“One People. One Nation. One Destiny.” Being born in Guyana, South America and having moved to the United States at the age of 10, I never fully understood (though I knew it existed) the racial tensions that plagued our country. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized how detrimental it was to learn about the history of Guyana, and that meant learning about those who were enslaved.
Guyana is known to be the only English-speaking country in South America, and it shares many cultural and historical features with Anglophone Caribbean countries. Like the United States, Guyana has its own history of slavery. According to the CIA World Factbook, Guyana’s demographic makeup is 43.5w percent East Indian, 30.2 percent black (African), 16.7 percent mixed race, 9.1 percent Amerindian, and 0.5 percent other (including those of Portuguese, Chinese and European heritage, among others). With Guyana’s two largest ethnic groups being Afro-Guyanese (descendants of African slaves) and Indo-Guyanese (descendants of Indian indentured laborers), much tension has risen throughout the years and is now reflected in our country’s social, political and economic spheres.
During the mid-seventeenth century, the need for cheap labor by Dutch colonists brought both Africans and Indians into Guyana. Africans were enslaved on sugar and cotton plantations and treated poorly while East Indians worked as indentured laborers. Racial stereotypes soon developed, characterizing Africans as physically strong but lazy and irresponsible, and East Indians as selfish but careful in spending to acquire wealth. In addition, because East Indians worked in more favorable conditions, they felt they were superior to Africans. These stereotypes only further encouraged the division and led the two groups to be in continuous competition with each other, which continues to have dramatic impacts on the country today. The division can be seen in Guyana’s politics where groups support a party solely to advance their social and economic status as a race. Guyana’s motto, “One People. One Nation. One Destiny,” is still only reflective of what the country should be, not what it is. However, there is much promise that these racial divides can be overcome.
Black History Month can mean various things to different people. Because of my background, it means reflecting on Guyana’s journey through slavery and its independence from Britain on May 26, 1966. In addition, because I am a citizen of the United States, it means choosing not to be ignorant of this country’s history of slavery and current injustices that still plague our nation. It is also a reminder to remain united and avoid racial divisions at times where it seems like we can easily be divided. Black History Month should be a time of love and celebration and a time where we allow each other to freely express how we feel, without intentionally disrespecting others. The example that Guyana provides signifies the importance of refusing to let the past fracture the present. And although Guyana still has a long way to go, America can use Black History Month to overcome the impact of its painful past, and to heal in the present.