A Guy’s View: Emancipation can only come from self
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!” Marcus Garvey.
Last week Wednesday, August 1, the state granted us a holiday to mark Emancipation Day. Other than the customary march, there were no activities either to cause Barbadians to reflect on their path to this day of note or to promote their true emancipation.
A few days before this, July 26, was observed as the Day of National Significance. Other than its impressive label, there is never any official activity to commemorate this date. Annually, the National Cultural Foundation marks it with a small cultural presentation, of late at Frank Collymore Hall. No link is ever made between Emancipation Day and the Day of National Significance.
To my consternation, I discovered that quite a few people knew that August 1 was a holiday but they could not immediately say what the holiday was for. In too many instances, Barbadians are happy to have a day off from work, and that is the importance of the day.
We must be emancipated before we can celebrate emancipation. On August 1, 1834, the British Government, against the wishes of local whites, declared by law that all slaves in the Caribbean were free. It is in celebration of this event that Barbadian workers were given last Wednesday off from work.
If we cast our minds back to August 1, 1834, there may be some parallels seen and some lessons learnt. While the slaves were declared free on that date, they were deemed to be apprentices as of then for a period of four years. As such, they were accorded the status of free persons, but theirs was a freedom unlike any use to which that word was put before or since.
Apprenticeship was important for a number of reasons. Among them was to give the authorities time to build churches. It must be remembered that black people did not have souls before they were free and therefore could not worship with their masters. Church was now important, for there is no devise known to man that has been more successful at suppressing the initiative of human beings like religion. The former slaves could not read the Bible for themselves but were given Christianity by their oppressors and they have never been a threat to anyone since.
They also had to be mentally conditioned to remain on the plantations and continue to work for their former masters. In a small, extensively and intensively cultivated island like Barbados, there was not escape from the plantation, so this was easily accomplished here.
August 1, 1834 was a Friday. The former slaves were not required to work. The weekend passed quietly. On the following Monday, the now free people returned to work for their masters performing their slave duties as if nothing had happened.
They were free to earn wages or to engage in some other occupation, but only after giving 40 hours a week of free labour to their masters. One wonders whether our 40 hour work week has in any way been influenced by that 1834 initiative.
One feature across many of the islands on August 1, 1834 was large congregations of persons praying and giving thanks. Of course, these were all white assemblies. There was a widespread fear that the freed slaves would be human enough to strike at their oppressors. But of wider concern than that was the fear that the former slaves may refuse to work. Through thorough conditioning, none of these fears were realised.
Emancipation is not of major importance in Barbados, so there are no addresses by Government officials to mark the occasion. They would rather address us at Christmas and Easter. Other countries with major black populations see it differently. The 2018 address of the Leader of the Opposition in Jamaica, Dr. Peter Phillips was of interest. He looked back, but also considered the current state of black people in his country. Having noted the strides Jamaica has made, he observed: “Even so, victory is not complete. In many ways, we still see around us evidence of the ‘mental slavery’ that Marcus Garvey spoke about and which Bob Marley later identified powerfully through his music. We see ‘mental slavery’ in our people when some continue to bleach their skin and reject the God-given beauty that nature has provided. We see it in many of the attitudes toward family life and parenting which still leave too many of our children abandoned in the streets in the face of absent parents.”
Was that observation of continuing mental slavery peculiar to Jamaica? One thinks not, for some of the evidences that Dr. Phillips identified are alive and well among us here and across the African Diaspora.
The slaves in Barbados were no better off on August 1, 1834 than there were on July 31 that year. That fake freedom travelled with them down to 1937, one hundred years after they were declared free.
Through the agitation of The Right Excellent Clement Osbourne Payne and his lieutenants, ordinary Barbadians were forced to examine their condition and they did not like what they saw. Social investigations showed that their condition had changed little since 1838. The 1937 revolt forced changes which amounted to amelioration of their circumstances, but these developments were never intended to bring them on an equal footing with white Barbadians. The improvements which were imposed from England were social and were absolutely necessary to prevent the black people from taking the next logical step and taking over the country. Pursuant to this end, they were given trade unions and political parties, but no economic support. He who controls the economy owns the country.
It is unfortunate that we see no connection between July 26 and August 1. But, as long as we are alive, there is hope. Maybe in the future we will recognise the importance of what emancipation means to an enslaved people.
Up until now, it has been possible to suppress any genuine appreciation of emancipation as a people because we have been busy looking for leaders to chart that course. The time has to come where the Indians disregard their chiefs and follow the course that is best for them. Maybe then, emancipation will come, but as long as we are not free mentally we will remain slaves, regardless of where we live, what we drive or what title we bear. We have a long way to go before we can claim to be emancipated.
The words of Marcus Garvey at the head of this offering, popularised by the music of Bob Marley, speak to the challenge for black people throughout the western world. Garvey recognised that his people could not claim to be emancipated while they still laboured under a mental state of bondage and inferiority. He also recognised that no one outside of them could take them across this threshold, even in the unlikely case of someone wanting to do so. Their liberation must come from within, and it would start and end with their state of mind.