Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We Were Never Their Slaves


By Biko Agozino

A respected colleague in Africa recently sent me the urban legend piece that has been making the rounds on the internet with the title, ‘They are still our slaves’. A search on the internet reveals that there are more than one million sites that published the article with varied discussions. I am sure that many of you have seen it and maybe believed it to be true or ignored it or got annoyed about it and wished that our people would heed the lamentations of Bob Marley – ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery’! However, the colleague who forwarded it to me is a full professor in the natural sciences and she also copied a full professor in the arts at an Ivy League university and two top journalists in the African country. I knew that I was being invited to respond to it and I just want to share with you my brief response which my colleague described as ‘thought–provoking’. Thanks for this opportunity to share.

Urban legends are rumors that are repeated so often that they acquire the status of gospel truths but as legends, no one is certain about how they originated. True or false, they have the ability to influence the lives of real people for better or for worse. This particular urban legend makes the claim that people of African descent are still ‘our’ slaves, suggesting that the author is a person of European descent who shares a history of having enslaved Africans. Dee Lee, the journalist who allegedly read it on a New York radio station attributed it to a Caucasian author. However, such a legend could also be authored by a person of African descent as a propaganda hoax to shock Africans into changing their lifestyles in a direction desired by the author or authors.  Whoever the authors may be, let us take a critical look at it as you commence your careers following college graduation. Do you think that we are still their slaves?

The legend alleges that ‘they are still our slaves’ because black people, according to the authors, remain ignorant, greedy and selfish. The legend suggests that our people are ignorant because we do not read and so the saying that the best place to hide something from black people is to put it into a book is still true. Let me ask the graduates today if you agree that black people are still their slaves, whoever ‘they’ may be? Do you agree that black people do not read or that black people are ignorant, greedy and selfish? You are proof, if ever proof was needed, that our people do read and our people are knowledgeable as much as any other people with suitable opportunities. It is true that young people no longer value reading as much as the older generations did but this applies to white youth as well as black youth, especially the poor male youth. This does not mean that the youth are ignorant nor even that they do not read; it only means that they prefer to read multimedia kinds of material whereas we still privilege the written text as our major medium of communication.

My response to this urban legend is that we were never their slaves to begin with. Slaves are the property of other human beings and since we resisted attempts to reduce us to the level of property, we were never anybody’s slaves. Yes, our people were enslaved for hundreds of years but they were never slaves, they remained human beings who struggled for their freedom as best they could and won with the support of their allies. A piece of property lacks such human agency born of consciousness to struggle for rights and social justice. That is why I say to the authors of the urban legend that the argument was based on a flawed thesis: since we were never their slaves, it is certainly true that we are not still their slaves. We are free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last, as brother Martin Luther King Jr. stated at a time that we were still struggling to push back the boundaries of social equity.

The mother of a famous St. Lucian used to tell him that whatever Europeans could do, Africans could do too. He took that wisdom to heart and became a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, a distinguished professor and a university administrator. If Sir Arthur Lewis was still with us, I would have asked him if he believed everything his mother told him or if, at least in this one case, he had doubts about some aspects of his mother’s advice? Just because we could do anything that they could do does not mean that we would want to do everything that they did. For instance, they enslaved us for 400 years but I am yet to meet an African with the desire to enslave Europeans even for a day.

Now that you have your degrees, you may feel like belonging to the talented tenth that W.E.B. Du Bois called out for higher education in America. The urban legend under discussion also makes reference to Du Bois and tried to say that educated black people see this prescription as encouraging elitism whereas Du Bois saw the talented tenth as the leadership that would work to uplift the rest of black folk. The legend claims that due to selfishness, black people would only use their higher education for personal gains rather than use it to serve their community better. This is certainly true of some people, whatever their color or race but I am convinced that many educated black people have risked their own comfortable potential incomes to campaign for social equity and social justice at great personal costs. In other words, black leaders are not more selfish than white leaders, many have rendered selfless services for the benefit of humanity and I hope that you will follow in their footsteps.

It is false to accuse Du Bois of being elitist when he called for the higher education of the talented tenth. What he was arguing against was the situation in which institutions believed that the descendants of enslaved Africans were not fit for higher education and that they should only be trained in crafts and job skills. Du Bois argued convincingly that if no black people went to university to study the liberal arts and sciences, then our people would remain the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. Interestingly, about 100 years after Du Bois called for the doors of higher education to be opened to at least the talented 10% of Africans, the percentage of African Americans with college education is still approximately seven per cent and therefore still below the target demanded by Du Bois.

The US Census Bureau would put this percentage at 15% because they use the population that is 15 years and above as the denominator but if you use the entire population of African Americans to divide the number with college degrees and multiply by 100, you will get less than seven per cent. Moreover, Du Bois later revised this formula and talked about the talented 100% by which he suggested that all our people have talents and so we should aim at bringing out the best in the talents of all our people. I hope that with your new degrees, you will not start thinking that you are better than your brothers and sisters or colleagues and friends who have not had the privilege to access higher education the way you did. I hope that you will use your new knowledge and critical thinking skills to encourage them to come forward and better themselves the way you did.

