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Taking Care of Our People's Business

(A Speech delivered at NAEAP's Second Annual Emancipation Dinner, July 31, 2003)

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe

This evening, as we come together in our sartorial splendor and ebony beauty, I wish to hark back to a statement I made at our inaugural conference in March 1998 and which I believe is even more pertinent this evening. I said then and repeat now: "The first and more indispensable imperative for the empowerment and upliftment of Afro-Trinbagonians-that is, if they do not wish to become extinct spiritually, culturally, and emotionally-is to form themselves into an organizationů. whose sole purpose shall be the empowerment, the upliftment and the continued sustenance of Africans, or if you wish, Afro-Trinbagonians, in the society."

In making my call for the formation of our organization I anticipated that the first objection of those who did not wish us well would have been the sentiment that we were a racist organization or, that since "all ah we is one," there was/is no need for an organization that articulated the challenges of Africans and agitated for their well-being. From the inception we made it clear that we saw no contradiction between being an African in this society and, at the same time, a loyal Trinbagonian. Today, contemporary sociologists recognize that the solidity of the Cartesian ego promulgated about two centuries ago no longer holds true. Today, they speak of a person, a social being, as possessing multiple identities, a concept that seems better to describe the multifarious dimensions of the human person.

At our inaugural conference, we also acknowledged that there were specific problems that afflicted Africans and which Africans alone were best positioned to solve. Not that we do not need and want the assistance of others groups but we recognized then the well-established sociological principle that any human community, be it a family, a clan, an ethnos, a nationality or a nation, always looks out for its own first before it begins to care for others. Such an emphasis seems to be a normal human response even though such a posture should never become the end all of our existence. Sadly, Africans in Trinidad have been better Trinidadians than Africans and that has not always conduced to their well being. Anyone who looks at our society without jaundiced eyes recognizes immediately that certain problems (such as joblessness, incarceration, AIDS, etc.,) affect African people in a way that is disproportionate to their numbers in the society. In this sense, NAEAP has a lot of work do. Our first obligation is to alert our people to the depth of our crisis, awaken them to our shortcomings and urge them to act in productive ways to achieve our promise and our potential.

In this context, it is well to see that both the President and the Prime Minister have taken initiatives with regards to matters concerning race and ethnicity. Vision 2020 envisions a future in which the scourge of racism or racial preference will be a thing of the past. As noble as these goals are, it is important to recognize that different religions, for example, precisely because they have different theological and moral imperatives, see the world differently, value things differently and sometimes even subscribe to a different understanding of what constitute correct, normative behavior. Today, more than ever, if we wish to fuse our society into one, even if we wish to luxuriate in the notion of unity in diversity, it is still important to examine these imperatives to see how they conduce to the making of our society.

NAEAP has always insisted, that if we wish to create a society in which every creed and race find an equal place, no child should leave our schools without having a knowledge of the Christian Bible, the Bhagvad Gita or the pertinent Hindu doctrinal text, and the Koran. Rather that wish a mutually respectful and respecting society into being, we must advance concrete solutions toward the achievement of a common end and a common purpose. This being said, it means that action speaks louder than words and one must possess the courage to express one's truth. For example, no member of a multi-racial society should feel snug and secure in the fact that eighty percent of its university student body consists of one race and where no one seems to be even thinking of the consequences of such a development. Whatever is said of the US, it is to its credit that a month ago, in the case of the University of Michigan, the US Supreme Court ruled that even in university admission race can be used as a factor given the importance of education in the creation an equal society. The court did not flinch from its position. Even Sandra Day O'Connor, a jurist who had not always seen eye to eye with these matters, recognized the importance of a co-equal branch of government facing up to its responsibilities. Are we in Trinidad and Tobago willing to do the same in our circumstance?

Such a position does not absolve our people from assuming their individual and collective responsibilities. Our own people and those who wish us well must assist us to achieve those goals that we think are desirable and conducive to our advancement. This, of course, results ultimately in the advancement and development of the entire society. We must discourage the mistaken notion that if one lives for oneself and forget those who are struggling to make it that all would be well with us. There is also the mistaken belief, even among successful Africans, that they have no obligation to the larger collective. There is even the notion that once I get mine every one can take a back seat.

Such selfishness cannot be the hallmark of great people. A nation is made up of individuals who have loyalties to their family, their clan, their ethnic group, their religious organizations and the larger nation as a whole. Commonsense dictates that disequilibria in any one of these affiliations can unbalance the whole and topple the entire mango cart. Wisdom suggests that if we wish the group to thrive and grow all of us must make our contributions to the collective to ensure its growth and development.

Before I wind up my remarks, I would like to propose that from this day forward, African attire should be adopted as the national wear of African people in Trinidad and Tobago. For example, if the president invited citizens to one of his gala independence ball and asked us all to wear our national costumes, I am sure Indians would be in no trouble; he would wear his Indian attire. So, too, would the Chinese and every other ethnic group. Sadly, Africans are the only ones who would have to resort to the wearing of their jackets and ties which are certainly European rather than African.

However, the truth is no tradition is indigenous, as Terrance Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm have demonstrated in their enormously insightful work, The Invention of Tradition. All traditions, they argue, are invented a position they support in their work. So as the Presidential Committees and the Prime Minister's Committee meet, my first proposal to each is this: From this day forward: African attire should be adopted as the national attire of Afro-Trinbagonians.

Over the past five years, NAEAP has had an impressive history. We have conducted seminars, have held conferences, stood up for the nation, and defended injustices where we see them. We sincerely hope to continue in this direction. To so, we need the support of all persons of good will to achieve our goals and the talents of all those who have something to offer. We need the financial contributions of all those who can afford it since no organization can exist without the financial support of its own and generous contributions of others.

Most of all we need your understanding. For NAEAP to achieve its fullest potential, the nation must understand that there is nothing inconsistent with being Trinbagonian and African at the same time. That is why we felt so honored when President A.N.R. Robinson accepted our highest award, when Prime Minister Patrick Manning addressed our organization on Black Empowerment Day and when President Max Richards attended our Emancipation Dinner. These acts of generosity and understanding demonstrate that those at the leadership levels of our society understand the important work that we do and the imperative that we continue in this vein. It is only left to the rest of our citizens to follow in the path of these illustrious sons to make us achieve our goals.

No nation can forward into greatness unless a society understands the important masonry that civic organization such as NAEAP provides for our society. We are the cement that keeps the society together, the foundation stones upon which the nation rests. Only by participating in this brick-laying task that we can assure the success of our nation.

Please help us to help our nation to assume and achieve its greatness.

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