As Trinidad and Tobago celebrates Emancipation Day today (August 1), we use this excerpt of a paper Fr Stephan Alexander presented at a virtual forum hosted by Caribbean Theology Conference Today, in 2021, ‘Black Lives Matter: Caribbean Theological Perspectives’. Fr Alexander focused on the impact of racism in the generation post-1970s Black Power Revolution.
The 1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago was “the child” of the Black Power Movement in the USA and the struggle for equal rights in Canada by students of the Sir George Williams University in Montreal.
The 1966 precursor movement in the United States, championed and popularised by Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael), evolved from within the Civil Rights Movement because of the growing frustration and disillusionment of Black Americans with the failure of institutional establishments, more particularly government, white liberals, the civil rights movement, and integration to bring about meaningful change for Black Americans.
Inspired by Ture’s rhetoric, Makandal Daaga (then known as Geddes Granger), Khafra Kambon (then known as Dave Darbeau), Efebo Wilkinson and other university students, commenced demonstrations in Trinidad and Tobago.
They sought to challenge institutionalised racism in Trinbagonian society that was grounded in a dominant Eurocentric cultural ideology and supported by the government, Christian churches, the media, and the education system.
This cultural ideology revered aspects of European culture whilst denigrating those aspects, which had origins in Africa. As an example of we refer to a 1970 study which showed that whites represented 53 per cent of the business elite in companies employing over 100 persons, while ‘off whites’ represented 15 per cent, mixed race 15 per cent, Chinese 9 per cent, Indians 9 per cent and Africans only represented 4 per cent… Additionally, commercial banks employed few black people.
Fast forward to our contemporary reality and the similarities abound vis-à-vis the reasons that gave rise to Black Power and those giving rise to current social unrest. The explicit similarities don’t particularly need naming, although some may argue that discrimination in the workplace (2016) or at school (2019) due to one’s hairstyle isn’t evidence of racism.
However, the implicit similarities do need highlighting. Among them, I highlight the use of discriminatory language/rhetoric that reflects an undertone of racism in the Trinbagonian context.
Many of these statements feature prominently on social media as memes and hashtags. They are even used in mainstream media and by politicians and have the effect of transforming Afro-Trinbagonians into caricatures:
– “Allyuh too wicked”
– “He was a good boy”
– “Trinidad is not a real place”
– “Black people not good at business”
– “Black people are lazy”
These statements are almost exclusively made by or in reference to Afro-Trinbagonians with implicitly racist overtures. The first and second statements traditionally were used by parents and/or relatives of young black men allegedly caught in criminal activity to vilify law enforcement officers and to justify the conduct of their relatives.
The statements are now being used outside this limited context with the import that those towards whom they are used are “criminals” or immoral. They have also been used to target a predominantly Afro-Trinbagonian government and civil servants for simply executing their duty.
A similarity here arises with the third statement which arose in early 2018 during the tenure of said Afro-Trinbagonian government and has been transported into the political arena to relegate the efforts this government to the un-real.
The fourth and fifth statements attack the ability of Afro-Trinbagonians to lead and work effectively. The individual or collective effect of these phrases causes those to whom they are addressed to devalue/undervalue themselves and think of themselves as inferior to others.
Other dissimilar yet equally concerning statements include:
– “I don’t see colour”
– “We want a colour-blind society”
These statements are problematic to the extent that they disclose a failure to see and understand the worth and contribution of Afro-Trinbagonians: their colour, culture, history etc. and to honour them because of it instead of honouring them for their conformity to the Eurocentric ideal.
The subtle yet damaging impact of such statements, particularly as it reflects on the education system and its inability to proudly transmit to young Afro-Trinbagonians the greatness of their history and the cultural legacies which ought to ground their consciousness is poignant.
That many Afro-Trinbagonian persons openly reject African culture or are unknowledgeable about the impact of the various Afro-Trinbagonian ancestors and pioneers in the Emancipation, Independence and Black Power movements in Trinidad and Tobago is testimony to this problem.
Such statements are highlighted because of the ease with which they are dismissed within the Trinbagonian context as being picong i.e., light comical banter or an overthinking of issues. The truth, however, is that we only see what our minds are prepared to comprehend, to wit, the question must be asked 50 years on from Black Power, do black lives still matter?
Of course, I answer this question in the affirmative by positing the eradication of our blindness and coarseness of heart via adoption of a balanced approach, which is grounded in the ethical and spiritual.
It is not the model of integration demonised by Kwame Ture as tokenism yet also avoids the lure of violence as a means to social change. Both of these arms find their centre in Jesus Christ who “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes #22).
It is in this intimacy with Christ that we mature to become fully human. This action commences by accepting “ourselves are we are, with our own history, and to accepting [sic] others as they are” (Vanier 45).
Furthermore, it is to cultivate “our gifts, and also to be open to others, to look at them not with a feeling of inferiority or superiority but with eyes of respect. It means to become men and women with the wisdom of love” (Vanier 11). Therefore, it leads to “the liberation of the human heart from the … fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others … and leads us to the discovery of our common humanity” (Vanier 14-15) when the singularity and connectedness of human life, evidenced in our shared fragility, is accepted and integrated. It “means to remain connected to our humanness and to reality” (Vanier 45).
…Discrimination becomes incomprehensible when we are honest, open-minded, and willing to accept the truth about ourselves. Only then will our understanding be expanded allowing our eyes to see our humanity in terms of unity and equality.