Ancestors Honored at Emancipation Celebration

Drums, dance and poetry dominated the Emancipation Day Celebration on Thursday, as organizations and citizens gathered in Emancipation Garden to honor their ancestors and commemorate a rich history of revolution.

This year’s Emancipation Celebration got off to a slow start. Fifteen minutes before the planned 9:30 a.m. start time, only a dozen people had arrived.

“It’s a holiday,” said Steve Isaac, member of the Pan-African Support Group. “People are still sleeping. They’ll be here soon enough.”

The event was hosted by The Emancipation Coalition, but it is really a conglomeration of various groups, including the PASG, the University of the Virgin Islands’ Summer Band, Environmental Rangers and We Grow Food Inc. to name a few.

According to Isaac, they have been hosting the event for decades. The event is meant to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation of July 3,1848, after Gov. Gen. Peter Von Scholten was forced to officially grant slaves their freedom after an uprising led by Moses “General Buddhoe” Gottlieb.

By the time more people arrived with banners and other decorations, Brother Lumumba, another member of the Emancipation Coalition, set up the PA system.

As the UVI Summer Band set up their chairs and stands, traditional calypso music could be heard from the loud speakers. A single airy flute playing Queen Mary was accompanied by a minimal percussion background.

Plastered to the front of the gazebo was a banner that read “African Emancipation Day.” Beneath the words was a drawing of two shackled fists with a broken link in the chain that bound the two hands.

Nearing 10 a.m. the event was under way, and PASG member George Larsen walked over to the liberty bell and rang it a few times, officially starting the event.

Master of ceremonies Eric Akinyemi Blake told crowd, we are here because our ancestors chose to sacrifice, “to hide their religion, to hide their culture, to hide their name.” Now is not the time to hide them, he said. “It’s time to show them and past them on.”

As historical figures of African ancestry were called out, the liberty bell was rung for each name.

Among them were freedom fighter Queen Coziah, labor leader David Hamilton Jackson and civil rights activist Rothschild Francis.

A libation followed in traditional Yoruba form meant to honor dead ancestors by pouring water on the ground. Oba-yemi Blake, Eric Blake’s son, scooped water from a wooden chalice and sprinkled it at his feet as Eric Blake called the names of his ancestors. The crowd was then encouraged to call the names of dead family members or whoever they chose.

“Martin Luther King Jr.,” yelled someone.

“Mandela,” yelled another.

The Wachanga Drummers performed a lengthy drum session for the grateful audience. The drummers were mostly youth, but Afrekan Southwell, a PSAG member and elder Rastafarian, sat with the young people and played his drum.

In the background Jason Meade and Isaac blew the conch shell. The low throaty moan accompanied the drums and chatter.

“Funga alafia,” Southwell chanted to the audience.

“Ashay ashay,” the audience chanted back.

The Memorial Moravian Summer Enrichment Camp was especially enthusiastic in their chants. Little children as young as 5 yelled “ashay” as the drummers continued their rhythm.

We brought them out to share in the festivities, said Yolanda Riviere, the camp organizer. “We gave them a little summary before they got here, but a lot of them don’t know the history,” she said.

With the children from the summer camp the crowd swelled. At its height there were more than 100 people present for the event.

This would not last. As the event stretched from morning to afternoon, the crowd would dwindle again to about 40 people.

Reginald Cyntje, a jazz musician originally from St. Thomas but now living in Silver Spring, Md., said events like this need a higher turnout. “I wish more people were here,” he said. “This is a very important event. Still, we might be small but we are mighty.”

Sen. Myron Jackson told the crowd that many other islands shared in the emancipation process. They would have you believe that it only happened in Frederiksted, Jackson said, but things were happening throughout the Danish, British and French West Indies.

The event was filled with performances. Queens of the Earth performed several African dances to the accompaniment of drums. The Voices of Love sang hymns and traditional songs.

Yohance Henley, an oral storyteller, performed an Anansi story for the audience. In the story Anansi is chased by a sharp-toothed monster with claws.

Poets performed spoken word. Jahweh David, poet and community organizer, shared a few poems. One was entitled “Be the Change.”

“Right now, it is time for us to go within,” she said. “In order for changes to be made within our community, we have to be the change.”

Sylvester Hamilton, poet, farmer and artist, performed a few poems of his own. “Let us unite for the time is right,” he said, dragging the last syllable of the line out into a croak, his trademark.

By 2 p.m. the event was nearing its close. People walked around to various stands set up throughout Emancipation Garden, selling mangos, pates, freshly made juices and water.

Blake called everyone left up to the gazebo for a benediction and afterwards the group held hands for a goodbye chant, the theme being “freedom.”

Leba Ola-Niyi, a member of PASG, led the chant. “If we really want to be free,” he chanted, “we must organize to achieve…”

“Freedom,” the group chanted back.

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