Building Communities

Essays in this section:
Overview Essay on Building Communities
Apprenticeship and Emancipation in Barbados with a Focus on Education
Vive chef coumbite!" : The New Masters in Post-Emancipation Haiti
Mixed-race People and Emancipation-Era Jamaica

With abolition, the freed slaves had to regroup and to find a way of structuring their lives. The three essays in this section explore issues related to the building of new communities. Together, these studies explore race, labor, and education in the post-emancipation communities of Jamaica, Barbados, and Haiti.

How did the darkness of one's skin weigh in politics, marriage and family, and child education? Kiaira Bell's essay shows that white observers tried to subdivide people of color into discrete categories, ranging from a mulatto, who was one half black and one half white to the mestees, who were only one eight black. Those closer to the The Nondescriptwhite end of the spectrum saw themselves as better than the other people of color because many of them were able to pass as white. Nonetheless, following emancipation, people of color enjoyed many political advances politically. However, for families of color in particular, emancipation did not wipe out racism, which continued to shape the choices that women, in particular, could make. Few marriages took place among people of color because for the most part, females believed that it was more reputable to be the kept mistress of a wealthy white man than to marry a Negro or another person of color. Although white men would never marry women of color, many would often openly abandon their wives and children to be in her company. The children of these relationships would not be exempt from Jamaican society's obsession with grades and degrees of color.

Education is essential in building a community, especially among children, as they are being groomed to be the new leaders of the community. Observers noted that in schools in Kingston, there was not a lot of division along color lines and students were thoroughly intermingled. School superintendents wrote in letters that children of color were equal in both their ability and conduct to white students. Some children were even sent to Great Britain to study with white students, particularly the offspring of the men of fortune, where they received a liberal education.

How did access to education change with the end of slavery? When the British decided to free the slaves on Barbados, they did so through a system called apprenticeship. Apprenticeship was a form of free labor wage because ex-slaves were paid for their work, but they were obligated to work for a specified set of hours and for a specified person. This alternate form of slavery began in 1834 and it was not until 1840 that slavery was totally abolished on the island. Various rights and freedoms were granted to the semi-freed slaves, but many rights and freedoms were withheld. Still, once apprenticeship began, education on the island began to flourish. During apprenticeship and when emancipation finally became a reality, education was a priority for ex-slaves. The immediate building of school and the allocation of funds from the government were important issues to both the newly freed slaves and some of the government officials on the island.

Negro HabitationsHow did the freed slaves organize themselves into workforce that labored for their own, their families', and their community's benefit? The plantation workers in Haiti faced this problem. While some white travelers claimed that 19th-century Haitians were happy children of nature who know nothing of work, others saw deeper. A transformation was taking place, one that, for instance, claimed the land with a new language. Generously citing this creole language, Aubin shows that the transformation was not merely a transplantation of Africa; rather, it was something new. In addition, the example of the coumbite or communal labor force is important because, though is has African elements, it is a particularly Haitian product of the era of emancipation.

Slaves were not given the opportunity to seek an identity as a people with an experience of the world as valid as that of their masters. Instead, they were given a prescribed role and were deprived of language and learning. Their black skin was a dead end. Through the struggle of resistance and emancipation, the bandages of ancient wounds were torn off, revealing a people now struggling to find its equal place among its former masters. The darkness of one's skin remained important, opening and closing doors based on an elaborate system of what was privileged. Access to education became a priority, redefining skills and values. Labor practices changed as descendants of slaves became new masters of the coumbites. All these elements were important in the building of communities, and of the cultures that sustained them.