On August 1, 2019 Barbados and much of what came to be known as Plantation America celebrated Acts passed in various European Parliaments ending Negro slavery. The British parliament legally abolished slavery in 1834 but allowed for a six-year Apprenticeship originally scheduled to end in 1840. All the English Caribbean territories with the exception of Antigua opted for the Apprenticeship system. It was soon recognised that Apprenticeship was not working, and it was curtailed two years earlier in 1838. That is why readers will often see two dates, 1834 and full emancipation in 1838.
The French and the Danes abolished slavery in 1848. The Dutch did so in 1863, the Spanish in Puerto Rico in 1873, and Cuba in 1886. Thus, legal slavery in the Caribbean ended in 1886. On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in the rebel states. That Proclamation not only abolished Negro slavery in the United States but declared abolition as an objective of saving the Union.
Emancipation is a pivotal date in Black New World history. Someone once wrote that everything in our history leads up to it and all since then follows inexorably from it. With Emancipation, the past becomes prologue – the prologue to the search for and achievement of Black redemption.
The term ‘emancipation’, as George Lamming explained, means ‘to take out of the hand,’ the hand being the controlling mechanism of the white oppressor. The purpose being to reverse the degrading and repressive economic, social, cultural and particularly, the psychic effects of centuries of enslavement – what Lamming calls ‘the antagonistic weight of the past.’
Emancipation did not mean the end of oppression. As Professor Woodville Marshall has pointed out, the white superordinate classes set about to shore up their hegemonic position against black encroachment. The main objectives in most cases was to maintain the black populations as a labouring adjunct of the planter-mercantile economy. Much of Caribbean history is a racial history. A history of white superordinate capital against subordinate black workers selling their labour at extremely marginal rates and struggling for economic survival and the assertion of the authentic self.
In some territories, sections of the emancipated people were able to escape, ‘emancipate’ themselves, take themselves out of the controlling hand of the reactionary elites. In Jamaica and the Guianas, where there were large tracks of crown land, blacks were able to set up independent land holdings less directly under the economic, social and psychic control of the plantation.
In the United States during the Reconstruction period, the whites in the South used their power to roll back the gains made by Emancipation in 1863. This ended in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the rule of Jim Crow and the lynching of many blacks witnessed in the now infamous photos entitled Strange Fruit.
Between 1940 and 1970, to escape death and economic penury, some five million blacks moved from the South to the North – what Richard Kennedy in his critique of Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land calls one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history.
Flight to the North did not free blacks from the white racism born of slavery. In the cities of the North they were subject to the restrictive covenants, housing policies and overt violence which invariably led to the ghettoization of black communities.
In Barbados, the emancipated people faced their own peculiar set of challenges. First, most of the land was controlled by the plantations. There were, therefore, few avenues for the blacks to escape estate labour and the restrictive, acculturating influences of the plantation.
Second, the planter-mercantile group remained relatively strong and, until 1951, controlled the reins of state power. The result too often was what Hilary Beckles called the ‘social-bullying’ of a dependent black majority by a small but powerful white minority.
The Church and the Church schools fostered a conservative culture. The weight of oppression, of calculated racial malice and our own collective weakness exacerbated certain corrosive, self-destructive pathologies within some black communities. As outlined by Nicholas Lemann writing primarily of the Black American, these include social indiscipline, undisciplined sexual habits, unstable families, wastage of money, drug abuse and crime.
We cannot continue to blame slavery, white people or some eponymous thing called ‘the system.’ We must honestly look within ourselves and we must also reject politicians who have no intention of changing ‘the system’ but for their own partisan benefit, encourage black people in what Robert J. Samuelson calls ‘the politics of self-pity.’
Black redemption rests in three things. One is the reconstruction of the Black family, both nuclear and extended. Two is the building of a black-controlled economy where we no longer sell our labour to others at very marginal rates. Three is the continuing struggle to rid our mind of any sense of black inferiority.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator.