Some years ago, I listened to two young Black colleagues joshing. One, who was born in a Caribbean nation, commented to the other, born in a West African nation: ‘you guys sold us, so you shouldn’t be given a chance to celebrate August 1st.’ This back and forth continued for a few minutes until our West African brother left the room in annoyance. It dawned on me how irritated he must have been, having had such an accusation levelled at him; partaking in the crime of slavery. Up to twelve million Africans were displaced by this brutal practise. But, to condemn an entire segment of a population for this exploitation was in the least, inaccurate and offensive.
The exchange between the two young men reminded me how ignorant I once was of that history. Though peoples of African heritage, these young men saw each other as belonging to different camps; “us” and “them.” And it triggered for me the importance of taking a deep dive into why this division exists, and how we view emancipation in the first place.
The Cambridge dictionary defines emancipation as “the fact or process of being set free from legal, social, or political restrictions; liberation.” In the case of enslaved Africans, it was a freedom that was granted to ‘over 800,000 of them and their descendants in parts of the Caribbean, Africa, South America as well as Canada, with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.’ https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/emancipation-day.html
Though the Act made emancipation a legal fact, many of us still feel chained to the policy consequences and attitudes of a system that for hundreds of years confined, exploited and abused us. It was a system that taught us to see each other as adversaries, rather than allies. We were coached to believe that in order to succeed we must pull each other down, just like crabs in a bucket trying to escape. The same system that showed us to compete with, rather than encourage and promote each other. Yet, during enslavement our ancestors, despite their diverse geographic and cultural origins, still found ways to support one another and counter the oppression that burdened their lives.
So when we celebrate on August 1st, we might consider liberation as more than the dictionary’s description. Emancipation gave us choices. Ever wondered how it would be if we chose to give our brothers and sisters of African descent needed support and mentorship, just like our foreparents gave and received from one another? When in the recent past have you supported or mentored someone from your community?
In my recently re-released novel, The Wisdom of Rain, Braima, an enslaved African, gave the following explanation to his young nephew when he asked when will they be freed. “We body belong to backra in de daytime when he ’wake, but we mind belong to we in de nighttime when backra sleep. Dat when we plan fuh freedom.” And if Braima wasn’t enough, The Hon Robert Nesta Marley gave the same edict, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”
For us people of the African diaspora, the question is: How has your mind been emancipated? Or are you, like many of us, guilty of still standing on each other’s head rather than on each other’s shoulders.
Eleanor P. Sam is a retired public servant living in Toronto. The 2nd edition of her novel The Wisdom of Rain was published on July 16, 2022. Her second novel is forthcoming.