Some time ago I remember being involved in a radio discussion where we spoke of the eroding national identity, and the need for us to know ourselves and what we value if we expected others to respect us (the collective us, ie Antigua & Barbuda).
I had occasion to think of this on National Heroes’ Day, December 9, because presumably, what we honour on that day is the spirit of those who reflect the best of us. Right? Or is it just another day off?
I’d like to share two conversations with youngsters; consider if it sounds similar to conversations you’ve had with young people you know.
Adult: Can you name our national heroes?
Adult: *hinting* There are five of them.
Youth: VC Bird?
Youth: V C Bird?
Adult: *throwing a bone* He’s one, yes, but like I said there are five.
Youth: Ah…ah *starts throwing out names at random none of them hitting the mark*
At this point the adult may or may not decry the state of an educational system that doesn’t see fit to devote some social studies time to our national heroes, or lambaste the child for not retaining what was most certainly taught, or take the opportunity to teach what ought to already be known. Let’s go with option number three.
Adult: *Mission Impossible style* Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to research these heroes – VC Bird, George Walter, Nellie Robinson, King Court, and Vivian Richards … See I’m even giving you their names – and write about them.
Youth: I’ve never heard of any of those people.
Adult: Well, now’s your opportunity to find out. And there’s a prize in it for you.
*Youth’s eyes, both hopeful and suspicious*
Adult: No, not just the gift of learning, though that’s prize enough in itself. But a prize prize, something you’ll like.
Youth: *considering* So I just have to look it up and print it out?
Adult: *hoping teachers are not just accepting Wikepedia’d information*No. If you print it out, that’s not in your words. You have to look it up, different sources, interpret it, write it in your own words.
*Cue the litany of excuses*
Adult: *coaxing* You could even have fun with it. Maybe make them super heroes. Do drawings. Whatever. Just as long as you prove you know who they are and why they’re heroes.
Youth: I could do that.
Adult: I know you can. I look forward to seeing it.
And that saga – let’s call it why are they heroes: super hero edition – is to be continued.
An earlier conversation with another youth went something like this
Adult: …and that’s why Nellie Robinson is the only female national hero.
Youth: Because she started a school?
Youth: What’s heroic about that?
Adult: *wishing for the eloquence of Leonard Tim Hector on the subject* opening up education to everyone including the so-called illegitimate children of the middle and working class helped change the social landscape in ways still being felt today.
Youth: Oh, okay.
And this brings me to the original point; do we understand who we’re celebrating and why on December 9? Do our kids? Do we care? And what does it say about our value system, our collective national identity, if the answer to any of those questions is no?
Forget the tired debate, politicised as too much is in this country, about whether we should be celebrating one hero or all, whether it should be VC Bird Day or Heroes’ Day, do we even understand why it matters?
Here’s why it matters to me. The thing that all our national heroes have in common – apart from being men and women of flesh and flaws just like all of us – is their contribution to the Antigua & Barbuda Operation Freedom project.
Take King Court, who died in Otto’s Pasture in 1736 for daring to plot to overthrow the plantocracy and shake off the shackles of slavery. Take V C Bird lionised as the most iconic figure in the struggle for labour rights and political independence. The common thread is a desire to move the collective enslaved/working class towards self-definition (a journey that remains a work in progress).
From workers’ rights to education for all to pride and glory, whatever our personal or political feelings about any of these men and women – Court to Robinson to Bird to Walter to Richards – can we deny the role they played in building and defining the national character? And, apathetic and adrift, can we not use the best of what they represent to remember who we are; to anchor ourselves as we envision our own future rather than going along to get along?
It’s perhaps fortuitous that on Heroes’ Day I saw the movie The Immortals – the story of how a mere mortal, through his heroic actions, became a god; more likely I’m making too much out of a bloody CGI action adventure with ripped abs and a magic cross bow.
But if you wanted to dig beneath the carnage for a message, it would perhaps be this, that anyone can be a hero, even the peasant son of a scorned woman, because by our deeds we shall be known. With this caveat, it depends on who’s writing the history. Plus a whole lot of other stuff about gods and free will. But, at its core, that we all have the potential to step up and be a hero in someone’s life.
Heroes’ Day, therefore, might not only be our best opportunity to reflect on the ones who have been officially recognised as heroes, but on the heroes in our own lives, and perhaps take baby steps toward being a hero in someone else’s life.
Heroes’ Day might be a good day, rather than taking another day off to party, to commit to some sort of national service; each one going out and doing something in his/her community to make a difference in the life of his/her community. Community groups can be mobilised around this idea; no?
I remember years ago seeing a day of service as part of the Independence celebrations in a neighbouring country and thinking what a cool idea.
Another cool idea – feel like I’m beating a dead horse with this one but here goes – the production for broadcast on the national station and potentially other networks, content at once entertaining and informative with an appeal to younger viewers that answer the question posed to the youth earlier, why are they heroes? I’m talking something infinitely more creative than in studio talking heads.
And we’re so focused on pushing ICT. How about creating online interactive – fun, visually appealing, well researched and interestingly presented – content related to national heroes and hall-of-famers that can serve as a resource for students of all ages. What about illustrated children’s books and colouring books starring our national heroes?
Whatever, the point is, find ways to make the day both interesting and meaningful, a community affair which stirs not just reflection but action in the spirit of the heroes being celebrated. Or at the very least, remind ourselves, and inform our children, why they’re heroes.