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Emancipate Ourselves From Mental Slavery - August 2, 2004

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The Continued Significance of Emancipation

Yesterday, August 1st, we celebrated Emancipation Day. Many of you would have wondered if this was just another excuse for a holiday - and what was the relevance of Emancipation Day to us today - almost two centuries after the event - in 1834 - when our forefathers - the slaves, were told that their freedom would come in 1838.

In the past, we celebrated Emancipation Day on the first Monday in August, but now, together with most of our CARICOM brothers and sisters, August 1st is the date chosen collectively, for us to remember this important period in our history. Previously, the day was not especially marked by national activities. It was just another holiday for blokos and fairs. Now we recognise more and more, the need to commemorate our emancipation - to emphasise its importance for us as a people. It was our first step to nationhood - an opportunity for us to cherish and nurture our freedom and dignity.

Yes, Emancipation may have occurred over 170 years ago, but it is as significant today as it was then. The lesson of the enslavement of the African peoples in this Diaspora is a lesson taught, not only to the black peoples of the world, but to all races and creeds everywhere. The triumph of emancipation is one which reaches out to all humankind - it reminds us that justice and truth triumphs over exploitation, greed and inhumanity; that equality can succeed segregation and discrimination, that good conquers evil. There are echoes of Emancipation today in the dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa, not so long ago, and in the continued fight of the Haitian peoples to attain full statehood and democracy, in the horrors of Sudan, and many other places, where sometimes the divider of ‘race’ is replaced by religion.

The Paths We Have Conquered

Yet, the trials and tribulations of the Emancipation struggle also remind us that the road to the glories of equality, justice and, yes fraternity, is a long and difficult one. Often, we forget the progress we have made, the steps, however small, that lead us to the ultimate goal.

Sometimes it is easier to believe that we should let things remain as they are. There are times when even the oppressed and the ‘unfree’ doubt their capacity to exist in full freedom. Not too long ago - a poll in Jamaica produced the astounding conclusion that the majority of Jamaican peoples felt that life was better under colonialism. How quickly we have forgotten the gains in education, the black power movements which alleviated, if not eliminated, social structures which were defined solely by the colour of one’s skin. We have forgotten that many of our parents and forefathers could not even sign their names, that we could not even vote, when land was owned only by a tiny percentage of the population, usually white, that children out of wedlock had no legal status, but were outcasts, derisively described as ‘ba-ta’.

So, today, we must accentuate the positive - and acknowledge that emancipation has brought us far, very far. It brought us not only out of the despair of being owned as property or chattel and being brutalized, physically and mentally, by our owners - but it led us to independence and to general progress as a people, defined by our new identity as Caribbean, and our new freedoms.

The Road is Long

Yet, Emancipation Day should also make us reflect on how far again we have to go. This growing process has many facets and many stages. We need to grow first, as individual daughters and sons of slaves and of slave societies. Even those whose foreparents were not enslaved have been touched and shaped by slave society. We need to grow as a nation, formed from the children of slave societies, and mindful that we are existing in a world in which our place in the global scale of things is still, as sub-nations; nations still enslaved in the world context, by our inequitable history and unequal opportunities. In that world context, the bigger and more developed countries were accustomed to taking and using our natural and human resources to develop their own, with little thought for the development of those from whom much was taken. Remember that Eric Williams demonstrated how Europe and America were industrialized from the fruits of slavery and Walter Rodney showed us how ‘Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. As we well know, such practices are difficult to break.

The World Context

In today’s context, we no longer have conquerors who blatantly plunder, seize and control, but there is little doubt that the world is still an unequal place. And - in this context - race - that catalyst for slavery - still seems to be important. Of course, unfair working conditions and poor development opportunities in our part of the world, the so called ‘Third World’, cannot simply be blamed on slavery. But, in our part of the world, some inheritances are grounded in historical inequities, based on race, which filters into class, and which defines the geography of the world. It is no accident, for example, that many of the poorest countries of the world are peopled by black or non-white races. Such world divisions continue in an environment which still places a greater premium on things and places of a particular race. These inequities make it difficult for us to take our rightful place in the world as a developed and successful nation. This world outlook continues to ignore the great contributions which the previously enslaved peoples of the world made to the development of these so called first world nations and indeed the progress of the world. This, indeed, is part of the rationale for lobbying for reparations for the descendants of African enslaved peoples, now a theme frequently and eloquently articulated by our Caribbean intellectuals and others in the Diaspora.

The People Perspective

But what of the effect of slavery on us as individuals, and collectively, as a people? We are all familiar with Bob Marley’s song -‘Redemption Song’. For Bob Marley, the important aspect of the discussion on Emancipation was the question of ‘mental slavery’ - the psychological dimensions of our slavery experience - which still impact negatively on us today as a people and often prevent us from achieving our fullest potential. Often, it is difficult for us to pinpoint the links, but we can accept as indicators perhaps - a lack of pride in industry, a lack of commitment to work in belief that work is for the benefit of ourselves and not simply something we do when we have no other choice or when the boss is watching ( the slave whip of yester-year); a cynicism toward the view that hard work can bring progress and success to ourselves; an inability to believe that we can help build and not merely destroy - not surprising for peoples who were forced to work for so long for the good of others without reward to themselves; a doubt that what we can achieve is just as good and maybe even better than ‘foreign’, a mindset that others must always do for us, that tells us that we cannot do anything by ourselves, or for ourselves or that we are incapable of doing any better than we are doing at any moment; an alienation of ourselves from the notion of a society or community - in preference for ‘every man fend for himself’, again, not surprising in peoples who were not allowed community. We can perhaps trace these psychological problems in our societies to our enslaved past.

Emancipate Ourselves

Yet - as Marley tells us - we must find the strength and belief to fight these self-defeating paradigms - to emancipate ourselves. Today, unlike yesteryear, we have many of the tools to liberate ourselves, despite an often hostile and dangerous world. We have opportunities in education. We have knowledge. We have governments whose every desire is to develop the people under their care, despite poor financial resources. This was not something that persons in slave societies had. We have laws which remind us that race, colour and creed cannot be used to exploit or enslave us.

Today too, we have a fuller and more truthful history. We are now being taught about the proud and rich African heritage that is ours. We now know that the land of our forefathers was not always just a hunting ground for slaves. No, it was an intellectual, technological and cultural fountain, a well-spring which gave the world many of its present wonders - such as Mathematics. These are truths which we are only now discovering - having been denied this knowledge for centuries. This too can help us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. On Emancipation today - we must reconnect to Africa - but not only to bemoan the negative - but to derive succour and strength from our original birthplace. Race - which for so long has been used to divide and shame us - can also uplift and edify us.

So, we need to develop the confidence to wield these tools - to use them for our betterment and our country’s progress. And it is only when we truly believe in ourselves - as individuals - as a nation of proud peoples - that we can truly negotiate for a more just place on the world stage.

For Emancipation to be truly meaningful - we must embrace all of these concepts. In the words of the prophet, ‘Bob Marley’, “we must emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.”

Have a wonderful holiday.


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