Barbados celebrated another Emancipation Day yesterday, 184 years after the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect on August 1, 1834.
Emancipation meant freedom from slavery, at least the physical shackles that enchained human beings because of their skin colour. Despite slavery having being abolished, these newly ‘freed’ men and women still had to work without pay for another four years in what was considered the ‘apprenticeship’ period. ‘True’ freedom didn’t come until 1838 when the ‘apprenticeship’ period ended and working without pay became illegal. But even in 1838, slavery with physical shackles was replaced with a different kind of slavery, being shackled by circumstances. Former slaves had no option but to continue working for their old masters for very low wages.
That struggle lasted many decades and arguably continues to this day with economic inequalities still present in our society. The struggle for and the attainment of political independence has helped improve circumstances for many but the attainment of economic justice and equality is still a work in progress.
Former slave owners were compensated for the abolition of slavery and the abundant wealth created by slavery remained in the hands of subsequent generations of slave owners. This furthered the economic disenfranchisement of the former slaves and their generations to come.
The profound impact of the horrors of slavery and the continued financial and emotional subjugation of former slaves after Emancipation left a permanent scar on the progeny of that oppressed generation.
Some argue that after 180 years of being freed from slavery and forced labour, we should look beyond the past and not apportion blame anymore. Emancipation Day for them is simply a commemoration of a time that has long passed.
As we commemorate Emancipation Day, I want to reflect on a controversial perspective that some scientists are exploring regarding the effects of severe trauma on the genes of humans and the passing on of those genes. While the findings have been challenged by other scientists (which is common in the scientific world), it is interesting that such a perspective exists and can be proven (even with some doubt). Perhaps such research will further strengthen the case for reparations.
An article published in the Guardian in 2015 revealed that in a study of holocaust survivors, trauma was passed onto children’s genes.
“[The] new finding is [a] clear example in humans of the theory of epigenetic inheritance: the idea that environmental factors can affect the genes of your children. Genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children, the clearest sign yet that one person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations.
“The conclusion from a research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital led by Rachel Yehuda stems from the genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who were forced to hide during the second world war.
“They also analyzed the genes of their children, who are known to have an increased likelihood of stress disorders, and compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war.”
“The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Yehuda.
“Her team’s work is the clearest example in humans of the transmission of trauma to a child via what is called “epigenetic inheritance” – the idea that environmental influences such as smoking, diet and stress can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren.
“The idea is controversial, as scientific convention states that genes in DNA are the only way to transmit biological information between generations. However, our genes are modified by the environment all the time, through chemical tags that attach themselves to our DNA, switching genes on and off. Recent studies suggest that some of these tags might somehow be passed through generations, meaning our environment could [impact] our children’s health.”
“The team was specifically interested in one region of a gene associated with [regulating] stress hormones, which is known to be affected by trauma. If there’s a transmitted effect of trauma, it would be in a stress-related gene that shapes the way we cope with our environment,” said Yehuda.
“They found epigenetic tags on the very same part of this gene in both the Holocaust survivors and their offspring; the same correlation was not found in any of the control group and their children. Through further genetic analysis, the team ruled out the possibility that the epigenetic changes were a result of trauma that the children had experienced themselves.”
These research findings may sound far-fetched for many but understanding the tremendous impact slavery had on those directly affected and their succeeding generations makes it worthwhile to consider all possibilities.
With freedom comes responsibility. If we cannot grasp the responsibility associated with our freedoms and if the DNA make-up is scarred by previous horrendous assaults, physically and psychologically, of our enslaved forefathers then the challenges confronting us will continue.
We have to start correcting the lived daily experiences of most of our people to effect a positive and lasting change in the next generations. True emancipation must mean that we are all collectively free of whatever shackles bind us. We all know the popular refrain “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”. If mentally we are shackled, perhaps that can also be passed on in our genes.
On this Emancipation Day 2018 let us reflect on the issues our society is grappling with and the many viable solutions available to help resolve them. A collective resolve similar to the one that brought a new government into power last May is required. This resolve can help address the ongoing issues of endemic poverty, economic disenfranchisement and the resulting deviant, violent and anti-social behaviour that threatens to undermine our society.
Change must start with every one of us and God will only change a condition of a people if they change themselves first. Real emancipation for ourselves and our future generations continues to depend on us, individually and collectively.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)