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White Man's Burden: Black Man's Responsibilities

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 02, 2006

This evening, at a time of national self-searching and self-knowing, it is important for spokespersons on any of the major issues that confront our country to be as objective as possible in his or her analysis of our affairs. Two thousand and six represents one hundred and seventy two year since Africans in the English-speaking world have been freed; eighty nine years since indentureship has ended; sixty years since the franchise was granted; and forty four years since our nation became an independent entity in the community of nations. Yet, in spite of all of these signposts of autonomous development we still find it necessary to ask the white man some three thousand miles removed from us to solve our problems; in effect, to tell us what is right; what to write; what is wrong and how to order our national life.

Hence, the question: after one hundred and seventy two years of emancipation and eighty nine years after indentureship are we really free?

Part of the problem resides in an ambivalent national self-consciousness and a traumatized psyche that is burdened still by the slave and indenture experiences. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling, the poet of European imperialism and colonialism, wrote a poem in which he alluded to what he called the "White Man's Burden." Speaking to his fellow Englishmen, he said:
Take up the White Man's burden

Send forth the best ye breed Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives' need
To wait in heavy's harness

On fluttered folk and wild-
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child....
In Kipling's way of seeing, each and every one of us who resided in this island was a half-devil, half-child. The function of the white man's rule was to exorcise the devil. Ostensibly, our responsibility was to nurture the child within us. Four years after Kipling wrote his poem, Edward Morel, a British journalist, writing from the Congo responded in the following manner:
"It is the Africans who carry the 'Black Man's Burden.' They have not withered away before the white man's occupation. Africa has ultimately absorbed within itself every Caucasian and, for that matter, every Semitic invader, too. In hewing out for himself a fixed abode in Africa, the white man has massacred the Africans in heaps. The African has survived, as it is well for the white settlers that he has...

"What the partial occupation of the soil by the white man has failed to do; what mapping out of European political 'spheres of influence' have failed to do; what the Maxim and the rifle, the slave gang, labor in the bowels of the earth and the lash have failed to do; what imported measles, small pox and syphilis have failed to do; whatever the overseas slave trade failed to do; the power of modern capitalistic exploitation, assisted by modern energies of destruction, may yet succeed in accomplishing....."
And, so my half-devil, half child, after one hundred and seventy two years of emancipation and forty six years of independence, faced with a serious constitutional crisis over which both our President and our Prime Minister have had many sleepless nights, how have we responded to the crisis? One only had to pick up our newspapers on Friday last to get a taste how we, as a nation, think. The headline of the Trinidad Guardian proclaimed: "PRIVY COUNCIL ON STANDBY: Sharma Springs Another Surprise." The smaller headline proclaims: "CJ Sharma has been given an undertaking by the State that he will not be prosecuted 'unless and until the Privy Council is given" (TG. July 28, 2006). So that after one hundred years of Kipling's pronouncement we still stand at the mercy of the white man and await his guidance in matters that are central to our existence as a people.

On the same day, that the Guardian reminded us of the sanctity of the WHITE MAN'S BURDEN the Express headlines depicted the person who has been given the responsibility to protect our internal security as abdicating his responsibilities and who, like Pontius Pilate, declaims: "MY HANDS ARE CLEAN....[Martin] Joseph says: 'I wasn't aware of attempt to arrest CJ" [Express, July 28, 2006] almost as if he were afraid to carry out a Black Man's Responsibility in a land that is supposed to be free if not altogether the home of the brave. Indeed, a causal observer may be forced to ask if it isn't time that we take up the Black Man's responsibilities as a sovereign presence?

Sad to say, the emanation of our joy at emancipation time should not be only about the exorcism of the devil or the nurturing of the half-child? It should consist of an honest examination of what ails our society and what militate against our seeking to discover our measure as a nation? In the first instance, the center of our difficulties resides in our inability to determine how the two major religions of our society, Hinduism and Christianity, speak to the questions of morality, justice and fairness, and what impact each has upon the current crisis that we see in our nation? We must be afraid to tackle this issue.

