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Time come to emancipate ourselves from the shackles of cynicism

Excursus aside, Emancipation from physical slavery or “forced labour” arrived in two stages in Jamaica. The first part of the Emancipation relay commenced in the early morning of Friday, August 1, 1834. Tomorrow commemorates the 182nd anniversary of the declaration of Apprenticeship — a period my late father was wont to describe as the “era of bonded or debt labour”.

While August 1, 1834 marked the emancipation of all slaves in British colonies, the “partial freedom” came with strict conditions. The reprieve, the Abolition Act, made it unequivocal that even though “Slavery shall be and is hereby utterly abolished and unlawful”, the only slaves who were truly freed were unborn and those under six years of age. In essence, all other slaves automatically entered a six-year “apprenticeship” during which they were mandated to be ‘apprenticed’ to the plantations.

Sadly, apprenticeship came with mass confusion because, in many instances, ex-slaves who purchased their freedom were not really free. The conditional freedom was exactly that — conditional freedom.

A concomitant feature of apprenticeship provided for ex-slaves to work without pay for their former slave masters. They worked for about 30 hours a week in exchange for lodging, food, clothing, medical attendance and provision grounds on which they produced to satisfy their own subsistence. If they chose, ex-slaves were permitted to hire themselves out for more wages with the hope that they would use the “extra money” to buy full freedom.

Though apprenticeship was supposed to last six years — through to 1840 — it ended two years ahead of the six-year term on August 1, 1838. Tomorrow, August 1, also commemorates the 178th anniversary of the second leg of the Emancipation relay, as it was on August 1, 1838, two full years ahead of schedule, that “full freedom” from forced (physical) slavery occurred.

In recounting the mood of church members on the eve of August Mawnin’ (1838), famous non-conformist Baptist preacher, William Knibb, declared: “The winds of freedom appeared to have been set loose, the very building shook at the strange yet sacred joy…” Knibb also knew that ending forced labour (physical slavery) was an important directional milestone, but it was not an automatic act of mental, economic and socio-cultural emancipation.

Knibb also knew, as did other proponents of freedom and supportive abolitionists, that true and full emancipation could not start or end with the single act of abolishing forced labour (slavery), necessary and plausible though that was. They knew that newly free slaves had cultivated healthy and robust ambitions as well as individual expectations of their own. They knew that it would only be a matter of time before ex-slaves would bond together, or individually, to realise those expectations and ambitions.

In Jamaica, August morning gave birth to peaceful demonstrations and celebrations. So liberating an event it was that a hearse containing the shackles and chains that had been used to “must-and-bound” rebellious slaves was driven through the streets of Spanish Town, Jamaica’s old capital. The hearse and its contents were then eventually burned.

Conditions immediately following Emancipation were as challenging and brutal as they were during slavery with the greatest shifts toward a different form of enslavement that relied heavily on the advancement of the principle of divide and rule.

In the Jamaican context, the struggles to overcome the structural, cultural, social and economic impediments that slavery imposed continued well over 100 years after slavery and culminated in the labour unrests and social chaos of 1938.

However, by 1944, Jamaica had achieved significant political progress. Universal Adult Suffrage in 1944 and soon thereafter, in 1953 and 1957; self-government and political independence in 1962, followed by a period of significant political, social and economic advancement and expansion.

However, the struggle to attain economic independence has remained the single most arduous challenge of all. Limited success has been gained in this (economic independence) area of national development. Whilst not unique to Jamaica, it continues to have the greatest impact on the lives, dreams and hopes of so many, especially young people.

It is true, Jamaica has made tremendous strides, plantation wages and conditions no longer exist; however, a huge cohort of the population is still wedded, mentally, to the paradigm of the plantation.

For, although 1838 is roughly 178 years removed from present-day reality, the impact of servitude lingers on. The physical bondage is no more, but the mental, attitudinal, economic and to a large extent social pressure continue. The truth is the distrust of the past, together with the disappointments have made us, ostensibly, into a population of almost chronic cynics.

