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Securing Our Future in Turbulent Times

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 01, 2009

(A lecture delivered by Professor Cudjoe at the 9th Annual Emancipation Day Dinner of the National Association for the Empowerment of African People [NAEAP] at the Center of Excellence, Tunapuna, Trinidad, July 31, 2009. Professor Cudjoe is the president of NAEAP.)

The theme of this evening's celebration is "Securing Our Future in Turbulent Times." The "our" in this title refers to Africans in Trinidad and Tobago and their prospects in what we anticipate will be turbulent times. The government has advanced the prospect of creating a developed society by the year 2020 and that is a desirable objective. But development has more to do with the cultivation of the all-round development of human beings than it has to do with the accumulation of worldly goods and the satisfaction of our animal needs as Karl Marx observed in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844). For several years, the National Urban League in the United States put out a scientific survey entitled, "State of Black America" in which it gave a detailed report on where African-Americans stood in terms of the economy. If the National Association for the Empowerment of African People (NAEAP) had the necessary funds we, too, would mount a similar survey to determine just where Africans stand in terms of jobs in the various professions; family incomes; attendance at university vis--vis the national population. It is only if such a survey could prepare us to understand our standing in any future Trinidad and Tobago.

Emancipation Day has always been set aside to commemorate the dreadful experiences of Africans in the New World under the terrible ordeal of European slavery in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and to communicate where we stood in our society at any given moment. In Trinidad and Tobago emancipation has been celebrated off and on since 1887 when African intellectuals and activists had a big row with Governor William Robinson as to how best to celebrate their glorious day. On August 1, 1888, fifty years after emancipation, Canon Philip Douglin, pastor of St. Clements Church in Ste. Madeleine, delivered the first Emancipation Day lecture in which he spoke about the psychological damage that slavery had done to enslaved Africans.

Canon Douglin was a Pan-Africanist. J. J. Thomas's Froudacity, a magisterial defense of African people against the tirades of James Anthony Froude, Professor of History at Oxford University, drew on the work of Canon Douglin. In 1891 Sylvester Williams of Arouca left Trinidad for the United States. Eventually, he arrived in London where he organized the first Pan African Conference in London in 1900 that spoke to the total liberation of African people on the continent and in the diaspora. In 1901 he returned to Trinidad to preach his message of African independence. Many of the leading intellectuals and activists at the time such as Emmanuel Lazare, Edgar Maresse-Smith, C. P. David, H. A. Nurse, the father of George Padmore, Joseph de Suze, the author of Little Folks Trinidad, and Steven Cobham, the author of Rupert Grey: A Tale in Black and White attended Williams' meetings. In San Fernando, according to the Mirror, representatives from "the most intelligent and better classes (both sexes) of the coloured and black sections of the town and the Naparimas" attended the meeting that was chaired by Canon Douglin. Mrs. Philip John, secretary of the Pan African group, described the work of Williams as "maturing the work begun by [Thomas] Clarkson and [William] Wilberforce."

The teachers in Port of Spain also held a dinner to honor Williams who urged them to instruct their students in such a way that they would become "interested in the welfare of their country and so imbued with manly principles, that they would stand squarely together in their own cause." H. A. Nurse attended the dinner. Williams could not predict that Nurse's son, George Padmore, would emerge as the "father of African emancipation" as one writer described him. Padmore, who died in 1959, became one of Kwame Nkrumah's most trusted advisers.

Dr. Eric Williams, the first prime minister of our country, was a close friend of Padmore who in1944 published the English edition of Dr. Williams' book The Negro in the Caribbean. In 1955 Dr. Williams traveled to London to discuss PNM's draft party program and constitution with Padmore, C. L. R. James, and Arthur Lewis even before the party was formed. Such a historical trajectory suggests a direct connection between our nationalist struggle of the 20th century and the emancipation movement of the19th century that is chronicled in the works and activities J. J. Thomas, Canon Douglin, Sylvester Williams, and George Padmore. Dr. Williams and the PNM took the lead to concretize this connection, and Prime Minister George Chambers completed the task when he declared August 1 a national holiday to officially commemorate the emancipation of enslaved Africans.

I recount this historic evolution of theory and practice to emphasize that the primary focus of Emancipation Day has always been the well-being of Africans in this land. As we contemplate the future of Africans in what we predict will be turbulent times, we need to recognize that although a black man was elected to the presidency of the United States black folks still have a long way to travel to achieve full equality as the arrest of my friend and colleague Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University demonstrates.

