When the pound of the drums reached my ears, I sensed a familiar thing coming. In marched a cavalcade of drummers, musicians, and paraders clad in mostly white with red, black and green trim. The procession looked like a cross between the annual Maafa walk in New Orleans, and any given high school band that can be found marching through a random neighborhood in preparation for Mardi Gras season. Only this was May 22, 2018 in Martinique, the 170th anniversary of the end of slavery in their country.
Echoes away from the procession was La Savane Park, where my travel group and I had lunched the day prior. Today, we went back and took special note of the statue to Empress Josephine (Napoleon’s once wife) with ho head and red paint for blood suspended in mid drip down its sides. On it are also written in Martinique Kreole, “Respe ba Matinik. Respe ba 22 Me,” which translates to “Respect Martinique. Respect May 22nd.” Shortly after, we purchased “Matanik” tees from some members of the local black nationalist party.
Their flag looks a bit like the Palestinian flag but wahtevs — one time for Pan Africanist movements still movin in the Caribbean — one of the movement’s roots quiet as kept. After a quick visit to the beach we proceeded to a 170th anniversary celebration. Much to my chagrin, we passed up the street celebration. Driving at a snail’s pace through bottleneck traffic under the overpass of the highway, I looked out on the sea of black faces and it could have been Fat Tuesday on Orleans and Claiborne. Same ocean of black revelry, public drunkenness and family gathering — even the similar slither of sunlight slicing through the breaks in the highways above.
We went to the much more tame affair at the museum up the street instead. Here a carousel greeted us upon entry. Martinician children joyfully swiveled around its center. At its center, a band played something that resembled Zydeco right down to the accordion whining out its tune. Black folks walking in every direction — nothing but — and they are many hued and regal. A leaf — or better yet, root — from the old tree of so many of the royal looking black folks I grew up watching walk the streets of Brooklyn. Farther back, vendors pedaled their wares. Handmade wooden model cars akin to the popular souvenirs in Cuba. A booth full of Martinician candies beckoned the eye. Then right beyond it — Belle Belle dancers just like the night before. A different crew to be sure. But this time, onlookers got to partake.
At just the moment when one of the curators decided to call for volunteers to dance with them, I watched the crowd split down the center as her eyes and footsteps aimed directly towards… yup — me. Next thing I knew I was in the middle of a ring of some 300 Martinicians demonstrating a group Belle Belle dance. By demonstrating, I mean I was being flung around by this older woman in a popular dance scenario. The signature move of which, involved said woman violently thrusting her pelvis against mine dry hump style on some “show me what you working with” shit. Me of course, taking it like a G, pretending like she didn’t just literally bust my balls. Next stop was the mini-concert just behind the dance off. If the previous night had exposed us to polyphonic drum percussion, this one brought even more layers, but now with vocals, strings, the works. Amazing.
The contrast between the two islands, only miles away, is nothing if not a testament to the void in access to resources and Western amenities that often comes with less ties to the colonial mother country.
The next morning was Guadalupe. We got off the quick hour-long flight to the adjacent island early in the morning. Our driver Jimmy was a down to earth, round the way type of guy who made sure to cite his former apartments across the street from our first stop — the Nelson Mandela statue. There, Madiba stands prominently at the center of a major boulevard with a litany of statues on circle streets. Dated vehicles bumble up dusted roads, aside where fruit vendors pedal their wares all along the backdrop of a struggling, oft times dilapidated infrastructure.
The polish and finish of Martinique was definitely amiss here. The contrast between the two islands, only miles away, is nothing if not a testament to the void in access to resources and Western amenities that often comes with less ties to the colonial mother country. Guadalupe was somewhat reminiscent of Cuba in that way. But not nearly as beleaguered by the fog of war that still haunts Havana. The fog that purchased Cuba’s freedom. I tell a travel mate who’s been to Africa that this looks a bit how I imagine the motherland will. She agrees.
Further up the road, Guadeloupe boasts its own local heroes in a series of 3 successive circles, each paying homage to different revolutionary figures indigenous to the island. The first was General Louis Degres, the leader of the Guadeloupean Revolution of 1802, in which he led his people in revolting against French troops sent by Napoleon to reinstate slavery on the island. (Yeah, you heard that right. Look it up: here.) The statue features a black woman blocking the eyes and ears of a black man to the right and left of her respectively seeming to suggest “see no evil hear no evil.” On the other side of the three figures is a fallen soldier, his hands tightly in the grip of another who’s hand is in the grip of another who’s hand is in the grip of another. The soldiers who appear to also be everyday folk, cluster around the center of the monument bound together on some “we got us” shit.
Despite the feast for revolutionary eyes all that provides, up the street is the most striking visual of all. This statue was one of the main reasons we came to Guadeloupe in the first place. It features the legendary La Mulatresse Solitude, an enslaved African woman who led maroons in the rebellion of 1802 to kill 400 French soldiers in a suicide bombing — while pregnant. Yeah. Black girl magic gone white boy tragic on the antebellum tip. In the statue, she’s depicted with locks, her belly swollen with a globe of possibility. In the end, she was captured and killed by the French and the baby was spared. Only 30 years old, her legacy lives on in poem, song, book, a single museum installation, though certainly not the historical texts. Across the street from her statue is a mural of her with a poem next to it. I couldn’t help but feel the Tupac vibes she and her legacy kept giving me — but on a whole greater level.
The final stop was a singular statue of General Degres — his French colonial soldier garb coming undone, shirt flailing open wildly with his gun pointed fiercely in the air.
After the secession of statues, we sat down to eat at a shop called Margueritte’s, not too far from our final destination — the Memorial ACT museum. As we ate, I asked Jimmy how did the same fighting spirit of black consciousness show up in today’s Gaudeloupe. Had it been lulled to sleep like it had in New Orleans, and until recently, much of America? He told us that most folks here used to just patronize European businesses and the beauty standards that came with them. That Afro-centric styles had only popularized themselves more as folks gained more control of their economy. And that began with the general strikes of 2009 when some 60,000 people took to the streets for 40 days and shut the city down.
It was due to the fact that the majority Black and Indian populace (60% black and 30% Indian) was held economically hostage by the white minority (5%) who held 90% of the wealth. There’s a rumor (read: a fact in the streets) that I heard from more than one source, that Martinique (and all of the French Caribbean if I remember correctly) is controlled by some five or so elite European families. Those elite are apart of the European ruling class oft referred to as békés by the local Guadeloupeans and Martinicians. No relation to Becky with the good hair but the resemblance is of course, uncanny.
Conjecture and colloquialism aside, the aforementioned wealth distribution dynamic was reason enough for working class Gaudelopeans to overturn the island about 10 years ago. And much like the Tacky rebellion of 1760 Jamaica, The infamous Haitian Revolution of 1791, the 1802 Gaudeloupean Revolution and the 1811 Slave Revolt of New Orleans — take that Kanye! — the 2009 Gaudelopean worker’s strike caught fire and spread all throughout the Caribbean until colonial governments were being challenged by strikes on several islands.
One can only hope that spark persists, and like it did in antebellum days, catch wind over here in these divided states. In an age when the practices of dividing indigenous families all over again as it was done to at least 50% of the black population during the domestic slave trade for over 50 years, the time is ripe to take a cue from how we responded to such oppression in the past. Flip the entire system. And if we don’t get it, shut it down.