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Friday 18 October 2019
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Commentary

Thinking Emancipation

July 27, August 1 – two important dates in our nation’s history. Both, movements towards overthrowing oppression, although the former had less a noble drive than the latter or perhaps it did, but got muddied with arrogance somewhere along the way.

Nevertheless, emancipation from whatever oppression its seekers strive towards is suggestive of a drive to overcome something that stifles. As I ponder the significance of these two events, I turn my thoughts to the extent of our emancipation. I say our because despite our race or ethnic background, every group’s experience is our own legacy because at their core each one of us has known unhappiness, oppression and joy.

Some parts of the society are preparing for the Emancipation celebrations as I write this today. We shall celebrate, as we do every year, the legacy of cultures brought to the shores with the African people; we celebrate the freedom of expression that emancipation provided; we celebrate the inclusion of a nation into civil society; we celebrate a paradigm shift, the recognition that this group of people are not consumer goods but humans who should be treated as such. It was a long, hard fight, ‘us’ against ‘them’, the ‘them’ in this case being all those who rallied against the status quo, who dared to challenge the prevailing view that the enslaved was there for the sole purpose of labour, no better than a beast of burden.

There is a dark place in human beings that sometimes boggles the mind but the fact that August 1 and July 27 exist, remind us that we are not in fact free yet, that there are still fights to fight, and freedoms to be won. These little ones are simply steps on one very long staircase. As if ‘we have to read and spell’, as the expression goes, after emancipation, what next do we do to ensure that ex-slaves can now assimilate into the society? Another fight. The struggle continued in America until the 60s and when I think about it, this is so recent that twenty-first century means nothing except in the technological world. In the human world, the progress is not as fast. It seems to be doing a dance that goes one foot forward, two steps back, circle back. Repeat.

The existence of #Black Lives Matter is testament to the fact that what we really did was a little shuffle, that though Emancipation was accomplished, discrimination still prevails and oppression takes a different form. Following July 27 was the Pride parade, the LGBTQI+ event that culminated a month long celebration of ‘love is love’. I think it strange that such events still need to happen for people to shout out that they belong, that people who belong to the ‘normal’ group need to be reminded that ‘we exist and we should not be overlooked’. And I am reminded in all these contexts, of Arundhati Roy’s observation that “…it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.

And how much.” (Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, 1997, 33)

Love, you see, is universal, but it has its boundaries, and discrimination along class, gender, sexual orientation, race lines all adhere to these lines that we draw in the earth. And so, this struggle to be heard will continue its dance until such time that the image becomes the norm. Because, as much as you may not care to admit, we are all conditioned to see the world in particular ways. Try looking at a coconut tree on a beach and not think somewhere in that mind – Caribbean, relaxation, possibly a cocktail or a beer.

Some of us would have gone off to the beaches or elsewhere, recognizing that someone else’s freedom is marked by a public holiday which enables us to be free of the workplace to hang out with friends or family. As I inject this all too familiar scene here, it reminds us that, if we should think that this occasion applies to one group only, to think of your own freedom and civil rights. Because the civil rights movement is similar to the LGBTQI+, is similar to the feminist movement, is similar to emancipation albeit with varying levels of oppression and cruelty. We shall not deny this. But it is also essential to note, that at their core, these movements were a result of one group’s need to claim and declare their own human dignity against another group’s self-interest and greed, cries to be seen as human and not less than, a cry for inclusion and for self-expression. This is essentially what we celebrate, the small triumphs and steps towards building a more progressive future from an awareness of the short-comings of the past.

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