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Campaign to make Emancipation Day a national holiday

DETERMINED: Reverend Canon Eve Pitts

CAMPAIGNING CLERIC Reverend Canon Eve Pitts is calling on the Church of England to lead the way in making Emancipation Day – August 1 – a national holiday to honour the millions of black lives sacrificed for the greed of the sugar industry.

The Anglican vicar told the packed congregation at her third annual Ancestors Arise service that she has written to the Bishop of Birmingham the Right Reverend David Urquhart telling him it’s the “least the Church of England can do” to acknowledge an annual Ancestors’ Day, while also recognising its own part in the slave trade.

“I want to do this for our ancestors, so that when I am old, when I can hardly walk, my children will remember that their mum made it possible every year for us all to stop, pause and regain our memories,” said Pitts at Holy Trinity Church in Birmingham, where the service was streamed live to Jamaica.

“The act of remembrance brings dignity to our dead.

“I don’t want this service to rely on Eve – I am not here to make myself look big; I’m just not interested in that sort of stuff. I’m interested in doing something for our ancestors.

LEST WE FORGET: Tolu Odubanjo, left, and Siobhan Bartley stand in chains during the Ancestors Arise church service

“We need to remember those wonderful men and women who were dragged from the shores of Africa. We’ve often been told that we should not acknowledge our dead because it amounts to ‘ancestor worship.’ Any nation that tells another nation not to remember their dead is a nation that does not have our wellbeing at heart. Many black people feel they are not allowed to remember, but it’s so important; I can understand why we don’t want to because it’s painful.

"The history doesn’t make pleasant reading if you’re going to fall for the lie that our history started with the slave trade. It is only when we go a long way back to look at those ancestors who were inventors, doctors, philosophers and mathematicians that we begin to rebuild our memory – and in rebuilding that memory we stumble across the pain of the slave trade.”

Talented baritone Byron Jackson sang several spirituals throughout the two-hour service, while Christian Bailey read Claude McKay’s famous poem, If We Must Die. Clinical drama therapist Clancy Williams recited the inspirational verses of Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise.

At one point the church lights were dimmed for prayers to be read out in both Swahili and English to welcome the ancestors.

Keynote speaker Associate Professor Kehinde Andrews said:

Professor Kehinde Andrews

“When we talk about the enslavement of our ancestors what is it that we are remembering? Europeans were trying to create what they called ‘the negro’ – someone who had no culture, no history no civilisation, the negro was like a beast. Up until 1945 it was widely-accepted that African Caribbeans were inferior to Europeans and they tried to prove it by measuring the size of our heads and our noses. We were completely dehumanised.

“But they failed because we refused to become the negro – we refused to lose our connection to our history and our civilisation. The fact that we are still here shows how much strength we have inherited from our ancestors just to survive. Slavery is not negative history for us because we always resisted it.”

He explained that Birmingham’s wealth during the industrial revolution was just as rooted in the slave trade as port cities like Liverpool and Bristol – Birmingham manufactured the guns, chains and shackles to imprison millions of Africans.

Pitts concluded:

“We owe a debt of gratitude to our ancestors. I know some people feel we should no longer talk about slavery – they feel it’s about time we put it all behind us, but we need to honour and remember those who have gone before.”

She ended by saying how after a recent visit to Jamaica where she spoke at a conference to celebrate the 130th anniversary of the birth of Marcus Garvey. To applause, she said:

“I came back a different woman with a renewed sense of who I am and also a renewed sense of how Jamaica is being taken over by China. I have already written to the Jamaican Prime Minister and we must have the courage to do something about this. We will not be colonised again – if we let this happen our ancestors will not forgive us. Their lives must not be in vain.”

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