A GUY'S VIEW - Season of emancipation
Sun, 07/31/2016 - 12:00am
R.E. Guyson Mayers
We are at the end of our season of emancipation. According to the trend in recent years, now is the time when we join those who worship Bacchus and engage in bacchanal, as many calypsos often urge us to do.
It was a progressive idea to promote the understanding of emancipation celebrations as part of a season rather than a single day. A season opens up the opportunity for us to look at this historical
watershed from many angles. It creates the prospect for serious reflection and still provides occasion for celebration.
One would struggle to find an occasion that is more deserving of serious contemplation than emancipation. About 90 per cent of the population of Barbados come out of a background of slavery. There was no means test for slavery. One could not escape it because of intelligence, gender, or wherewithal. There was one criterion – race.
Some point to the fact that there were others, not black or African, who were treated badly. But the status of slave was reserved only for the black African and his descendants.
Slavery was dehumanising on several levels. One justification for enslaving the black man was that he was not fully human and had no soul. This was the reason why he could not attend church until it was necessary to pacify him when it was clear that his legal bondage would soon end.
Truth be told, just shy of 200 years after the end of slavery, many of us are still not too comfortable with the emancipation subject. There are certain discussions that inject fear into the hearts of some among us, and the liberation of black people is chief among them. This fear exists among blacks as much as it does among any other group.
A few days ago, Michelle Obama delivered a fantastic speech, in the context of American politics, at the Democratic Party convention. One of the things she said was that she wakes up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. This was simply a statement of fact that could not be disputed.
The President’s wife used that story to demonstrate how far African Americans had advanced socially. She was roundly applauded for her word picture. But Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel fame, retorted that, yes, the White House was built by slaves, but at least those slaves were well fed.
His retort was most appropriate because it demonstrated that, a black family in the White House notwithstanding, there is no white regret or apology for that country’s slave history. It is important for these things to be said occasionally so that people like the Obamas would not forget that they will never be judged by anything independently of the colour of their skin.
I use this American story to show that it may be the view of some people that emancipation should never have happened. And it prevents me from having to use a local example that might embarrass some among us.
The season of emancipation includes the Day of National Significance, July 26. It was on this date in 1937 when the people revolted against their oppressive overlords. We continue to describe this revolt as riots because the idea of criminal disturbances demeans what really took place in the eyes of those who do not have an intimate knowledge of these events. There is tacit acknowledgement that this event was central to improvement of the lives of ordinary Barbadians, but there is reluctance to grant it the respect it deserves. What are we afraid of?
Lawless riots are never a good thing, but any free people must reserve the right to throw off the yoke of those who oppress them. It is disingenuous to diminish a necessary revolt of a people to
liberate themselves by describing their life altering action as disturbances or riots.
In 1937, nearly a hundred years after the end of slavery, living conditions for black Barbadians was not far removed from what had existed in 1837. Should our forefathers have been content with that and respect the status quo that suppressed them?
The judicial system was still sufficiently skewed to ensure that the leaders of that revolt, all black, when arrested and charged, were tried by an all-white jury. Today, when we look back at this episode, this little detail is missing from all discussion. That was 1937 Barbados and it was a reflection of what needed to be changed in that society.
Societies that are built on prejudice are essentially flawed and have no redeeming features. They adapt as necessary to perpetuate themselves. This sometimes requires granting concessions to those that are oppressed, but there can be no fundamental change or the system dies. Everything is done to ensure that this never happens. Any meaningful change always comes from below.
Black Barbadians may consider themselves more fortunate than their American counterparts because they are the overwhelming majority of the population and have long been allowed to manage their own affairs. This has seen the introduction of laws and policies that have greatly improved the lives of black people here. Their brothers and sisters in the States still depend on concessions extended to them by those who benefit from their subordination.
Our season of emancipation should be used to properly educate Barbadians about their history, starting from before their ancestors were slaves, and continuing on to how they can use their peculiar pass as a foundation on which they can build amazing lives.
Hardship can be a useful teaching opportunity. In the normal course of life, we often come into contact with people who either do not respect us, are intimidated by us or are envious of us. Or there may be other circumstances that conspire to defeat us. People with a slave history, but who are psychologically emancipated, should never be defeated by these encounters.
Unspoken slights, manipulation and attempts to undermine our efforts, dishonest, backbiting colleagues, biased administrators and public authorities, are all situations that we should expect to encounter, sometimes on a daily basis. This is often a by-product of slavery. Our history teaches us to take these things in stride because in the end, we will overcome. Emancipation can be built into a great life lesson.