It's Not Only a Black Thing?
By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 27, 2007
The main problem with Professor Hamid Ghany's analysis ("Prepare for Constitutional Debate," Guardian, Nov. 18, 2007) is that it fails to take the views of ordinary people into consideration and leaves East Indians out of the constitutional debate for which he wishes to prepare us. Professor Ghany extols the wisdom of Major Wood and argues that "the whole history of the African population of the West Indies inevitably drives them towards representative institutions fashioned after the British model." If he wishes to cite historical examples to clarify African agency and the struggle for representative government there is no sound reasons why he could not go back to the Baptist War in Jamaica (1831); Daaga uprising in Trinidad (1837); or the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica (1865). If he wanted to take an inter-racial perspective-after all we live in an interracial society-he could have gone back the major Indian panchayat in Tacarigua in 1899 when East Indians rescued the leadership of their group from John Morton and signaled their independence. Trinbagonians have always rejected authoritarian rule and spoke up for themselves.
Therefore to endorse the prescience of Major Woods as the epitome of constitutional wisdom is a bit strange especially when the former British territories Australia, New Zealand, Canada (whites), India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (Asians) also adopted the British model which suggests it a Commonwealth rather than a black thing.
It is also astonishing that Professor Ghany would argue that transplanted Africans lost "their social system, languages and traditions, and with the exception of some relics of obeah, whatever religion they may have had, they owe everything that they now have, and all that they are, to the British race that first enslaved them and subsequently to its honour restored to them their freedom" (my italics).
Am I hearing correctly? Do I have to thank the English for enslaving my ancestors and then praise them for restoring my freedom? Is this a sentiment he wants us to endorse in the year of the bicentennial of the European slave trade or to have us sing "I once was lost, but now I am found" like John Newton, the English slave trader, and thank William Wilberforce for setting me free?
Professor Ghany's analysis allows nothing for African agency; presume Africans brought nothing of their social, political and spiritual culture to these shores; and are simply empty vessels waiting to be shaped and re-shaped in any which way their slave masters wanted to shape them.
Africans, like Indians, brought their religions and their cultures with them to the New World, many aspects of which still exist today: vodun; Santeria; Shango and candomble. In fact, in Black Atlantic Religion, J. Lorand Matory, a Harvard professor, has demonstrated the emergence of Candomble as a fully autonomous New World Religion that is related to its African counterpart but exist in its own right in Brazil. Although George Sampson (The Shango Cult in Trinidad) was concerned primarily with shango in Trinidad he makes a similar case for the integrity of this religion.
Obeah is not interchangeable with shango, candomble, santaria or vodun. My grandparents participated in the Shango feasts and bore the necessary reverence and fear of Obeah. As they said on so many occasions, "ingratitude is 'wos than obeah!" I am my grandparents' child.
Three questions. When Professor Ghany asserts that "constitutional development in the former British West Indies emerged on the basis of filling a void of identity for the African population of the region by assimilating the British model" does he mean to suggest that constitutional government filled an identity gap among Africans in the Caribbean?
When he asserts that "the African population of the British West Indies had no other choice of constitutional system but the British one, because of its superiority and the lack of knowledge about other systems" does the he believe there was other way to order our political lives, especially in our villages, than that which the British introduced? Am I wrong to assume that the constitutional system we have inherited was imposed on us from above and that the ordinary African had nothing whatsoever to do with its imposition?
Is it pertinent to ask how East Indians-they are citizens of Trinidad and Tobago too- fit into his model since they are also a part of the British West Indies? Also, can he tell where did they got their identity from?
One also wishes to contest Professor Ghany's trajectory of constitutional development when he says there has been no deviation from the British constitutional model in the West Indies and states: "Whether that was because of the views of Major Wood, or because of the natural evolution of representative and responsible government from the old representation system, the Crown Colony system, the new representative system, cabinet government, full internal self-government, and, independence will remain a major debate."
I prefer to read this political trajectory as a movement from the old representational system to the empowerment of people in their local communities. In my way of thinking the empowerment of people in their communities-fiscal federalism as one colleague calls it-is the logical outcome of the evolution of the on-going liberation project rather than the crowning of a monarch via the installation of an Executive President. The latter merely confirms the entrenchment of power at the top of the political ladder while the former empowers more ordinary persons and allows them to realize their fullness in and out of the election cycle.
A frightening implication of Professor Ghany's position is the absence of the East Indian in his analysis. He talks about Africans; their creation through Britishness and then moves on to talk about "a raging debate about whether to move to an executive presidency away from a parliamentary model is part of an evolutionary process whether it is a deviation from the political culture of the country." He does not tell us how the East Indians fall into this model and how their political culture, presuming it is different from that of the Africans, impacts upon the constitutional debate that he sees coming.
Ultimately, Professor Ghany's has to reconcile a claim that denies Afro-Trinbagonians any agency and yet speak of a raging debate within the political culture of which each segment of the community must take part?
There are other questions but I await his response since I do not wish to impute a racial motive to his arguments.
Professor Cudjoe's email is firstname.lastname@example.org
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