EMANCIPATION DAY 2023 SPEECH GOVERNMENT COMMISSIONER ALIDA FRANCIS SATURDAY 1 JULY 2023 THEME: THE BEGINNING - FOSTERING THE DIALOGUE
“We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
“To compose a country committed to all cultures, colours, characters, and conditions of man.
“And so, we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
“We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
“We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
“We seek harm to none and harmony for all.”
I have begun my remarks today with these excerpts from the poem, The Hill We Climb, by the young American poet, Amanda Gorman, because it is so very fitting for this occasion.
This poem was written for the inauguration of the United States President, Joe Biden, in 2021, but it appropriately reflects this year’s emancipation theme, The Beginning: Fostering the Dialogue. It is about a journey to rediscover our ancestors, a journey back to where it all started.
Therefore, as I acknowledge the apology/message for slavery from His Majesty, King Willem-Alexander of The Netherlands, it is fitting that we go back to the beginning, because without a good grasp of the past we cannot truly and successfully chart the path to the future.
Without a clear understanding of the beginning, we cannot foster a meaningful dialogue about tomorrow.
Without a sense of the sufferings of our ancestors, we cannot join hands to pave the way for better prospects for our descendants.
To understand where we must go, we must understand what the great freedom fighters sought to achieve. Heros such as Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Nanny of Jamaica, Boni of Suriname, Kofi of Guyana, Tula of Curacao, Busa of Barbados and our very own Thomas Dupersoy, Prince, Joseph, Valentine, Abraham and Oscar, all fought, not only for their own freedom, but for ours too. It is through their efforts, and that of countless others, that today, 160 years after the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands, we can stand here in commemoration of our past, and in hope for a truly free future. They died so we could live.
And as their descendants we owe it to them, to ourselves, and generations to come, to gaze at what stands before us, and what we can achieve if we join our arms together and work in harmony.
This begins with dialogue – free and honest dialogue. Between and among the descendants of the enslaved. And between us and the children of the slavers.
Today’s apology/message, which comes a mere six-and-a-half months after the one delivered by Prime Minister Mark Rutte in December last year, helps pave the way for this dialogue.
I know that it is an extremely difficult discussion to have - it is so easy to argue and shout at each other, that we miss the essence and importance of the dialogue. But we must have it.
I hope that the two expressions of remorse, first from the Prime Minister, and now from His Majesty the King, will spur us as Statians to open up to each other, and listen to one another, and be patient with each other, and respect each other, when we talk about slavery and emancipation. Our levels of knowledge and our experiences may be different, but there must be room at the inn for everyone and our goal must be the same.
And, while having this dialogue, we must also look at how we as Black people treat each other. It is time we stopped looking down at each other because of the shade of blackness. The dark-skinned girl, the red skin girl, the chocolate guy. This must stop. We are all one people. We are all Black people. And the sooner we accept that, the quicker we can move ahead with the discourse on the 208 years of enslavement of our foreparents and how we can heal. Remember, the journey is far from over, our work is far from done, our liberation is far from complete.
We have arrived at this point of apologies from the Netherlands through a lengthy process of a different sort of dialogue. It involved representatives of the Dutch Caribbean, including Statia’s own Raime Richardson, and those from Holland in talks over the past three years. Our gratitude to this group, the Insular Dialogue Platform led by former Governor of the Netherlands Antilles, Mr. Frits Goedgedrag, for the hard work they have put it.
I also want to thank the members of Statia’s own Committee on Fostering the Dialogue on Slavery and Emancipation, led by Raimie Richardson and including Drs. Jean-Marie Schmidt, Paul Spanner, Drs. Xiomara Balentina and Christina Timber-Glover. They, too, worked behind the scenes and played a vital role in getting us to where we are today. The government of Statia also extends appreciation to Rijziena Hooker, chairlady of the Emanciaption Day Committee and her team, who are responsible for coordinating the Pre-Emancipation Day programme and all the activities you will participate in today.
These apologies mean a lot to me. It is my hope they will also mean something to you. There was a time when I all but dismissed the significance of an apology. But like Paul on his way to Damascus, I had my eye-opening moments. The first was when I addressed a Roundtable discussion on Dutch Slavery Past in the Second Chamber of the Central Government in June of last year. The second time was when I acknowledged the apology from the Prime Minister last December. On both occasions I became emotional. And it struck me how deeply I had hurt and how much the apology meant.
So I imagine that this is an emotional moment for many of you. It has taken 160 years to get to this point. We must now deal with the complex issues and heal the painful wounds, so that we can move forward together.
To borrow from Amanda Gorman, let the world see that even as we as Statians grieved, we grew; even as we hurt, we hoped; even as we tired, we tried; and we will forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
Let the dialogue begin. Let us, as Statians from every walk of life, be determined enough, resolute enough, persistent enough to see it through and to be it.