True Emancipation Requires Resistance
By Nerissa Golden,
July 31, 2023
“Shouldn’t they be over it by now?” A former governor of Montserrat asked me this question as we waited to begin a press conference. We had been discussing why it was difficult for the public service to deliver on basic services while at the same time being resistant to outside help.
The governor’s question was prompted from me sharing my belief that the current behaviours were tied to our enslaved past and it was a form of resistance. The idea that someone else regulated when you came to work and when you stopped is one civil servants and employees still resist. They resist even while knowing that the government or business owner pays their salaries.
Resistance is in our DNA but I’m not sure we know what we are resisting or whether we are using our power in a way that will be meaningful to ourselves and our nations. It’s like a two-year old learning the word NO and using it for everything because they recognise it brings a reaction. Whether they mean NO is not the issue. It is the fact that they can say it and use it at will.
This is supposed to be an article about Emancipation. But can we speak about Emancipation without Resistance?
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” Words that Bob Marley sang in Redemption Song but an echo of the message that Marcus Garvey shared in 1937.
Our minds must be freed but from what and to what end?
The governor was white and British. That is another conversation we can have. But, I have heard that question from Blacks as well. I will also admit to asking the question over the years after listening to the cultural elite of various islands speak about Emancipation and Reparations and breaking from our colonial past.
Shouldn’t we be over it by now? Hasn’t enough time passed for it not to matter?
This year marks the 189th year since Great Britain abolished slavery in the West Indies although most were not free until four years later in 1838. My grandparents, who have all now passed, were not alive in 1838. There have been eight or more generations, depending on how you measure a generation, since slavery was abolished.
We aren’t over it.
We can’t be over it by now because the end of slavery wasn’t simply about no longer working on a plantation.
This is what Garvey was speaking of. We were no longer physically enslaved but our minds would also need to undergo its own emancipation. More than 400 years since our forefathers and mothers began arriving in chains and made to work in unimaginable conditions to finance the wealth of others, changed us.
Our primarily women-led households, our aversion to farming the land for economic gain, our disenchantment of serving others, our inability to plan for the future, our fear of supporting the economic empowerment of people who look like us, our belief that the grass is greener in foreign lands, are all ways in which we have been changed.
We don’t have to make an effort to believe these things. It is the starting point of what we have been conditioned to believe. But our existence did not begin 400 years ago. While those years wrought mindset, physical and economic shifts in us, if we go beyond the physical and mental scars and listen to our spirits, we would hear the conversations and the call of our foreparents to come back to who we were in the beginning.
We must know what we need to resist and why.
Enslaved men were allowed to procreate with women but did not get to raise the children of their loins. They watched their offspring be sold to other plantations and into a life they themselves were not free of. The idea of economic and emotional responsibility was not one our men could practice. Caribbean mothers raised their children and any others around them. We did it collectively or alone, but children, no matter who you for, were going to be left behind and unfed. We are angry at our men for not being there but we don’t know how to release the anger and make a space for them to stay. Today, when our men choose to stick around and father their children, it is resistance. Women making space for our men to heal and become fathers is resistance.
African names always have a meaning. To be given a name that is merely a derivative of the owner was a way to reinforce the message that you did not belong to yourself and someone else was in control of your destiny. Giving my children names with purpose and intention allows them to be individuals and every time you call their name you are reinforcing and reminding them of their power, their individuality and their destiny. When parents take the time to choose a name with meaning and purpose for their children, it is resistance.
Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of The University of the West Indies says our current epidemic of Diabetes, High Blood Pressure and other non-communicable diseases is due to our DNA being programmed and triggered by salt and sweet things because of plantation diets. Our festivals and family celebrations revolve around consuming a vast amount of sugar-laden treats like sugar cakes, guava cheese, gooseberry stew, and you can insert your favourite here. Salt in many cases seems to be a substitute for proper seasoning because that is what our taste buds have become accustomed to. Alcohol consumption is an Olympic sport in many Caribbean nations.
Being able to choose what you put in your mouth and how often is freedom. But we are using that freedom to kill ourselves. The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) says 76.8% of deaths in the region in 2016 were caused by non-communicable diseases.
Moms raising children alone and holding down three jobs to make ends meet, means a lot of mom guilt. It isn’t only about feeding the children what is the easiest to prepare but what will make others believe you aren’t poor and can afford nice things. Somehow the nice things come in brightly coloured sugar-filled boxes with American brand names, while mangoes and breadfruits are left to rot.
We must emancipate ourselves from our addictions to sugar and salt, to wanting what is marketed to us as a way of showing we have moved up in the world and can buy these foreign products, even as they slowly kill us. When we choose what we put in our mouth and consider the impact it will have on our body’s health, and our longevity, it is resistance.
Enslaving others was wrong but the principles that were used to generate wealth were not. They still work today. In our efforts to distance ourselves from slavery and its effects, we tossed out the elements that when applied in the right situations bring impactful results.
Our enslaved family worked from sun up to sun down. Yet, the message was spread that we were lazy and had to be motivated by the whip to produce work. Consistently showing up to work on time and delivering quality service brings results. If we choose to believe the lie that we needed motivation with a whip to perform, then the minute the pressure eases up we slack off. I have been guilty of this. I produce best under pressure or so I thought for a long time. Truth is, preparation and consistent productivity beats working under pressure every time and produces predictable and high value results.
Rather than investigate slavery simply to come up with the list of atrocities and the evidence, can we dissect how they were able to create an industry that spanned Caribbean islands and a hungry market waiting for their goods? I can hear the push back that the political and economic environment that created those opportunities have now created laws and trade policies which make it near impossible for us to get into those markets.
Yet, the principles are valid. How can we apply them to new industries and how can we leverage the power of our shared stories as children of the formerly enslaved to achieve similar successes?
This is the challenge as we have a love hate relationship with money, partnership and making long term decisions. We want and need money but don’t want people to think we do. People with money are often seen as wicked and power hungry. We believe that there is not enough to go around and so if we were to invest in another person that looks like us then we are cutting our share short.
We believe this because we’ve seen our parents portion small amounts of food so everyone gets a little. We’ve been hungry with nothing to fill our belly. We’ve seen our parents struggle and we promised ourself we would never live like that. Our children would have everything we didn’t. We believe the only way we will have is to keep all we get. Yet we gladly invest our money in others who do not look like us.
We must resist. Resist the idea that there is a limit to the wealth that exists and the power to generate as much as we want. Resist the idea that to empower others who look like us means lack for yourself. Resist the belief that wanting to have money is a sin and that you must be a bad person for wanting it.
Instead, learn the methodologies of gaining wealth, of how to leverage it, how to increase it and how to use it to change our circumstances and impact lives.
Our people’s enslavement isn’t something we can simply put behind us or get over. It happened and will happen again if we do not understand the tactics and psychology that made it work. We must understand why we act the way we do. Ask questions of ourselves and those around us. Is this the only way? Where did my position on this come from and does it still hold true today? What is stopping me from choosing a different way to show up.
We can choose to resist because it comes naturally or we can stop and think about what we are really resisting and use this powerful form of freedom to change nations.