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Narrative: Won’t you help to sing?

The songs of freedom
Illustration by Sierra Lundy.

In an Ontario living room, four women and a child sat in the dark with candles casting a small circle of light. We were gathered in my daughter-in-law Karen’s home.

Sasha and Michelle are Karen’s nieces and two-year-old Savannah is my granddaughter. Sasha strummed a guitar and we sang songs, as Savannah fell asleep nursing.

“Sasha, play my favourite song,” Karen said, and the young women sang:

Old pirates, yes, they rob I / Sold I to the merchant ships / Minutes after they took I / From the bottomless pit.

I was awestruck. The poignancy of the moment felt overwhelming – because Bob Marley’s song is powerful – but also because the singers are descendants of enslaved people.

But my hand was made strong / By the hand of the almighty / We forward in this generation / Triumphantly.

Karen, Sasha and Michelle are from Little Exuma, Bahamas, settled in the 1750s by American loyalists fleeing the War of Independence. The British government gave the white settlers land and established a cotton plantation economy, and landowners brought in enslaved people as workers.

The three women are the descendants of people owned by Lord John Rolle. His father, Lord Denys Rolle, brought 150 enslaved people from East Florida to Exuma in 1783. By the 1830s, there were over 350 Rolle enslaved people, who, according to the custom of the time, had their master’s surname.

When Lord John Rolle died in 1835, he deeded his land to the people he owned. The former Rolle plantation is now common land, locally known as “generation land,” where title passes onto a new generation of descendants. Any person who proves descent from a Rolle can claim a plot on the 5,000 acres of Exuma common land. Karen and her husband, Chris, have a plot of waterfront generation land.

Karen came to Canada as a young woman to study at Western University. Her undergrad degree led to a master’s degree and then she continued onto a doctorate in microbiology and immunology. By her early 30s, she had a PhD, a home with Chris and a beautiful child.

Won’t you help to sing / These songs of freedom?

Education is freedom. Karen and Chris were helping their nieces in their quest for an education: Sasha and Michelle were both studying sciences at Western.

Looking at these three intelligent, hardworking women, I realized that 200 years ago, they would have been owned. It’s hard to accept the basic fact of slavery: humans owned other humans. It’s sobering to face the implications of humans owned and treated as an expendable work force. These women’s ancestors had no options and little control over their lives. Slavery is now outlawed and scorned, but for long periods of history it was legal and socially acceptable.

The injustice of slavery was suddenly brought home as I looked at Savannah, fast asleep while her family sang around her. She was growing up in a secure Canadian world where that form of enslavement was unthinkable. Savannah was born into a time when a Black man was elected president of the United States. Savannah will grow up safe within her loving family and have many opportunities.

On Little Exuma, the ruins of the Ferguson plantation are a heritage site. In 2011, I visited the former cotton plantation and reflected on the people who worked the land. Under the sun’s harsh glare, I heard the ever-present wind. The master’s house was in ruins; it had a huge termite nest on the remains of the roof. Soon all that would be left are the crumbling stone walls of the enslaved people’s quarters. It felt morally just that the plantations were gone, walls crumbling, some land divided up and reserved for descendants of those enslaved.

Later, at the St. Matthew’s Union Baptist Church in Exuma, I was part of the congregation celebrating the 11th anniversary of the re-dedication of the church. The tiny space was jam-packed for the three-hour service, with many other congregations joining in the celebration. There was a choir belting out hymns, greetings from guest reverends and a sermon from a distinguished speaker. The local member of parliament was present and everyone in the congregation was wearing their Sunday best. The older women were especially regal, in their stunning outfits of white dresses, high heels, corsages and magnificent hats that were reminiscent of the Queen Mother’s: large, elegant and elaborate.

Chris’s mother, Brit, and I were the only white people in the crowd of over 100 people. I was transfixed. The singing, the “amens,” the raising of hands, the call and response, the powerful oration, the pride and strength – it all moved me to tears. These were the descendants of the enslaved people; the plantations were gone, but the people were here.

The scripture quote above the altar read, “Come unto me, all ye who have laboured and are heavy laden, I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28.” These people’s ancestors laboured, struggled under an unjust system and outlasted it; they had persevered. They came together to celebrate and to sing – “singing brings the Holy Spirit,” one said – and the singing was loud and joyful.

These are holy hands / We’re lifting up holy hands / He works through these hands / And so these hands are holy.

I was honoured to be present, to witness this expression of faith and community. At first embarrassed by my tears, I eventually let them flow. I forgot the heat, my bug bites, that I’m not religious; I felt only the power in the room. I didn’t need faith, there was an abundance of faith here.

And this was the proof of the lie right here: seen in happy children playing outside, the dignified men in dark suits and the cluster of older ladies decked out in their finery. The proof of the lie of slavery was here in these proud and strong people. The proof of the lie…was in my precious grandchild, Savannah.

Won’t you help to sing / These songs of freedom?