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A long tradition of excellence—An Emancipation Day commentary by Fr Dexter Brereton CSSp

Photo courtesy CCN TV6

Repeat after me:


Repeat after me:


Repeat after me…


When asked to write an opinion piece for Emancipation Day I asked myself how, as a black person could I write on Emancipation Day and avoid the well-worn trope of “black underachievement and criminality”.

As a black man I must confess to feeling somewhat offended whenever the topic of Afro-Trinbagonians emerges in the electronic or print media. Often, what follows inexorably, is a narrowing of the black experience to the problems of the urban periphery or the difficult communities of the East-West corridor.

My late friend Marion O’Callaghan, herself steeped in French culture and social anthropology rejected the discussion of the problems of black people primarily through the prism of race. As I remember it, she felt that the use of the category of ‘race’ a completely non-scientific construct was particularly unhelpful if one wished to engage in proper analysis of the problems of black Trinbagonians.

She organised her thinking on the problems of black people primarily around two notions: blocked social mobility and equality of opportunity. In this regard, Marion felt that the Catholic Church, the original faith of many black Trinidadians had failed them as it allowed its primary schools, built for the poor, to seriously deteriorate in terms of quality of infrastructure and quality of learning so that the pupils therein were deprived of the kind of education to which they were entitled as citizens.

Having spoken to some of my friends in the teaching profession I would have to assert that the problems of Catholic education are a bit more complex than Marion believed. She has made, however, the invaluable observation that many of the problems that black Trinbagonians have, may not be rooted in ‘blackness’ or so-called ‘black culture’ as such, but in the problems associated with the poor and those with lower levels of education and their consequent blocked social mobility.

An epistemological problem

In some ways, the ‘black problem’ is really an epistemological problem. Black existence is essentially viewed as problematic and chaotic given the manner in which society goes about the construction of its knowledge of black people, the stubborn stereotypes through which black persons are viewed. It goes without saying that many of us (indeed most of us) are not involved in crime and many in fact are doing quite well whether educationally or economically. We go to work, we educate our children, we build nice houses, we pay our taxes.

A tradition of black excellence

Our country has long had a proud tradition of black excellence, with some of these prominent blacks coming from the very areas now riddled with crime: the late attorneys Desmond Allum SC, and Theodore Guerra SC, currently practising attorney Pamela Elder SC, current President former Justice Paula-Mae Weekes,  Professor Courtenay Bartholomew, the late Dr David Quamina.

We remember too the Mc Shine Family with brother Dr Halsey Mc Shine attending to the country’s founding Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams and Hugh Mc Shine serving as Chief Justice. Karl Hudson Phillips enjoyed a reputation as one of the Caribbean region’s top attorneys. To be numbered among these is former President and Prime Minister ANR Robinson, a key person in the setting up of the ICC the International Criminal Court.

Today that tradition of excellence continues in these and in other fields. A number of my Afro-Trini classmates at St Mary’s College have gone on to successful careers in medicine and business. One of them is now President and CEO of the Massy Group of Companies. In the field of entertainment, your Machel Montanos, your Bunji Garlins and Fayann Lyons, black artists all, are at the top of their fields and apparently good business people. In sports Messrs Yorke, Lara, Bravo and others have distinguished themselves on the sports field and continue to be apparently well-off.

The prophet Bob Marley sang “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. On this Emancipation Day I recognise that for many of us members of the African diaspora, this emancipation is an ongoing project. The ‘chains’ manifest themselves in the ways we speak of, and to, each other. Perhaps we can begin this process of mental emancipation by interrogating the so-called disparaging ‘truths’ that our society holds towards black people. Happy Emancipation Day everyone.