A Great Deal
This piece is second in a series of pieces featuring Caribbean writers reflecting on the theme of Emancipation, first published on August 1, 2017 (Emancipation Day). Cover artwork credit @DynamoDandridge.
What does slavery and the abolition of slavery have in common?
This sounds like a useless, burdensome question—one that asks you to consistently debate the value of abolition. Right? What a rude question! What could freedom ever have in common with a culture of rendering an entire race of people as property, like so much livestock to tend to the fields of wicked foreigners?
However, I seriously believe that the answer to this question puts all of the Caribbean’s present-day growing pains in a much wider context.
The answer to the question is: both of them were the best decision for the political powers at the time.
Literally anything going on in the world that affects anyone touched by the legacy of colonialism and imperialism can be observed through this lens. It’s happening because the system deemed it the most beneficial or the least harmful action to take. The things that keep them profitable and competitive on ‘the world stage’ indelibly include, in whole or in part, decisions about how to interact with you as an island that have nothing to do with justice, graciousness, or respect.
The world you live in is shaped by the very spirit that both endorsed slavery and abolished it. This is the spirit that gave the descendants of slaves a home upon which to live in self-determination, but also the spirit that took their ancestors from the homes upon which they themselves were no one else’s property. This is the spirit that gave you a land with its own laws and government, but also the spirit that shaped those laws and leaderships with its own hand, often leaving its very legal thumbprint on our judicial systems for decades. This is the spirit that promises that the Caribbean isles can hope to maintain equal dignity with the nations of their former masters, and the spirit that leaves the islands to languish in the messes of international drug trades, harrowing natural disasters, and dismissive political decisions until they break, or at least chip at the edges.
What does the IMF shafting Jamaica, the lack of aid for Haiti, and the abolition of slavery have in common?
This is all pretty simplistic, of course. History is full of large holes borne of many pinpricks, and it would be facetious of anyone to insist that any of those pinpricks being singular or idealistic disqualifies its historical value. But make no mistake. A world that actually takes stock of the consequences of slavery does not let itself off the hook at mere abolition. Not when the descendants of the women and men affected by slavery directly are still awash in its afterglow. Not when the playing field is decidedly uneven. Not when the spoils of that which has been abolished are still firmly in the hands of the people who administered it.
There are not a lot of moments in history where the large-scale decisions that affect Caribbean people are their own, or produce naturally just consequences. A more naturally just consequence, after all, would have provided the islands with the financial buffer required to sufficiently bounce back after the double blow of historically being denied one’s own self-determination via slavery and being denied the means of production via the construction of trade.
You’d think that, as time passed, the necessity to have enough money to respond favourably to a capitalist system would somehow evolve, would just smoothly shift into being amicable enough not to think about. And yet, money still greases the wheels, and we have but rust and dirt and the aspirations of greasing the wheels with oil itself.
We converse in history as if emancipation was a do-over, a reset button pressed over the head of one of the greatest legacies of tragedy in the fullness of time. It wasn’t. It was merely a pause, a lessening of a blow that has not stopped being dealt. Everything is in its shadow. Everything is in its spirit. Even how we respond to the system that left it with us is indeed a legacy of it. Emancipation as it stood, one may say, was never so much removing the weight of slavery so much as trading for a lighter anvil, so the colonial powers don’t have to hear us bite all the time about how heavy it is, but they also never have to worry about us keeping time with them. No taking the entire anvil. No restoration of our wounds, or even admission of the abuses which gave birth to them.
We are still secondary to those powers’ place in the world, precisely because the bricks of their system were built on the cash crops harvested by the ancestors of now free persons.
Imagine, if you will, keeping a clan of people in a basement, cold and dark, to build furniture. Imagine their mothers dying and their sisters giving birth to children in that future, trapped in a life of carpentry.
And then imagine that one day, their kidnapper does nothing more than unshackle them and open a door.
Perhaps that is facetious as well. But what else can be said? What was really restored upon emancipation? Do the isles and their children have any real power comparable to the nations that tailored their growth through those islands’ sweat? What recompense was there when some of the worst victims of the tragedy of slavery have yet to recover as nations, and yet those powers’ growth can be mapped almost perfectly against the trade of island crops?
This is a downer, isn’t it? To ask the islands in their pride and striving to consider that maybe emancipation was just another hardship, a trial separation so the other party wouldn’t have to part with any of the strength we served to it on our ancestors’ backs? Considering it must make you feel nothing but duped, and that isn’t my intention – although, let’s face it, we were duped. My intention is to ask you to be hypervigilant about what you’ve gotten from the structure.
That is, you’ve gotten very little. You have your freedom and a home, and you deserved them. But you don’t have any of the wealth or status that comes with outsourcing your system’s growth to free kidnapped labour from Africa and free means of production in the Antilles. You don’t get to see that legacy construct itself with very little of your own input, only to say that you’ve grown enough to never need anything for free again, as if what you still have unpaid for will suddenly drop dollars over the heads of their descendants. That is a privilege that was not granted to you in 1834 or 1985 or 1962 or at any other time.
Until that true freedom is available, until some substantial structure exists that can provide healing for the scars of slavery that continue to hold us back politically and financially, the consequence of abolition is just as the consequence of slavery itself: the struggle and indignity of black people, while the system of subjugation profits.
What does slavery and the abolition of slavery have in common?
Arguably, a great deal.
Brandon O'Brien is a poet, writer and performer from Trinidad and Tobago whose work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions, and is published or upcoming in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Sunvault, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among other outlets. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH: A Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. He can be found on Twitter @therisingtithes.