At the time of writing this piece, I was putting together reading for a lecture which asks the audience to think about the meaning(s) of freedom. In preparing the lecture, I have found so many different definitions of freedom, that I begin to realise that freedom may be a nebulous term. Primarily, it should be noted that definitions of freedom and demands for freedom are often a reaction to unfreedom. This is why it often seems that freedom is not found when the mechanisms and overt structures of unfreedom are removed, because the ideologies and imperatives that created it still exist, and the removal of unfreedom just provides an opportunity to destroy its clay and reform the unfreedom into more acceptable and less recognisable shapes.
It should also be noted that apparently societies that did not have histories of structured bonded servitude that their economies were almost entirely reliant on, did not have words in their languages for ‘freedom’, because it was accepted that all people were born free. The very act of being human was sufficient for freedom to be assumed to be an integral part of that being. It is in the non-recognition of personhood, therefore, that we have an contingent task of (re)defining freedom. How do we define something whose presence only arises because humanity has made the ever-present absent? How does humanity find freedom again, when we have made unfreedom human? Or humanity unhuman? How do we collectively and respectively, learn and unlearn freedom and unfreedom, when their purposes and functions still form part of our economic realities?
In our quest for the substance, reality and definition of freedom, we must know the nature of the freedom we are pushing for. We must understand what causes unfreedom. And ask if those causes are still with us. Because we want freedom which is more than mere liberty. I often think that the distance between mere justice and true freedom is measured by what happens the day after a form of freedom is won. When unfreedom is dismantled, what happens the day after?
The Haitian revolution is often lauded as the most successful Black revolution in the history of this planet. On the 1st of January 1804, Haiti became a free republic after a revolution that began in 1791. The formerly enslaved seized and fought for their freedom. They defeated the French and British and became the first country established by formerly enslaved people. In 1825, France finally recognized Haiti’s independence, in exchange for an indemnity of 100 million francs, with a repayment period until 1887. Haiti paid France for 122 years, severely impoverishing the Haiti. What is important here is not the 1st of January 1804, but the 2nd of January 1804… and the 3rd… and the 4th and so on. What happens the day after revolution?
What happened the day after the Emancipation Act of 1833 (UK) was passed? The now no-longer-enslaved were required to provide 10 more years of unpaid labour. £47 million was paid in compensation to the slave holders for the loss of their ‘property.’ £27 of that was paid by the formerly enslaved in unpaid labour. The rest was paid by the British government. The descendants of the enslaved contributing in taxes to the repayment of the loan taken by the government to pay this sum. Till date absolutely nothing has been done to repair the injustice to the enslaved and their descendants, who were required to start life severely disadvantaged by unfreedom.
What happened the day after ‘Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves’ by signing The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863? As Dr Martin Luther King says in his unmistakable way, the Emancipation Proclamation occurred with no acknowledgement of the effects slavery had on the enslaved and was thus not freedom in a recognisable sense but, ‘freedom to hunger, freedom to the winds and rains of heaven, freedom without roofs to cover their heads.’ The final act of abolition was the 13th Amendment, (passed in 1865) whose ultimate effect as summarised by Ava DuVernay’s documentary (13th) was the prison industrial complex. There are more Black men imprisoned today than were ever enslaved. Plantation slavery given new form.
What happened the day after the colonisers departed from their African colonies? Lines on the ground used to mark colonial possessions trapped Africans into prison states. African leaders who attempted to break out, were summarily dismissed to black holes in this world or the next. Ask the exiled Nkrumah. Ask Lumumba whose bones were dissolved. Won pa t’egungun t’egungun! Ask the betrayed Sankara. Ask now silent Samora Machel. African puppets-leaders and own-stomach-liner-leaders serve at the behest of the forces of neocolonisation and globalisation and the lives of the majority of Africans remained the same, ever written into darkness. And so we ask for another decolonisation.
We must remember that unfreedom was never the purpose of plantation slavery, but an inevitable side effect. The function of plantation slavery bolstered by the Transatlantic slave trade was to acquire a disposable and cheap supply of labour and human resources. The enslavement of human resources was the side effect. The purpose of colonisation was to acquire easy and unfettered access to human and material resources. The physical and administrative control of people, resources and land was the side effect. And what if you could control the people the resources and land without being present? We would call that neo-colonisation. The cheapest form of unfreedom. And its side effects continue to be irreversible, because we are focus on curing the side effects, without paying much attention to the function – acquiring a cheap supply of labour and easy access to material resources. Without paying attention to what happens the day after. Without paying attention to the fact that the earth burns and we with it. Irorun igi ni irorun eye. Everywhere burns.
What happens to you today? What happens the day after you engage with stories from non-white backgrounds? What happens the day after you admit more POCs into your academic institution? What happens the day after you hire ‘diverse’ staff? What happens to them?
The difference between true freedom and mere justice, is that justice can be measured, quantified, diluted, distorted, fit into pre-determined standards. Freedom is infinite. Justice can be given. Freedom never can. Justice is often detached, dispassionate. Freedom cannot be. Justice is the earth. Freedom is the skies. May freedom be ours. A se. May we see freedom. Ise. May freedom come. One day.