Before Time & Lost Route to Roots

Tuesday, 09 October 2007
"History, history! We fools, what do we know or care." William Carlos Williams

"Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis." Schopenhauer

Last week a historical monograph titled "Discover Old Belize Town: Sites & Places of Memory" authored and compiled by Dr. Aondofe Joe lyo was launched at the House of Culture on Regent Street. Even though the volume is a slim and trim 60 pages, it is chock full of information on the olden days of the Old Capital. A who's who and what's what on the times and customs of Belize before it was Belize: a time before time. Or nearly before recorded time.
So what's so special about a pilinky chronicle of Belize City circa 175 to 200 to 225 years ago that warrants a two page spread in the BELIZE TIMES? Easy dude, `cause history ain't nothing to sneeze at. `Cause the past can help ya get a sense why ya think and act the way ya do.

Yah, yah, some wise of pundits say that the young generation of Belizeans doesn't give a damn about history. That historical awareness has nothing to do with the price of rice. That the young generation is primarily a product of consumerism gone seriously awry. Consumerism via the high tech miracle of TV and the sexy winding and grinding and opulent trophies of Gangsta Rap on BET cable station. Consumerism as the narcissistic obsession of teens. The be-all and end-all of life; where a gold chain or a name brand tennis shoe is worth much more than a human life.

A mighty convincing argument: blame it BET, but, but, but not the whole ball of wax. Sure, BET is a beguiling, amoral, visually enticing three minutes of sex, drugs and all the decadence big money can buy. Sure, teens are captivated by those glitzy cathode ray images. However, there's more going on in this here jewel besides bunches of teenage BET wanna-bes.

Dr. Aondofe Joe Iyo

Dr. Iyo's book helps fill in the blanks. It is a signpost, a somewhat rickety signpost pointing the way to how Belize City was settled and how the settlement evolved. I say "rickety signpost" because as Dr. lyo states in his introduction his book is based on available information. And that's the rub. Ya see, everyday, working class Joes of color didn't chronicle their history. The slaves didn't write for The Honduras Almanack (1828) or The Handbook of British Honduras (1825). Who did write for the Almanack and the Handbook were the white colonialists; the slave masters and their cronies. Only half the story was available for research. So the so-called `rickety signpost' is due to the inherent white, elitist bias of the source authors.

And I'm talking serious racial bias here. Check out this lulu culled from John Lloyd Stephens account written in his 1839 tome titled "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan" that is excerpted on page 29 and 30 in Iyo's text. "The Negro schools stand in the rear of the Government House, and the boy's department consisted of about 200 .... from nearly white down to two little native Africans bearing on their cheeks of the scars of cuts made by their parents at home.” If that isn't insulting and culturally crass enough to make your blood boil, Stephens next observation is vile racial stereotyping to the nth degree. "..the brightest boys, and those who had improved the most, were those who had in them the whitest blood. The mistress of the female department ... told us she had many clever black girls under her charge, but her white scholars were always the most quick and capable." The pisser is, it was blithely unaware bigots like Stephens that were the ones that documented history; their own brand of white supremacist history.

While the white dudes were penning their bigoted historical accounts, the people of color in old Belize Town evolved their own historical documentation method. The slaves had developed an oral tradition. Like the griots of Sub Saharan Africa, the slaves and free-Blacks of old Belize Town used narrative storytelling to pass on their historical accounts from generation to generation. Oral history was the name of the game.

Unfortunately when Dr. Iyo attempted to interview some of old Belize Town's senior citizens to capture that oral tradition on paper he found out that the griot tradition was short circuited by the mass exodus to the States of two generations of Belizeans directly following the 1931 and 1961 hurricanes. Iyo writes, "Thus it was impossible to explore the experience of slavery and colonialism in Belize Town, as seen or heard by the group that felt the brunt most." The exodus to what many Belizeans still view as the `land of milk and honey' prevented the descendants of slaves from continuing their side of history, leaving only biased colonial sources of questionable accuracy for modern day historians to utilize.

We need more historical documentation. We need more political history. More cultural history. More music history. More sports history. More art history. More history. Belize has already lost big chunks of Black heritage to the flight up north. It's time now to get it together and record the various histories, be it on tape, video or written before it's too late.

What I'd like to see happen is some enterprising historian set up a video camera in front of that Grand Dame of archivists-historians Meg Craig and just let her talk about all her obsessive collection. That would take up a few hundred hours of video, but what a treasure trove of knowledge our future historians would have at their fingertips. Sure, I realize Miss Meg values her privacy and an extended documentary would be an incursion into her twilight years, though a necessary, historically dictated incursion. Don't let Miss Meg go gently into that goodnight without tapping into her data base. She's one kind of griot we need more of.
Live and let live