We are neither post-racial nor race neutral in this country. Race, as a determinant of our life chances, ought not to be minimized. Similarly, having a black prime minister and a black government in Trinidad and Tobago does not ensure that equality is guaranteed to all citizens nor that it will be in the future. In the absence of the attempt to empower Africans particularly through groups such as NAEAP one cannot be sure whether we are going forward or backward. Indeed, many believe that the latter is true.

Such a preamble brings me to the remarks made by our esteemed Member of Parliament Dr. Tim Gopeesingh about "ethnic cleansing" at the Port of Spain General Hospital and his observation that this institution is now an African hospital presumably because there are some Nigerians doctors work there now. In his worldview, there is no place for Africans in this land. If Tim Goopesingh does not know exactly what the term ethnic cleansing means after 1.5 million Armenians were killed in Turkey between 1915 and 1918; where close to one million Cambodians were killed in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979; and where almost one million Tutsis were killed in Rwanda in 1994, then I am more sorry for the country than I am for Dr. Gopeesingh especially when one contemplates the mentality of those persons who have put themselves forward as the leaders of an alternative government.

Ethnic cleansing is a war crime. The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes ethnic cleansing as "the attempt to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas through the deportation or forcible displacements of persons belonging particular ethnic groups." In 1948 the United Nations defined genocide as any of the following acts "committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group including a) killing members of that group; b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of that group; or c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." The people of Trinidad and Tobago will have to decide whether what transpired (and is transpiring) at the Port of Spain General Hospital and by extension the nation reaches that threshold level of ethnic cleansing.

These charges get even more bizarre when statistics confirm that 80 percent of the country's doctors are East Indians; 74 percent are radiographers while 44 percent are medical technologists. Approximately 55 percent of the medical doctors at the Port of Spain General Hospital are East Indians. Drawing on Thomas Sowell's work Kelvin, Baldeosingh has pointed out a tendency of certain groups to gravitate towards certain professions which may have little to do with racism and much more to do with ethnic preferences in terms of occupations.

This, too, can be a tricky proposition. In his article "Race or Cultural Preference?" (Express, July 26, 2009), Baldeosingh pointed out that close to 80 percent of the medical students in Trinidad are East Indians. This may not be so much about ethnic preference in professions since many of the medical doctors in Trinidad during the early part of the 20th century were Africans or Europeans. Today African students who want to study medicine choose to go abroad since they are systematically excluded from our local medical school. At Howard University in Washington D.C., Trinidad and Tobago has the second largest contingency of foreign students after Nigeria; many of them are studying medicine there because they could not get into our medical school.

I want to place another claim of ethnic discrimination in perspective. The Maha Sabha and other advocates for Indian superiority usually advance the claims that East Indians in the Civil Service are discriminated against even though I don't think they would go so far as to assert that ethnic cleansing exists in the Civil Service. Suffice it to say that the findings of eight cases of discrimination in a Civil Service of approximately 70,000 persons cannot be presented as a proof positive of the systematic discrimination of East Indians in the Service.

Such posturing leads to another example of how skewed things get in our society and how advocates of ethnic advantage seek to hide attempts at achieving racial advantage under the guise of democratic demands. I refer to a recent motion of no confidence in the attorney general that was passed by the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago. Fifteen of the 16 members of the Executive Council of the Law Association are East Indians which suggests that if we are not talking of racial preference we are certainly talking of ethnic dominance. Such a motion stuck us in NAEAP as the use of a respected institution to promote a racist agenda.

On June 6, 2009, we wrote to Mr. Martin Daly, president of the Law Association, to express our concerns. NAEAP could see no legitimate reason why the Law Association should "mount an attack on the Attorney General who had in the past demonstrated his mettle by putting his shoulder to the wheel in an attempt to weed out corruption at the highest level." We also noted the tendency of the Law Association to target Africans for disciplinary action and censure.

In his gracious reply to us on July 2, Mr. Daly rejected our charges and assured us that election to his Council was open to all regardless of color, creed, or race "provided they are willing to give up the considerable time necessary in order to serve," which suggests that only East Indians were willing to undertake the hard work of representing the legal profession. A meeting of NAEAP and ten other concerned groups that took place at Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union Building on July 18 to protest the racist posture of the Law Association got little coverage by the media although this meeting was held one day after Dr. Gopeesingh made his infamous comment on ethnic cleansing. We released a press statement on this matter. Nothing was heard about it. One might think the African community had no position on this matter or any other matter. In this country Africans were and continue to be voiceless.

