“I would rather die in yonder protest than live in a system of racial inequality.”—Sam Sharpe
By: Cheyanne Rosier, B.S (Carnegie Mellon University)
The witty, superpowered variety often comes to mind when we think about Black heroes. We imagine larger-than-life personalities and cartoonishly evil foes whose criminal plots are thwarted by the forces of justice. However, we neglect to take into consideration the historical figures whose actions helped to influence the world as we know it positively. Certain Black heroes are popularized by their more recent contributions in fighting segregation. However, if we take a step back, we begin to see the individuals who laid a foundation for those heroes to stand on.
Many stories of Black courage are buried beneath hundreds of years of imperialism.7 This erasure has left gaps in the timeline of Black accomplishments and created a narrative that denies a wealth of inspiration and achievement.7 Without dedicated researchers to give voice to the Black heroes of the past, much of their individual impact would be lost to time. One researcher, Dr. Fred Kennedy, sought to highlight the work of the revolutionary Samuel Sharpe.
In his book Daddy Sharpe, Dr. Kennedy details the life and death of a Jamaican national hero.1 The novel depicts Sharpe from his own point of view, bringing to life a historically accurate work of fiction. Samuel Sharpe was an enslaved man who became the leader of one of the largest slave rebellions in history. What was initially planned to be a peaceful strike snowballed into a battle known today as The Christmas Rebellion or The Baptist War. Sixty-thousand enslaved Jamaicans fought against their oppressors, setting fires to plantation homes and demolishing sugarcane factories until they were eventually overcome by British troops.2,3,6 At the time of the rebellion, the British Parliament was in the process of debating the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The Baptist War expedited the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, and heavily contributed to the eventual abolition of slavery throughout all British territories in 1838.2,3,8 Hundreds of enslaved Jamaicans were executed for their participation in The Christmas Rebellion, and hundreds more died in battle.2,3 However, their sacrifice was not in vain. Reactions towards the actions of Samuel Sharpe and his supporters echoed throughout the British Empire, and eventually, King William IV released upwards of 800,000 people held captive on plantations.2,3,8
The work of these heroes played a major role in toppling the global institution of slavery, and yet few books are written about their tremendous impact. Three books fully explore The Baptist War and Samuel Sharpe: Wars of Respect: Nanny, Sam Sharpe, and the Struggle for People’s Liberation by Kamau Brathwaite; Island on Fire: The Revolt that Ended Slavery in the British Empire by Tom Zoellner; and as previously mentioned, Daddy Sharpe: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Samuel Sharpe, A West Indian Slave Written by Himself, 1832 by Dr. Fred Kennedy. 4 Three books about Samuel Sharpe are not commensurate with his significance in Black History. This event and its lack of documentation showcase a dire need for books about Black heroism. Living in the United States, there is a yawning gap in Black historical education.
The U.S. education system provides a bare minimum, narrow focus on a handful of events that occurred on American soil.5 However, if we broaden our range, we can begin to teach about the thousands of Black heroes who have changed the world for the better. 5 A larger selection of books about these heroes would allow for more opportunities to expand the study of Black history in K-12 and higher educational institutions. In doing so, we could provide students with cultural empowerment.
However, as things currently stand, searching for academic, historically accurate stories of Black heroism will return a diminutive selection. In an interview with critic Dr. Glenville Ashby, Dr. Fred Kennedy spoke openly about his own findings on the disappointingly few records of Black heroes. He stated that in his professional research, he found that “little had been written about our ancestral heroes.”1 Seeking change, Dr. Kennedy conducted in-depth investigations into the lives of influential figures in both Jamaican and indigenous history. His books Daddy Sharpe and Huareo – Story of a Jamaican Cacique are now a resource for anyone interested in learning more about Black history. More scholars have an opportunity to share a piece of Black historical heroism. In these times in which the discourse of Blackness is shifting, it is even more important that we allow these stories to flourish.
During the holiday season, we are particularly appreciative of stories that capture the spirit of giving. Acts of courage, service, and sacrifice are celebrated to inspire feelings of optimistic enthusiasm. It is in this spirit that we give thanks to those who dedicate their lives to giving voice to heroes whose impact shaped the world for generations to come. Many tales of true Black heroism have been hidden for hundreds of years. It is our job to read, write, and talk about their impact so that their contributions can be known to the world
1 Ashby, G. (2016, April 23). The Writer’s Forum…an interview with Dr. Fred Kennedy, author of ‘Huareo – story of a Jamaican cacique’. Kaieteur News. Retrieved December 8, 2021, https://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2018/07/29/dr-fred-kennedy-talks-slavery-reparations-and-education-in-caribbean-society/
2 The Baptist War Occurs. African American Registry. (2021, May 22). Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://aaregistry.org/story/the-baptist-war-occurs/.
3 Bussa and Christmas Rebellions. USI Home Page. (2011). Retrieved December 8, 2021, from http://archive.understandingslavery.com/index.php-option=com_content&view=article&id=381&Itemid=247.html.
4 McKenzie, C. (2020, October 11). Slavery’s end: On Tom Zoellner’s “Island on fire”. Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://www.lareviewofbooks.org/article/slaverys-end-on-tom-zoellners-island-on-fire/.
5 Merelman, R. M. (1993). Black History and Cultural Empowerment: A Case Study. American Journal of Education, 101(4), 331–358. https://doi.org/10.1086/444049
6 This Month in History: Samuel Sharpe and the Christmas Rebellion. The Gazette. (2020, December 4). Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://www.thegazette.co.uk/all-notices/content/103864. 7 Rogers, C., & Neumann, S. (2002). Forgotten worlds; lost chapters in global black history. Black Renaissance, 4(2), 192. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/forgotten-worlds-lost-chapters-global-black/docview/215536041/se-2? accountid=9902 8Zoellner, T. (2020, July 11). The Uprising of 60,000 Jamaicans that Changed the Very Nature of Revolt. Zócalo Public Square. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/05/28/jamaican-uprising-samuel-sharpe-rebellion-christmas-uprising-grea t-jamaican-slave-revolt/ideas/essay/.