“I Can’t Breathe”: A History of Slavery, Humiliation and Unprecedented Rebellion (V.L.Ssali)
Updated: Aug 31
JSAS Newsletter: We deliver a wide range of information and opinions related to the activities of the JSAS directly to the members and friends. This is the first of the series.
The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has had tremendous effects across the world. Many commentators have linked Georgy Floyd’s death, and the death of many African Americans before him, to the dark history of slavery, racism, inequality and police brutality. Indeed, one of the best social media commentaries I have seen on the events that are taking place across the US, and the world at large, has likened the trend of oppression, humiliation, protests and more humiliation, to the story of Moses and the enslaved Jews in Egypt (Exodus 1). The commentary, from an anonymous source on the very unofficial and usually unsolicited Facebook-owned messaging app, WhatsApp, captured my interest with its rendition of this famous biblical episode.
The book of Exodus, the second in the Old Testament of the Bible, describes the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Chapter 1 particularly describes the suppression and persecution of the Israelites. This story in the Book of Exodus reminds us how the Egyptian Pharaoh becomes concerned and fearful that the Hebrew slaves were growing in number and in power. But the Pharaoh wanted to maintain their oppression – their slavery. So, he put upon them more cruelty and harder labour. He wanted to keep them down to where they belong – slavery. But things did not change his way. The Hebrew slaves continued to grow in numbers and in power and influence. He ordered all Egyptian midwives to kill any new-born Hebrew boy. The midwives did not all follow his orders to the book, and the Hebrew family continued to grow. The Pharaoh’s hatred grew even more, and this time he ordered that all Hebrew baby boys must be cast into the Nile River. The rest is now biblical history. Call it a history of faith, if you want.
The tragedy of race relations in the United States is that for long much of American society has consciously or unconsciously taken the primordialist view of ethnic identities: that “ethnic identities are singular, fixed and exogenous to human processes” (Chandra, K. 2012, Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics, Oxford UP, p 136). For them, there will always be black and white differences, which are viewed as a pre-determined weapon in the pursuit of collective advantage, to the effect that ethnic tensions cannot be helped anyway! So, even though the constitution states that all men are created equal, the primordial view that ethnic differences are a historical given resulted in the lynching of African Americans as well as many other racially motivated sins against them. Lynching was a long time ago, and many decades have intervened; decades of the Civil Rights Movement, the single force that has defined modern American life more than any other. And not the whole of white America has conspired over those long decades to fight and resist this movement. White heroes such as the two assassinated Kennedys stood firmly in the footsteps of Lincoln and all the Unionist generals of centuries ago, but somehow, they lost, or at least they seem to have lost, to a system that was determined to keep the blacks down.
The above account may sound like it is solely an American story, but seeing what is going on, I can’t help thinking that its influence has gone beyond the American borders. This whole saga now reminds me of the anger I have always felt, both in my own country, or while traveling abroad. There is the sense that the world has learned from this dark American history, which draws such powerful parallels to the Pharaonic stories, that the white man is superior, and the black man must be treated with contempt. It is a lesson that must be qualified though. It is not a lesson that has been learned by each and every non-African, non-black citizen of the world. It is, in the irony of ironies, however, a lesson that too often seems to have been learned even by Africans themselves. Many times, we are treated as foreigners in our own countries.
Yet, growing up, I never saw hatred against our white brothers and sisters, who were many in my own world as missionaries and teachers. We knew the history of colonialism to a good extent, but that is what it was: part of our broader history. I never thought then that anybody could and should rise up and destroy statues of historical figures such as Christopher Columbus. In some countries there are roads, buildings and natural features still named after historical, colonial figures. I don’t think they should be changed. I do, however, understand the anger on the streets of America and Europe. For folks who live every day in the midst of suppression and humiliation, they are saying enough is enough; for in spite of the evidently dark inhumane history of slavery, there is abstinence, and refusal to heed, acknowledge and change. That the death of George Floyd would give new life to the Black Lives Matter movement, was a given too.
A Me-Too Moment
Events such as the George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” moment were bound one day to trigger an uprising and demands for change in a value system of equality that people, not only in the US but also in businesses, places of employment, restaurants and international airports the world over, have learned to think it includes some and excludes others. Where and how will it all end? We don’t know. One thing is clear, the world, the workplace, the social space, and above all, the policing streets of America and many other parts of the world, will never be the same.
There is a new movement being born, and with it an unprecedented empowerment of not only black people around the US, but also many other minority groups around the world, who can now rise up and say, “enough is enough.” Indeed, one can assert with confidence that it could not have been a coincidence that Black Lives Matter and its high moments that are shaping our society to the core has become a contemporary of the worldwide movement that became known by its hashtag handle: #MeToo. What both movements have in common, as Eva Illouz (https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-the-key-issue-black-lives-matter-and-metoo-have-in-common-1.8949081) has noted, is that “Black people and women have been subject to the domination of their bodies by others … members of both (groups) are the regular and almost routine objects of physical violence and assault. It is here that the affinity is the most profound.” From the analogy of Jewish slavery in Egypt through the slave trade to George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” cries, it is the same story of bodies being dominated, and ultimately souls and spirits being suffocated and devastated.
And from here, where do we go with the two movements? Just as numerous women have come out to tell stories of being sexually harassed and/or abused, many people – and certainly this is not just a black man’s predicament – will now come out and publicize their moments of being suppressed, knees on their necks, simply because of their race and colour of their skin. An international movement for justice for marginalised peoples is being born. It is necessary, so that single, isolated instances and narratives will now be listened to and accepted as part of a centuries-old pattern. They are not assumptions. They are patterns, and it’s only when they go out of hand, like in the case of George Floyd, that the world notices. By then it may be too late.