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Emancipate Yourselves from Mental Slavery

Note:  Jamaica Program Co-Director Mike Egan is auditing Paul Olsen’s African American Literature course in the spring of 2018.  This blog post represents Mike’s response to one of the prompts on the first exam of the term. 

English 237:  African American/Black Literature

Exam 1:  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Professor Paul Olsen

Mike Egan

March 28, 2018

Prompt 2:  There are many ways to enslave people.  How is this evident in Douglass’ autobiography?  You must be specific with references from the text, and be sure to narrow the scope of your discussion.


Douglass elaborates on many forms of slavery in his Narrative, including enslavement of the body, spirit, and mind.  Given my ongoing interest in formal education, I will focus on Douglass’ portrayal of mental slavery.  Douglass suggests that mental slavery is the strongest tool of the slave master:  it is the form of slavery that enables other forms to exist unchallenged, it is “to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man” (p. 20).  I contend that mental slavery is so strong that it continues to be felt today, and continues to bind the progeny of both the slaves and slave masters.

Bob Marley is a more recent artist who helps us see that mental slavery lingers into the present time.  Described as a poet and prophet by some (cue to 1:18), and as a reggae musician by all, Marley might be viewed as a reincarnated Douglass.   Marley’s musical medium allows him to convey Douglass’ insights in a qualitatively different and equally potent way.  As Douglass notes, “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears” p. 9.  Marley’s band was named The Wailers precisely for this reason:  the name reflected the musicians’ daily struggle for survival in the impoverished ghetto of Trench Town.  Their music was an expression of their grief, tears, and wails.  As Douglass testified, though, their music brought relief: as Marley sang in Trench Town Rock,  “One good thing about music: when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

I first encountered the concept of “mental slavery” in Marley’s “Redemption Song.”  Released in 1980, the lyrics implore: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”  Douglass’ Narrative elaborates on both the need to be emancipated from mental slavery, and the necessity to work through one’s emancipation independently.  The pressing need for mental liberation was revealed to Douglass when his master, Mr. Auld, expressly forbade the mistress of the home from teaching Douglass to read.  Mr. Auld elaborated on the risks of educating the slave, pointing out that it would make the slave uncontrollable, dissatisfied with his lot, and unfit for service (at best) or openly rebellious (at worst).  Mr. Auld’s admonishment was a life-changing revelation to Douglass.  He now saw that slaves’ ignorance was the lock that kept them trapped, and that learning and literacy would be the key.  He writes, “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (p. 20).  He also knew that he would not be assisted along this pathway.  Obviously, the mistress, Mrs. Auld, would no longer instruct him.  “Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher,” he writes, “I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read” (p. 20).

One might ask: why would Bob Marley sing of emancipation from mental slavery in 1980, nearly 150 years after slavery was abolished in Jamaica (and 117 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation)?  I have already claimed that mental slavery is so strong that its remnants are still apparent today.  Marley conveys how:

Today they say that we are free
Only to be chained in poverty
Good God, I think it’s illiteracy
It’s only a machine that makes money

– “Slave Driver

If the slave masters of Douglass’ time kept slaves in subjugation by keeping them ignorant, modern wielders of economic power similarly benefit from maintaining an undereducated underclass of laborers.  Karl Marx argued that a surplus of labor (put more bluntly as a constant stock of unemployed or under-employed people) is necessary for a capitalist economy to thrive.  Even a staunch defender of capitalism would acknowledge a need for a class of people to be available to work jobs that are undesirable in terms of both task and compensation.  In the modern-day capitalist societies of the United States and Jamaica, formal education level is very often the key determiner deciding who will belong to the underclass, chained in a cycle of poverty, and who will have the emotional and psychological freedom that economic security can provide.

Material poverty, therefore, might be viewed as a modern form of slavery, and education (or lack thereof) can be used as a tool to emancipate or enslave.  But mental slavery can affect the affluent as well, and, I believe, it can and does affect too many people of all walks of life in our modern society.  Douglass hints at the form of slavery I’m trying to describe:

I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one.  It is necessary to                       darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. p. 58.

Of course, Douglass is referencing the dehumanized, literal slaves of his day in this passage.  However, this particular passage seems like an eerie description of too many modern day Americans:  Americans of all races, classes, and creeds.  Americans who have learned to read, but choose to avoid books in favor of television.  Americans who prefer to embrace simple, hateful stereotypes of others rather than engage in the hard work of developing understanding and compassion.  Americans who consume “news” through the echo chamber of social media, and only believe the stories they want to believe, even if these stories are blatant lies (some written by foreign governments, some written by homegrown hate mongers, some written by pathetic pranksters) using PhotoShopped images as evidence.  To repeat, Douglass describes them well:  they are thoughtless, have a darkened moral and mental vision, and refuse to engage the hard work of reasoning.  Such people are easily controlled by demagogues, are easily converted to a religion of consumerism, are easily reduced to anesthetized sheep.

Perhaps this is the constant of the human condition:  that those in power oppress and enslave by keeping the masses of people mentally shackled and/or anesthetized.

Marley calls on all of us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, and challenges us to consider what our place is in this world.  Are we aligned with the “they” that oppress or the “we” that strive for justice?

I’ll never forget, no way, they crucified Jesus Christ

I’ll never forget, no way, they sold Marcus Garvey for rice

I’ll never forget, no way, they turned their backs on Paul Bogle

So don’t you forget, no way, just who you are and where you stand in the struggle

So Much Things To Say,” Bob Marley

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