Ghana has been the torch bearer for the emancipation, not only for Africans but the black race as a whole. Thus, as she lights the flame today to commemorate sixty-six years on the independence path, it may well be time for the black race to look back on this trail Ghana blazed. What does independence or emancipation mean for Africa or even the black race as a whole?
In pondering over this question, a story told by Dr James Kwegyir Aggrey, one of Ghana’s pioneering global intellectuals comes to mind. Dr Aggrey told a powerful story of an eagle that had been domesticated for a long time, raised together with chickens. As a result this eagle never recognized his true identity, and with it, his potential to soar. A naturalist recognizing the true potential of the eagle tried to challenge him, by telling him who he really was, where he rightly belongs, high in the skies. The naturalist’s attempts met little success until one day, the eagle looked into the sun and took off, soaring, never to return to his captivity. Was that the eagle’s moment of true emancipation? If so, what does emancipation really mean?
I have other experiences that further illuminate the case at hand. I have often seen animals that once chained for a long time, do not realize when the chains have been removed, and would remain in their captivity, until someone goads them, and then they realize they are indeed free to run. What parallels exist between such animals and the eagle that would not fly?
It is surely a cliché that emancipation starts from the mind. After all, Bob Marley’s famous song about mental slavery is on many African minds. Except the mental slavery Bob Marley and many other Africanists see is not exactly what I am seeing. Also, the fine grains by which mindsets condemn generations to destitution has also been misconstrued. Is the black race really free or are we still in chains? If you look at the situation in Ghana currently, the trailblazer and the gateway to Africa, some will agree that there are still huge chains to be confronted. But what is the nature of these chains?
When Slavery Filters our Perceptions of reality
Many scholars share the view that the world we live in is constructed through the minds of individuals and groups. The world we see, is not an objective truth out there, rather it is a creation of our minds. What we see is that which we create, and what our minds create is what we see. The eagle having bee raised among chickens, developed a filter of chickens that constructs the world he saw. And so, the obvious wings that he possessed were meaningless to him. His chicken lens filtered his world view and constructed a reality that defined him as chicken. And as his mind constructs the world, so was truly his world: of privation and limitation, living and feeding with chickens where he could have instead soared to endless opportunities.
In a certain sense, this has been the story of Africa and the black race. Having suffered colonialism and slavery for long, these experiences have come to define us, our psyche and world view. We construct our reality through the lens of slavery. Like the animals that would not run even when their chains are broken, we often forget that we were born free, imbued with endless potential and opportunity by God. We forget that our lives predate slavery and must outlive slavery. So, everywhere, even when lush pathways of freedom stare us in the face, we choose to dwell on the chains that bound us.
Make no mistake! I am not naïve, to overlook the real structural challenges that confront Africans and the black race. However, too much has been invested by Africanist scholars and activists theorizing the chains rather than the opportunities. In effect, these theories are reconstructing these chains and reifying our slavery. The mentality that tells the animal that its nonexistent physical chains are still there, is as powerful as the physical chains because they have the same effect, of keeping him in one place. A lot of people of African descent would grow hearing about the strong structural features of colonialism and slavery and their powerful effects on the destiny of people of African descent. Slavery has filtered our mindset and constructed our world for us. And as was the case of the eagle, so too is it for the black race. Many Africans have accepted their fate as enslaved people, and this kills the motivation to soar like eagles. Who can soar in shackles? And so, our imagined mental world becomes our real world.
When Slavery Becomes a Comfort Zone
I had engaged some African American doctoral students recently on the challenges of the black race. They highlighted the difficult background that make it almost impossible for black people to climb up the social ladder in American society. “How then have you come this far ?” I asked them. “Because we had to take huge student loans”, they answered me. Later on, I sat down with one of them, a very close friend to audit our lives. “Well, if student loan could take you this far, then students loan represents a huge opportunity for emancipation, doesn’t it?”, I asked. “But it has landed in me in a huge mess too, and I don’t know how I can ever get out of this”, they said.
I told them that if they see the student loan as an opportunity that has lifted them from poverty and gifted them a chance to climb up the social ladder (after all, they secured jobs that would earn them six digit salaries), then they would adopt responsible lifestyles that would enable them pay the loans with their six digit salaries and still achieve many things in their lives. I am not in any way trivializing the real challenges that people of African descent like me face in everyday life. However, when we sat down to audit our lives, my friend realizes many things that were wrong with their thinking. Rather than live frugally and pay off their debts, they told me that many of them would indulge in expensive lifestyles that make them pile much more debts in addition to their student loans, thus making their huge salaries meaningless and financial freedom elusive. This starts a cycle that become very difficult to break. Best of or all, (in actual fact worst of all), they have a ready excuse for any future meltdown they would face: they had faced slavery! Sound familiar?
Even as I write, Ghana’s president is probably lighting up the emancipation flame at the Black Star Square. Almost at the same time, government officials are working hard to cajole IMF to hand down the loans that would save the economy. While that is going on, Africanist -Marxist scholars are rehashing the theories that would whitewash our governments of responsibility and heap the blame on “Bretton Woods” which alone are responsible for Africa’s economic maladies. This has very often been Africa’s story.
Colonialism and slavery have provided ready excuses, a comfortable zone for mediocrity and dereliction of duty. Chronic economic mismanagement, corruption, cronyism, nepotism, tribalism and all sorts of self-destructive behaviors vanish at the mention of colonialism and slavery. This comfort zone is reminiscent of an eagle that is comfortable with chicken feed and therefore would not soar. So, a cycle of destructive cultures can thrive and become new chains that hold the black race back. Apart from the comfort zone these chains provide, they also define our lives in binary terms, as oppositional to some ubiquitous chains, thereby prohibiting a limitless conception of the black person and the boundless world they inhabit.
Emancipation is a call to responsibility
When the eagle finally decided to fly, he faced new responsibilities. First, because no eagle can fly without flapping their wings, flapping the wings becomes a responsibility. This is a symbol of self-efficacy. This self-efficacy is not possible if the eagle does not take full responsibility for his life; if he waits for his captor to help him flap his wings. On the contrary, the captor would be happy to see the eagle remain his captive. As people of African descent, we must similarly assume responsibility for our destinies and take steps to achieve self-efficacy by eradicating self-destructive cultures that overpower us.
A first step in this regard is to rediscover our true identities as truly free people with potentials to soar like eagles. This I am afraid, would not happen if we invest all our time and resources theorizing about our chains, rather than our freedoms. We must be brave enough to embrace the responsibilities that freedom brings, rather than hide in the comfort of slavery.
Again, this does not discount the real structural forces that our forebears confronted and defeated. Indeed, on Ghana’s Independence Day, I salute our forefathers who gave everything to confront the structures of colonialism, slavery and subjugation of people of African descent. Without their efforts we would not be here, to even dream of tomorrow. However, societies have epochs, and great men define epochs.
When Ghana’s president lights the flames of emancipation today, people of African descent would bring back to life epochs of yesteryear when our brave forefathers confronted the injustices of their time. But if the toils of our forefathers would be meaningful, if we truly believe in what they did for us, then it is time to usher in a new epoch, when people of African descent truly embrace the freedom they claim, as well as the responsibilities that come with those freedoms. Only then can we become the eagles that would fly.
God bless Ghana and the Black race.
Note: The writer Prosper Kofi Senyo is a doctoral student in Information and Media at Michigan State University. You can write to him at [email protected]. You can also follow him on twitter @ProsperSenyo.