Emancipation – what it means
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By Vanessa Cort
A FRIEND in the US last Monday sent me a quote by Lyndon B Johnson, as we celebrated Emancipation Day. America’s 36th President, who held office from 1963 to 1969, had this to say:
“Until justice is blind to colour, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the colour of a man’s skin, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.”
Haile Selassie in his address to the League of Nations, which was sung by reggae icon Bob Marley in the song “War,” was even more emphatic. He ‘threw down the gauntlet,’ warning that there would be war “until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes,”
Yet, so many years after Selassie’s speech in 1936 and these words from Johnson decades later, the reality of emancipation still seems a long way off, though people of African descent celebrate it each year on August 1 in Guyana and many other countries.
While this day historically marks the freedom of over 800,000 African slaves and their descendants the world over, people of colour are still oppressed, discriminated against, unfairly incarcerated, killed and even enslaved again, all because of their melanated skin.
There was no substantial support system created to help freed slaves transition to their new found freedom. So with no resources, no housing, no belongings, no skills and no self-esteem, slaves remained at the mercy of those who enslaved them – the repercussions of which are still being felt today,
The Khan Academy provides some insight into conditions post-slavery in the US saying, “Although slavery was over the brutalities of White race prejudice persisted.”
And in his book ‘Sick from Freedom,’ historian Jim Downs tells of the hundreds of thousands of slaves who died from disease and hunger during the American Civil war.
The author ‘threw cold water’ on the celebration of the freeing of slaves saying, “… the reality of emancipation during the chaos of war and its bloody aftermath often fell brutally short of that positive image. Instead, freed slaves were often neglected by Union soldiers or faced rampant disease…. Many of them simply starved to death.”
Downs comments that in the 19th century (White) people did not want to talk about it. The same is true today, though Black people have made significant strides and slavery in its most brutal form has been largely eradicated. White society is still reluctant to address the inequalities which exist and many are content to turn a ‘blind eye’ to racial injustice.
This is true of European countries too and has been underlined by the African refugee crisis, which has brought to the surface the latent racism in those societies.
But perhaps the most glaring cases of the lack of emancipation are to be found in Africa itself, in countries such as South Sudan, where the indigenous people are being killed, robbed of their land, enslaved again and gradually marginalised.
In her stirring book, ‘Slave: My True Story,’ Sudanese-born Mende Nazer recounts the harrowing tale of how she lost her childhood at the age of 12, when Arab raiders attacked her Nuba village. They killed the adults and kidnapped Mende, who was later sold into slavery, along with 29 other children.
Vividly reliving her memories of a happy village life and describing in detail how the society functioned, Mende also paints a stark picture of her punishing years as a slave in an Arab household in the Sudan and later in England, where she finally managed to escape.
Hers is not the only such story, which provides testimony to the fact that even in these so-called emancipated days slavery still exists in some parts of the world.
Further, Black people are still being unceremoniously killed in the US by the police, who take an oath to protect, sidelined by an education system weighted against them and imprisoned disproportionately, often receiving excessive sentences.
This has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and several other countries, calling for and forcing reforms in the justice system and the method of policing and asserting that systemic racism is still ‘alive and well.’
However, as Bob Marley points out, emancipation is both psychological and physical, as in one of his most melancholic songs, he urges, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”

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