Message from Rev. Dr. Anthony Bailey
Emancipation Day Finally Officially Recognized by Canada
This past March 24 2021, members of the Canadian Parliament voted unanimously to legislate that Emancipation Day would be celebrated on August 1st across Canada. Ontario is the only province in Canada that has passed legislation proclaiming August 1 as Emancipation Day. The motion was introduced by Majid Jowhari, Liberal MP for Richmond Hill. It was reported that the motion was unanimous with all 335 votes in favour. This year will mark the 187th year since the Parliament of Britain abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1834.
I was heartened to hear the acknowledgement from Bardish Chagger – Minister of Diversity and Inclusion – regarding the generational harm experienced by Indigenous Peoples and people of African de-scent, caused by the scourge of enslavement. She wrote:
“Recognizing Emancipation Day at the federal level is a step forward in acknowledging the multi-generational harms caused by slavery and recognizing the heritage of people of African descent in Canada and the many contributions they have made and continue to make.”
As far as I am concerned…it is about time.
As well, the Public Service Alliance of Canada put out a statement saying: “Emancipation Day also marks the end of the enslavement of Indigenous peoples, who represented two-thirds of Canada’s enslaved population until 1750. French colonies relied heavily on Indigenous slaves to harvest food, build the trading economy and to survive Canada’s harsh climate. After British settlers established Upper Canada, the number of Black slaves increased significantly and eventually outnumbered Indigenous slaves.”
This acknowledgement of Emancipation Day is important, but it has to be backed up with funding, policies and practices that promote emancipatory justice and education. In our biblical and Christian traditions, God’s emancipatory engagement is on display for all to experience. Some of the African-American spirituals put voice to this emancipatory commitment of God.
When Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go!
Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell ole Pharoah to
Let my people go!
(this is addressed to ‘Phar0ahs’ of every generation)
These kind of spirituals draw on a thread that may be seen to be woven throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The call for jus-tice, and the protection of the vulnerable and those without money, who still need the necessities of life, are priorities for God. In the book of Isaiah, God invites all who are thirsty and who have no money, to nonetheless come and delight in the bounty of God; material and spiritual sustenance. Jesus came preaching repentance as well as good news for the poor, and freedom for the imprisoned and the op-pressed. (Luke 4)
This seems too good to be true; but there is more. The Psalmist testifies in Psalm 146: 7-9 that:
God upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
Well these are tremendously powerful and inspiring words and commitments…but can we trust them?
Upholding the cause of the oppressed?… how credible are these words to the oppressed peoples around the world. We think for in-stance of the religious minority called Uighurs in China, as well as the millions of children, women and men who are forced to work and live under harsh conditions and oppressive regimes?
Setting prisoners free…what about all those in our own country and around the world wrongfully accused and imprisoned because of criminal justice systems that do not treat all citizens equally or justly?
“gives sight to the blind”… what about those who remain unsighted, as well as those who refused to see? … and what about “watching over the foreigner”, and “sustaining orphans and widows”? As followers of Jesus, I believe that through the life, teaching, commandments and example of Jesus, God deputizes us to enact all these commitments of God, through the power of the Spirit.
In light of the emancipatory commitment of God to humankind and to creation, the invention of the construct of “race” by European philosophers like Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and others, was an arrogant and despicable affront to the image of God found in all humans. It was the acceptance of this ranking of humans in a hierarchy of worth that spawned “racism”, authorizing the extensive enslavement of Black and Indigenous peoples. Famed philosopher Immanuel Kant proclaimed that “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites. The yellow Indian do have a meagre talent. The Negroes are far be-low…at the lowest point.”
Emboldened by this ‘racist’ mindset and the spectre of financial gain, British slave trading took off in the late sixteenth century, and accelerated through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. British slave-traders were carrying almost 40,000 enslaved women, men and children from Africa to the New World every single year, yet there was no public outcry. By 1807, it is estimated that three million enslaved Africans had been transported to the Americas and Caribbean on British ships.
