183 years ago today on August 1, 1838, the descendants of trafficked and enslaved Africans, who themselves grew up in generations of slavery, finally celebrated their full freedom, as declared in the Emancipation proclamation. There are many reasons to be considered as to why the British Parliament decided to end slavery as a means of social and economic organization in its colonies. The abolitionist movement and a growing consciousness of the inhumanity of slavery would have played a part. Eric Williams in his celebrated thesis on Capitalism and Slavery contended that sugar and how it was produced through the plantation system became increasingly unprofitable and costly to maintain.
However, we must never overlook or underplay the role that our forebears played in resisting and rebelling against slavery. Though the system of chattel slavery was total in its control and dehumanization, it could not completely eliminate our dignity and the spirit of resistance to oppression. Our forebears were not passive and obsequious onlookers, waiting for freedom to be handed to them. They actively rejected the idea of enslavement and fought it physically, often making the ultimate sacrifice; paying with their lives as did Sam Sharpe and many other nameless fighters.
Today, we celebrate, as our forebears did, the day of full freedom. We give thanks for their sacrifice and we reflect on the dehumanizing system that sought to treat another human being as property, to deny them of any rights, even over their own body and reproductive decisions, and to control them by inflicting mental and physical pain through lashing and other forms of punishment which violated their physical and spiritual being.
As we celebrate the freedom events of this day in the past, we must also reflect on the condition of our society now. The use of violence has followed us from our history. Presently, there is a belief widely held in our society that the physical being of another person is not inviolable. There is little acknowledgment of the entitlement to personal space. For many, uninvited touching and hitting is accepted as normal in our society. The correction to a child for hitting another, is not to explain to the child that hitting is wrong, oftentimes what we see is the offended child being encouraged to hit back. We see parents who believe children have no rights and must be lashed in order to be brought under control. And we see, family members who believe that the only way to resolve disputes over ownership and property is by fighting, oftentimes to the death. We see intimate partners viewing each other as property with rights to control even by force. And we see it in the gang and don culture employing violence to control and subjugate entire communities.
What would our forebears think of us, that we have become so comfortable with the use of violence on our own, that the very tool of oppression that the slave drivers used on them, we are now using it on ourselves! They would be baffled and shocked, because freedom for them would have meant freedom from violence or the threat of violence. It would have meant that they were no longer chattel, but rather that they own themselves and their labour. That they could not be taken at the whims of a slave master’s fancy. That they couldn’t be whipped for disobedience. Yet in our free society, these kinds of violence happen every day and we the people who suffered this violence for centuries at the hands of oppressors, today inflict it on our own and worse defend their use as:
- necessary to discipline our children “Pickney fi get lick, spare the rod and spoil the child”,
- necessary as a show of love to our intimate partner “she believe him luv har why him beat har”, and
- necessary to bring order to our household and community, “him violate, so him fi dead”.
Freedom and the use of violence is incompatible. There is no freedom where violence exists. I invite all Jamaicans to reflect on this. We must all make a concerted effort to reject violence in our daily lives. Your government is seized of this disease of violence plaguing our people. It is of epidemic proportions and it has infected all facets of our society. The first step in combatting this disease is to get the average person to accept that violence in all forms, whether intimate partner, domestic, corporal punishment, gang violence or security force violence, all violence is wrong. We have started to combat this disease, through legislation with the sexual harassment law and the domestic violence bill which is being reviewed. We are conducting a thorough study and review of the problem of violence in order to inform a comprehensive reform of Government’s policy framework and response.
As your Prime Minister, I am very concerned by the frequency and increasing brutality of acts of violence being reported. We have been spiralling along this path for some time without instrumental and direct government intervention. And I know that I am not alone, in the observation that our society is becoming increasingly callous, brutal and numb to violence. Nevertheless, I am positive that we can transform our country into a kinder, gentler and more caring society. At the heart of every Jamaican is a desire for justice, brotherhood and peace. This Emancipation, let us all reflect on our own lives and see how we have used any form of violence and how we can replace a harsh word with an endearment, a quarrel with reason and a clenched fist with an elbow bump. Let us all commit to protecting our freedom from violence and honour the struggles of our forebears by not inflicting on ourselves the violence the slave drivers inflicted on them. The chains are gone but our mentality still enslaves us. Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.