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Emancipation Day: Lessons for the Present and Future

Education 09 Aug, 2023 Follow News

Orlando Patterson

Dr Livingston Smith

Professors Rex Nettleford

By Dr Livingston Smith, PhD

Professor, Department of the Social Sciences

University College of the Cayman Islands

Harvard Professor Orlando Patterson, of Caribbean background, is easily the preeminent scholar on the institution of slavery. Within the covers of his books such as Slavery and Social Death, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, and The Sociology of Slavery, he has explicated every crevice of this dastardly institution. He defines slavery as the personal and violent domination of generally dishonored persons, who are under the direct power of another or his agent. The slave does not belong to the legitimate social or moral community and has no independent social existence. An excommunicable person, slave ownership usually entails the power of life and death over the slave. So, for him, the three main aspects of slavery were the use of naked force, natal alienation, and dishonor. Natal alienation refers to the fact that the slaves had no rights at birth and so were ‘non-persons and non-citizens’. Though practiced in various ancient societies like Greece and Rome, its manifestation in the Americas was unique, vile, and fundamentally different especially that it was founded upon racial characterizations. In fact, without slavery, the course of modern racial thinking would have been totally different.

Even though many Caribbean countries have just celebrated ‘Emancipation Day’, which they should, given what this means for people of African descent and for humanity on a whole, equally important was the end of the slave trade on March 25, 1807. This was just a few decades before the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 in the British parliament but enforced in August of 1834 as the beginning of the end of slavery in the British Empire. They obviously go together.

The consequences and significance of the end of the slave trade and of slavery itself, was the subject of two speeches made in the United Nations by two of the Caribbean’s most accomplished historians and cultural luminaries:  Professors Rex Nettleford and Verene Shepherd. Nettleford was invited to deliver this speech on March 26, 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade while that of Professor Verene Shepherd, was delivered on March 20, 2015, on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Her speech was entitled, ‘Learning from Historical Tragedies to Combat Racial Discrimination today.’ Both are carried on the CARICOM website.

In his presentation entitled ‘ The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: The Psychic Inheritance’, Netlleford described slavery trade and slavery as ‘the greatest scourge of modern life’ and that this horrific past has left the legacy of ‘hate, intolerance, discrimination, racial arrogance, class exclusivity, intellectual snobbery, and cultural denigration,’ and ‘the psychological conditioning of millions into stations of self-contempt bolstered by an enduring racism, underlying rigid class differentiation, and ending up with the habitual violation of human rights.’

The speech makes numerous deep and valid points. The decimation of the native Americans and the emergence of plantation America was also the creation of geo-cultural area and the plurality that emerged is the basis of the dynamism of Caribbean culture. The role of Africans and their descendants in the Americas has too often ‘been plunged, wittingly and unwittingly, into subterranean and submarine silence’ which must be broken in the face of their massive contribution to the Americas in areas such as ‘language, religion, artistic manifestations, kinship patterns, in ontology and cosmology.’ He called for the end of such ‘obscene habits’ of a racialized division of the world in the terms we use, and so on. Diverse cultures must be tolerant of each other and appreciate how the process of cross-fertilization and the ‘synthesizing of contradictions’ is part of humanity’s ‘becoming.’

 Dialogue among civilizations, with none believing that it is superior to the other is crucial in ‘the quest for peace, tolerance, justice, liberty, sustainable development, trust and for respect and human understanding, and should not be seen as a threat, but rather as a guarantee for peace’.

There is genius in plurality and intertextuality of existence, Nettleford, insists, where humanity accepts itself as ‘part that’, ‘part the other’, but totally human, like Caribbean people being part African, European, Asian, and Native American, yet still totally Caribbean. ‘It is the full grasp of the creative diversity of all of humankind that provides the source for tolerance, generosity of spirit, forgiveness, respect for the Other, that the new millennium will require if it is to house the brave new world with the human being as centre of the cosmos.’  These are eternally relevant guidelines as our societies grapple with difference and plurality and as we come to grips with our past. 

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