In this reflection, Karen Campbell, United Reformed Church Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries, explains how we can learn from a group of slaves who rebelled against their oppressors.
Each year, 23 August has a special designation – it is the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1997.
The date marks the anniversary of a night in 1791 when men and women, torn from Africa and sold into slavery, revolted against the slave system in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to obtain freedom and independence. This uprising set forth events that eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade.
The International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition seeks to pay tribute to all those who fought for freedom, and to continue teaching about their story and their values. The success of the rebellion, led by the enslaved people themselves, is a source of inspiration for the fight against all forms of servitude, racism, prejudice, racial discrimination and social injustice – the continuing legacies of slavery today.
Although it may be unfamiliar to many of us, here in 2020 it feels more important than ever to mark this date. In light of recent world events – the killing of George Floyd and the Covid-19 pandemic, with their disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic peoples, the rise in focus on Black Lives Matter, the shift in thinking from “not racist” to “anti-racist” – many people agree that it feels we are poised on the edge of “something”. After years of struggle, could it be that we are poised on the edge of real change or, at least, the possibility for real change? There is something in the air. Black people and white people are uniting their voices to cry “enough is enough”, to insist that “it is not just time for change; the necessary change is way, way overdue!”
Of course, there are those voices who will push back. “What do you mean Black Lives Matter? ALL lives matter!” Absolutely, all lives should matter – but do they? Is that what is reflected in sentiments widely expressed about refugees and asylum seekers? In the default ways of thinking about Roma and Traveller communities? When we consider the picture relating to unemployment, or representation in the criminal justice system? When we look at the faces which dominate boardrooms and positions of power and decision-making, and those who are the recipients of the decisions which impact their lives?
Do the ways of the world, the UK, the URC, suggest that all lives matter – and matter equally?
Shaking the status quo is a risky business. It can make people feel uncomfortable, unsettled, even threatened. “The way things are” is all many of us have ever known. But while some of us are doing pretty well in the way things are, there are those who are struggling; those who have been made to struggle and left to struggle, because a value put on the colour of their skin is used to determine their value as human beings. It is past time for change! But change won’t “just happen”. We must make change happen. In 1791 the enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue knew that truth. They rose up and rebelled against the way things were; they dared to imagine a new way of being. Here in 2020, what about us?
The URC will soon make resources available to enable anti-racist conversations, reflection and action. Please also look out for online opportunities for discussion and learning. Together, let us rise up and bring about change.
Image: Hussain Badshah/Unsplash
Published: 20 August 2020