Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mount Barack Obama: Why Not

Marcus M. Mottley, Ph.D.

When the Honourable Baldwin Spencer, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda indicated that he would start the process of renaming Boggy Peak to Mount Barack Obama many Antiguans vociferously objected.

I found none of their arguments against the renaming persuasive. Some said that Barack Obama had done nothing for Antigua and Barbuda and we should wait and see if he does anything during his forthcoming tenure as President of the United States. Others said that the fact that President Elect Obama was going to be the first African American U.S. President was no reason for Antiguans to be celebrative to the degree that we would elevate his name to such ‘heights’. Others contended that though this might be a signal moment for African Americans, it was not an important moment for Antiguans.

Many of those opposed to the renaming of Boggy Peak pointed to our own heroes who we should first give that level of prominence to. Others proposed that we first consider elevating regional historic greats like Bob Marley… rather than raise up a virtually unknown and new to the world stage American politician.

Others argued that to elevate Barack Obama on the basis that he is to be the first U.S. President of African origin, is tantamount to racism and does a disservice to our nation’s diverse population. (I have heard this argument before from those who are objecting to the development of heritage tourism in Antigua. They argue that we already have ‘heritage tourism’ in the form of the Dockyard and the old Betty’s Hope sugar mill. These naysayers to heritage tourism contend that to focus on Antigua’s slave history and to develop monuments and shrines to ‘our’ great great grandparents – the former slaves who suffered so greatly at the hands of the monsterous slave owners and their almost sociopathic, lackey overseers – would open wounds that we should leave closed.)

Well… many of those who make those arguments are the grandsons and granddaughters of those slave owners and/or their overseers. This is an argument not worth responding to… at least not in this article… although I am very tempted to!

Of course the foregoing are only some of the arguments presented against the idea of a ‘Mount Obama’.

In this article, I only want to draw attention to some of the current names of places in Antigua and ask if the origin of those names mean anything to any Antiguan. Most of them certainly don’t mean anything to me. And many of the others are names of individuals I would prefer to not have known or have to reference each time I think of, or speak of a specific location in my country.

I don’t know and don’t care who Bolans, Urlings, Bendals, Briggins, Jennings, Swetes, or Ottos were named for. As a matter of discourse, I can guess though. Just as I can guess that Gunthoppes, Burkes Estate, Herberts Estate, Montepelier and Sandersons were probably named after plantation owners – all of whom in some way or the other - used, abused, raped, violated, murdered and/or committed genocide on their slave populations. Not once… but as a matter of course… and over a long period of time. And they committed the same vile offences on the offspring of the slaves... Not all of those persons committing these heinous crimes on slaves would have been slave owners or overseers. A significant number would have been the government administrators, merchants and officials (even of the church) who provided the glue that held the whole system of slavery together.

All of them – slave owners, overseers, merchants, and government and other officials profited and benefitted socially, physically, sexually, financially… and emotionally… from their exploitation of the slaves they claimed to own and the system they represented… A system that was the lifeblood of the British Empire… from St. John’s to Bombay and from Perth to Kingston.

As I write this article I realize how annoyed a small few of you – the readers are. Well… it is interesting for you to be annoyed if you see nothing wrong in perpetuating the names of those murderous plantation owners, their vile overseers and the colonial administrators and officials. John Hughes, Gilbert, Willock, Belmont and Glanville who all guilty… and we must decry them – the only way we can – posthumously.

Let’s not forget some other names that we know not whence they are from: Clarks (Hill), Gray’s (Hill), Willikies, Pares, Seatons, Parham, Yepton, Cades, Barnes (Hill), Fitch(es) (Creek), Cobbs (Cross), Carlisle (Bay), Patterson, Claremont, Wapping (Lane), and Redcliffe (Street). We know what they stood for… what they perpetuated and what they benefitted from.

Now I know that Pappy Sammy has helped us tremendously in digging in and examining the history of Africans in Antigua and Barbuda. So, with some research, we can probably pin down who most of these “men” were. But, those historical names do not give me any sense of ownership or pride. Quite the opposite, they highlight a sordid chapter in world history as having taken part in or contributed in no small measure to the genocide of Africans in the Caribbean.

Every time that you call one of these names you are giving credence to, showing appreciation for, testifying to, or highlighting the odious significance of these slave owners and their overseers. Each time we call their names we memorialize them. Each time they are mentioned as our addresses, we are unknowingly… and uncaringly… are commemorating their dastardly and sordid crimes against the spirits of our ancestors.

Should we say their names in the same breath as Pappy Sammy, Ernest Williams, Nellie Robinson, V.C. Bird, George Walter, or Tim Hector? I suggest that it is sacrilege to do so. But we have not given that any thought.

Every chance we get we honor the one-armed, one eyed British naval rogue after whom we name the dockyard. There are many in Antigua who speak that name with deep pride (mostly the great great grandchildren of overseers and British, Scottish and Irish indentured servants). But I do not… As I understand it, many of those celebrated buildings in Dockyard and certainly the walls around it were built with the sweat and blood forced and beaten out of slaves.

Dockyard… does not and never has been – for me – a place to for tribute. In defending the island form that site… the British celebrated naval rogue was defending a colony of Britain, the plantations of the slave holders and a fountain of income for the royalty in England. He was not defending the slave population – the only consequence to whom would have been to have new slave masters who spoke French.

Then of course there was Drake and Hawkins Streets named after two British privateers. These men were nothing less than state sponsored pirates… terrorists in today’s terminology… wreaking havoc on both French and Spanish ships and on the populations of coastal towns in the French Caribbean Islands and coastal Spanish cities in Central and South America. These are not men who we, or anyone, (except for the afore-mentioned descendants of slave owners, overseers and merchants) should celebrate or elevate. We rightly replaced their names with the names of our local heroes.

There is a case to be made that we should have started the process of renaming many of our villages and other sites with names of people who have inspired so many of us: Nelson Mandela, Marcus Garvey, Mahatma Gandhi, Hannibal, Shaka, Pele, Sojourner Truth, Fidel Castro – names that raise a different level of consciousness and give us a unique national flavor.

We already have St. Johns, St. Mary’s, St. Paul’s, St. Phillip’s, St. Luke’s, and St. Peter’s parishes. Therefore, I am not opposed to recognizing a few other names related to spiritual or religious identities like Buddha and Mohammed whose life and words are and have been an inspiration to so many… here, in this region and around the world. I know that this idea will probably trigger apoplectic type seizures in many of you. But, let’s take at least a balanced stance at who we memorialize. We did not have any input in naming our parishes… so why not make some changes there also?

And so here we are at the point of the renaming of the highest point on the island: Mount Barack Obama. And based on the foregoing discussion… it is a good thing.