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Black Power revolution unfinished

Q: Archbishop J, why are we celebrating the Black Power revolution?

Every country has its defining moments—a watershed that fundamentally changes the nature of the social fabric. Slavery and then its end in 1838, indentureship that brought the Indian community to our shores and the Butler riots are just some of our defining moments. And then came Independence in 1962. As a young nation, our first major challenge was the Black Power revolution of 1970.

On Ash Wednesday, February 26, at 9 a.m. in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the protesters entering the Cathedral. No! They did not paint the statues black: They draped the statues with black cloth to express the dissonance they felt. The act fired the imagination of major sectors of the society. And well, as they say, the rest is history.



The year 1970 marks a dividing line. We must remember that all people of colour participated in the protest: black, Indian and mixed all marched together. They all protested against the injustice of a society that had a black government but a white business elite that dominated the society, its norms and expectations.

In major businesses, promotion was along lines of colour. The white bias was the unspoken rule that dominated all spheres of society. Colour prejudice acted on every citizen, consciously and unconsciously.

The late eminent Martiniquan psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, in Wretched of the Earth, put it best: “The originality of the colonial context is that economic reality, inequality and the immense difference of ways of life, never come to mask the human realities. When you examine at close quarters the colonial context, it is evident that what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race, a given species. In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich” (30).

Our plantation history set a class/colour default in the minds and the unconscious of our West Indian people. The year 1970 reset this mindset, this social structure and diabolical way of thinking that measures a person, not by their character but by the colour of their skin. This is one of the most significant events in our young independent history.


Colour prejudice in sweet T&T

Because of the strides that 1970 brought, we have forgotten that in the 1940s hiring ads openly stated: “Blacks need not apply”. Yes, this happened in Trinidad and Tobago.

Many have forgotten the case of the medical doctor, a guest of the Hilton Hotel, who was barred from the Country Club because he was black.

According to an agreement between the Hilton and Country Club, hotel guests were to be allowed free entry into the club. When the Trinidad Express highlighted the incident and challenged the colour prejudice in the society, mayhem broke loose. White businesses withdrew advertising from the newspaper.

Colour prejudice occurred in the Catholic Church as well. In an interview some years ago, Msgr Urban Peschier recalled that when the Archdiocesan Seminary began, in 1942, five young men entered the seminary, but not one seminarian came from a parish with a white religious priest. He also recounted the shabby treatment the young local diocesan priests received after ordination.

But, in 1970, when our cathedral was staffed by the Dominican Fathers, the saintly Fr Damian Byrne OP worked to move his Community out of the cathedral, to give way to local diocesan priests. In the aftermath of 1970, too, Fr Gerry Pantin CSSp left St Mary’s College for Laventille—and so began SERVOL (Service Volunteered for All). A new chapter opened.

We have to celebrate, remember and build on this movement that recalibrated the very nature of our class and race relations in Trinidad and Tobago.


A revolution unfinished

Dr Martin Luther King Jr had three approaches. He was unambiguous on the matter of equality for people of colour, he opposed the Vietnam war and launched a war on poverty. Civil rights, for him, required struggle on these three fronts.

In our society racial discrimination and prejudice is apparent. We have been very silent on promoting a peace initiative and quite frankly, grossly inadequate in the challenge of poverty.

We are all alarmed at the high murder rate, gang violence and crime in the country. We lament the basic disrespect for life. We are appalled at the scourge of domestic violence. We speak about the hotspots in our city and the disadvantages of the education system.

We have not yet had the courage to name the problem. Trinidad and Tobago has an underdevelopment problem. The black community in Trinidad and Tobago has suffered from gross underdevelopment. This is a matter of distributive justice and it is the root cause of much of the mayhem that we suffer as a society.

The 1970 revolution is unfinished. We still have an unconscious white bias in our society, though much less than in 1970—thank God. The real unfinished project, however, is the underdevelopment of our black families and their children. For so many historical reasons we have allowed huge sections of our urban communities to remain underdeveloped. This is a national crisis.

A child in these communities has access to few primary schools, which continually fail the children and send them to under-performing secondary schools. This is a cycle of poverty.

Frantz Fanon is right; in these communities, you are poor because you are black. Black underdevelopment that leads to intergenerational poverty needs to be tackled head on, if we are to emerge into a nation where every creed and race has an equal place.

Pope St John Paul II said: “All private property has a social mortgage”. The development of the black urban community must now be the highest priority of this young nation.

Our failure in this matter is threatening the stability and peace of our democracy. It has created a nation that is fast becoming ungovernable. Development of the most marginalised of our citizens is the responsibility of every citizen. Pope St Paul VI said: “If you want peace, work for justice”. And, “Development is the new name for peace”.


Key Message:

The Black Power revolution is unfinished once we have pockets of black underdevelopment in our nation.

Action Step: Reflect on the high crime, gang and domestic violence in our nation and ask: Who are the major actors in this drama? How do we heal this wound? What could you do?

Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:32–46