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Navigating Emancipation 101

Monday, May 21, 2018

Ian Isidore Smart’s Emancipation 101 can be read—with breaks for fresh air and the real world—in a single morning (or evening) session. That, more than one speaker suggested at the launch of the book, is among its more positive qualities as a starter text. This however also points to several important weaknesses.

If, as Howard University Spanish professor Smart says, an academic course on the freeing of African slaves in the Caribbean were to be introduced, it would most likely be called Emancipation 101. And the basic text, he surmises could fittingly be given the same name.

To make the case for an introductory, highly accessible but authoritative text is however not the same as suggesting that important historical nuances can be compressed into bite-sized portions for convenient, uncritical consumption.

Smart pursues the latter without confronting the former.

The problem with this publication in fact resides in this sense of convenience. “It is convenient,” he himself suggests in his introductory statement, “to divide the eight billion of us who inhabit the planet into three ‘races’: Africans, Asiatics and Europeans.”

Though it might be true that many anthropologists still subscribe to this ethnographic division, there has arisen cause for further elaboration over the many years, in addition to a more recent focus on the question of “ethnicity”—a subject not addressed in any serious way in this publication.

Smart skips such a challenge even though in the first few pages of the book he references a monolithic “European ethnocentrism”—without explaining how he got there. Something of the sort however, appears at the end when he says “white supremacy” proclaims the cultural unity of Europe.

This kind of shortcoming has the potential to reduce many contentions to dogma and broad instruction to narrow polemic and sloganeering. Consider this statement, for example: “Since the poison of white supremacy has not hurt Asians and Africans in exactly the same way, the best Asian response to the evil of white supremacy will come from the Asian humanist; and, correspondingly, the best African response to the evil of mental slavery will come from an African humanist.”

None of this is to suggest a lack of value, however. Emancipation 101 is an enjoyable read, but an absence of rigour in too many instances helps offer up far more questions than the text purports to answer.

For example, drawing heavily from Senegalese scientist/historian Cheikh Anta Diop’s Civilisation or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology there is the (admittedly highly supportable) claim that the social and cultural achievements of ancient Egyptians—descendants of black Africans—greatly influenced Greek and Roman development.

Yet, there is no mention of Egyptian archaeologist Gamal Mokhtar’s well-informed and controversial rebuttal of Diop’s claims, especially as it disputes the supposed homogeneity of “black” ancient Egyptian society.

It might be that Diop offered a hypothesis widely accepted by independent, otherwise sceptical minds, but should not a pedagogical approach to the subject not be stimulated by informed, contending ideas?

A chapter on Carnival offers some insights into Smart’s general drift. There is the suggestion that Europeans of French extract and East Indians “have added to the festival and helped make it what it is today” but that “more than any ‘race’, Africans have been associated with Carnival.”

In any event, he later on says “even though civilisation was invented in Africa, it clearly belongs to all human beings.”

“The same thing,” Smart argues, “can be said of Carnival to some extent.” This chapter however goes on to provide some interesting background on Carnivals in Latin America where, he says, Africans have become increasingly marginalised from the festivities.

Chapter Three spends time on Smart’s academic forte as a linguist with a look at language. This section could have been a valuable standalone tutorial on language versus dialect and the difference between creole and pidgin language.

This is no preparation for Chapter Four which focuses on the Orisha Roots of Trinbagonian Culture and rather curiously begins with an admonition to people of mixed heritage but who “to all appearances (are) Black.”

“I am mixed,” they declare. “I have French, Spanish, Portuguese, Scottish, some Chinese and some Indian and African in me.” As far as Smart is concerned such a declaration provides proof that “white supremacy wants to have it both ways, wants to eat its cake and have it.”

To establish such divides, he argues are “fabricated by white supremacy— separating so-called ‘sub-Saharan’ Africa from North Africa.”

This closing chapter of the book is the toughest read of all. In his postscript though, Smart denies ownership of immovable doctrine—“It would seem that those who are in a rush to assume that the knowledge they have acquired is the truth have not even stopped to ask the fundamental question, what is truth?”

“I did not write this book to bring the ‘Truth’ to the world,” he concludes. “That is not my calling.”

That’s comforting to know.


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