Jun 24 2020


The recent protests in the US related to the death of African American George Floyd due to police brutality have spread to the UK and France, touching the raw nerve of race relations. The protests have reawakened the legacy of slavery, abolished at the end of the 19th century. Yet, even after eight generations, black communities in these countries are still seen through the prism of slavery. The phrases used in the aftermath of the killing of Floyd in the US are not of anger but pain `We are tired` Slavery existed in every nation African. European. Asian.

The vast majority of slaves were captives taken during wars and included all races. Most nations assimilated descendants of slaves as equal citizens. The slaves of the Ottomans were trained as soldiers and statesmen, many attaining high positions as generals or managing the administration of the empire. Mulla Ali, an Abyssinian slave, became the Chief Judge and the first black man in the Ottoman imperial council, even writing an influential book challenging prejudice against dark skinned people. A French ambassador described him as the person who truly ran the empire.

The slaves of the harem were purchased, but those who become mothers of sultans were given the respected title of `Valide Sultan The Mamluks, a title given to those whose origins were in slavery, founded their own dynasties in Egypt, Syria and India. The Mamluk decorative arts and architecture were renowned.

History has many famous personalities who were once slaves for instance. Aesop whose fables brought him fame. St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland and Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and who was the son of a slave. The most renowned slave in Islam was Hazrat Bilal, who was given the honour of reciting the first call to prayer.

However, the existence of the vast majority of slaves was one of humiliation, misery, cruel servitude and dehumanisation. It was thesongs spiritual songs and later blues personal letters, poetry and art that stood witness to the emotional toll. Slaves were meant to smile and not show their emotions as expressed in the poem We Wear a Mask` by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

J.M.W. Turner`s painting`The Slave Ship` was exhibited at the Royal Academy while the World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London, and in 1877, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It moved many with its depiction of the horrors faced at sea by slaves transported to America, and is believed to have contributed to the ban on slavery.

Abraham Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom`s Cabin, by saying,`So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.

The ceramist Josiah Wedgewood, an anti-slavery activist, produced medallions with the words, `Am I not a Man and a Brother?` that were worn by abolitionists. Billie Holliday`s song Strange Fruit, Maya Angelou`s poem Caged Bird and Alex Haley`s book Roots gave a voice to the suffering of African Americans. Bob Marley said,`AII I ever had is songs of freedom.

Today, protesters use posters.

T shirts and murals. A few days ago. Banksy contributed a new graffiti. Pakistani truck artist Haider painted a portrait of Floyd.

Statues of `slavers` or racists havebecome symbols to be pulled down in the UK and the US.

Legislation to end slavery has spanned a millennium, but slavery lives on in bonded labour, human trafficking and the mining communities of Africa. Living with domestic abuse is a form of psychological slavery. In Pakistan, people feel powerless to protest against excesses of law enforcers, landlords and the politically powerful.

As US Reverend AISharpton said. `The reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being, is you kept your knee on our neck.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: