The Meaning of Monuments: Lessons from Guyana

By Kenya Downs | August 16, 2017 | Guyana

This post was originally published on Kenya Downs' blog LiveFromKenya.

Over the past few days I've been in the beautiful South American/Caribbean nation continuing my reporting through a fellowship with the International Reporting Project. While here, I'm learning more about the country's longstanding land dispute with its neighbor Venezuela -- and the dynamics of its multiethnic population -- for coverage related to women's rights. During an off day, I took a stroll through the capital city of Georgetown and passed awe-inspiring buildings reflective of Guyana's colonial past.

As you can see, it's a mixture of gothic and Victorian imagery, like the historic St. George's Anglican Cathedral. Completed in 1899, it is the tallest wooden church in the world. The Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology exhibits artifacts from some of Guyana's ancient cultures to educate visitors about the many indigenous groups who called the land home long before the arrival of European colonizers. The Red House honors the man many Guyanese consider as the "Father of the Nation," Cheddi Jagan. This son of Indian indentured servants went on to study at Howard and Northwestern Universities before becoming a politician, and eventually President of Guyana, in 1992. Also called the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, it pays tribute to his legacy while documenting Guyana's journey from a colony to independent nation.

The Official Residence of the Prime Minister has now housed five of the Guyana's leaders and contains a hidden homage to the country's three major religions. The photo here zooms in on the house's weather vane. Look closely and you'll see the top mimics the shape of a temple, alluding to the dominant Hindu faith. There's also a crescent moon representing Islam, and the entire structure is in the shape a cross, an ode to Christianity. In addition to the cathedral, there are quiet a few ornate mosques and temples throughout the country, especially in Georgetown.

Recognizing the many ethnic, cultural and religious groups that have contributed to the country's origins and even long before, is an essential focal point of many points of interests, national holidays and festivals - even odes to the Venezuelan, Surinamese and Brazilian neighbors who have influenced Guyana's development from a Dutch, then British, territory.

Along my journey, I was most struck not by the opulence of bright British and Dutch architecture reflecting Guyana's colonial past, but rather, the plethora of public markings and points of interest that pay homage those who suffered on account of it. The plights of indigenous and African communities in Guyana, like much of the Americas, is one of exploitation, genocide and enslavement. But along my unofficial and solo walking tour, there are countless monuments to memorialize their struggle, commend their resistance and thank them for laying the foundation of Guyana today.

My walk first took me to the National Trust, where there are two key makers: Umana Yana and the African Liberation Monument. The Umana Yana statue acknowledges the AmerIndian community of Guyana. Umana Yana is an indigenous term used by the Wai Wai Amerindians to describe the huge benabs (or native huts) they use as a meeting place. The African Liberation Monument honors African struggle for freedom from human bondage. Unveiled in 1974, it was meant to show support for the liberation movement that was developing on the continent of Africa at the time. All of the photos I captured while walking are viewable in the gallery below.

Next I ventured to the 1823 Monument at the National Park along Georgetown's Sea Wall. The bronze statue depicts Quamina, who led a failed slave revolt in Demerara-Essequibo in 1823 shortly before Britain emancipated all slaves in its territories. It was unveiled in 2013 to pay tribute to Guyana's 250th anniversary of emancipation. A complimentary statue honoring the arrival of Indians to Guyana is located in Region 6 near Berbice and displays bronze men, women and children disembarking with spices and drums.

Lastly, I came to Guyana's Square of the Revolution, home to the 1763 Monument, which was built to commemorate  the “Great Rebellion” that occurred on a plantation in Berbice. It is believed to be the first organized attempt of enslaved Africans in Guyana to fight for their freedom. The statue depicts Cuffy, a leader in the rebellion who organized several uprisings against plantations owners. Each of these historic monuments features signage from the government acknowledging the influence of African resistance on the people and progress of Guyana today. On my way back, I caught sunset over the Arch of Independence, recognizing Guyana's freedom from colonial rule on May 26, 1966.

Personal Reflection:

It was difficult, at first, to articulate why viewing these statues and monuments resonated so much. Then I realized that their mere existence is foreign to me. As a descendant of enslaved Africans brought to what became the United States, my experience is much different. African-Americans are void of many public markings that honor our ancestors, who essentially built the U.S. into what it is today. To the contrary, there are thousands of monuments nationwide that pay tribute to the men who championed their inferiority as justification for their dehumanization.

And as evident through its current racial tension, with white nationalists and supremacists decrying the removal of such imagery through domestic terrorism, the U.S. continues to experience the effects of not moving on from it's heinous distant and recent past by acknowledging and atoning for it. Whether it's an refusal to understand why June 19th is our Independence Day and not July 4th, why we have a separate flag and a separate anthem, or why there is often no fondness for slave-owning Founder Fathers, African-Americans are perpetually reminded that the truths those men found to be self evident, "that all men are created equal," did not apply to those of us they didn't even consider people.

Monuments have meaning. They are testaments to where we were and how far we've come, they immortalize those who should have permanent places in our consciousness and public discourse. I imagine that, in much of the Caribbean, there is an immense pride that comes from emancipation through revolt or a fight for independence leading to the establishment of a nation in which those who hold power share a common ancestry of suffrage, resilience and triumph. And although many Guyanese I talked to will acknowledge that it is often taken for granted, there's an added sense of self-confidence and self-assurance to walk past statues and symbols that invoke the plight of your people, a reminder of whose footsteps you walk in to trudge forward on the path to prosperity.

For African-Americans, there's cognitive dissonance, a balancing act that weighs love of country against the realization that said country wasn't intended for us. And unlike Guyana, where one six-mile walking tour took me past several public places paying homage to those oppressed, there are few places for us African-Americans to walk to for that reminder that we, too, are America.

As the U.S. come to terms with the slap-in-the-face reality of how far we've come versus how little we've progressed, perhaps a lesson or two can be learned from Guyana and the many other Caribbean and Latin American nations where public depictions of history include not just those instrumental in the founding of a nation, but also of the people who suffered and slaved as a result of it.

Lest we forget.

View All Posts By Kenya Downs

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