EMANCIPATION: WHEEL AND COME AGAIN

I approach Emancipation from a tangent. In their incisive work titled Éloge de la créolité/in praise of creoleness, Jean Bernabé et al. aver a dual exteriority for Caribbean peoples. Exteriority is an outward looking disposition of the collective cultural psyche that seeks validation from external sources. The enslaving trade, colonialism, socio-cultural mechanisms economic arrangements of the colonizers created a situation that forced enslaved persons into obeisance, beatification, and deification of their white overlords. I borrow from Kenneth Stampp’s book, The Peculiar Institution as referenced by Martin Luther King Jr. in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? to reinforce this point. Stamp reflects on U.S. slavery training manuals for slaveowners. One recommended mechanism for impoverishing enslaved persons was to taint African ancestry with derogations of their history and culture. Another mechanism was to instill a sense of awe for the enormous powers of the white masters (Loc. 713-717, Kindle). These strategies, violently enforced, were key to creating the first exteriority.

Disturbingly, the second exteriority was the worthy and necessary turn to Africa for validation. The black Caribbean person needed an antidote to the toxic Eurocentrism of the colonial period. This was a critique of the Negritude Movement’s Afrocentrism and its Caribbean and African heroes, Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Jeanne and Paulette Nardal, and Suzanne Césaire. Yet, their work was critical for establishing an early anti-colonial effort albeit with an exteriorizing gaze. These are intellectual ancestors. However, with Bernabé et al. as our guide to exteriority, I recognize the Negritude intellectuals as idealizing Africa as the true north of the African Diaspora.

For Bernabé et al., exteriority cannot be the terminal liberative concept for Afro-Caribbean peoples. Exteriority is an old fatality that needs to be exorcised. (85) Their antidote is “interior vision.” Interior vision, “restores us to ourselves in a mosaic renewed by the autonomy of its components, their unpredictability, their now mysterious resonances … it is an inner disruption … a sacred one.” It is predicated on self-acceptance. (86) If “interior vision” was our compass, then our symbols, our secular liturgies, our religious practices, our moral and ethical standards, governance, education, historiographies, religiosities, theologies, politics, pedagogies all would require recalibration. That massive undertaking would require a restatement of our telos, our collective purpose. It would require the development of new symbols and symbols systems. Our societal logic would need to be demonstrably different in vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. I wonder then, how would Emancipation fare in such revisioning?

The response lies partly in the gaze. Emancipation is a coercive force. As historical memory it may already have been domesticated into the infrastructure of racism – that deeply burrowing racism that narratively maintains our belief that Emancipation is something the colonizers accomplished on behalf of the enslaved and the colonized. To the extent that this assertion has any resonance then we must interrogate Emancipation and our memorializations. What is the term’s afterlife beyond recitations of a hackneyed narrative and lament about the short-comings of our achievements – another hackneyed narrative? Even to indwell the term anti-racism requires the shell of Eurocentrism as a naturalized habitational discourse for descendants of those enslaved ancestors. There is, however, a countering coercive force in the term. That other force requires an optical and auditory change. “Interior vision” could aid the processes of reorientation and recalibration.

What did those first emancipated ancestors do? What were their new hopes and expectations – their spirits? Did they marvel at “backra” or did they contemplate their next step in a new, ambiguous circumstance? Which segment of our society memorializes emancipation in the current relevance of their struggles for justice, in their call upon the Spirit/s, in ancestral memories? Do we gather, across our adopted lands while our hands still hold on to our birth-lands, to listen and converse, differently? What are the stressors of emancipatory interior vision when overwhelmed by current coercions of interracial proximities? In other words, is Emancipation, as we understand it, an occasion for exterior vision, a peculiar ventriloquism? Or are we as yet, the poets of our own souls, the architects of our psychical superstructures? Emancipation as a question is simply, quō vādis emancipation? Oops I mean, “Emancipation, a whey yu a go? Shake the vision awake until we break the chains of our current exteriorities. Ase.

Rev. Dr. Althea Spencer Miller

 July 31, 2020 ©

Rev. Dr. Althea Spencer Miller is Assistant Professor of New Testament at The Drew Theological School, Drew University, New Jersey.