Q: Archbishop J, what is freedom?
For the young nations of the Caribbean, August 1 is historic. On that day, 188 years ago, the British parliament brought into law the emancipation of the African slaves who lived in these islands. It took another four years for the slaves to have “freedom”.
After the Emancipation Act was passed in 1834, there was a four-year period of apprenticeship. This was just another tactic to get free labour from the slaves. There was still no freedom!
After apprenticeship ended in 1838, there was still no freedom. Wages for labour was kept very low for the ex-slave and the cost of land was kept very high, ensuring the ex-slave could not buy property and participate as a freed person in the society. This was just another form of exploitation to keep that person outside of meaningful participation in society.
Consider for a moment the status of the indentured Irish who were in the British West Indies at the time of the slave trade. They agreed to work for seven years in exchange for passage, housing, and food during that time. At the end they were given either land or money.
Also consider the indentured from India who, at the end of their indentureship, were given a land grant to allow for settlement and stability.
So, the treatment of the Irish who were indentured while Africans were slaves, the slaves themselves, and the indentured Indians differed dramatically. In some instances, the planter received compensation for the loss of a slave. The slave received no compensation for loss of life, time or forced labour.
The intention of emancipation was never freedom for the ex-slave. He or she was seen as property, and in this lay the logic for all negotiations.
Over the last 188 years, the descendants of ex-slaves have achieved excellence in every sphere of endeavour—scholarship, government, business, education, priestly ministry, sport, beauty, science, and technology, to name a few areas. This looks like freedom. Despite all the odds, the descendants have broken through the shackles and managed to chart his or her own destiny.
The independence movements of the 1960s, culminating with Black Power in the 1970s, were significant moments when true freedom looked very possible. Then something happened. We seemed to slip backwards into the shackles without a struggle or a fight. Somehow, we tossed the plot and the path to freedom.
Whether we look at the recent violence in schools, or the rise of gangs, gang violence and murder, or the number of prisoners in jail without a trial or bail, or the high levels of hopelessness in our East Port of Spain communities, we must come to the same conclusion—emancipation is still coming. We have not come to true freedom yet.
Bob Marley in his classic, ‘Redemption Song’ says: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind”. Well, yes and no!
If we could emancipate ourselves, then we would have done so long ago. Freedom is not just an act of the will; nor is it something we can do for ourselves.
Reading the verse in its context, however, gives a different perspective. Marley continues: “Have no fear for atomic energy/‘Cause none of them can stop the time”. Here Marley is speaking in the context of God as the ultimate cause—the One who can “stop the time”.
Reading the lyrics again, Marley has emancipation in the plural— with ourselves a collective. This is as opposed to the individual effort and individualism which has failed so miserably.
To emancipate ourselves is a communal activity that we must all commit to. This is akin to ubuntu, the African philosophical concept that translates: “I am because we are” or “humanity towards others”; a turn to the community, recognising that I can only have humanity if we all have humanity. I can prosper only if I work for us to prosper.
Rather than self-help literature, Marley gives us the most fundamental challenge to true freedom. The rugged individualism of the West where we “get rich or die trying” has led to the moral and social decay that we are facing. Both corruption and hedonism feed off this false philosophy of the self above all others.
The Black people who have made it economically, have not easily turned to work tirelessly for those who have been trapped in the prison of poverty and underdevelopment.
What is worse is the behaviour of those leaders—of all colours, religions, and persuasions—who have put themselves above national development. Each of us has to make a decision, but it will only work when we all work together for true freedom.
Each of us has a choice—that is free will. But we can only arrive together—ubuntu. Our choice comes from the deepest innermost part of our beings—that place where we shut the door and go to pray (Mt 6:6).
Victor Frankl (1905–1997) a Jewish psychiatrist in Auschwitz during the World War II, in the face of the great indignity and sorrow of the camp, discovered what he called the last human freedom.
He said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Man’s search for Meaning).
This is the second and most important clue from Marley: we must choose to be human actors and not victims of our circumstance. We do have to summon the human courage to choose.
If we believe we are made in the image and likeness of God, then we believe we have been given free will. The real question remains: ‘What will you do with your freedom?’.
The William Wallace character in Braveheart asked his countryman that question, “What will you do with your freedom?”. They were up against all odds. The noblemen were making individual deals that betrayed the people.
He concluded that on their death beds they would give anything for “just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” (Braveheart).
Freedom is a most precious gift and we have been squandering it for wealth, pleasure, and power. Freedom is the deepest part of the human that can never age or be taken away from us. What will you do with your freedom?
Emancipation is still coming. The challenge resides in the fundamental choice that each of us makes for true freedom or for self-gain.
Reflect on how you use your freedom. Is it for personal gain or for our progress as a people? Make a commitment to help others.