Black History month is upon us and generally I approach this month with a heavy heart. Knowing I will inevitably have to revisit the ancient fraternal twins of our history- the barbaric and dehumanizing atrocities perpetrated by my native land, paired with the heroic and victorious perseverance of my people. Every year in February we as a country oscillate between these two poles as we celebrate and mourn our history. While I’ve anticipated the customary emotional whiplash, this year feels different.
Up until about five years ago I had no idea that black history month had a theme, it so happens that this year’s theme is: ”At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The emancipation proclamation and the March on Washington”
This year marks two very important anniversaries, the 150th year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th year anniversary of the historic march on Washington. Both events serve as significant mile markers on the road to freedom. However as I reflect on these great events in history I find myself reluctant to celebrate.
I’ll acknowledge my tendency to drag my feet when it comes to celebrating any form of progress in regards to the oppression of African Americans. Some may argue I find comfort in my anger or in my distrust, that there is something disorienting about the prospects of equality that causes me to ignore or question any resemblance of positive change. If I’m honest I would have to admit there is some truth to that statement. Case in point; one of my reservations with the election and reelection of President Barack Obama, was the underlining fear that America would move too fast to the platitudes of equality. That as Americans we would march triumphantly through history believing we have conquered the race thing. Meanwhile African Americans still struggle for access to resources and power, we continue to be the most undereducated, underemployed, underpaid and incarcerated.
I bring this up because, much like the election of our nations first black president the emancipation proclamation was suppose to be a significant shift in the ethos of this country. The sin of slavery wasn’t JUST the heinous barbarism, brutality and humiliation carried out by our white brothers and sisters. The core sin of slavery was the dehumanization of a people; it was the reordering of creation. By regarding blacks as a sub-human species, slave owners and slave traders justified blacks as property, and robbed them of their rights and status as beloved children of God. Slavery by this definition qualifies as a spiritual offense. In that regard the emancipation proclamation was ill equipped to undo what slavery had cemented in our history and the stain of its sin.
Blacks were granted freedom but not their humanity. For some eighty years after the emancipation proclamation blacks found themselves subject to a corrupt judicial system that customized laws in order to maintain slave labor through a system known as convict leasing. In this we see after the Emancipation Proclamation the resilient and tenacious nature of the evil we face.
Blacks were granted their freedom but not their humanity – But is it possible to have freedom without humanity? Some would argue at this point “we have come so far since then”. I would agree, however with some reservations. What I believe has evolved is our criterion on what it means to be human. However so has the evolution of the criterion of what it means to be sub-human.
- Can economic chains, and shackles of inadequate education be as dehumanizing as iron and a whip?
- Can our disproportionate incarceration rates be what define us as second-class citizens?
- Can lower rates of pay and opportunity for advancement restrict our ability to help others pull themselves up by their boot scraps?
To emancipate means to free from restraint, influence or the like. If we submit ourselves to the premise that the sin of slavery was the stripping of the humanity from African Americans, then we have to ask ourselves; are we emancipated? Do we navigate the culture and the world we live in free from restraint, and the influence of slavery?