Emancipation and the Emancipated

Jamaica will be celebrating a significant milestone in its life tomorrow, namely, emancipation from chattel slavery. The observance of Emancipation Day is not merely intended to create another public holiday, but rather to inject in the consciousness of our people a deep appreciation of the process of liberation from British colonial exploitation to the achievement of nationhood, the suffering endured, the human cost (lives lost), the sacrifices made, and the hopes and aspirations of those engaged in the struggle.

In this regard I am always drawn to a perspective on emancipation attributed to Karl Marx, as the enjoyment of equal status of individual citizens in relation to the state equality before the law, regardless of religion, property, or other “private” characteristics of individual people. In short, it is about being acknowledged as a human being of equal worth and value as any other, and, therefore, deserving of social justice, rights, and respect, within the community of persons.

While there remains a significant number of persons in the society who question the value of such an observance, it is clear that the generations who are the beneficiaries of the legacy of emancipation run the risk of seeing themselves as the emancipated. They tend to forget that emancipation is not an achieved status, but rather a process of becoming in a national and global context which could enslave the unsuspecting, the powerless, the indifferent, and the naïve. To that extent, it must be affirmed that while Emancipation as an official and formal declaration became effective on August 1, 1838, we are still on the emancipation pilgrimage.

Occasions that require us to remember our history are often met with cynicism and hostility by various segments of our society. They who keep insisting that we must forget our past and move on. While we cannot live in the past, it is fallacious to suggest that recalling the past is to live in the past. It is definitely a necessary component of a sense of one’s roots and sense of identity as individuals and as part of a community and nation. It also helps to inform the vision of the people and their faithfulness to the story of the struggles of the ancestors throughout the ages.

One of the distortions present in a simplistic recall of our history is seeing it in terms of its violent dimensions, especially the violence involved in revolts and rebellion, while suggesting that this can only stir animosity within the contemporary context. Certainly there was violence, a violence inherent in the system, and which could only be defeated by a violent response in part. Beyond that, however, those enslaved ancestors were men and women who had a sense of identity and worth, and a vision for their brothers and sisters that involved shedding the constraints of their time and place and, with courage and confidence, imagine a world of freedom.

The very word emancipation, by any definition, speaks of moral categories of realignment of relationships between those who wield power and constitute the status quo and those who are its victims. It also speaks of a new status for the victims that finds expression in a range of cognate terms that speak of justice and freedom, and the affirmation of the humanity of those who were previously treated as less than human. The question that this raises for us is to what extent did our enslaved ancestors see this as something which was achievable in and for their time, or whether this constituted the story of their lives. Was it supposed to be for subsequent generations the inspiration to community building, unconstrained by the boundaries of the present, but which is built on a moral vision?

It would appear that there are many from our generation who see the legacy of emancipation in an individualistic manner, and who arrogate to themselves every right and freedom of which emancipation is deemed to speak, but without any sense of moral and social responsibility and accountability to the community, or even a sense of respect for the freedom and rights of others. One often hears this expressed in the popular phrase “man free”. This attitude stands in stark contrast to that great icon of the global struggle for emancipation, Nelson Mandela, who said: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Those who dare to challenge any expression of anti-social behaviour on the roads and in public places run the risk of being abused or, worse yet, having their lives threatened. It does not matter whether one is the contractor general trying to investigate a case of corruption, or the young man from August Town who dares to claim the right not to join a gang and literally loses his head. No one must stand in the way of these persons. Being emancipated and free can only be defined in terms of perceived personal desires and ambitions, and is unrelated to and lacking in respect for the rights and freedom of others.

The situation is being complicated by the culture of moral pluralism which has had an impact on us in the developed world through the Internet, cable television, and the ease of travel across national boundaries, and has become yet another manifestation of the disintegration of social values which are constitutive of a humane and civilised society. Up to recent years ours has been a fairly traditional society guided by religious and social values that have deep roots in the Christian faith and some of our African culture. The problem seems to be that we have not focused on what aspects of our traditional cultural and social values we should preserve. We have neither had the kind of discourse and dialogue that can provide our people with a framework for processing all that is impacting our lives in terms of values, and which reflects faithfulness to our history and the struggles which we have overcome.

