By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 29, 2021
“Nations seldom listen to advice from individuals, however reasonable. They are taught less by theories than by facts and events.”
—Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
Last week I commended President Joseph Biden for signing into law a bill that made June 19 a national holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. It took two and a half years (that is, on June 19, 1865) to notify enslaved African Americans that “all slaves are free” and the 13th Amendment to free them officially on December 6, 1865.
Frederick Douglass, that great African-American abolitionist, foresaw the purpose of the war. He wrote in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, the last of three autobiographies: “When even Mr. Lincoln could tell the poor Negro that ‘he was the cause of the war,’ I still believed, and spoke as I believed, all over the North, that the mission of the war was the liberation of the slave, as well as the salvation of the Union…. In every way possible-in the columns of my paper and on the platform, by letters to friends, at home and abroad, I did all I could to impress this conviction upon the country.”
Although Biden’s declaration was a brave act, I am sure that it was not lost upon Trinbagonians that T&T was the first country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the legal abolition of enslaved people. Although Trinidadians have celebrated Emancipation Day since 1838, it was made an official holiday in 1985.
This year, the theme of the Emancipation Support Committee of Trinidad and Tobago (ESCTT), is “Advancing Pan-African Solidarity Towards a Balanced World.” Its goal, as the ESCTT noted is “to foster and embrace opportunities for closer Afro-Caribbean connections, as well as connections with the wider African diaspora and the African continent, connections that are geared towards advancing our collective development as a global people.”
Douglass can be seen as a prototypical figure in this effort to examine our collective humanity and our determination to break the bonds of slavery. He was inspired by the emancipation of the Black people in the Caribbean to do the same thing for his people in the United States. He saw their fate as inescapably bound with ours.
On August 1, 1847, at Canandaigua, New York, Douglass delivered his first of four speeches commemorating the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. Embracing the enslaved West Indians as “our brothers and sisters,” Douglass declared West Indian emancipation as an event “which may be justly regarded as the greatest and grandest of the nineteenth century . . . a splendid achievement, a glorious triumph of justice, love and mercy, over avarice, pride and cruelty.”
He saw the liberation of West Indian people as a prelude to the future of slavery in the United States when he said: “We shall be summoned to rejoice over the downfall of Slavery in our own land.” He also likened West Indian emancipation to “a city upon a hill” and treated its emancipation day, August 1, “as more sacred than the Fourth of July.”
The Trinidadian, a Trinidad newspaper published by Black people, followed those events intently and reported on them. On January 10, 1849, the Trinidadian published an excerpt from one of Douglass’s letters that reminded Trinidadians about the evils of slavery. In July 1850 it began to serialize Douglass’s Narrative in its newspaper.
Des Sources, the editor of the Trinidadian, wanted the ex-slaveholders to know that Black people were their equals and should be treated fairly which he felt was an indisputable condition for the freedom of all.
The global struggle for African liberation and the connective tissue (intellectual, cultural, etc.) that holds Black people together are important to our advancement as a people. The creation of a healthy sense of self-esteem and knowledge of our achievements is indispensable for our development, particularly as it concerns the social development of young people.
There are those who believe that racial discrimination and systemic racism play no part in stymieing the advancement of Black people. They are convinced that some kind of genetic inheritance, both at home and in the diaspora, prevents us from achieving what others have achieved. Some critics even claim that if only there were two parents in the family, we would be further advanced in our social, cultural and intellectual development.
Over the past century, scholars and activists such as Edward Wilmot Blyden, Carter G. Woodson, W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, Arthur Schomburg, Eric Williams, Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, Walter Rodney, and Frantz Fanon, just to name a few of the more recent proponents, have been teaching and analyzing the importance of race in the making of the modern world. It is a study that my own generation of scholars and activists has tried to follow.
It is laudable that a politician such as President Biden has recognized the tremendous hardships that Black people in the United States have undergone. It is equally as important that he has recognized some of the factors that still hold them back and is willing to put the necessary resources in place to correct the situation.
It is important to understand the links that bind Black people together and to give thanks to those, such as Douglass, who saw the oneness of our people, although we lived in different lands. Most important, it is imperative that we disregard those who feel that race has played no role in our denigration as a people. As we continue to forge our liberation as a people we should always remember the words of martyred forebears: “A luta continua.”