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Black Caribs: A new struggle to survive

Published:Sunday | September 28, 2014 | 9:00 AM
Lovell
Glenville Ashby, Contributor
A bust of Garifuna Chief Joseph Chatower whose killing on March 14, 1795 broke the backs of the tribe.-Contributed
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Glenville Ashby, Contributor

Amerindians faced an existential battle with the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th century, a confrontation that overwhelmed and effaced much of their culture.

That history has oftentimes been told. The Arawaks, the Caribs, the Tainos and the Ciboneys succumbed to diseases, forced labour and wars. Indeed, it was a tortuous journey, replete with oppression, displacement and marginalisation.

However, unlike the aforementioned natives, little has been taught of the Garifuna people or black Caribs, a racially mixed group of African and Amerindian bloodlines who settled in Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.

Today, their descendants have become politically and culturally active, enjoying marked visibility in pockets of New York. In a diverse world that touts acculturation, The Garifuna, a confluence of dual cultures is a showcase of group survival amid the dynamics of acculturation.

Recently, in a captivating artistic display, a group of Garifuna people celebrated and shared their tradition by way of song, dance and oratory to fellow artistes, cultural aficionados and journalists in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

James Lovell, a Belize national and musician, openly chronicled the storied past of his people. "There are different theories on how we ended up in the Central America in the first place, but I will give you the most likely and logical one," said Lovell.

Citing the famous Guyanese scholar, Dr Ivan Van Sertima, Lovell noted that, "West Africans from the great kingdoms of Songhai, Ghana and Mali were trading with the red Caribs as early as the 13th century, long before Columbus. Some settled there, intermarried, and produced a surplus economy of fishing and farming, and eventually outnumbered the red Caribs."

His was a theory, though popular in non-traditional centres of learning, is still foreign and for the most part rejected in mainstream academia.

With the advent of the Europeans, the Garifuna found themselves battling the French, and later the British before many were dislodged from Baliceaux in the Grenadines, and forcibly exiled to Belize, Honduras and Guatemala. Systemic discrimination has been commonplace ever since. Their plight has raised the question of reparations at the highest levels of government in St Vincent.

scene of destruction

"March 14, 1795 is when the big blow was delivered to us as a people. It was when our chief, Joseph Chatower was killed. That broke our backs," said Lovell, describing a scene of destruction that signalled the end of a homogeneous and progressive culture.

"The latest census puts our numbers in New York at 100,000 but we still have work to do in terms of preserving our language and culture." It was 10 years ago that UNESCO proclaimed the Garifuna culture 'A Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity'.

Days before the Brooklyn event, Jose Avila, president of the Garifuna Coalition, USA, proudly claimed that his people have "risen from obscurity to the pinnacle of recognition".

Not surprisingly, the Garifuna religious expression can be likened to that of the African-influenced faiths in the Caribbean.

"Dugu is our traditional religion," Lovell explained. "We believe in one omnipresent God, but we pay homage to our ancestors in our homes and in our Dabuyebas or temples. Our Buyei or spiritual healer is the medium to the spirit world and he or she is very influential and revered."

However, Lovell is wary of materialism seeping into this sacrosanct aspect of Garifuna life. "Spiritual services were never about money." Christian proselytising also remains a threat to their authentic lifestyle. "This is a major issue because we have our youth disrespecting our sacred traditions."

Lovell, who teaches Garifuna language, is saddened by the dispirited response it has received by the young generation. "It is dying."

Lovell is also the frontman for AfriGarifuna Youth Ensemble, known for its infectious and unmistakable Caribbean rhythms. It is an art form, he conceded, that is yet to generate the acclaim it deserves.

Referring to this sound as "punta" and "paranda", Lovell was optimistic that it will garner international attention, much in the vein as reggae.

Dr Glenville Ashby is a social critic and president of Global Interfaith Council. Send feedback to glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby