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Asking Correct Questions about Emancipation

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: August 19, 2004

In his article, "The Meaning of True Emancipation" (Express, August 15), Selwyn Ryan seeks to find out whether we, as a people, have achieved what he calls "true emancipation" since Africans in this part of the world forced Britain to abolish slavery in 1834. Drawing on thinkers such as L. A. A. de Verteuil, George Lamming and Lloyd Best, Ryan asks rhetorically, "what does true emancipation," as opposed to "not-so-true" or "un-true" emancipation, means as if to suggest that emancipation is an object that can be measured and/or assessed as so many pounds of flour or sugar.

Following in the tradition of Best and Lamming, Ryan lays the blame for the absence of "true emancipation" of our people on the shoulders of our "educated elites" who, one presumes, are unable to show the way because they are "epsitemically challenged" and possess a misplaced knowledge in which they "rank what they know about Britain, America and Europe higher than what they know about the Caribbean." He concludes that those who "lament our intellectual and cultural backwardness believe that we will only be fully emancipated when we become a mentally and culturally free people, when, to use Lamming's phrase, the Caribbean region 'becomes a region for itself with the sovereign right to define its own reality and order its own priorities.'" Such a formulation smacks of the notion that there is someone or something out there that is preventing us from realizing "our own reality" and someday we will say joyfully, "now is the time to define our reality," and all would be well in our world.

Ryan's solution to the problem lays in a formulation that reads: "We have to be selective in what we wish to invent, construct, and label as our 'national' tradition. In doing so, we must recognize that the Caribbean is a 'Creole' reality,…one that is neither 'primordially' Anglo-European, African, nor Indian, but a mosaic of all in which the constituent icons and canons must remain recognizable and equally valid. Full cultural emancipation, if it is to mean anything at this point in time, must therefore involve recognizing hybridity and complexity and the tension that they generate, as our inescapable reality."

Ryan is dealing with a very difficult problematic. However, I believe that we come closer to an answer if we posed the question differently and removed superficial adjectives, such as "full" and "true," that prevent us from coming to the heart of the matter.

Perhaps, we can begin with the proposition that there is no such thing as "true emancipation" which, in this context, may mean that which "is in accordance with the actual state of affairs;" something that is "conformable to an essential reality"; or a phenomenon/condition that is "without deviation." None of these standards is applicable. When we talk about the emancipation of our people we should talk about the essential quality of our spiritual essence and how it manifests itself in the specificity of our social and cultural environment. The same is true of a concept such as "full cultural emancipation."

We can begin to talk about "emancipation" or "freedom" by drawing on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, even though he was a German, and I may be accused of using an Anglo- Saxon, or is a Germanic-Saxon, frame of reference? Recognizing that slavery and freedom are on the same continuum and drawing on the example of the Haitian Revolution, Hegel observed that, "the radical difference between Master and Slave exists only at the beginning, and it can be overcome in the course of time…Mastery and slavery are not given or innate characteristics. In the beginning at least, Man is not born slave or free, but creates himself as one or the other through free or voluntary action."

So, the first thing we can say about slavery or emancipation is that they are conditions created by men and women in their every day existence. No man comes into the world with chains. In the course of time, through our individual and collective actions, we make (or create) ourselves even as we borrow from others, always recognizing that ideas have a way of transgressing native boundaries.

Karl Marx, a German thinker, argues that "freedom, after all, [is] the generic essence of a spiritual existence." Frederick Engels was more on the mark when he defined freedom as "the appreciation of necessity." He went on to say that "'necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood…Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with real knowledge of the subject. Therefore, the freer a man's judgment is in relation to a definite question, with so much greater necessity is the content of this judgment determined."

Admittedly, this is an expanded definition of freedom or emancipation. But the essential condition here is that freedom is not something that one imposes on another, nor can it be created by an "educated elite." It consists in how we response (or have responded) to the conditions imposed upon us and how, in the process, we made/make ourselves in historical time. Such a way of becoming has relatively little to do with an "educated elite," no matter how much in love they are with themselves and their academic and professional achievements. It has to do with the work that ordinary people do in their ordinary, everyday lives through which they make or construct themselves.

Thus, we pose the wrong questions when we ask whether we are "truly emancipated" or possess "full cultural emancipation." A more accurate question might be how well have we done as a people, placed in these islands under different and difficult circumstances; and what kind of person have we created or constructed with the materials at our disposal. To this observer, the answer lays in the struggles we waged to free ourselves from oppression; the ways in which we tamed out physical environment to make it friendly and livable; and how, in the process, we created our presence-in-this world.

