The African and Indian Library in the Kremandala yard marks the 16th anniversary of its opening this Friday, February 12. The ceremonial ribbon cutting in 2000 was performed by Mrs. Anne K. Lowe, a guest of the UBAD Educational Foundation (UEF), a body which had been established in 1996. The library was an idea and dream of the late Dr. Leroy Taegar, a member of the UEF board.
There has been controversy surrounding the name of the library almost from the beginning, because several Maya Belizeans preferred it to be the “African and Maya Library.” The leaders of the UEF felt, however, that as distasteful as were the history and context of the “Indian” designation for Native Americans and Indigenous peoples of the Americas, this was the one inclusive designation which could refer to all the many hundreds, probably thousands, of tribes of peoples of the Americas – from North America through Central America to South America.
As the years have gone by, there have been those of us in the UEF who feel that the library’s name should be changed to the “African and Indigenous Library,” but others argue that the original name is established, that it is too late to change it now.
Before we proceed, let’s note that the most spectacular aspect of the African and Indian Library is a mural of the original UBAD painted by the legendary Pen Cayetano. The mural was commissioned by Mrs. Lillette Barkley-Waite during the period when she was the chairlady of the UEF.
The most valuable aspect of the library is, of course, all its books and resource material which focus on the history of African people before, during, and after slavery, and the history of the Indigenous people of the Americas before, during, and after the Conquest.
And, perhaps the most functionally utilitarian aspect of the library is its availability for gatherings by Belizean groups which come into the old capital from the Districts, such as the Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), who are based in Toledo, Cayo, and Orange Walk, and the Belize Grassroots Youth Empowerment Association (BGYEA), who are based in Harmonyville, Cayo.
The library is used on a daily basis for various educational projects among neighborhood children organized by the UEF, whose most prominent personalities today are its whirlwind chairlady Ya Ya Marin-Coleman and “foundation” Virginia Echols, who also both work in women’s movements and charitable organizations.
In the remainder of this editorial, we would like to consider in more detail the names we were given as African and Indigenous peoples. When the Europeans entered Africa and sailed over here to the Americas more than five centuries ago, they did so as a conquering, plundering, supremacist force. What we Africans and Indigenous peoples called ourselves or what we knew ourselves as, had no value or interest for the Europeans. And, they were so powerful that our ancestors had to begin referring to us by the names the Europeans gave us.
It took centuries for those of us who are of African descent to refer to ourselves more correctly. We were so ashamed of Africa. We had been so “beat down” mentally by slavery and colonialism. Somewhere along the road, no one can say exactly when, we here in British Honduras became “Creoles.” Who are these people and where did they come from?
In the United States of America, as late as the beginning of the civil rights movement in 1955, people who looked like us were called “Negros.” There is no such word in the English language, and there is no such continent on planet earth. “Negro” is the Spanish adjective for “black.” How African people became “Negros” in the English-speaking United States of America, you would have to tell me, the same way you would have to explain to me how, and to suit whom, African people in the settlement of Belize became “Creoles.”
We saw that in the United States, as the civil rights movement became more militant and less non-violent in the middle and late 1960’s, “Negros” began referring to themselves as “black.” As time went on, they began referring to themselves as “Afro-Americans,” and today it appears that the accepted, preferred designation is “African Americans.” During the quest for freedom, dignity, and equal rights, our people acquired the desire and the power to refer to ourselves appropriately, and in ways of our own choosing.
During the lifetime of this newspaper, scholars have learned much more about African and Maya civilizations than was known in the centuries before. It has reached the point where the most prestigious high school in Belize, St. John’s College, has introduced courses in African and Maya history. This is a very important development where Belizeans’ nascent nationalism is concerned, because the fault line between African Belizeans and Maya Belizeans was the second fault line the British colonialists introduced into this settlement: the first fault line the British introduced was in the first part of the nineteenth century, when the British intent was to make the Garifuna a foil to the Creole. In the second half of that same nineteenth century, the British created the second fault line, in the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts.
As we struggle to build a nation here in Belize, we cannot pretend that those fault lies do not exist. In fact, those fault lines have been, and continue to be exploited, by selfish, cynical, demagogic politicians here. The best way to fight these fault lines is by educating our African and Indigenous people about our history.
We have achieved a lot in Belize in this regard. We African and Maya Belizeans now know a lot more about ourselves and about each other than we did in colonial days. In this regard, the African and Indian Library has made a solid contribution, in fulfillment of the dream of Dr. Leroy.
From one perspective certainly, slavery and colonialism were all about our working for the Europeans. We were not supposed to think: just work. Along the way, the Europeans decided that they could more efficiently administrate places like Belize if they educated a small sector of the native population and used us as surrogate managers. In the post-colonial, revolutionary era of our lifetime, a tiny section of that small educated sector of the native population went further than the Europeans had intended: we dared to begin thinking for ourselves.
This thinking for ourselves is what we celebrate at the African and Indian Library at this time of our anniversary. It is in his mind that man is superior to the animals. When Belizeans think for ourselves, we become the equal of our masters. This was what our ancestors dreamed of, even when they lay in the filthy bowels of slave ships and suffered under the savage whip of the conqueror. We live today in the fulfillment of this dream. We are real. We are Belizeans. We think for ourselves.
Power to the people. Remember Danny. Fight for Belize.