On Tuesday, the history of Emancipation will be recounted across the land. There will be many accounts. There will be narratives that highlight the moral appeals of Wilberforce, Buxton and the other Abolitionists, to make the blessed event a reality. Or of the Industrial Revolution displacing the importance of agricultural products, including those from the colonies – and demanding a free trade regime that could not co-exist with mercantilism and slavery. We will hear of Britain willing to commit “econocide”. Or, in the version that has become most salient in our local discourse, of the heroic efforts of the slaves that actively (slave revolts) and passively (malingering etc.) opposed their oppressors, so that slavery became no longer viable. And so on and so forth.
And each of these narratives would have elements of “truth”. The way we narrativise our past tells us something about how we see our present and our hopes for (and possible realisation of) the future.
Since 1838, “Emancipation” has generally been framed as an inaugural event in the generally vindicationist telling of the overcoming, against the greatest of odds, to deliver the African slaves out of (in)human bondage.
Like all propositions, it was a response to questions generated within the problem- space of that time, with a look firmly towards a future horizon that encapsulated the hopes of the ex-slaves and their descendants at that time. But problem-spaces are fundamentally temporally bound to the particular historio-socio-cultural conjuncture in which the Q&A are generated. Problem-spaces are always in flux, and it is therefore vital to always intensely interrogate our present and its horizon of expectations, and consider whether the old telling moves us closer to our currently defined goals or not.
It is not that the answers proposed by the old telling are necessarily wrong or mistaken. A vindicationist approach (the answer) was necessary for the longest while because the old historiography denied Africans any agency, much less heroism and leadership, in the struggle against New World slavery (the question). But the point I am raising is whether, at present, the old question has the same relevance in reference to our present problem-space and horizon of expectations? In answering, “Maybe not,” I suggest that maybe it is time that, in invoking Emancipation, we look to it for answers to the new, more relevant questions posed by our present conjuncture.
One such question posed in 1838 – and which is of greater salience in today’s problem-space — was the pronouncement that the freed slaves would not be able to utilise the freedom conferred (or won) on account of their purported inability (incapacity?) to create a new, viable society on their own. Ironically, this was in face of the fact that, just after emancipation, the ex-slaves husbanded the resources (financial, conceptual and organisational) to launch a village movement that had no rival in the New World. After all, which other group had ever emerged from the very antithesis of freedom to challenge its most fundamental premise so quickly?
That the expectations and hopes, immanent in that inaugural move to found a new society, have not been realised to the present, should give us pause to consider the impact of contingency, fortuity, happenstance, luck, and our own frailties – not to mention, enemy action – on the best laid of plans. We cannot ignore, also, the possible diversionary effect precipitated by the continued deployment of the vindicationary emancipation narrative, with its teleological promise of redemption and salvation when it had lost much of its traction.
The distinction between emancipation and freedom may today appear trite, but that does not make it less real and true and relevant. In making that distinction, Hannah Arendt noted: “…liberation may be the condition of freedom, but by no means leads automatically to it”. We need to create the political-institutional conditions that would give meaning to the positive import of freedom. And this is why the initiative launched by the newly-freed slaves after emancipation – the Village Movement – which directly addressed issues of self-governance and economic independence — has to take centre stage in our present Emancipation narrative.
I caution, however, against the dangers of focusing only on the benefits of the intended horizon of expectations, rather than on the obstacles preventing their realisation.
Happy Emancipation Day!!