans performed stick-fighting rituals. The Africans also used their sticks to provide rhythmic sound. To the slave-owners this was unsettling, as the sticks were effective weapons. This was soon banned, and the Africans had to find other forms of rhythm. By hammering the surfaces of drums and dividing them to produce different sounds, the steel band was born. To the African, the steel drum made a powerful political statement - it symbolized African creativity, power, and ownership.
The rastafarian movement in Jamaica is another popular form of protest culture. It has is roots in Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement. Marcus Garvey, is a National and International hero whose philosophies were aimed at instilling pride and dignity in the African. Though his movement was extremely popular with the working class, it was despised by Europeans and African assimilationists of European cultural values.
Africans in the Caribbean fought to maintain their cultural tradition by forming clubs called Nations in all the islands. Each nation had to pledge to preserve African language, culture, religion, and music.
As in the case of North America, much of the African resistance movement was steeped in religion. Despite the attempts at christianization, Africans were determined to have their religions survive. The Shango in Trinidad and Cuba, Voodun in Haiti, Santeria in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil and the Dominican Republic, Cumina in Jamaica, Junkanoo in Jamaica, St. Kitts, and the Bahamas, and Umbanda and Candomble in Brazil, are still surviving today as a result of this resistance. It is possible to find a midnight ceremony in progress in parts of Cuba and Haiti against the backdrop of African drumming.
The church played a strong role in many uprisings. Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle, George William Gordon, were all Baptiste preachers. The Africans formed their own churches to fight back christianization. In addition, churches provided an effective meeting place for Africans.
African-Caribbean resistance culture further manifests itself in educational issues. Today there is a major drive towards the reclamation of history and vocabulary. In post-emancipation Haiti, a group of African writers formed what they called the Griots (Story-tellers) society. They were determined to erase the negative images of the African painted by Europeans.
A number of languages and/or dialects evolved in the Caribbean as a result of the imposition of the slave-owner's language on the African. Kweyol, which represents a fusion of African and French (not broken French as many refer to it as) is spoken in the French Antilles (Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, Dominica, and French Guiana in South America). In the English colonies, a fusion of African and English led to patios. In the Dutch Antilles, the fusion of African and Dutch is called Papliemento. Papliemento, Patios and Kweyol were all snubbed by the enslavers as they represented to them, the bastardization of their language. Class-seeking Africans and the mixed African-Europeans also despised the language. Nonetheless, the Africans recognized the power in that language. Kweyol for example, played a very important role in the Haitian revolution.
These languages now form the vernacular of these islands due to the persistence of the people who spoke them. Today these languages enjoy prominence, and in some places, such as in the French Antilles, and Dutch Antilles, there are government sponsored attempts to document the language, and to create dictionaries. In that regard, the Dutch Antilles are further ahead.
Today, resistance culture continues to describe a major part of the lives of Africans in the Diaspora. Many of the injustices faces by our African ancestors in the Caribbean and in North America, are still being dealt with today. The use of churches, the formation of societies, the pen of our writers (Griots), the use of vernacular poetry, calypso, and reggae music are all elements of the contemporary resistance cultural movement which bears striking resemblance to the resistance movement during the enslavement period. Though some aspects of early resistance culture have crossed over to pop culture (namely, carnival, calypso, and reggae), these vehicles often reflect a duality. They are in fact still used to defy much of the colonial baggage Caribbean people still carry.
Despite the brevity of this piece, the debt that we owe our ancestry is clear. To allow their work, strength, and courage and suffering, to go unnoticed, unheralded, and to be superseded by beaches, sunshine, and rum would be disrespectful, ungrateful, and unAfrican. We must continue to praise our African parents who struggled for our betterment, who under no circumstance would self-subjugate, but rather, were captives in an evil system. We must keep up the struggle to emancipate ourselves from the shackles of a colonial legacy.
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