Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade

This year the Bahamas is observing two very important milestones in its history: (1) the bicentennial of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade (1807) and (2) the fortieth anniversary of the achievement of Black Majority Rule (1967). With this weekend's release of the new movie Amazing Grace, the former has been getting a great deal of attention.

In the United States and Great Britain, for example, many well-meaning Christians are using the bicentennial of abolition to raise awareness of and generate support for campaigns against modern day forms of slavery such as child labor, prostitution, and human trafficking. While I applaud these important efforts, I am concerned that they have largely obscured the legacy of slavery that still persists for Bahamian and Caribbean descendants of the liberated Africans and slaves who originally benefited from abolition.

While ending the slave trade in 1807 was an important first step towards the liberation of peoples of African descent in the British Caribbean, emancipation was not declared until 1834 and was not fully implemented until after a four-year period of apprenticeship ended in 1838. Even then, the truck system and other discriminatory economic practices served to keep black Bahamians socially, politically, and economically subservient to their white counterparts until the achievement of Black Majority Rule in 1967. While Black Majority Rule succeeded in creating a sizeable black middle class that allowed many Bahamians to escape from generations of poverty, an even larger black underclass still remains today. And the achievement of Bahamian independence in 1973--partly as the result of political momentum gained from Black Majority Rule six years earlier--was largely symbolic. The departure of the British left a void that was quickly filled by the economic, cultural, and occasional political influence of the Bahamas' gargantuan next door neighbor--the United States.

So what's my point? First of all, injustice is multifaceted and expresses itself in many forms such as slavery, colonialism, racism, classism, and neocolonialism--to name a few. Secondly, the elimination of one form of injustice while allowing others to persist does not result in true freedom. Today, many Bahamians are much better off socially and economically then they were just one or two generations ago. Thus, we have developed a false sense of freedom that allows us to ignore the many injustices that continue to remain with us as a result of the legacy of slavery and colonialism. But persist they do, whether we are willing to acknowledge them or not. So as we observe this important milestone in our history, I hope that we will not only reflect on its significance for us today. But that we will also recommit ourselves to the struggle for full emancipation.

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