Set yourselves free

Slavery may have been abolished, but Kevin Benfield,
a serving prisoner at HMP Wandsworth, argues

This year marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the colonial slave trade. But many forms of slavery still exist in contemporary society and I wish to address at least two of them.

We all wish to live our lives freely and to have a sense of freedom. In most cases we do: our society believes in, and encourages, free speech, the freedom to practise religion and freedom of information. We are all free to make choices that will either enhance or destroy our lives. And I would urge all who read this, especially the young people, to choose to improve their existence by staying in school and gaining a proper education. Or for those past high school age to engage in further or higher education or to use their natural talents as a stage for self-improvement.

As you reach adulthood, you learn that no one is ever truly free. Even as we take the opportunities available to improve our lives, we can still be slaves. All of our lives are dominated by the need to survive, and to survive in our society we have to work to earn money. But the way in which we make our money influences how much freedom we have, whether it is by working at a regular job to pay bills and taxes, or by resorting to drugs, fraud and theft and then having to languish in our nation’s prisons. The choice is ours.

I see no irony in the fact that, in this bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, the mental slavery of our people has become evident in our society. It shows itself not only through the sale of illegal drugs and guns in our inner-city communities, but also in the culture that has not only introduced these commodities but thrives on them. These commodities are regularly taking the lives of our young people, and as a black writer, I think it’s no surprise that most of the victims and the perpetrators are black.

Far too many of our young people are victims of a form of mental slavery that has given them low self-esteem over the generations since slavery ended. Even in these days of “equality”, “diversity” and “freedom”, black young people are still ostracised for many different reasons. It’s precisely this mental slavery that drives our young people from “ordinary” society into a kind of underworld where their status is determined by the type of “whip” (car) they “cop” (obtain). Or whether they have the latest pair of Armani jeans, whether they sell the most drugs and have the best and most “blinging” jewellery, or whether they are feared.

This form of self-destruction is not new. In the 1980s, Manchester and Liverpool saw the rise of gun crime in the black community. In the 1990s, it was the turn of Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester, Wolverhampton and Coventry. Now, in 2007, this epidemic has finally arrived in London, but the difference is that the authorities are actually taking notice. Why? It’s because it has now reached the doorstep of the rich, famous or powerful who dwell in this country, but what will they do about it?

So far, all they have done is increase the penalties for gun and knife crime, and give the police more powers to stop the perpetrators. But this is not the answer. All it will do is make the perpetrators more secretive and underhand in order to avoid prosecution. The real answer is right here in our own communities and it begins with educating our youth. Only we can rid ourselves of this mental slavery and we must act now.

Encourage our young people and make them believe that “if you can dream it, you can achieve it”. Give them that self-esteem and encourage them to develop their talents.

To young people, I say: stay in school and listen to your parents. To those whose fathers aren’t around: don’t use that as an excuse to do wrong. You can have anything your heart desires, and the way forward is through education and hard work. Choose to improve – the time is now!

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic