The Emancipation Proclamation and the politics of self-liberation

Priyamvada Gopal writes: On a cold bright New Year’s Day 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln finally signed the document which underlies his controversial reputation as “the Great Emancipator”. Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not, in fact, result in the overnight liberation of millions of enslaved people, it enabled black men to fight on the Union side and has long been seen as a milestone in the unconscionably slow attainment by African-Americans of full citizenship, social equality and meaningful freedom.

On New Year’s Eve, many African-American congregations will have commemorated the “Watch Night” services of the last night of 1862 when many gathered in churches to “watch” for the long-awaited issuance of the proclamation – which will also be read out at anniversary ceremonies across the United States today. Long queues of people are waiting to see the original document on rare and brief display at the National Archives in Washington DC.

Given that the proclamation was a largely symbolic gesture based on a canny military calculus that transformed the civil war into a war ostensibly about supporting or abolishing slavery, and that it would be two more years before the 13th Amendment would legally prohibit enslavement, why commemorate it? Does it, moreover, have relevance beyond the borders of the US and for a different global moment a century and a half later? The answer is yes, if the occasion functions as an opportunity to evaluate history more honestly.

It is possible to acknowledge, as one abolitionist did, that the Emancipation Proclamation gave “liberty a moral recognition” if there is also an understanding that no liberation, whether from colonialism or slavery, takes place without the participation of those who are at the receiving end of oppression. The former slave and great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was both critical of and worked alongside Lincoln, famously reminded his fellow blacks that “power concedes nothing without a struggle”. Tyranny’s limits, he noted, “are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress”. [Continue reading…]

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