The population of African Belizeans has shrunk here by perhaps two thirds during my lifetime, so that it is no longer as noteworthy that, whereas all the British possessions in our region had been celebrating Emancipation Day and freedom from slavery since August 1, 1838, Belize barely began to mark Emancipation Day six years ago. The Belizean initiative was not an official, or publicly enthusiastic one, but rather a private initiative of the activist UBAD Educational Foundation (UEF).
There are different reasons why British Honduras’/Belize’s perspectives on slavery and Emancipation were always so weird, as it were, and one of the reasons, I submit, is that people of color here have always been so powerful in this settlement whose families had slave owning histories but who also had identifiable slave ancestry somewhere in their genealogy. Prominent Belizeans of color had convinced themselves that they were, for all intents and purposes, white. In fact, travelling to New Orleans by sailing ship, many of them would pass for white in the nearby United States of America (which did not free their slaves until 25 years after British Emancipation), while the lines between white and black up north were very strict: one drop of African blood cost you your “whiteness” in America. Not so in Belize, where we have had a “Belize white” category seemingly from ever since.
Anyway, Emancipation Day is not what I wanted to talk about in this column as such. I wanted to link Emancipation Day 2019 with the fiftieth anniversary of this newspaper in the next couple weeks. I wanted to put it to you that the domination of the education system by the major Christian denominations, ultimately administrated from abroad, has meant that the institutional and bureaucratic, not to mention political, reluctance to introduce African and Mayan history has been extreme.
And yet, it being the case that the clear majority of our Belizean population is of African and Mayan descent, it always stood to reason that the self-esteem of our children could only be enhanced by a knowledge of who their ancestors had been and from where they themselves had derived. In 1969, when I made such a call for such a history, I knew that my call would be strongly resisted, even though my arrogance with my little bit of education made me bold, but I never thought that African and Mayan history would still not be taught today in the vast majority of Belizean schools.
There was a process, you see, by which our ancestors were converted from their African and Mayan religions to various Christian religions, beginning with the entry into and invasion of Africa and America five hundred plus years ago. The present administrators of Christianity do not want to analyze and discuss that process because perhaps they fear it may cause some of their present true believers to become skeptical of their denominations, at least in part.
I don’t know that that is a legitimate fear, because Christianity in Belize in its various denominations appears very, very strong to me. One of the things I have noticed over the years is that Belizean families bury their deceased loved ones with overtly Christian services, no matter how reckless and sinful that deceased reprobate have been. It is of the absolute essence for the family to have that Christian burial so that the family itself does not suffer any kind of social stigma. That is my impression.
Such a social stigma would come most dramatically into effect when the family tries to enroll their children in the school system. Again, that is how it has appeared to me. This is my explanation for why the worst of us has to be preached over with Biblical texts and holy water sprinkled over our remains at our demise. This is the way it is in Belize.
For me, the significance of our socio-religious-historical perspective in Belize has to do with the collapse of our children discipline’s in the urban settings of the country. It seems to me that our children in the third millennium have access to data and truths which are alternative to what they are being taught in school, and the result is that school is no longer the sacred place it was for us when I was growing up.
It is for sure in 2019 that half of our children are school dropouts by the time they are supposed to start high school, and such children become easy, almost automatic recruits for the criminal gangs which control our urban neighborhoods. If we want to talk about why what’s wrong in the ‘hoods, we can definitely talk about economics, and in that respect I put it to you that skills training is more important than religion.
As an old man, I understand more than ever before how valuable a role, a comforting role, organized religion plays in the daily lives on our Belizean citizens. I mean no disrespect to our preachers and pastors and priests and congregations. What I am compelled to say is that the responsibility of the state is not to preach Scripture, but to provide skills training. As it is in Belize, not enough skills training is being done. One of the reasons is that the vast emphasis is on Scripture. Don’t even mention African and Mayan history.
Power to the people.