This brings me to the central thrust of my argument. Dr. Gopeesingh is free to say what he wants to say; the Law Association is free to attack a black attorney general; and our medical school is free to take in who it wishes to even though such racial exclusion is illegal. The press of this country says nothing of the systematic silencing of our people, yet their headlines are blazoned with everything that is negative about black people. The Honorable Prime Minister has pointed out the bias of the press as has Stanley John, former Court Appeals Judge. Both have insisted on the media's responsibility to inform and to educate the public. Taking exception to these characterizations, the Express informed its readers that the Prime Minister "appears to have confused the media's duty to inform the public with the media's having an anti-Government bias" (Express, July 30).

Yet the truth remains: nothing that we say in the black community is ever reported as is evidenced by the press release we sent to the media about the Law Association. Nothing of importance to the black community is given any space in our media. No black person who expresses a view contrary to the dominant ideology of the media is ever given any space in the newspapers or on the television. Only negative stereotypes of African people are presented in our media. If one were to look at our newspapers on a daily basis, one would be led to believe that the only thing that black people do in Trinidad and Tobago is to kill and maim one another. Nothing of our uniqueness or our contributions to this society is ever published. Instead, anything that GOPIO or the Maha Sabha says is news. Nothing that NAEAP or the Emancipation Support Committee does ever make the news. Looking at our newspapers, no one would know of the tremendously important work that Brother Khafra Kambon is doing with the African Union.

Yet, we cannot cast all of the blame on the media. The black community has not built up its social and cultural resources to promote our achievements and to withstand the onslaught that will only intensify as time goes on. We do not support black organizations such as NAEAP and the Emancipation Support Committee. I can point to no one who has committed his or her resources to the work that NAEAP is doing. Although the founders of the Pan African movement were instrumental in commemorating emancipation, I am not entirely sure that our present government supports the work of African organizations as fully as they might. I call upon the government to give more systematic support to organizations such as ours.

Whether we like it or not, there will be turbulent times ahead for Africans in this country. Africans are now a minority in this society. The Central Statistical Office tells us that presently 40 percent of the population is East Indians whereas 37.5 percent are Africans. This divide is likely to grow as time goes on. If the ethnic trends in voting continue, it is likely that in the next ten years we might see the same pattern that has emerged in Guyana in which the dominant group will hold power in perpetuity. Ninety percent of our prisoners are Africans, and of these 50 percent are unable to read and write. Yet, the Maha Sabha has rejected the Education Act of 1965 in which Dr. Williams called for the total integration of our schools. The Maha Sabha is on record as saying that "schools are to promote love and duty (dharma), not to promote racial integration (douglarisation) or equality in mediocrity" (Express, April 16, 1998). Given the ideology of Tim Goopesingh, the trends seen in the Law and Medical Associations, and the racist exclusivity of the Maha Sabha, we can be sure that our children and our society will be in for turbulent times ahead.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? I think it is imperative that we practice consistent democracy in this land. Our government must be conscious of its responsibility to be seen as acting fairly to its entire people. It must also be aware of the implication of its actions. If we postpone the local elections for three terms for any reason, we should not be surprised if, in the future, a democratically elected government, say the UNC, postpones national elections for three five-year terms which could result in a party remaining in power for close to fifteen years, no matter what the reason it gives.

A government should not lose its moral authority to govern. We must make sure that whatever precedence we establish does not turn around to bite us in the back.

Dr. Williams, President Obama, and even our present government see the promotion of an emancipatory education as one of the ways out of our present dilemma. One must also see the development of entrepreneurial competence as an important adjunct to our quest for liberation. However, if we do not pull ourselves together as a group and support one another, I see only a negative future for Africans in this land. There are some higher class Africans who believe that they are better off than the lower class blacks; light skin blacks who feel they are better off than dark skin blacks; blacks who live in gated communities who feel they are more privileged than blacks who live in the ghetto; and educated blacks who look down contemptuously at less-educated blacks. In the final analysis, most of these distinctions are irrelevant if we do not feel and understand a commonality that is founded more on our culture than our color; on our social and cultural capital than our financial capital. Under the circumstances, I feel it is appropriate to leave you with words that have been attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Jews and
I did not speak out because
I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists and
I did not speak out because
I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists and
I did not speak out because
I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me.
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

Please, do not let this be the fate of any African person who is listening to my voice or who perchance may read my words.

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