Sat | Nov 28, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Time to make Chief Tacky a national hero

Published:Sunday | October 25, 2020 | 12:17 AM

For over a decade, Derrick ‘Black X’ Robinson, chairman of the Tacky Heritage Group, has trod barefoot from St Mary to Kingston, on a mission to ensure that the leader of an early, far-reaching revolt against slavery in the British Empire is acknowledged as a national hero. Black X first made his heroic walk in January 2008. Setting out from the Tacky monument at the Port Maria Library, Black X walked all night and into the morning. He took his petition to Jamaica House addressed to prime minister Bruce Golding. He was advised to leave it at the security gate.

Not surprisingly, Black X got no response. A barefoot Rastaman who shows up at the Office of the Prime Minister without an appointment is not likely to be taken seriously. No matter what his purpose or how far he has walked! That experience did not discourage Black X. Year after year he has persisted. And he has had inspiring company. Tashana Earl, who in 2004 became the youngest female football referee in Jamaica, walked with Black X from 2009 to 2013. Dwight Henry, a young farmer, joined them from 2010 to 2012. All along the way, they got encouragement and refreshments from supporters of the cause.

In 2013, Black X and Tashana tried to meet with prime minister Portia Simpson Miller. She was not available. They were fortunate to be received by Andrew Holness, then leader of the opposition. He seemed to favour the petition but, in his years as prime minister, has done nothing to advance it. Still hopeful, Black X keeps walking. Black History Month, Emancipation Day and National Heroes’ Day are the occasions on which he does his power walks. In 2018, he wore 30 pounds of chain around his neck to Emancipation Park. At the newly established ‘Heroes Walk,’ Black X laid his chains on the empty base set aside for the next national hero. He was claiming it for Tacky.

Last year, Black X walked for 10 days from St Mary to Stony Gut, going the long way round from the north coast to the south and, finally, to the east, to attract support for his petition. He was celebrating a resolution passed by the St Mary Municipal Corporation to make Chief Tacky a national hero. That decision, however admirable, has little weight. Nominations for national hero/heroine cannot be made by members of the public, as is the norm for all other national honours. It is an advisory committee, appointed by the governor general, which sends recommendations to the prime minister. He or she reports to the governor general, who then makes the appointment.

HEROIC WAR AGAINST SLAVERY

There is overwhelming evidence to substantiate the claim that Chief Tacky should be a national hero. Before Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle, there was Chief Tacky. Before the American Revolution and the Haitian Revolution, Tacky’s heroic war against British imperialism and slavery erupted in Jamaica. Professor Vincent Brown, a distinguished historian at Harvard University, has written a persuasive book, published this year: Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War.

The Harvard University Press website defines Brown’s book as, “A gripping account of the largest slave revolt in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world, an uprising that laid bare the interconnectedness of Europe, Africa, and America, shook the foundations of empire, and reshaped ideas of race and popular belonging ... Even after it was put down, the insurgency rumbled throughout the British Empire at a time when slavery seemed the dependable bedrock of its dominion.”

Another compelling book about Tacky’s war of resistance was also published this year. It’s the novel Cane Warriors written by Alex Wheatle who was born in the UK to Jamaican parents. I read it in one sitting. I simply could not put it down. Cane Warriors is such a powerful narrative of trauma and triumph. Mi bawl di living eye-water. The novel is not really about Tacky who doesn’t appear until chapter 9. Wheatle celebrates the heroism that Tacky inspires. He tells the riveting story of 14-year-old Moa who bravely joins Tacky’s army. In Moa’s words, “Me mama say de gods walk wid him. She say him was born to back de evil against de wall.”

Wheatle specialises in fiction for young adults. He’s written 14 novels and an autobiography, Uprising. He’s the subject of Alex Wheatle, one of a five-part BBC/Amazon anthology film series by Steve McQueen that focuses on London’s Caribbean community. It airs on Amazon Prime next month. Wheatle’s own story is one of triumph over adversity. I was fortunate to interview him in 2018 at the Bocas Lit fest in Trinidad before an audience of enthusiastic young people.

Wheatle was raised in an orphanage and his so-called caregivers and teachers had rather low expectations of what he would become. He got caught up in the 1981 Brixton riots and was imprisoned for a year. He seemed set to fulfil all the negative prophecies. Wheatle considers himself lucky to have been placed in a cell with a Rastaman who slapped him with a copy of CLR James’ Black Jacobins, a brilliant account of the Haitian revolution, and told him to read it.

When Wheatle finished, he exclaimed, “Woah! Why didn’t they give me that book at school?” He has donated copies of Cane Warriors to three high schools in St Mary. He wants young people to know their history intimately. Hopefully, they will be inspired to join forces with Black X and take up the fight to officially recognise that Chief Tacky is, most certainly, a national hero.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.