Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Friday, August 01, 2003  

Today is Emancipation Day in Trinidad & Tobago, and throughout most of the English-speaking Caribbean; the day on which the system of forced servitude known as slavery was brought to an end - officially in 1834; absolutely in 1838.

Today is also a day of great ambivalence, personally. To say that Emancipation must be commemorated is to state the obvious, and not just because forgetting the past condemns you to repeat it. But apart from noting that on August 1, 1834 the English Parliament passed the bill that made slavery illegal, what else really is there to commemorate, indeed celebrate, as so many will be doing, and claim we should all be doing, today?

When you consider that in so many ways we as a people still are enslaved, still haven't truly wrung for ourselves our own freedom, but labour under the tragic illusion that we are free; that a decision made in London some 170 years ago - and then another one 40 years ago, granting us Independence - was all that we needed. On paper, yes, we're free. But in almost any real, meaningful sense of the word, freedom is just that, a word.

To say that we don't live under some rapacious, authoritarian dictator, or in some repressive police state, but that we have a popularly elected government, by the people and for the people, is to fool ourselves into thinking that, as we often do, that as imperfect as our society is, it could be worse. Yes, perhaps it could be worse, but it also can be much, much better. Unfortunately, if we continue to dupe ourselves into thinking that we are fundamentally sound, that we are a free, confident and positive people, studiously engaged in this process of nation-building, then I fear we will not only not progress in the right manner, but we may not progress at all.

Let's face it: we have a cardboard democracy, no true sense of self as a people, no true sense of our future - the government's "2020 Vision" for developed nation status notwithstanding. Do we honestly think that in so short a time we will be developed, whatever that is taken to mean? As BC Pires noted in one of his columns recently, the Caribbean hasn't been modern for 500 years. Not that it will take that long (I hope) for us to become truly modern and developed, but it will take more than 17-odd years. And it will certainly take much longer than that, if we don't come to see that our fundamental assumptions of what needs to be done are flawed.

But we don't. Today's Express editorial, Emancipation-themed, takes the oft-quoted passage from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech out of context, calling today a day of celebration because "thank God almighty, we are free at last."

This is not what King was saying. King was not saying that his people were free; rather that when all people are equal, when everyone has the same opportunities and privileges, only then will we be able to say that "we are free at last".

Ralph Ellison said that when you know who you are, then you will be free. And Lloyd Best, in his Express column today writes: " We do not realise that the self-respect we crave can be had as early as today simply by inducing the public to come to grips with itself."

I wonder how many of those taking part in the various Emancipation "celebrations" today - indeed, the majority of our people - realise this?

"A people have been freed, but a society has not been formed." That was one observation made when slavery ended. In all but the most superficial of ways, is the state of affairs today any different?

posted by Jonathan | 4:03 PM 0 comments


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