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Live Free or Be Imprisoned in One's Ignorance

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: August 04, 2004

(A lecture delivered at the National Association for the Empowerment of African People 4th Emancipation Dinner delivered on July 31, 2004 at Cascadia Hotel, St. Ann's, Port of Spain.)

I am pleased that the Hon. Patrick Manning and his wife, the Hon. Hazel Manning, agreed to attend this premier function of our organization. I am also pleased that after years of persuasion, Erica Williams consented to address our organization at this time in its history. I am also pleased that she agreed to address us on the theme, "Remembering the Legacy," a topic which experience and association have placed her in the best position to explore.

As is customary on this occasion and as the president of NAEAP, I use this occasion to express my organization's position on some of the challenges that present themselves to Afro-Trinbagonians. I am conscious that there is a tendency that when one speaks about the specific challenges that face Afro-Trinbagonians one always feel obliged to conflate the local and specific--that is, the ethnic and racial impulse-with the national and universal. In other words, there is always the urgent impulse to be national and universal rather than specific and in this case sensitive to the specificities of our being in this particular time and space. I would only remind you of the words of Ernest Gellner, a Cambridge University scholar with whom I shared the podium at the Sorbonne in Paris several years ago. Gellner said: "The basic building blocks of mankind are nations, and their existence is not a contingent and morally irrelevant fact, but, on the contrary, it is central to human fulfillment. Cultural diversity is our manifest destiny and men reach fulfillment through their distinct national cultures, not through some bloodless universality."

Every year, we confront the fact that the conditions of Afro-Trinbagonians are getting worse with few remedies in sight. After examining the results of the SEA examinations, Tony Fraser, a columnist for the Trinidad Guardian, made the following observations: "Afro-Trinidadians are underachieving in large numbers and the risk is real that large segments of the black population can become the underclass and if nothing is done to halt the slide, in a generation Afro-Trinidadians, the large majority of them would find themselves in a permanent position of dispossession and second class status."

"This is not in the interest of anyone because there is bound to be an implosion and explosion if such a possibility were to emerge in full bloom."

Mr. Fraser had other things to say about this explosive situation. If he had sufficient space he would have said that trends in the entire educational apparatus do not bode well for Africans in this society. If one looks at UWI, its racial composition does not favor Africans-we are in the minority; if one looks at the Institute of Business (the IOB), the leadership of that institution and its student body is skewed against Africans who are in the minority. I even understand that as many as a quarter of the UNC in the House of Representatives are now getting their Executive MBAs at the IOB. If we look at Trinidad and Tobago Institute of Technology, we see the same process at work. The only problem is that the students from that group will be sent straight to Point Lisa to control the most important jobs in the most important segment of our economy. If this trend continues one can confidently predict that Afro-Trinbagonians shall find themselves in a permanent position of dispossession and second class citizenship in the land that the Lord thy God has given us.

There is another challenge. Mr. Sat Maharaj of the Maha Saba is clamoring for equality in the Public Service. Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I am here to say that I support Mr. Maharaj's quest for equality in the public service fully but only on one condition and it is this. If we must have equality in the public service, we must also have equality in private enterprise as well. This evening I wish to propose that in any firm or factory where more than ten employees are employed not more than five of them can be of the same race.

This is important. As I look at the developing trends of employment in our society I see that more and more of my people are working at Kentucky Fried Chicken or are the guards around the business places. In most instances, they do not make more than seven dollars an hour. Such salaries cannot suffice even to take care of their rent or even take a young lady to a cinema show. Can such improvised condition be the cause of some of our social problems?

Over the next eight years such conditions are likely to worsen for Afro-Trinbagonians. Over the next eight years or so we can confidently expect that our nation should have close to one quarter trillion dollars at our disposal; one have of which shall be used for direct employment. Our budget this year was $22 billion dollars. If we round off that figure to 25 billion, we can predict that in the next three years we shall have 75 billion dollars at our disposal. The next government, elected for another five years term, with five budgets at $25 billion a years, gives us an overall budget of 125 billion dollars. This means that over the next 8 years we shall have close to one quarter trillion dollars at our disposal.

If we recognize that for the most part the Public Service, the teaching service and police services, etc. have been a direct source of employment of Afro-Trinbagonians; and if we observe that the trend the world over is to cut back on the Public Service and to contract out government services, then we can confidently predict that over the next eight years the State would be a source of employment for fewer Africans. Even the government has announced that it plans to reduce the public sector as a source of direct employment generation.