It has got worse, not better, with each generation. There is a particular danger herein because we will never, ever realise our true or full potential, collectively or individually, if we destroy or puncture the reservoirs of hope and optimism.

It would be highly irresponsible and hypocritical to pretend that those other causal factors, such as our lopsided economic system, and political culture that goes beyond reasonableness to promote mediocrity above meritocracy, are not part of the problem.

The truth is, after almost 178 years after Emancipation and 54 years of political independence, too many of the harsh conditions that prompted the Sam Sharpe and Morant Bay rebellions continue to exist. However, we have come a far way. Many a dream has been realised, individually and collectively; many national accomplishments have been attained for which all of us can be justly proud.

Mental Slavery

One of the most brutal legacies of slavery has been ensuing mental enslavement. So staunch and fierce it is it has made many into helpless cynics — cynics who have exhibited irredeemable quotients of cynicism, enough to block their own progress and stymie their mobility. To them, every single thing requires doubt. Do not get me wrong, some scepticism can be as much tonic to the mind as pathway to new discoveries. However, like anything else, too much of any one thing could be poisonous.

Sometimes, we have to take things at par value and other times we have to be willing to “give someone the benefit of the doubt”. There do not have to be hidden motives for every act of kindness, show of mercy, or display of affection. None of these makes anyone into an instant Pollyanna.

It is within this context — the context of Jamaica’s advancement and continuous experiment — that I encourage young Jamaicans, between the ages of 18 and 35, to begin to develop a greater appreciation for the foundations laid by our forefathers and to garner a better understanding that the struggle is an ongoing process and that it may involve and require some suffering.

As advanced as many developed societies are, they too are battling enormous challenges trying to provide for their citizens. Our struggles may not be their struggles, and their struggles may not be ours, but struggles they are nonetheless.

Therefore, to the young people of Jamaica, whatever you do, please do not become chronic cynics. Do not succumb to the debilitating nature of cynicism. Appreciate the wonders of technology; embrace the utility and quickness of the microwave oven, but do not short-change yourselves by becoming a microwave.

American comedian, writer, producer, actor, media critic, and television host, Stephen Colbert, said it best: “Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Cynics don’t learn anything.

Cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So, for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes…”

The mountain may seem high, the valley deep, but never allow the shackles of cynicism to displace your heart; your hope, your dreams, or your desire to achieve. Emancipation of the mind, the creative geniuses within us, is empowering.

As we celebrate tomorrow, August Mawnin’, more of us should prepare to say, “Fare thee well, cynicism; see you in another life, pessimism; Adiós, scepticism, go take a dive, negativity; no more hugging up procrastination and welcome positivity…”

Judging by the intensely negative political campaign of cynicism that led to the crushing defeat of the People’s National Party (PNP) on February 25, 2016, it should begin to occur to more of us that hope and optimism are better alternatives to fear and doubt.

The election of Andrew Holness as prime minister of Jamaica ought to motivate more of us to start believing in ourselves and in our capacity to rise to the highest echelon. Andrew did not allow the campaign of cynicism, inside or outside his party, to blight his desire to serve at the highest level.

Andrew and his party effectively overcame the cynics and now, “look at him [them]”. His election and that of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) did not cause “heaven and Earth to pass away…” as Dr Phillips and many in the PNP preached in relation to Jamaica’s obligation and relationship with the International Monetary Fund.

He did not falter despite the gloom and doom and politics of fear that were used against him. That he and his party prevailed and are now on track to achieve extraordinary things for and on behalf of the Jamaican people should inspire the rest of us to continue pursuing our goals.

There are myriad other examples around town of positive accomplishments due to emancipation from the shackles of cynicism. I see them every day. I would not dare suggest that we abandon the innate curiosity or inquisitiveness that comes so naturally because there are benefits to gain from applying common sense and inquiry.

Of all things, remember this, “It is mental slavery to cling to things that have stopped serving its [sic] purpose in your life…”

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