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“We are still slaves”, the woman said during the community meeting

I was recently invited to a gathering of community leaders representing different organizations and groups wanting to have a project in common. During the second hour of the meeting and with no warning, one of the participants stood up and said, “We are still slaves!”, surprising all the participants and even herself.

The woman, a well-known local African-American leader, said that when she was a child, her grandparents cultivated fruits and vegetables in their backyard. Their home was then in the outskirts of the city. Then, when she was a teen, the city grew, and backyard gardening was not allowed, so a community garden was created.

A few weeks ago, that community garden was closed for good. The owner of the place and the local municipality were not able to agree about water for the plants.

Reflecting about the lost garden, the woman said that her people (and not only her people, I add) act assuming they are free when, in fact, they can’t even produce their own food or decide what they want to eat. And when you lose your traditional food, she explained, you also lose the traditions that were part of every meal you shared with yours.

Once the memory of your community is gone, your own memory is gone. It’s not that you don’t know what you are eating. It’s that you don’t even know who you are. You feel free. You have opportunities, but, for all purposes, you are a slave.

The veteran leader spoke then about the slavery of African and African Americans in the United States, but then she immediately moved back to the present, saying that “our slavery” (her words) is worst than the previous one, because in the past slaves knew they were slaves, but we live assuming we are free.

That thought reminded me of an article I read last February about South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han (who lives in Germany.) Han said that “No we exploit ourselves and we call that self-development.”

Specifically, Han said that the society presented by Orwell in 1984 was “a society aware of being dominated”, while in our society, according to Han, “we don’t have any awareness of being dominated.”

Han said that we live at a time of “self-explotation” and of “horror of the other”. For that reason, we live “in the desert, the hell of the same”. So, we are slaves and we don’t know it.

Why? Because we can’t even try to be different because being different means being the same as everybody else who wants to be different. Even worst, “being different” now means “marketable differences”. You are different only if you can “sell” your differences.

How do we move beyond that situation where reality is being abolished? Han proposes a simple solution: cultivate your own garden so you can reconnect with the reality of “colors, aromas, and feelings”, that is, with the other and the different.

Intuitively, the African American leader already knew it. And that’s true, undeniable wisdom.

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