“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, None but ourselves can free our minds.”
That was Bob Marley quoting Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1937) in his “Redemption Song” (1980). Mr. Marley’s lyrics consist of many quotations, Jamaican sayings and proverbs, woven into his thoughts. He was good at that.
And today in Jamaica is Emancipation Day, August 1. A national holiday, light and bright and with a willful breeze that comes and goes. We had a really meaningful shower yesterday, the rain determinedly pressing down on our battered and exhausted lawn, as if to make up for the months of bitter drought. Of course it didn’t make up for it entirely. But it brought the garden to life, and beat the dust into submission. The air feels softer and cleaner. The birds (who have been mostly silent during the long hot days) are busy in the trees, baby grackles calling, woodpeckers bickering. Hope exists that there will be more rain today. I just heard distant thunder.
Lazing in bed this morning, in the quiet of a city on holiday, I was reflecting on the word “emancipate.” Friday, August 1, 1834 was a sort of conditional emancipation under the Abolition Act. All those not yet born, and all those under six years old, would be free. Exactly four years later, many slaves made their way to the capital, Spanish Town, where about 8,000 gathered to hear the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Lionel Smith, read out the Proclamation of Freedom. This all started to happen less than three years after Sam Sharpe’s rebellion and only two years after Mr. Sharpe, a Baptist preacher and one of our National Heroes, was hanged. History has a way of speeding up.
And it was bestowed on Jamaica, as it was on Barbados, Guyana and other Caribbean nations on the same day. Yes, many struggles, much agitating and much suffering preceded it. But in the end, it was for someone else, the colonial masters, to grant freedom to Jamaicans – to hand it to the grateful enslaved people amidst much rejoicing. Independence (which we will celebrate on August 6) was a similar scenario. It was kindly granted to us. Thank you very much, colonial masters.
Emancipating yourself is an entirely different matter, however. It takes a great deal more work. It’s the mental and spiritual equivalent of filing off those iron shackles, and as Bob/Marcus said, no one can do it for you. Two days ago, I was in Marcus Garvey’s birthplace, St. Ann’s Bay – at the Youth Information Centre, where a number of Mr. Garvey’s quotes were posted on the wall. Here’s the quote from a speech he gave in Nova Scotia in 1937:
We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind…
In his song, Bob Marley gets the first person singular and plural mixed up, but I know what he was doing. Similarly, Marcus Garvey moved from what “we” must do to what “the man” must do. What we do individually we need also to do collectively.
One of my very favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in one of his novels: “History! Read it and weep!” The weight of history is heavy. Jamaica’s history is right up there globally, with one of the most violent, oppressive and painful stories to tell. As Jamaicans look back at that day in 1838, they must – must – also look forward, fearlessly. Jamaicans must make some changes in their own lives, and in the life of the nation. Otherwise Jamaica will become mired, and still weeping.
Jamaica needs emancipation of the mental kind more than ever. Let’s get to work on it.