When I walked in to see Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, I expected to be underwhelmed given the criticisms I’d heard about the film. I did not, however, expect it to be so dull. Because this film is about Nat Turner. And whatever else can be said about him, the slave rebel, mystic, revolutionary and preacher, was anything but.
This year, over 8 cities abolished Columbus Day. Many in fact adopted Indigenous Peoples Day’ as a replacement. The move reflects a growing acknowledgement by larger society of the meaning and historical legacy of Christopher Columbus and “Age of Exploration.” It’s a victory, albeit a minor one. History of course can move backwards as well as forwards. And there are those forces who are determined to keep Columbus as a transnational hero: to give a one-sided perspective–often apologist–of the era. The truth is that the abolishing of a commemoration can’t possibly erase the enormity of the crimes of which Columbus will forever remain a symbol. He is a part of our latent fears. The ones that we fill our stories with as we look out upon the stars. He is our original invader from Mars.
Originally written in 2013, this is the final chapter in a three-part installment on Christopher Columbus beginning with The Other Explorers and Hunting Prestor John in the End Times. This post ponders how the destruction of the Americas, and the accompanying legacies of colonialism and slavery, help shape the fears of our popular imaginings–including science fiction.
On July 5, 1852, runaway slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave a stinging speech on celebrations of American patriotism in the midst of slavery, declaring “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He gave the speech in Rochester, NY at a holiday celebration that is now forgotten in much of popular American memory–July Fifth, the day free blacks in New York celebrated the abolition of slavery in the state, first set in motion in 1799. Disallowed from marching and participating on July 4th with fellow whites (singly because they were black), African-Americans in New York seized July 5th as the “Black Man’s Independence Day” (‘man’ here should have also included women of course, but… 19th century) and celebrated with speeches, processions and other rituals throughout the day. Douglass used his speech that July 5th in Rochester, some two years after the passage of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act that made the lives of free blacks precarious and dangerous, to lambast the United States for what he saw as its profound hypocrisy–a nation that declared itself a bastion of freedom while owning and heavily profiting (both North and South) from the institution of slavery. It was a paradox that had existed since the dawn of the nation’s founding and was enshrined in some of its most sacred documents–including the Declaration of Independence. The Fourth of July and slavery, as do black Americans and the United States, share a complex and entangled history.
This year after a 4am breakfast party, a night of Dimanche Gras and knowing we have to be on the road to meet our band at 10:00am for Monday mas, we didn’t go into town for Jouvert. Instead, we stayed in Chaguanas–where my father grew up. Liming with my cousin Freddy from the early morning, we made it out to see masses of people (one set ah people!) wining, flinging mud and paint, drinking rum & Stag, and jumping up with the big trucks that rumbled down the main road. Jouvert may not be as big in Chaguanas as it is in Port-of-Spain, but for many it’s enough. Thought this might be a good time to re-post last year’s blog on the early morning festivities and its origin. So if yuh don’t know…
*photo taken this morning, somewhere in Chaguanas.
Someone asked me once to describe J’Ouvert (Jou-vay), the early morning ritual that ushers in the first day of Carnival, sometimes still called Old Years Mas on the island republic of Trinidad & Tobago. I fumbled for words. J’Ouvert is wild. J’Ouvert is frenzy. J’Ouvert is pounding bass on a big truck, steel pan, rattling cowbells or just the “ting-a-ling ting-a-ling” of bottle of spoon. J’Ouvert is masquerade with or without actual masks. J’Ouvert is whining and “back back.” J’Ouvert is sexuality both liberated and restrained. J’Ouvert is the sacred and profane, the humorous and the macabre. J’Ouvert is the warning hint of a riot that organizes itself into chaos. J’Ouvert is ex-slaves with flaming torches and chains threatening to burn it all down. J’Ouvert is rum. Lots and lots of rum. J’Ouvert is devils–red devils, blue devils, devils dripping black tar and spitting fire. J’Ouvert is baby powder and paint. J’Ouvert is MUD. MUD. MUD. J’Ouvert in the end, is magic. Wonderful, fantastic, dangerous magic.
*photo courtesy of the film After Mas, taken by Joseph Mora
“…many Negroes and Mulattoes the property of Citizens of these States have concealed themselves on board the Ships in the harbor … and to make their escapes in that manner … All Officers of the Allied Army … are directed not to suffer any such negroes or mulattoes to be retained in their Service but on the contrary to cause them to be delivered to the Guards which will be establish’d for their reception …Any Negroes or mulattoes who are free upon proving the same will be left to their own disposal.”–General George Washington, October 25, 1781.
That time Washington had Patriot troops surround Yorktown to stop slaves huddled with the British from escaping. Wouldn’t know much of that watching Sleepy Hollow, where Washington wasn’t just a Founding Father, but a Savior of the Apocalypse and venerable Saint–“the good guys” in a war against evil where the Patriots are (literally) on the side of the angels.
I like this show. But sometimes it makes me wanna throw up in my mouth a little.