The spirit of the Maroons must be remembered
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When faced with an unacceptable situation, the human spirit has two reactions, we are told: Fight or flight. In the history of the African in the so-called New World, there were those who chose both. From the time before the American Revolution, Africans brought to the West ran away from enslavement and established communities in the bush, forest or jungle. These were the Maroon societies. It comes from a Spanish word, cimmaron, meaning runaway or fugitive. It also is said to be a derivative of the verb maroon, as in to leave behind or strand.
It must have taken tremendous courage to be taken from all you know, be brought to a foreign land, have your rights as a human being stripped from you and then run away from all of that into the wilderness. Some societies had to stay ever vigilant against slave catchers and those who would attack them and put them back in bondage.
Maroon communities survived by living off the land and by conducting raids on planters and towns. Some were able to establish more permanent communities and sustain themselves by gardening, raising livestock and trading. Because of the remoteness of their locations, many Maroon societies survived by closing their ranks. They held on to their African customs, traditions and languages. Often, they would combine these ways with what they have learned in their new culture. They created new traditions and blended languages.
As the Europeans began to spread their control across the Americas and throughout the Caribbean, many of the Maroon societies were disbanded by force and its members either killed or re-assimilated into plantation society. Those that were stronger were able to maintain their societies and even negotiate treaties with the Europeans. The remnants of some of these communities are still evident throughout the Caribbean in places like Jamaica and Puerto Rico, as well as the Americas.
So rather than accept their position in life and live a life of subjugation and oppression, these most brave ancestors took to the bush to carve out a life for themselves. Whenever possible, they went back to help others escape bondage and either come to their societies or continue on to freedom.
That is the blood that runs in the veins of us descendants all these generations later. Those are the traditions we follow and have followed for so long we don't even know when or how we picked them up. This is part of the history that has been hidden from us and which we refuse to search out.
This is a part of our story, however, that we must embrace and celebrate. Like the freedom fighters who manned the Underground Railroad and those who led uprisings, our Maroon heritage destroys the old myths of complacency or acquiescence within enslavement. We have to honor those who were willing to risk it all and live a life on their own terms.
The recent Inaugural Maroon Commemorative Event hosted by St. Croix Unified for Community, Culture, Environment and Economic Development (SUCCEED), Inc., was organized to shed light on the historical connection between the various Maroon societies. It also discussed "cultural tourism" and the need to preserve and promote the rich history of the Virgin Islands. There is so much about our past that we only know in snippets or through the prism of our oppressors. Learning more about our Maroon past will help us to rewrite the errors in our story and revitalize the interest in our history and culture by our youth.
Now, more than ever, we have to tap into our fighting spirit and put forth the effort to solve the problems facing our community. We have to use every tool available to us, our vote, our knowledge of our past and our culture, to give our youth a pride in their heritage. While we may not be able escape the issues we face by taking to the hills, we can see from our Maroon ancestors that it is possible, even in the face of a determined effort to erase our past, to not only hold onto our traditions but also to share them so that others will have a greater understanding and respect for the contribution of the African to the human story.
- Mariel Blake writes a weekly column for The Daily News.