The kind of persons we have become-or the kind of civilization we have created-- only came about through the nature of our work as a collective body of people. Alexandre Kojeve notes: "The action which transforms the given real so as to make a true human error-that is, a discourse that was in disagreement with this given-is called Work: it was by working that man constructed the airplane which transformed the poet's (voluntary) error into truth."

So that the truth of our condition cannot be constructed through what any elite says, what one writes in a newspaper or how one characterizes an individual's thesis. A better understanding of our emancipation consists in looking at our activities in the real, concrete world, trying to discern how we became who we are, how we survived the middle passage and the kalapani, and how we overcame circumstances that were meant to make us less than human beings.

Such questions bring us to the heart of the matter, how emancipated are we? From the foregoing, we can say that we created ourselves through our own free and voluntary actions even though there were many obstacles in our path and that we acted as best we could given the forces that were placed against us. Freedom or emancipation does not consist of a dream of being independent of natural, social and cultural laws but our acting in full knowledge of their consequences and how they are likely to impact upon our spiritual essence. Freedom also consists in having control over ourselves and nature and implies disciplining of our passions, be they sexual or other wise, as we seek to achieve collective goals. In our case, "Vision 2020" may not be a bad place upon which to fix our gaze.

So that in a way, there can really be no such animal as "true emancipation" or "full cultural emancipation." People are like projects. We are always in a state of becoming, the critical questions revolving around the ideal (what we would like to be) and the real (how things really are) and how we integrate them into an on-going source of inspiration. As a project, we are no better or worse than any people who have tried to negotiate the conditions of their existence. We have responded to our environment and, in the process, have hewn out a particular kind of being. What we become-that is, how emancipated we become-- depends entirely on the work we have done and how we tackle the problems with which we are faced.

In a way, our emancipation depends on how we use our native smarts to attack problems of crime and governance and how we develop an appreciation of our own creations and traditions. We can certainly begin by glorifying that which is our own. We have produced a Sparrow and a Marley; a Williams and a Marti; a Lamming and a Naipaul. In war, we defeated the French and the Spanish in Haiti and the British in Jamaica. In sports (cricket) we trashed the Australians and have proven to be the best in some athletic events (the one hundred yards sprint, for example). In all of our contradictoriness, we possess the stamp of our uniqueness and that is always a good place to begin to contemplate our being-in-the-world.

We are neither Afro-Saxons, Indo-Saxons nor Dougla-Saxons. We are just a unique people trying to make it in the world; drawing on all of the influences that have impacted upon us and certainly impacting upon the world as the influences of reggae and steelband music show and the unique way in which we approach life. We love to party. James notes that "the history of the West Indies has been governed by two factors, the sugar cane plantation and Negro slavery…Wherever the sugar plantation and slavery existed, they imposed a pattern. It is an original pattern, not European, not African, nor a part of the American main, not native in any conceivable sense of that word, but West Indian, sui-generis, with no parallel anywhere else." He even argues that "the road to West Indian national identity lay through Africa."

We are neither truly liberated nor do we possess "full cultural sovereignty," for the simply reason that these conditions do not exist. They are ideals to which we aspire; approximations by which and through which we measure ourselves. A Shango adherent never asks if he is truly emancipated or is he concerned whether he possesses full cultural sovereignty. He simply exists in his present, heir to all of the conditions of his being and trying to be the best he can be.

Freedom or emancipation does not come from or by pronouncements. It comes from activity in the real world and what we do to transform that world and make it more livable. It means work: what we do in NAEAP and what we do in Desperadoes; what we do when we attack a poem and how we create structures to deal with our social reality. It means how we devise ways to do things better. We call that science and technology. We are neither free nor slave. It all depends on what we do with out reality and how we work to transform our being in this world.

Ryan, I am sure, is on to something when he speaks about our creoleness. But, as Wilson Harris says, "the genesis of the imagination of the living soil of South America and the Caribbean… is ceaselessly unfinished and this sensation of unfinished genesis-in worlds of space and nature and psyche-has its roots as much in Old Worlds as in New, in the crossroads of a civilization upon which we may have arrived in subtle and complex and involuntary ways that are altering conventional linearity and conventional frameworks."

One calypsonian puts it in his own way when he affirmed that "de journey now start." Surely, the truth of our condition-that is, how emancipated are we-- must lie in the actions of the Williams, the Martis, the Castros, the ordinary pan boiler, the steelbandsman and all of those persons who strove to make meaning out of their lives. Who among us would say that none of them was/is not truly emancipated and did/does not possess full cultural freedom?

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