Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Walking off from slavery by slipping invisible handcuffs

Three women enslaved for more than thirty years have just been freed in London.

Yes. That’s right. In London. In 2013.

Curiously, they weren’t kept shackled. They did go out. They even had mobile phones. But somehow they couldn’t bring themselves to make the break, despite – unless perhaps it was because of – their physical ill treatment.

One of the most striking phrases used in connection with this case came from Commander Steve Rodhouse, in charge of the police investigation: he wants to understand the ‘invisible handcuffs’ that were used on the captives. 

Invisible handcuffs. Yes, that’s a concept worth understanding, if only because I’m sure it was such handcuffs – emotional, psychological, built on oppression and fear – that were just as effective as whips and chains in holding slaves in place in the days when slavery, open and legal, was an institution in Western countries.

As they are bound to be still today, when though hidden and illegal, slavery remains as powerfully as ever: according to the Guardian, Kevin Bales, who leads work on the global slavery index, calculates that there are 29.8 million slaves today, well over twice the 12.5 million or so who were transported from Africa to America when the slave trade was lawful.

Interestingly, the slavery index is published by an organisation known as the Walk Free foundation. I find that interesting because the three women ended their captivity after contacting the Freedom charity, which in time was able to win their trust to the point that they left the house where they had been held. In other words, in the event, they walked to freedom.

And that’s even more interesting because a long time before them someone else described her experience in much the same terms. The state of New York abolished slavery in 1827, but one slave had been promised her freedom a year earlier. When her master changed his mind, Sojourner Truth, to give the name she took for herself in 1843, in preference to her slave name, quietly finished her work for him, and then left with her youngest daughter. Walking.

‘I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.’

Sojourner Truth. Who walked to freedom
When all slaves in New York were made free, she discovered that a son of hers had been illegally sold to a slaveowner in Alabama. She took the owner to court, and set judicial history by becoming the first Black to win a case against a White in the US.

She became a leading figure in the Abolitionist movement. But she decided that it wasn’t enough to campaign for the freedom of slaves. She threw herself life and soul into campaigning for equal rights for Blacks too and for Women.

Having walked to freedom, having shaken off a set of invisible handcuffs that bound her to a master, she spent the rest of her life working to persuade us all to shed a great many more such shackles – whether we apply them or wear them ourselves.

What’s more, she did that with great humanity and self-deprecation. Rising, exhausted, to address one particular rally, she started with the words:

‘Children, I have come here like the rest of you, to hear what I have to say.’ 

Oh, boy, I wish I could claim I’d never risen to speak to an audience unclear as to what I was going to say. But I’ve found myself far too often in Sojourner Truth’s position.

Now there is much that I could not accept about this woman, not least her embracing of Seventh Day Adventism, but her courage and tenacity are admirable indeed. So I felt that today, the 130th anniversary of her death, was a good moment to celebrate her qualities. Especially at a time when Britain is trying to understand how, so long afterwards, three women could just have been released from slavery themselves.

She showed that invisible handcuffs can be slipped. There are a lot of people still in them, and not just the slaves. I watch our fellow citizens, in societies as free and democratic as they appear to be, again and again choosing to be ruled by those who ensure that they never accede to their rights. Each time someone on the wrong end of privilege puts a cross on a ballot paper by the name of a candidate working to keep the privileged in power, don’t we see invisible handcuffs at work again?

On Sojourner Truth day, let’s all remind ourselves – and each other – that it doesn’t have to be that way.


Anonymous said...

wsTokd506I love that woman who came "to hear what she had to say." As a writer I'm sure you too sit at your laptop, impatient to see what you were about to write. By the way how's the novel progressing?


David Beeson said...

I usually know what I'm going to write about, though as you say I generally have only a sketchy Idea what I'm going to say.

The first publication exercise (self-published, on Amazon) is a collection of posts, now being given a final edit by a friend. I'll follow that with 'Good Company' in a few months and I'm currently editing 'End of the Road' – so two novels not just one... Watch this space.

Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

Wonderful post on Sojourner Truth. Too bad someone on your side of the pond has to write it. There should be plenty of us here (like me) to recognize the woman's life.

David Beeson said...

I won't lie - it was @Marcie_Hill, very much on your side of the Atlantic, from whom I heard first heard about Truth (that's Truth, not the truth, you understand).