by Fr Dexter Brereton
So we know what Donald Trump thinks of us. The 45th President of the United States recently characterised the countries of Africa and our own Haiti in a derogatory manner. The really important question however, is ‘what do we think of ourselves?’
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. In the spirit of this saying by Mrs Roosevelt, I do not believe that when someone calls me a ‘nigger’ or denigrates the region by referring to us as ‘s…hole’ countries we should dignify their words with a response. The task of replying to Trump’s incivility is better left to the American media and political community.
We in the Caribbean region need to mind our own business and not get distracted by the sideshows coming out of the American political arena. Zafè mouton pa zafè kabwit (Sheep business is not goat business).
In order to resist the mental onslaught of those who would from time to time denigrate the region, it is imperative that we engage a different kind of conversation. It is important that we find ourselves in a correct reading of our own regional history and tradition.
It is high time as well to re-examine popular attitudes to Africa and its religions and see in them, not an unfortunate past to be forgotten, but a rich source of strength and inspiration for future generations. As Lloyd Best has counselled us, we need to view the world as if we were at the very centre. We cannot tell our own stories or view our past using lenses manufactured by others.
Here in Trinidad and Tobago, we have a ‘two-sided’ relationship with Haiti. On the one hand, fundamentalist Christians would have us believe that Haiti is a by-word for black magic, voodoo and backwardness. On the other, we remember the exploits of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the father of Haitian liberation, who, along with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, routed the armies of Imperial France.
Haiti herself, has occupied a pivotal place in the history of decolonisation in the Western Hemisphere. From about 1815 onwards, the father of Latin American independence, Simón Bolívar, gained critical moral and physical support from Haitian President Alexandre Pétion, as Bolivar was engaged in the wars of independence on the South American continent. These wars would result in the establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule.
Apart from the inspirational role it has played in the Latin American wars of independence, Haiti has also, been a fine exemplar of the Caribbean revolutionary tradition.
The Book of Exodus, at the centre of the Judeo-Christian story tells the story of a group of slaves who never accepted the fact that they were destined to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water” and so escaped captivity, defeated the armies of Pharaoh and all who stood against them and carved out a Promised Land for themselves and their descendants.
Much of this is mirrored in Haiti’s revolutionary past as the first Black Republic of the modern world. Unfortunately, like the story of Israel in the bible, their story has not been without its challenges and defeats. Haiti has known much political instability and repressive rule, often at the hands of their own brothers.
Through it all Haitians have retained their humour, their humanity and their dignity. Their country has also suffered violent opposition on the diplomatic front, being forced to pay 90 million francs to indemnify French landowners for their losses during the war of independence.
This was the start of a chronic international debt burden which no doubt contributed to other perennial problems such as the chronic deforestation problems, the wasting of the islands forests in the effort to pay its debts.
Like Haiti, the relationship of Caribbean people to Africa requires re-examination. The continent has no doubt been the victim of the tired tropes in the ‘disaster reporting’ of the Western media which highlights Africa’s challenges instead of its successes.
Many a modern Trinbagonian on landing in Lagos, Nairobi, Cape Town or another of the capitals in sub-saharan Africa would be shocked to discover not a low-rise, two-storey town similar to Port of Spain but a modern world-class metropolis, that one would find in any part of the globe.
On the religious front, Pope John Paul II, in his lifetime, showed a graceful empathy and surprising degree of openness to African religions. In remarks to a meeting with Vodou leaders in Benin in 1993 the pope said among other things: “You are strongly attached to traditions you have inherited from your ancestors. It is legitimate to be grateful to seniors who have passed the sense of the sacred, belief in one God and good taste of the celebration, appreciation for the moral life and harmony in society.”
I end by remarking that if Pope John Paul II, a Polish, Roman Catholic philosopher by training could take such an open, forward-looking attitude towards Africa and its peoples so can we.
It is high time that we in the region look at our own past with wisdom, empathy and compassion, respecting the struggle of our ancestors to protect their God-given human dignity.
We also have to give ourselves credit for achieving as much as we have and contributing to every field of human endeavour as much as we have in such a short time, only relatively recently emerging from the bellies of the different ships bringing us here as ‘unfree labour’ according to Williams: “brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan”.