In the second instance, I want to suggest that the major problem that faces Trinidad and Tobago today deals with the ascendancy [or attempted ascendancy] of one ethic group and its feverish attempt to dominate the other ethnic groups regardless of the chaos or conflict that ensues in the process. However, even as I alert my audience of the East Indian thrust toward ethnic dominance, I hasten to add that it is no so much who reigns but whether equity rules the society and how well we adhere to the words of our national anthem which reminds us of the national ideal that "Here every creed and race finds [or is it find] an equal place." I am sure you will agree that must be the sine-qua-non of our national existence if we are to make our way through this morass.

This evening, I will take one historical case to demonstrate my point. In his classic study on the origins of modern English society in the nineteenth century, Harold Perkin argues that the emergence of the new class, the working class, did not spring into existence, like Pallas Athene, full-grown and fully armed. It did so inch by inch, step-by-step. From the beginning, the function of class consciousness or, in our case, ethnic consciousness, was "to draw a sharp line between each class [or ethnic group] and the next by means of the conflict taking place across it." So that all the turmoil that we see in our society today not only represents a relentless struggle on the part of the East Indians to dominate the society, it also suggests that the agents of their group are prepared to utilize any means-be they legal, political, academic or religious-to achieve ethnic dominance that constitutes the essence of the conflict that we see in Trinidad and Tobago today. When he returned from England recently Basdeo Panday, the former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, did not even rule out the possibility of violence to achieve the end that I have described. Today, the pursuit of ethnic dominance takes on the form of legal struggle.

However, an indispensable dimension of this thrust towards ethnic dominance has to do with the attempt of the group to control the national agenda or, as Perkin says: "to operate as an instrument of propaganda or psychological warfare vis--vis the other classes, to undermine their confidence in their own ideal, and tries to win them over to one's own." In other words, in its thrust for national dominance the agents of any group must educate its own group to a realization of its ethnic superiority and then demand that the rest of the society accept its valuation of its persecuted condition. This is why Perkin says, that "the class which was most successful in this educational and moral struggle, in uniting its own members and imposing its ideals upon others, would win the day and have most influence in determining the actual society in which all had to live and in approximating it more or less closely to its own ideal."

So today, as we watch with growing concern the social tensions that continue to reverberate in our society, it is important to understand that the primary conflict has to do with a struggle between two different religious beliefs and their imperatives; the determination of one ethnic group to dominate and control the society at the expense of all the other groups; and the importance of propaganda and psychological warfare as means to achieve that end.

Yet, if we as African people must find our way in this age in which the modern energies of destruction seeks to achieve what the initial violators of the continent could not do, what then are the imperatives of the group? My suggestions are few:
  1. More than ever, African parents need to take responsibilities of children and involve themselves more centrally with the concerns of the extended African family in the society. If we do not take this responsibility seriously we encourage the growth of the half-devils of which Kipling speaks and strangle the half-child before he even reaches the age of maturity;

  2. More than ever, Black business persons and professional who have made it have a responsibility to contribute to the elevation and advancement of the group. African businesspersons and professionals remain pivotal to the advancement their brothers and sister. They must contribute financially and give their services to organizations such as NAEAP to extract their people from the pit into which they have fallen. And please believe me when I say, we haven't much time to get out of that pit.

  3. More than ever, we need to think more about the group and less about our individual pursuits. As individuals, we may achieve everything we set out to achieve; yet, in the process, we become poorer every time our group pride, group initiative, and group collectivity declines. In his Meditations, John Donne says it best: "No man is an island; entire of itself; everyman is a piece of a continent," Every man's death, he says, diminishes me.

  4. More than ever, we need to redress the tremendous self-hatred that we find within the group and to begin to appreciate the attempt by many persons to devalue Black Life. In other words, part of the Black Man's agenda must be how we deal with our self-hatred and to determine how it denigrates and harms us. One only has to look upon the Black-on-black crime to realize how much we, ourselves, have tended to devalue African life in this country.

