by Anika Michel
In March, Anne Bailey was among the speakers at a United Nations event that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I felt surprised when I was asked to speak,” says Bailey, associate professor of history and Africana studies. “I think a lot of the work that we do in the area of African Diaspora studies often requires working in an archive somewhere writing away. So it’s always interesting and wonderful to be able to have a communication with the public.”
Bailey says that the occasion for which she spoke is “completely important to the public.”
“The 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is not just something to be celebrated for African Americans, it’s something to celebrate nationally and globally,” Bailey says. “It’s an amazing achievement. It was fought for by African-American slaves, as well as white and black free men, and women, of conscience. So it was very special to be able to honor those efforts.”
For Bailey, the hardest part of preparing what she was going to say was trying to keep her speech to a time limit.
“At the U.N., you’re given about 7 to 10 minutes to speak,” Bailey says. “So I had a lot of peeling away to do. I had to really think about what were the most important things to share, what were the take-aways that I wanted them to have. For me, I wanted the voices of those who were enslaved to be prominent in my talk.”
For Bailey, it was important to convey that the slaves were real people beyond the statistics that represent them.
“They had been victimized but they weren’t victims, in a sense that they were very active in struggling for their own freedom,” Bailey says.
Bailey says that she wanted her audience to understand, through the slaves’ stories, that freedom is more than a physical liberation.
“I wanted them to know that people who were enslaved — not just here in America but in the West Indies and elsewhere around the world — many of them had an understanding of freedom beyond just physical freedom, and they had a very strong understanding of what it meant to be spiritually free.”
This spiritual concept of freedom was part of what motivated Bailey to name her talk “Up Over My Head, I See Freedom in the Air.” “
That was the first thing that came to me when I was reading and writing and thinking about what I was going to say,” Bailey says. “This is a negro spiritual, and negro spirituals were the songs of the slaves. They sang them as inspirational songs, as well as religious songs.”
Bailey says that, for the slaves, the songs were representative of their desire to obtain freedom.
“It came to me for several reasons, one being the notion that freedom is beyond physical chains. They were often singing and praying to God,” she says. “They were praying for their physical freedom and their spiritual freedom. So that’s why they said, ‘Up over my head, I see freedom in the air, up over my head, I see freedom in the air, up over my head, I see freedom in the air. There must be a God somewhere.’”
Bailey saw her talk as an opportunity not only to enlighten others, but delve further into her studies of the African slave trade.
“I had the preparation, in terms of taking courses, reading books and having good counsel [in graduate school] and elsewhere. But then I had to go to Africa myself, and I had to go to Ghana specifically,” Bailey says. “I went with my list of potential interviewees and informants that I would talk to. I would work at the university and also in the villages. It was really a combination of both an urban and a rural effort.”
Bailey says that her interaction with the locals provided actual memories of the Atlantic slave trade “from the African perspective,” and is an experience that has impacted her as a professor.
“I carry [the trip] with me because I bring that experience of having worked on the continent, lived there, spent a lot of time there; I bring it to the teaching,” Bailey says. “So it’s not just the books and the archives, it’s actually interpersonal experiences that I had there.”
Last Updated: 6/3/15