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Earlier this year we marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But although the trading in slaves was abolished in 1807, slavery itself was actually allowed to continue for another 27 years until that, too, was finally abolished on August 1st 1834. It is that anniversary that we observe today. And it is important that we observe it not as a day for just fun and frivolity but an occasion for reflection and assessment.
We must reflect on where we are coming from and what we are coming from. Slavery remains the worst episode of legally sanctioned oppression and exploitation ever perpetrated against humankind. That it could ever have been acceptable for human beings to be captured and sold and robbed of their humanity reflects the darkness that prevailed long after the Dark Ages was supposed to have passed at the end of the 10th century. That it could have continued for so long and, for so long, defied the strenuous efforts of noble and enlightened individuals to bring an end to it suggests that the 17th and 18th centuries were not really the Age of Enlightenment that historians have come to regard them.
And all this was not that long ago. Indeed, my great grandfather was born a slave and was 8 years old at the time that slavery was abolished.
So, as part of our reflection on Emancipation Day, we must make sure we recognize our history as a people who suffered the worst possible form of human degradation and we must understand the devastating psychological effect it had on us. And even as we recognize our resilience and the strides we have made to rise up and claim our dignity and self-respect, we must confront the fact that for our recovery to be complete we must, as Bob Marley exhorted us, emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.
What does that mean? It means that while we must never forget our past we must not live in the past. While we condemn the slave traders and slave owners for what they did to us, we cannot blame them for what we do to ourselves. There is in some of us the instinct to exploit others just as we ourselves were once exploited. Our inclination to violence, the wanton killing of each other, the raping of our women, the abuse of our children, the ease with which one is prepared to rob another of what he has worked so hard to achieve and sees nothing wrong with it are all traits of the same mentality, the same tendency to exploit that drove others in the past to round up our ancestors and make slaves of them.
We were freed from physical slavery 173 years ago. The emancipators and liberators did their part. Some, like Sam Sharpe, died on the gallows for that cause. Passing laws has done as much as that can do. The rest is now up to us to make ourselves a truly free people, tall in our dignity, respectful of ourselves, assertive of our rights and respectful of the rights and dignity of others for, as Bob Marley said, “none but ourselves can free our minds.”