While emancipation speaks to moral categories at a fundamental level, it has to do with all areas of life, and therefore, there was much more to the hopes and aspiration of those involved in the emancipation struggle. Subsequent uprisings in the decades following Emancipation point to the incomplete nature of the process to secure things which make for human dignity and development. Hence, the movement away from the sugar estates and the establishment of free villages gave expression to the desire for independence and control over one’s life and livelihood. In the same breath, the uprising in Morant Bay points to the struggle for legal and social justice, while the Frome uprising points to the struggle for better wages and working conditions.

The spirit of emancipation which was nurtured in our ancestors’ struggle for liberation and their vision for their people, has been railroaded and compromised. Today, the legacy of emancipation has been taken to mean justification for anti-social and criminal behaviour. It seems that no one is to be called to account for indiscipline and downright criminal behaviour, which manifests itself in the response one receives from indisciplined motorists, and the “informa fi dead” philosophy. This freedom is also being used to justify every anti-social and criminal way of “making a bread”. Scamming is justified by many, uncontrolled vending in public spaces is an untouchable activity, and an industry that has been thriving on the theft of metal objects from private enterprises, public utilities, from places of worship, and graves, is supposed to be untouchable because of its employment and income-generating capacity.

A people on a path toward emancipation are a people of hope. Notwithstanding the violent and oppressive nature of the system of slavery, our ancestors nourished a hope that one day the shackles of slavery would be thrown off. Hope is based not on the current dynamic of history and the constraints of a particular time and space, but on the conviction that, in holding fast as the people of God, the fulfilment of the hope that is nurtured within will be realised. For people of faith, hope is inherent in their life because, they are invited to be in God’s pilgrimage. For the Christian faith community, to which many of our ancestors and leaders in the movement toward emancipation belonged, the primary paradigm of emancipation is that of the deliverance of Africans from European bondage.

Recent and current developments in our society point to a lack of hope, resignation by citizens, and the railroading of the process of national emancipation. During the past year the nation has had to come face to face with the issue of the alliance of our politicians with criminality through the kind of political culture that has been fostered since Independence. Like other issues in our national life, the question of morality takes second place to our political loyalties. This dynamic serves to perpetuate corruption and the criminality that often provides the structural support for the maintenance of corruption within the system of governance and in the local communities. Now the society is at a place where the connection between politics and criminality is evident, and as a consequence there are serious questions in the minds of citizens concerning trust, integrity and credibility. More and more citizens are losing hope in the political process to bring about the fulfilment of the hopes of our ancestors and are withdrawing from participation in the political life of the nation.

We in Jamaica have seen daily the way in which human life is being treated as an expendable commodity. The killing of 17-year-old Khajeel Mais, allegedly by the driver of a black BMW X6 sport utility vehicle, is a despicable and reprehensible act. But we must ask ourselves whether this is just a matter of a criminal act, or whether there are serious ethical issues which the incident raises for us concerning materialism and the value of human life?

We cannot overlook the fact that a number of young children have lost their lives through criminal activity in recent months, as they are treated as part of the collateral damage in disputes or in reprisals. A week ago, a local newspaper began a lead story with the following comment:

“CRIMINALS IN Jamaica have ruthlessly murdered more than 1,500 children and teenagers since the turn of the 21st century.”

Many Jamaicans need to wake up to the fact that the community protection which area leaders offer, the extortion racket from which many of them benefit, and the drug culture which others support as an innocent way to earn “a bread”, each has a modus operandi which sees the violence directed at children, as one way of teaching a lesson to those who would “mess” with them and their income. In a real sense, it is true to say that for them “money run things”. The primary value in determining human life is then materialistic.

Emancipation has to do with the physical and external circumstances under which persons live, but it also speaks in a more profound way of internal/intrapersonal transformation at a spiritual level. There is a sense in which there is an interplay of the internal and external (physical) dimensions required for dealing with the experience of enslavement at a spiritual and psychological level, if there is to be healing, wholeness and liberation from one generation to another.

Let us then be aware that the declaration of Emancipation of 1838 is history, but the real task of emancipation continues as a life-long pilgrimage for individuals and the nation. We must be constantly vigilant in looking out for those forces which would seek to continue to enslave and threaten the lives of our people and our freedom in our time. But ultimately, we must seek to protect and build on the legacy which is ours, and not seek to betray the struggle and the achievements by distorted and corrupt notions of emancipation at the individual and communal levels.

By: Howard Gregory