Emancipation for all Guyanese

ROAR of Ravi Dev To understand emancipation, or freedom, we have to understand its antithesis, slavery. Most of us may have some inkling of the horrendous physical circumstances of the slave.

Emancipation for all Guyanese
Photo : Ravi Dev

             To understand emancipation, or freedom, we have to understand its antithesis, slavery. Most of us may have some inkling of the horrendous physical circumstances of the slave. Starting with the unimaginable squalour and degradation of the ships that brought them across the Atlantic; the hovels that housed them in the “nigger yards”; the rags that covered their nakedness; working from day clean to sundown in the fields under constant lashes of the whip, the widespread rape of the women by European men, to the separation of children from parents – the denial of any possibility of a stable family life - physical force was a palpable existential reality. Emancipation brought some respite from those physical humiliations that denied slaves their dignity.

 But there was another side to slavery in the New World. This concerned the justification offered by the Europeans for slavery and its integral linkages with their proposition that Africans were a distinct and inferior “race” of people. This justification was primarily a salve to the conscience of the Europeans, who considered themselves “good Christians”. The justification of slavery was concocted by some of the best minds of “Enlightenment” Europe which had raised “reason” as the ultimate test of valid knowledge. Reason undergirded all sorts of classification schemes – based on colour, blood, size of head, extension of jaws etc. – that in self-fulfilling fashion, confirmed the “subhuman” status of the African. So by their criteria of “rationality”, the European could not be criticised for keeping the slaves in subhuman conditions – they were subhuman to begin with, their science declared! The African was taught a mantra: Whites are a superior race. /I am not of the White race. Therefore I am of an inferior race.

By the time the theories of substantive differences between “races” were challenged, the idea of the “subhuman” African was so deeply embedded in European science, literature, arts, music, philosophy, history etc. that it remained (and remains) as a pre-conceptual background reality to anyone raised within the western paradigm. Even by Africans. This is the wellspring of the most virulent racism that is part and parcel of the westernisation project of modernity. And if Africans are to ever be really emancipated, the racist traces must be identified wherever they exist and extirpated – root and branch.

After emancipation, segueing effortlessly from the uneradicated racist-traces, the Europeans deployed the new anthropological notion of “culture”, again in circular fashion, to demonstrate “rationally” that Africans - now joined by other non-white groups - were inferior. By this time the Empire had expanded exponentially and a new and broader construct was needed to justify oppression over diverse “races”.  Condescendingly, Africans were now acknowledged as humans …it was only their culture, and the cultures of other non-whites, that needed to be developed. They all needed tutelage.

The famous “Macaulay Minute” of 1835 explicitly spelt out this new strategy of domination: “Brown Englishmen” who would serve the interests of Empire, would be created by the imparting of “Education” (in capital – the European particular was now universalised). The Physical Force would be masked and the minds of the natives would be conquered through “Symbolic Force”. There was a “Queens College” established in every corner of the British Empire following the Macaulay Minute. So we now have a situation where the non-whites always had to measure up (note - up) to a European standard as to what behaviour was “civilised”. And it was into this game in which he could never win the African was thrown at emancipation. The African (and non-whites) were now taught a new mantra, of mental slavery:

Since Whites are superior because of their culture/ If I want to escape being inferior and be equal/I must assume their culture.

The subjugation of Africans during and after slavery has left such a deep legacy of anti-African racism in all that the West stands for (and teaches) that it is a daunting task for any who may want to embark on the creation of a new paradigm; one that will allow the African to live in dignity. In the meantime, the various “races” in Guyana each fight to assert their “higher” place on the European-defined “chain of being”.

The Rastafarians of Jamaica since 1932 have created a new mantra summarising one paradigm to escape the western-imposed “mental slavery”:

“Whites are superior because of the symbolic forces of their culture. If I want to escape feeling inferior and be equal/ I must begin by creating my own symbolic cultural universe.”