TODAY, Guyanese join with the African- Guyanese community to celebrate the 182nd Anniversary of Emancipation. While African- Guyanese were directly affected by the period of enslavement which necessitated the moment of emancipation, its significance is important to all ethnic groups in the country.
Emancipation meant the formal defeat of chattel slavery as the overarching political and socio-economic order that paved the way for freedom for all other ethnic groups. The system of Indentureship that followed, harsh though it was, could not be based on the formal-legal system whereby human beings were deemed as property. So, as we celebrate Emancipation, it is worth reflecting on the profound intervention of the system of slavery and its role in shaping developments, then and now.
The role of slavery in aiding the accumulation of European wealth is key to understanding development and underdevelopment on both the local and global scales. It was our own Dr. Walter Rodney’s seminal book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, that highlights the causal relationship between development and underdevelopment within the context of chattel slavery.
The underdevelopment of post-plantation countries such as Guyana is directly the result of the exploitation of African labour and Amerindian lands. This dynamic characterised socio-economic and political relations, even in post-emancipation Guyana. Consequently, the defeat of slavery and the emancipation of the enslaved opened up new possibilities for independence and freedom for all.
The African- Guyanese Village Movement of the immediate post-emancipation period was both an act of resistance and a blow for social advancement. Here were people who had not only survived the most vicious system of human organization, but who had also displayed the capacity to exist in a state of freedom. The Village Moment humanised the Guyanese landscape and planted the seeds of modern Guyanese political economy. It is a feat whose significance is yet to be fully analysed. Perhaps this Emancipation anniversary is a good time to point young scholars in that direction, so that, that story could be transported into the consciousness of the contemporary society. Of course, the emancipation of 1838 did not translate into true freedom for the victims of enslavement. The colonial system that followed ensured that Africans were kept as second-class subjects. As Bob Marley reminded us—” No chains around my feet/But I am not free.”
Marley would also echo the words of Marcus Garvey in song when he urged the survivors of enslavement to “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.” These lyrical interventions underscore the relationship between enslavement and the current condition of African Guyanese and Africans in other parts the diaspora. Leaders, advocates and scholars of the African Guyanese community have constantly referred to Emancipation as an ongoing process that must include the need for structural repairs. The assumption is that the structural socio-economic problems evident in the African-Guyanese community and Guyana at large cannot be overcome in isolation from a proper understanding of the lasting destruction wrought by slavery and its aftermath. This is an important theory as it clashes with a view in some quarters that these structural problems have been the work of a flawed people and can only be solved by a teaching of new values.
We reject the latter view and urge the opening up of new opportunities aimed at a lasting emancipation. Some have already correctly identified the expected oil and gas wealth as a potential source of repair not onl y for African Guyanese, but for all groups afflicted by the scars of structural bondage. The challenging question in this regard is whether the concept of reparations is embraced by decision- makers. There can be no doubt that social justice must be premised on social equality. In this regard, the embrace of the reparations movement by regional governments, including our own, is an encouraging sign. Despite the challenges alluded to, African Guyanese can still celebrate on this 181st Anniversary of Emancipation. They have survived and are still an integral part of Guyana’s beautiful national tapestry. Many African Guyanese have distinguished themselves nationally and internationally. Others in the ranks of the poor and the working poor continue to grasp the limited opportunities that come their way and, in the process, continue the legacy of Black Uplift.