  5. More than ever, the challenge of the Afro-Trinbagonian politician, particularly those who find themselves in governance must be to ensure that even as they seek to keep Indo-Trinidadians happy and satisfied; they must seek equally to keep the Afro-Trinbagonians happy and satisfied. Today, there is a feeling among Afro-Trinbagonians that in their desire to keep Indo-Trinbagonians happy and satisfied, the Afro-Trinbagonian politicians forget that they have to do the same thing for Afro-Trinbagonians. This must stop. As we proceed into the future, we must opt for genuine equity in Trinidad and Tobago both in the public and private sectors. Let it never be said that our national government participated in the achievement of the dominance of the Indo-Trinbagonians at the expense of Africans and other groups in the nation.

  6. More than ever, I believe that the cultivation of our religious/spiritual sensibility is central to our regaining our center in this land. I continue to believe that DREAD that we felt in the presence of our Yoruba gods, or orisas, like Shango or Ogun have diminished to the point where we, in the African community, dread nothing, respect nothing and that has resulted in a loss of our respect for everything around us, even human life. In this context, the sustained determination to bring spirituality back into our lives remains the major challenge of everyone in authority in our midst. Every effort should be made to fill the spiritual/religious vacuum that inundates our lives and this is a matter of urgent concern. We may not be able to go back to the gods of our ancestors. Yet, unless we find new gods we may be inundated with the evils of the modern energies of capitalism of which Edward Morel warned and an avalanche of East Indian chauvinism.

  7. More than ever, African people must find ways to have their voices heard in the national debate. If, as I have argued that in their quest for dominance, East Indians operate "as an instrument of propaganda or psychological warfare vis--vis the other classes to undermine their confidence in their own ideals" then it becomes imperative that Africans acquire the means to participate in this present debate. May I remind the Hon. Prime Minister and the national audience that four years ago NAEAP applied for a radio licenses. Scores of radio licenses have been granted but NAEAP is yet to receive a license or even a column in a national newspaper to express its views. In Trinidad and Tobago today, the East Indians may not reign but their ideas certainly rule and therein lies the danger of their dominance.
Several years after the emancipation of the British slaves, Nancy Prince and other Afro-American abolitionists celebrated August 1st as the true date of emancipation. In Guyana, during the 1930s, the Africans celebrated emancipation very vigorously, having been among the first Africans in the New World to celebrate Emancipation Day on August 1st. The Negro Progress Convention, the group that represented the Africans, did everything in their power to bring the Africans in the country "to a realization of their responsibilities to themselves and to the State, and also to assist them in working out their industrial salvation." In 1933, the Negro Progress Convention had over 5,000 members out of a population of 307,000 citizens with 25 branches throughout the country. In 1929, Norman Cameron, a graduate of Cambridge University, published the first volume of The Evolution of the Negro that contested the racial exclusiveness of Europeans. When it was published, the Daily Chronicle welcomed it and observed: "Too seldom do we see a coloured man who is consciously proud of the Negro blood in his veins." In that same year, Amy Ashford Garvey, the wife of Marcus Garvey, visited Guyana and addressed the Young Women's Improvement Association of Guyana.

After all of those expressions of joy, the African voice in Guyana today has been dimmed and Mr. Jagdeo and the People's Progressive Party rules. The latest polls suggest that Mr. Jagdeo and his party will be re-elected. The message is very simple: not because one rules today; not because we see these varied manifestations of Africans; that the African presence can be expected to reign or even rule in the years to come. Yet, as I suggested earlier the ideal must remain equity where every creed and very race find an equal place and where each is valued according to his abilities and the contributions she makes to his society.

As we celebrate another year of emancipation, I beg you to remember the interconnectedness of our lives. In the words of John Donne, the metaphysical poet of the Renaissance, I wish to remind you of the following meditations:
"Perchance he for whom this bells tolls, may be so ill, as that he knows not that it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....Any man death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

May each of you have a happy emancipation day and may we all re-dedicate ourselves to making Trinidad and Tobago a better place in which to live.

Yes, and may God Bless Our Nation.

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