It is essential to note and celebrate that the narrative of people of African descent is not only about enslavement and racism. There is a long and rich and defiant and thriving heritage that existed before transatlantic enslavement. African descended peoples defiantly persisted in the time of enslavement, and continue to this day even in the face of anti-Black racism and systemic racism. Let us remember:
Afonzo – the King of Congo – who actively resisted the slave trade; his people had been practicing Christianity 100 years before enslavement.
There was Hatshepsut– first female ruler of ancient Egypt to reign as a male with the full authority of pharaoh. She was so revered that her body was buried in the Valley of the Kings (normally reserved for male Kings only)
Mansa Musa, King of Mali 14th century –considered to be the wealthiest person in history (Forbes)
Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of Angola. Demonstrated bravery, military strategy and diplomatic acumen exemplified by one of the greatest warrior queens in African history –
Queen Makeda, a black Ethiopian…more commonly known through the Bible as Queen of Sheba…midrash suggests she became one of King Solomon’s many wives and bore a son, Menelik I, who would become the first Emperor of Ethiopia
Samori Touré was a brilliant warrior with an intense love for his people and his country Guinea. Feared by the French he was dubbed the Black Napoleon
Shaka Zulu – United southern Africa to fight against colonial rule
It should also be noted that many of the extraordinary ‘firsts’ were accomplished by a spectrum of African Black peoples: first written records, first significant architecture, first use of raised beds, table and chairs, first copper mines, including the first systematic removal of metals from the earth, and the construction of the pyramids. As well, many of the things we use and take for granted today were invented by Black peoples: stethoscope, ironing board, Almanac, bicycle frame, blood plasma bag, baby buggy, automatic gearshift, fire extinguisher, spark plug, traffic light, electric lamp bulb, elevator door system, and so many more.
Notwithstanding all of this storied heritage and contribution to humanity, the false doctrine of “race” and “racism” gained prominence. Most shamefully, the enslavement and trading of Black bodies was supported by a majority of Christians, some of whom quoted the Scripture text from Ephesians 6:5 as justification: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” But Paul also wrote in Galatians that in Christ…there is no slave or free for all are one in Christ. We have contrasting…even seemingly contradictory teaching.
The trading of enslaved Africans was occasionally denounced by Chris-tians. Richard Baxter, a preacher and early abolitionist, declared that slave-traders were ‘fitter to be called devils than Christians’, and the Puritan Samuel Sewall published America’s first antislavery tract called The Selling of Joseph (1700).
However, the truth is that most Christians in the early eighteenth century accepted slavery as a fact of life. Even the renowned evangelist George Whitefield, who though he deplored the cruelty of slave-owners in the American South, did not condemn slavery itself – in fact, he owned over fifty enslaved people in Georgia.
The Anglican Evangelical John Newton – known for writing the iconic hymn Amazing Grace – was converted while captaining a slave ship in the 1750s, but he did not speak out against the trade until three decades later.
And shockingly, The Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts owned many enslaved people in the Caribbean. The word ‘SOCIETY’ was branded on their chests with a red-hot iron to identify them as property of the SPG.
My family and I are descendants of the Caribbean enslaving enterprise. It is believed that my ancestry derives from the 150 acre Bayley plantation in the Barbados parish of St. Philip. The spelling “Bailey” was a variation.
It was not until the mid-18th century that the Christian Abolitionists movement begun, particularly among the Quakers. The British Abolition Committee was established in 1787, leading to abolitionism growing into a mass movement. In 1788–92, an aggressive petitioning campaign intentionally coincided with William Wilberforce’s Parliamentary bills.
In addition to William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano a former enslaved Black man, joined with Wilberforce and others to bring pressure on the British debate for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Equiano used his wealth and experience of slavery to campaign and persuade others to abolish the inhumane trade in African people. In so doing, he helped influenced British parliament to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
It has been a long, bloody, courageous, faith-supported journey to this official announcement by the Liberal government. I pray that God may help us use this declaration to privilege God’s love, systemic justice, emancipation and reconciliation for all people, made in the image of God.