Emancipation Dance

It is August 1st, Emancipation Day across much of the formerly British Caribbean. It commemorates the Slavery Abolition Act (1833), which legislated the end of slavery in the British Empire in August, 1834. Here in Jamaica it is part of a week of parades and parties leading up to Independence Day on August 6th. In Barbados this year it coincides with the Crop Over Festival and its climax, Grand Kadooment, a day where Bajans let their hair down (not to mention much else) and party can’t done.

But I ent in de mood fi party.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the way these carnivalesque extravaganzas seem to perpetuate the objectification and display of women’s bodies for male consumption that is in a direct line of succession from the white supremacist objectification of all Black bodies. There is a burden of history which shackles the watching of young women wukkin’ up, to the image of the slave trader forcing his charges to dance on the auction block to prove that they were fit for hard work.

But nuhbody cyan mek mi watch dat, so dat ent really wuh got mi upset.

My deeper problem is the nature of “Emancipation” itself. It is just one more thing that was done my enslaved ancestors. They were not the agents of this; they were not the subject of the Act, they were its object. Don’t get me wrong; I benefited from the finest colonial education and do not discount the courage and dedication of Wilberforce, Clarkson, Buxton, Heyrick, Lloyd, and the others who led the anti-slavery movement in Britain. Yet it is not their memory nor their achievement that lies heavy with me this August.

’Cause emancipation ent freedom.

After all, the Abolition Act that paid a king’s ransom to the slave holders as compensation for their loss of “property,” yet paid zero compensation at all to those who had been systematically abused in the most heinous of ways for generations. What is more, the Abolition Act stipulated a six-year period of “apprenticeship” during which newly “freed” people were still forced to labour for their masters under pain of imprisonment. All of this I learned at school.

But de finest colonial education still lef’ me very ig’runt.

It never led me to understand that the most globally influential achievement of the Barbadian Legislature was the Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes (1661). The legal and intellectual foundation for chattel slavery in the British Empire was created right here in these small islands. This Act, which was then copied in Jamaica, the Carolinas, Virginia and across the British Empire, laid the legal foundation for one of the worst crimes against humanity perpetrated within recorded history. Treating people as objects wasn’t something we imported, it was something we invented right here.

Dat’s a big effing deal.

We need to comprehend that Bajan slavery before 1661 is profoundly different from afterward. The 1661 Act is the critical tool that transformed slavery from mere inhumanity into a global atrocity. The Bajan Legislature had established laws to govern slaves since the first Africans had been imported in the mid-1630s, stipulating that “Negroes and Indians (i.e. Indigenous people), that came here to be sold, should serve for Life, unless a Contract was before made to the contrary.” Before 1661 the Bajan labour force was a mixture of slaves, indentured labourers of varying ethnicities, and free women or men, be they African or European, without property. However, in 1661 Barbados legislatively stripped all Africans who arrived of any of the rights and privileges of simply being human. Africans were “merchandise until sold, and property thereafter.” This was not the only innovation of the 1661 Act; it was premised of the Legislature’s claim that English common law offered “noe track to guide us…” so they proceed to establish, with no basis in previous jurisprudence, a severe system of brutality and coercion: a regime of flogging, mutilation, maiming and execution, administered by special courts of white justices and white freeholders.

This was a fundamental innovation; the 1661 Act basically invented “white people.” Before this, people of European ancestry knew who they were: they were English or French or Spanish or Irish or Scottish, they were Protestants or Catholics or Jews or Puritans, they were aristocracy or merchants or peasants or royalty. Before 1661 Irish indentured servants worked alongside African servants and slaves in similarly awful conditions. But after 1661, the Irish or Scottish or English indentured servants, free men and smallholders were now part of the slave patrols, local militia, court system and other machinery of brutality. The 1661 Act established a class of people who were defined by not being of African ancestry: a class of people who could inflict any damage they chose upon someone of African ancestry subject only to the constraints of damage to another person’s property. The 1661 Act, in essence, defined “white” people; this forged the lynchpin of white supremacist ideology in Barbados and across the western hemisphere that persists to this day.

There was another pivotal innovation in the 1661 Act; it stipulated that slave status was inherited from one’s mother. This was a complete departure from English Common Law, which privileged the male line of descent in any question of inheritance. It gave slaveholding men a huge incentive to rape and impregnate their female slaves, to sire more slaves and thereby increase their wealth. The prices for female slaves at auction clearly indicate that the buyers paid a premium on the anticipation of raping their acquisitions.

Yuh see, dis is why I cyan get cumf’table wid wukkin’ up fi Emancipation.

But all this was a long time ago; why pay all this attention to history? It’s because our contemporary society is built right on top of what came before. It has been seven generations since Emancipation Day in 1834; fourteen generations have passed since 1661; some well-meaning people ask whether it is not time to get beyond this history? This makes no more sense that to ask the seventh floor or the fourteenth floor of a high rise building to “get beyond” its foundation. William Faulkner could have been speaking about the Caribbean when he said that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

This past survives: in the maldistribution of wealth in ways that are proportional to European ancestry, in the gradations of social privilege which go along with lighter skin pigmentation, in the widespread market for hair straightening potions and skin bleaching creams across the Caribbean. It endures in the white supremacist foundations of our religious institutions and educational practices. It persists, most of all, in the tragic dysfunction of our governance and civil society organizations since these islands became politically independent.

Emancipation has come and gone; but it’s a long walk to freedom.