From Slavery to Slavery
Last Wednesday, we celebrated Emancipation Day. Well, “celebrated” may not be quite the appropriate word here. Probably “observed” would be better? No, not even that. Let me put it this way: last Wednesday, we had a holiday from work.
You see, very few of our people know the reason for the holiday. I recall watching one of those on-the-street-interview-with-passersby programs, and most of the people questioned displayed ignorance as to the significance of the day.
In general, the answers obtained went something along these lines: “Wednesday? Yes, I know it’s a holiday. It’s the first of August. Why? I don’t know why. I thought it was because it was the first of August. Emansoupation Day? Oh, emancipation. No. I’m not sure. Doesn’t it have to do with the slaves, or something like that?
“Oh, the day they were freed? I see. That’s good. I’m glad they were freed; that means I get the day off on Wednesday. One can always use a holiday these days, you know. O.K., you’re welcome. It was my pleasure, chatting with you.’
And so, Emancipation Day came and went. Some of us went to the beach, some of us just stayed home and watched television, but most of us probably cared neither about the reason or the significance of the holiday.
Perhaps it’s because it happened over one hundred and fifty years ago, and that we who are born in the maternity wings of our fine state of the art modern hospitals, grow up with our computers, video games and television sets, work in our air-conditioned offices and drive our sleek flashy cars, find it difficult to associate mentally with, or appreciate the difference that that word, emancipation, has meant to our lives.
The celebration of Christmas, or carnival, should be as a candlelight to the sun, when compared to what the celebration of Emancipation Day should be.
I remember my mother telling us how her grandmother used to relate to her the events that she had witnessed, as a little girl, on the day that the slaves were granted freedom … the joy and dancing in the yard, the sheer ecstasy of the miraculous event. There is the saying “who feels it, knows it.” Well, they felt it, and they knew. They appreciated they rejoiced.
Look at the progress that was achieved through emancipation. Before the event, one slave owner, who for some reason or another (maybe he needed the money, maybe he just had too many slaves on his plantation), needed to sell off some of his stock, would approach another slave owner, and the following dialogue would ensue:
“Well, suh, this here’s a fine couple, Jacob and Sarah, I’ve named them. Look at them. Young and strong I’ll let you have the two of them for a pittance. Jacob’s good at slopping hogs and planting the garden, and Sarah’s a fine housegirl. Can clean the rooms and make the beds and is always at your beck and call. What d’you say? Do you fancy them?”
“They look fine to me. But they mustn’t cost me too much. And one thing that’s quite important. They’re not going to give me any trouble are they, when it comes to, well, let’s call it my extracurricular demands? That Sarah’s a fine looking girl, and a man has his needs, you know.”
And the deal is done. Now we come forward several years, emancipation has arrived. In this case, young Jacob and Sarah, now free, need to find some form of employment in order to survive.
The morning after the advent of emancipation, they turn up at a prospective employer’s doorstep. Jacob addresses the man:
“Well suh, I’m Jacob and this is Sarah, my wife, we’re young, strong and willing to work. I’m good at slopping hogs and planting the garden and Sarah’s a good housegirl.
Would you give us a job?”
“You look fine to me. But I can’t pay you too much. Say a shilling a week each. And I’ll supply transportation to and from work. A horse-drawn cart will pick you up. But one thing that’s quite important. I have these, well let’s call them extracurricular demands, and Sarah, you’re a fine looking girl. I’ll give you both a job, but you’re not going to give me any trouble, are you?”
So under duress, but out of sheer desperation and the need for survival, Jacob and Sarah take up employment. Of course, the only difference between their condition before and after emancipation is that they now receive one shilling a week each. Otherwise, there’s really not too much change in their status as regards human dignity, it there?
Finally, we progress to the present. The scene now shifts to one of our hotels, somewhere up in the north of the island. A young Jacob and his pretty wife, Sarah are seated together before the desk of the hotel’s personnel manager, nervously going through a job interview.
“Well sir, we’ve both graduated from secondary school a year and a half ago, but have been unable to find a job anywhere. Our CXC marks are excellent, but we’ve been unlucky with our job-hunting. I did Agricultural Science and can work outdoors, taking care of the grounds. So I’m here to apply for the vacancy, as assistant gardener, as your ad implied.
“As for Sarah, she’s applying for the housekeeping job that you advertised. She’s a very neat and efficient girl, and would make you proud.” All of this from Jacob, as Sarah just sits there quietly, her eyes demurely fixed on the floor.
“You both look fine to me, but I can’t pay you too much. Say seventy five dollars a week each. And we’ll supply transportation to and from work. The hotel bus will pick you up. But before we finalize, I need to interview Sarah in private. I haven’t heard a word from her. So, will you please step outside for a minute, Jacob? I’ll call you back presently.”
As the door closes behind the departing Jacob, the manager turns to Sarah.
“I’m willing to give you both a job, but there’s one thing that’s quite important. I have these, well let’s call them extracurricular demands, and Sarah, you’re a fine looking girl. If I employ you, you’re not going to give me any trouble, are you?”
Now you tell me: have things really changed that much? I’m beginning to understand why some people are unaware of the significance of Emancipation Day.