At one level the commemoration of emancipation is about memory. The recollection of history is sacred in every culture. It is the collective memory of a people, the basis of their common identity, the lens through which they see the world, the motive force of their development. Historical memory is institutionalised in many facets of a society including formal and informal education systems, cultural practices, oral and written literature and commemorative events. The invasion, corruption and manipulation of that memory places a great deal of control over a people's view of themselves and of the world in the hands of those who have succeeded in making such an intrusion. One of the grave psychological burdens that Africans in every part of the world carry has stemmed directly from the colonization of our history.
At a mass level we have been deprived of a knowledge and understanding of our history. Our vast contribution to the construction of the modern world, from its most ancient foundations to the present, has been erased from popular knowledge. Where monuments in stone have stood against nature and time such as the pyramids in Egypt, or the walls of Great Zimbabwe, their construction and the genius of their design are attributed to others. The great pre-colonial empires of West Africa, the once famous centres of learning and trade in that part of the continent, the dazzling East African city states, the cities of stone that existed from Engaruka in Kenya to Mapungubwe in South Africa, the networks of roads and other physical testimonies to our level of independent development, all fell into ruin during the maafa. Now they have fallen victim to the silence of history.
A veil is thrown even over our modern contributions - to space exploration, to computer technology, to the medical sciences and all cutting edge technological advancement. The colonization of our history extends to the other aspect of our experience. For 400 of the last 500 years our people endured what is generally acknowledged as the greatest tragedy in human history - the combination of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery. This twin evil decimated Africa's people, political institutions and civilizations, and wreaked havoc with the very humanity of Africans forcibly transported to the Americas where the enslaved were stripped of every shred of identity that could be shorn by terror, defined in law as property, humiliated, brutalized, mutilated, murdered at whim and literally worked to death. It also produced epic struggles against great odds, which ultimately led to our triumph over slavery.
Our brothers and sisters in Haiti struck the first major blow against the system of slavery with a successful revolutionary struggle that culminated in the declaration of Independence on January 1, 1804. Along the way to their freedom they defeated the most powerful armies of Europe including Napoleon's. The other landmark on the road to African redemption came with the hard-won abolition of slavery in the then British Empire that took final effect in the English-speaking Caribbean on August 1, 1838, the historical moment that has led to the most widespread commemoration of Emancipation Day. Emancipation in the British territories added one more dimension to the continuing struggle against slavery - a moral swipe at the nefarious institution by one of the main powers which for centuries had been involved in this debasement of humanity.
Britain was compelled to abolish slavery for many reasons.
The Haitian revolution invoked fear in planters and imperial governments but it inspired the enslaved. Britain was faced with the growing effectiveness of revolt and the slipping economic viability of plantations wracked by resistance. But they couched their decision in moral terms. The universal acceptance of chattel slavery by Western governments was now broken by Britain's acknowledgement that chattel slavery and the slave trade were morally wrong. Within another half century chattel slavery was abolished throughout the Americas.
Yet, as the Emancipation Support Committee pointed out in a 1999 document:
The slave trade ....was left out of formal education curricula in countries on the continent, even in the countries which suffered most. A few of these countries are now correcting this. The topic is also ignored in schools in Latin America. It is addressed but without depth in the school curricula in the English-speaking Caribbean. The suppression of memory was not limited to educational curricula. Throughout the English-speaking Caribbean there was a relentless war to suppress the commemoration of Emancipation Day on August 1st. The first time August 1 was officially recognized as Emancipation Day by a government in Trinidad and Tobago was in 1985 - 147 years after the abolition of slavery. Even then the recognition was only formal and it was grassroots organizations that kept the day alive on their limited material resources.
The Emancipation Support Committee of Trinidad and Tobago eventually succeeded in making the commemoration a significant national, regional and international event against tremendous odds. (Extract from a briefing prepared for the African Union in 2005)