I couldn’t help but think of Josiah Wedgwood’s famous antislavery medallion of the chained slave on ended knee, begging in supplication, “Am I not a man and a brother?” The medallion had enjoyed such popularity that is became the favored icon of the abolition movement and was worn as a brooch or hairpin by women of fashion in the 1780s and 90s. But the bid for emancipation reproduced the abject position of the slave. And the pleading and praying for relief before the bar struck me in exactly the same way - it was an act of state worship. I didn’t want to get down on my knees as a precondition to arriving at freedom. I didn’t want to plead my case, “Yes, I have suffered too.” I didn’t want to display my scars… .
Needing to make the case that we have suffered and that slavery, segregation, and racism have had a devastating effect on black life is the contemporary analogue to the defeated posture of Wedgwood’s pet Negro. The apologetic density of the plea for recognition is staggering. It assumes both the ignorance and the innocence of the white world. If only they knew the truth, they would act otherwise. I am reminded of the letter that James Baldwin wrote his nephew on the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclimation. “The crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” he wrote, “and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it … It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
To believe, as I do, that the enslaved are our contemporaries is to understand that we share their aspirations and defeats, which isn’t to say that we are owed what they were due but rather to acknowledge that they accompany our every effort to fight against domination, to abolish the color line, and to imagine a free territory, a new commons. It is to take to heart their knowledge of freedom. The enslaved knew that freedom had to be taken; it was not the kind of thing that could ever be given to you. The kind of freedom that could be given to you could just as easily be taken back. Freedom is the kind of thing that required you to leave your bones on the hills at Brimsbay, or to burn the cane fields, or to live in a garret for seven years, or to stage a general strike, or to create a new republic. It is won and lost, again and again. It is a glimpse of possibility, an opening, a solidification without any guarantee of duration before it flickers and then is extinguished.
- Saidiya Hartman, “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Across the Atlantic,” p. 167-170