By Adele Halliday
Through my staff position as the Team Leader for Discipleship & Witness at the national office of The United Church of Canada1, I was involved in a CWM Legacies of Slavery hearing in Birmingham, Alabama, USA in June 2018. I also participated in the CWM/World Council of Churches’ week-long gathering “Evangelism and the legacies of colonization and enslavement”, which was held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in June 2019.
My family is from the Caribbean island of St Kitts. While I live in Toronto, Ontario, my family’s most recent history and heritage are firmly rooted in the island nation.
In the late 17th century, enslaved African peoples were brought to St Kitts and Nevis—and many other islands in the Caribbean and the Americas—as a result of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans. St Kitts and Nevis are two islands, but together form one nation. Of the two islands, St Kitts is the larger one, and it has geography well-suited for sugar plantations. In the early years of the plantation system in the islands, enslaved peoples were forced to clear the forests in preparation for sugar production. Many slaves died as a result of the backbreaking work and poor food rations. Even after the slave trade was abolished, sugar production continued in the islands until the mid-2000s.
Occasionally, we travel back to St Kitts for the Christmas season. And every Christmas, I am reminded of the legacies of slavery in a very tangible way.
In present-day, every Christmas Day morning while it is still dark, people gather for worship in churches across the island of St Kitts.
Some churches will begin their services as early as 5:00 am to pay homage to the past. In the days when Black people were still enslaved on the island, organised guards monitored the activities of Black people closely, as the White population feared that slaves would revolt. In any case, the only option for Black people was to go to church at that early hour on Christmas. Then, they had enough time to get back home and prepare the house and food so their White slave owners could go to church too. By keeping the early morning worship time on Christmas even now, we remember our enslaved ancestors from the past and give thanks for our freedom in the present.
It is an important act of remembrance and resistance.
It is a reminder of the fact that Christians owned slaves, and were complicit in the heinous practice of slavery. It is a reminder of the legacy of anti-Black racism that persists today. It is a reminder to resist the forces of empire.
On Christmas morning, people are usually filled with joy and celebrating the birth of Christ. Even as I celebrate, I also take some time to reflect on systemic injustice, enslavement, and racism.
This is part of the reason that I think it is imperative to remember the slave trade and its legacy on Christmas Day, on March 25, and throughout the year.
1 Adele is currently away on parental leave from this position, caring for her infant daughter.