During your awards gala, I was impressed to see that the winners of the top awards for perfect GPAs of 4.0 were three men and three women. This is proof that what is setting our young men back is not lack of intelligence but lack of participation as Barry Chevannes argues. When young men participate in equal numbers with young women, they tend to distinguish themselves equally. So talk to your brothers and nephews, your husbands, boyfriends, sons and sons-in-law, encourage them to come forward and benefit from this rare opportunity that Monroe College is helping to extend to the less-served populations of small island states. I commend the ladies for coming in droves to quench the thirst for knowledge but we need the young men to take their places beside the women and try to be the best that they can be.

In conclusion, let me repeat that we were never their slaves; we are not more greedy than people who enslaved their fellow human beings for hundreds of years; we are not more ignorant than a people who lack any knowledge of how our people managed to survive four hundred years of holocaust while serving their oppressors’ every need and knowing them intimately; and we are certainly not more selfish than those one percent of the world population that insist on cornering 90% of the world’s wealth. There are selfish, greedy and ignorant people in any race but to dismiss all people of African descent with their legendary culture of hospitality as remaining slaves that we never were is the height of ignorance, greed and selfishness on the part of the writers of that urban legend fantasizing about remaining slave masters when Dr Eric Williams told us long ago that Massa Day Done.

With the learning and character that you developed here in Monroe College, I am certain that no one will dare call you a slave but I hope that you will use your improved skills to speak for the whole world and for our people in particular in denunciation of slavery and any attempts to re-enslave our people again. Never again! But to make sure that others will benefit from the great opportunities you have enjoyed here, I will give you some tips:
1)      Continue your search for knowledge by reading at least one new book every month. If you read for only 30 minutes per day, you will complete not less than 12 books per year. When the father of Barak Obama visited him at the age of 10, he sat in his grand-parents apartment watching cartoons endlessly until the father intervened and said that he had watched enough, he should turn it off and go and do his homework! The grand-parents tried to defend the child by saying that it was a holiday and there was no homework but the father insisted and they told him that he could not show up after ten years and start bossing everyone about in their own home, who did he think he was? He insisted that as the father of the boy, he was saying that hours of watching television was enough and that he should go and read a book. Obama sulked off and banged his bedroom door but the same advice is what he is giving to American families today – turn off the television and read a book with your family! Further your education too.
2)      Continue writing your own works too. If you write a page a day, you will complete a big book of 360 pages every year. The more you write the better you get at it. All those ancestors who wrote freedom narratives that were misnamed slave narratives lacked your high level of education and yet they wrote and published to pass down knowledge to future generations. You are living proof that it is no longer against the law for black people to read and write as it was under slavery.
3)      Serve your community in any way that you can by ensuring that you are volunteering and helping to organize your community to achieve collective goals. That is the best way for you to sharpen the leadership skills that I am sure you were equipped with here at Monroe College.
4)      Start your own enterprises and do not simply go about looking for a job. You can keep your job but also think about the things that you feel passionate about and see if you could turn your passion into an enterprise that would help to create wealth and jobs for your community.
5)      Finally, invest in your future by setting aside 10% of your monthly income for your retirement investment. Many of you pay tithes to your churches but some forget to pay something for the financial security of their family. Remember that your family goes beyond your bloodlines to include Monroe College which has become a kind of mother to all of you as your Alma Mater. Whatever you do, remember to send a check every now and then or include a legacy in your wills to the college to show your gratitude for the opportunities extended to you here.
I wish to emphasize in closing that all these things that I am asking you to do for your community are guaranteed to make your lives more satisfying than the lives of selfish, ignorant and greedy people who are wishing for people to enslave again. Although I disagree with the legend that ‘They are still our slaves’, we must remain vigilant to make sure that never again will our people be enslaved. With your college education, you have been armed with more than just a meal ticket or the means with which to buy the biggest house, drive the most flashy car, attract the most beautiful lovers and enjoy your celebrity status; you have been called to leadership and although many will fail in that task, I am confident to say that some of you will succeed in helping to make the world a lot better for you and for me and for the entire human race as brother Michael Jackson pleaded with us - heal the world!

This is the commencement of your careers as graduates and the commencement of my career as a commencement speaker. So, I must end by thanking you for giving me this immense honor. This is not the end of your association with your college but the beginning of your lives as college graduates and alumni, the start of a new adventure of new challenges to thrill, honor and reward you with new laurels. Congratulations to all of you for your steadfast faith, sacrifice and glorious achievements, to your families and friends for their support and to Monroe College for extending this wonderful opportunity to you; well done to your lecturers for the successful mentorship and guidance, and above all, well done to the beautiful island of St. Lucia, home of multiple Nobel Laureates, for providing the incentives and infrastructures for this fountain to satiate the endless thirst for learning and character development.

Being the text of Monroe College, St. Lucia, Commencement Address, August 9, 2009

2 comments:

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