Saturday, October 20, 2012


The Thanksgiving weekend has passed and we had so much for which to be thankful. Two of the most important people in my life celebrated their birthday. My grandchildren Taiwo and Kehinde are a year older and enjoying kindergarten for which I am very thankful. Appreciating school is so important for our children who face many obstacles in their adult lives if they are not educated. The Thanksgiving weekend also brought opportunities to connect with Guyanese elder Eusi Kwayana who spoke on Saturday night at New College at the University of Toronto. On Tuesday, October 2, it was my honour and pleasure to interview Elder Kwayana for Tuesday Word of Mouth at Elder Kwayana is a fount of knowledge about the history of Guyana. He arrived in Canada the week before the Thanksgiving weekend and spoke at St. John the Divine Anglican Church in Scarborough about the Village Movement. Researching the Village Movement of Guyana is one of my passions so I attended the session. Unfortunately I had to leave before the session was finished because not being familiar with the area and travelling by TTC I needed to leave before dark. Within the time I was there I learned much more about the Village Movement and Elder Kwayana added information about villages with which I am familiar. He spoke of the villages on the Courentyne in Berbice including the villages where my father and many of his ancestors were born (Courtland, Fyrish and Gibraltar.) He also spoke of the villages where my mother and many of her people were born (Brothers, Sisters and Friends) on the East Bank of the Berbice River. After slavery was abolished in 1834 and before the final emancipation of 1838 there was an apprenticeship period imposed by the colonial government which compelled Africans to remain on the plantations of their former owners and work eight hours every day without pay. Any work after the forced unpaid eight hours they were paid a pittance. During this “apprenticeship” period the enterprising Africans saved the money they earned and in groups of upwards of 30 they pooled their money and bought abandoned plantations where they established villages the first of which was Victoria Village on the East Bank, Demerara. The colonial government soon took advantage of the Africans’ expressed need to own their own land and raised the price of the land. They also passed laws that restricted the number of people who could pool their money and buy these plantations in an effort to thwart the village movement. Elder Kwayana spoke about the villages that were established throughout the coastal regions and about one of the villages on the West Coast of Berbice (Lichfield) which was bought by one African person instead of a collective as with the other villages.
In a surprise turn of events during the weekend Elder Kwayana’s name came up at the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) another event I attended on the weekend. The NCBL was in town having moved their annual conference from Memphis, Tennessee to Toronto to honour the late activist lawyer Charles Roach who transitioned on Tuesday, October 2. At the NCBL conference one of the presenters was Margaret A. Burnham who is a law professor at Northeastern University. Ms Burnham has an impressive biography including representing activist and civil rights icon Angela Davis during her trial in the 1970s. In an interview with Professor Burnham on October 16 for Tuesday Word of Mouth at she told me that she has known Angela Davis since they were children growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. They were childhood friends. Ms Burnham is also the cousin of the late Guyanese Prime Minister and President the Honourable Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. She shared a photograph of her visit to Guyana in the 1970s in which there is a very much younger Eusi Kwayana. Talk about “six degrees of separation!” What an amazing co-incidence! Apart from the coincidence of meeting an African American relative of Prime Minister Burnham who also knew Elder Kwayana the NCBL conference provided an opportunity to meet African American, African Caribbean and African Canadian activist lawyers. These lawyers are using their education and expertise to: “serve as the legal arm of the movement for Black Liberation, to protect human rights, to achieve self-determination of Africa and African Communities in the Diaspora and to work in coalition to assist in ending oppression of all peoples.” The NCBL was founded in 1968 ( when “young people of African descent in America were growing impatient with the slow pace of social change.” The organization had its beginning at the time the freedom fighting Black Panther Party members were subjected to: “police brutality, frame-ups and a vicious counter-intelligence program that targeted scores of militants for harassment, prosecution or assassination.” Not surprisingly those early members of NCBL: “began to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with rifle-toting revolutionaries.”
There remains much of that spirit in the present members who are involved in work such as ( Professor Burnham’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) which: “addresses harms resulting from the massive breakdown in law enforcement during the civil rights movement, from the 1950s to the early 1970s.” Information from the NCBL website gives information about some of the other projects in which their members are involved including: “The National Conference of Black Lawyers’ (NCBL) Michigan Chapter is responding to recently published findings by the American Civil Liberties Union that demonstrate consistent racially disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of black public school students across the state. There is also a demonstrated correlation between exclusion from school and dropout rates. Additionally there is a correlation between dropout rates and imprisonment.” The New York chapter is addressing: “The terror that is perpetrated against predominantly blacks and Latinos in the streets of New York by the police “force” should be checked at the steps of the courthouse, but it is not. We call it Judicial Obstruction of Justice because one should expect to find justice in the courtroom, but it is obstructed and further frustrated by judicial attitudes and actions.” During one session NCBL members decried what they described as the “racial violence of incarceration” against African Americans and the “manifestations of genocide from the criminalization and mass incarceration” of that community.
My Thanksgiving weekend was not complete until I saw the documentary “Akwantu: The Journey.” The 87 minute film documents the struggles of Jamaica’s Maroon community to live as free people after they fled the European plantations established on the island since Columbus lost his way to India and stumbled upon this “New World.” This is a must see film, a work of love written and directed by Roy. T. Anderson. Meticulously researched it is imperative that it is viewed and discussed in our schools as a balance to the history that is taught now. The connection of African Caribbean people to the African continent and to each other is palpable. Listening to the rhythm of the drums and watching the movement of the Maroon dancers I was struck by the similarity to African ceremonies in Guyana. We are connected as Peter Tosh sang in his song “African” Don’t care where you come from as long as you’re a Black man you’re an African. The cold Thanksgiving weekend was made warm by the opportunities to share thoughts, ideas and space with brethren and sistren.
On another note: I read in one of the Toronto daily newspapers that Jason Kenney the Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism is courting/encouraging/wooing young Irish immigrants to come and live here in the Great White North. I thought: “Wait a minute isn’t this the same government that was almost foaming at the mouth and seemed ready to chuck into the sea a group of Sri Lankan refugees fleeing persecution just two summers ago?” What is the difference here? Oh yes, now looking at the two groups I do see the difference. One group looks like Kenny, the other does not. Maybe he was thinking along the lines of the Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the others; one of these things does not belong.”

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