Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Lullaby for September

The smell of September is in the air here in Belize. It's a fascinating month because Belize City, usually so sleepy, is exploding with action - all month long. Red white and blue streamers, flags, and ribbons adorn the houses of the prominent, political, and well-off families.

On September 6, the first public parade will travel along the streets of Belize City. I'm looking forward joining a steel pan float. In Belize, Carnival adds a festive layer to the more formal, Anglicized expressions of patriotism. September 10 celebrates the historic Battle of St. Georges Caye of 1798. September 21 celebrates Belize's Independence, only 27 years ago in 1981.

The tension between the two at times seems obvious to me, though in this observation, and at this zealously patriotic time of year I am the odd woman out. In the 10th celebration, there is an implicit notion that the history of the Creole people who helped found this colony began when the Baymen allowed their black slaves to fight alongside them against the Spanish Armada at the turn of the 18th century. Until now, this lore has remained, and the exceeding pride of the Creoles.

Belizeans have much to be proud of. And every day, the re-discovery of heritage continues. Next Tuesday, for example, a presentation of patriotic songs written in the 1930's and 1940's is being given at the old Wesley Methodist Church on Albert Street. These are songs mostly written by black bourgeois men, who formed the charitable, patriotic, refined, and talented elite of the pre-independence days, Victorian soprano, concert-organ songs with lyrics like these:

When the last sunny rays meet the Cockscomb
and darkness envelopes it over
All my care long had, I forget as I plod
To my home by the Caribbean Shore...

I reflect as I bask in the splendor
Of a Bayman's inherited right
That this land of our own bears beauty's fair throne
And scenery's eternal light.

The written compositions, and the popular memory of them, seemed to have disappeared for years. In schools, it is said, the songs were completely banned by an oral decree by former Prime Minister and "Father of the Nation," George Price, a superb mestizo politician now in his 90's who still has an incredible hold on this nation. His patriarchal pull is as strong as the faded memories of this cultural patrimony which devoted Belizeans are trying to reclaim. Along with the music is the history of some of these patriots, like Samuel Haynes, known for writing a poem called "Land of the Gods," which became the national anthem "Land of the Sea." What many did not know until just August, when graced by a visit from the renowned historian Professor Robert Hill of UCLA, is that the young Samuel Haynes and his compatriots played a pivotal role in the early UNIA movement of the 1920's, led by Marcus Garvey and his followers.

It’s clear that the collective memory and political struggle of this country, written into its songs, is more dynamic than written history would have us believe. So I'm waiting and watching this September for the reflection that comes after Carnival.