Therefore, if one half of this one quarter trillion dollars that goes into direct employment is cut by even half then we can predict that close to 80 trillion shall be poured into private enterprise over the next eight years. Since Afro-Trinbagonians do not control private sector of our economy, we are likely to see a situation in which Afro-Trinidadians may find themselves more improvised and on the breadline. If we look at commerce, banking, insurance and the distribution sector one is hard pressed to find many of us in control there. And if it is true that one tends to prefer one's own over all others and we do not put some controls on discriminatory tendencies in hiring then we are likely to suffer greater unemployment and therein lays our challenges.

It is in this sense that we must support Sat Maharaj's call for equality keeping in mind that any business that employs more than ten employees not more than half should be of one race. The present government should give serious consideration this proposal and translate it into law. If we do not follow this course of action, Afro-Trinbagaonians we are likely to be in a worse condition ten years down the road than we are today.

I am also concerned about a trend in which Afro-Trinbagonians are mobilized to support the PNM but as soon as the PNM gets into power it suddenly becomes national rather than African or even African leaning. Faced with the prospect of re-presenting us, they can no longer identity with the major block of constituents who elected them and speak to their needs. Suddenly, they are a national party rather than and African-based and supported party. As a party, the PNM must have an African agenda.

A week ago, President George Bush addressed the Urban League in the United States. He told Afro-Americans gathered to hear him that that the Democratic Party had taken African-Americans for granted much too long and that he had a new strategy to alleviate their problems. Whether one believed him or not, his position is that the Republican Party has a policy, a program and a strategy to alleviate the conditions of African-American people. Such a program is named and articulated. The same is true for the Democratic Party.

A similar situation exists when it comes to the State of Israel. Whether one is democrat of republican, when it comes to the state of Israel each party has a position regarding Jewish interest in the United States. No resolution that adversely affects Israel can be passed in the Security Council. The US is always ready to apply its veto to support Israeli's interest.

What, may I ask, is the PNM policy, program and strategy for Afro-Trinbagonians since, in a large measure, they are the base of the People's National Movement? Does the PNM have a policy, strategy and/or program for Afro-Trinbagonians and what exactly are they? It may sound trite or even self-evident. It is neither. It is a subject that should engage the attention of the PNM at the highest level.

Lastly, I am concerned about lifting of the educational, cultural and social standards of our people and, in this regard, the entire nation, if we are to move forward as a more human society and if we are to cut back on crimes and other social ills. I submit that our problem is more a qualitative than quantitative; more spiritual than material; more psychological than physical. Today we have more money at our disposal but the social conditions--as measured by crimes and illiteracy-are worse. I have proposed and will continue to propose that there must be a compulsory educational component in CEPEP, URP and all other such programs. Think of the miracle that will be wrought if we put into practice the philosophy that man and woman should not live by bread alone; that indeed the logos; the word; or the nommo are as equally important to our growth and development as physical food. Think of the beauty of men and women, reading each day, trying to decipher the codes of their culture which, at one significant level, is what reading is rally all about.

Think of the benefits of such a program to our children? As we know, children are creatures of imitation. If their parents are accustomed to smoke and drink that is what the children will do. If their parents read a book at evening that is what they will do. Could you imagine a scenario in which persons that work in CEPEP and URP coming home each evening fighting up with a book to decode the signs of their culture?

Today, Cuba enjoys the status of a first world nation in areas of health and education. However, the first thing the Cubans did after they broke the back of US imperialism was to eliminate illiteracy in their society before they pushed on with their social and educational programs. There is no other way out. Our government can do nothing better for our people if it used all of its apparatuses, print and electronic, to educate them, eliminate illiteracy, and cultivate a love for the spiritual dimensions of their being.

You would recognize that I have said nothing about family, the individual responsibility of each member of the tribe and the imperative that we come together as a community to save ourselves. You would recognize that I have said very little about the role of the community, in terms of having direct power-via taxation and other incentives-to control their own lives. After all, if slavery and colonialism meant the concentration of power at the central level of government, then republicanism must mean the empowering of people from the bottom up where they control their own lives and where they participate in the making of their own existentialist selves.

As a people we keep holding on to the mistaken belief that everyone else owes us something that somehow if we keep on complaining long and hard enough that all evils committed against us will be made right and we all end up in the kingdom of heaven. Karl Marx, a great German intellectual, in one of his thesis of Fruerbach informed us that "Hitherto, philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."

The problem that confronts us as Africans on this 170th anniversary of the abolition of slavery remains essentially unchanged: how can we act in ways that helps us to change our world, keeping in mind that freedom consists in liberating our human essence from negative vives and acting as creative, autonomous human beings.

Today, more than ever, we think of the palmist who admonished, that a greater love hath no man than he who gives his life for his brothers and his friends. One hundred and seventy years after our forefather forced the British to set us free, we must reiterate the cry, "Live free or remained imprisoned in our ignorance."

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