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A Society in Transition: A Community at the Crossroads

Emancipation Lecture 2010

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: August 04, 2010

This lecture was delivered on July 31, 2010 at the Center of Excellence, Macoya, Trinidad

This evening we are pleased that Professor Maxwell Richards, the president of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and his wife Ms. Jean Ramjohn Richards, newly elected prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, and her worthy colleague Mr. Jack Warner have consented to join us this evening at our tenth annual Emancipation Day Dinner. We are also pleased that Mr. Keith Rowley and his wife have been able to share this important day with us. I especially want to welcome Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar to congratulate her on her victory and to say to her that we at the National Association for the Empowerment of African People and most African people in this society genuinely compliment you on your elevation as the first woman prime minister of our land. We share in the sentiments of Indo-Mauritian author Leel Gujadhu Sarup who observed: "I feel good about her victory. As someone who has researched indentureship, this result bring tears to my eyes. There are no limits for an Indian woman to prove her worth."

This sentiment resonated with me since I too am a researcher into the history of Trinidad and Tobago and find myself at this moment compiling a book entitled Indian Time Ah Come, in the same spirit in which about two decades ago at the Beijing conference the women of this part of the world were singing "Woman time ah come, oh yeah!" So this work is meant to be complementary as I trace the ascendancy of East Indians coming to power since they arrived in this country in 1845.

But there is an important footnote to this story. After completing the first draft of this book, I sent a copy of it to Professor Arnold Rampersad of Stanford University for his comments. It is something that most academics do. You ask another colleague to look at your ideas and to make his comments. After reading the book, Professor Rampersad made an important observation that I want to share with you this evening. He said: "We must all wish Kamla well and expect her to do the best for all of us in the nation. Whether we are PNM, COP or PP we should not want her to fail because if she fails, it means that all of us fail." Then he brought up a compelling analogy. He reminded me about a comment Rush Limbaugh, the conservative American talk show host, made on the verge of the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States. He stated on his show, "I hope Obama fails." He went to say, "I disagree fervently with the people on our side [the Republican side] of the aisle who have caved in and who say 'Well, I hope he succeeds. We have to give him a chance.'" All of us, particularly black people, who supported Obama were aghast that anyone would want President Obama to fail in the midst of the worst economic crisis that had gripped the world since the 1930s, and we wondered, "How could someone wish that the president of that great country fail?" It is something none of us could countenance.

So, Madame Prime Minister, if we at the NAEAP or any of our African brothers and sisters wish that your administration fails, we would be operating out of a similar mindset that informed Rush Limbaugh's thinking and one that cannot be propitious for the well-being of our nation, particularly when we see the results of Thursday's floods and the spate of killings that have gotten more intense since your party took over the reins of government.

In a way, this is a personal matter. Yesterday, my cousin was killed in the Congo. His killer shot him twelve times. For those of you who don't know where the Congo is, it is just outside the vicinity of Arima. When I asked my neighbor why they call that area the Congo, he said forthrightly, "Because Congo people live in that area." When I asked another neighbor who lived in the Congo, she said, "Only bad people live there." We cannot allow these crimes to continue so that we, in the opposition, can point a finger at the government five years hence and say, "We told you so." Too many lives would be lost, a country would have been devastated, and the happiness and tranquility that we all hope for this land would not be attained. So, as patriots, we genuinely wish the prime minister and her government well and hope that they govern in a way that conduces to the benefit of all of us.

But there is a paradox here. We know that all the best wishes in the world cannot remove you and your government from the realm of human frailty. So that while we wish you and your government the best and are committed to your success for the next five years unless sometime in October you get it into your head to make an entry into your calendar that states you need to have an election to increase the number of seats that your party has in the Legislature. I don't quite know how Jack Warner, your guru, would respond, but then that is a matter that you and your party will have to work out.

It goes without saying that as we genuinely offer you our best wishes that we, in NAEAP, stand ready to assist the government in any endeavor it wishes to undertake to transform the conditions of black people in this land. Over the years as I have stood at this podium I have tried to outline the most pressing issues that face African people in this land. This year, the theme of our celebration of emancipation is "A Society in Transition: A Community at the Crossroads." Last year, at our Emancipation Ceremony, I made the following observation:
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 times goes on. We do not support black organizations such as NAEAP and the Emancipation Committee. I can point to no one who has committed 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 not a minority in this society. The Central Statistical Office tells us that presently 40 percent of the population is East Indians [It might be as much as 42 percent], 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 those 50 percent are unable to read and write. Yet, 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. Given the ideology of Tim Gopeesingh [at that time he was talking about ethnic cleansing] and the racial exclusivity of the Maha Sabha, we can be sure that our children and our society will be in for turbulent times.
In 2008 I entitled my lecture, "Choosing Your Coffins," in which I made the following observation:
Africans have been the first persons [in this country] to begin the liberation struggle yet remain the last group that is struggling still to be free. Young men in our inner cities or in the ghetto as they like to call their place of residence are choosing their coffins as one of our calypsonians, Maximus Dan, reminds us. Few of them expect to live beyond thirty years of age. In our ghettos death stalks our children and young people with a vengeance, a condition that characterized the era of slavery. During slavery few Africans lived beyond the age of thirty. One was fortunate if one survived the cruelty and punishment of that evil system.

So even as we commemorate one hundred and seventy years of formal freedom, we face a massive crisis on many fronts and while we are aware that we cannot expect government to do everything for us, people in democratic countries elect governments to do the things they necessarily cannot do for themselves. When African people elect a black government to conduct its affairs, it expects that its chief function of that government is to take of their affairs.

The state of Black Trinidad and Tobago is not as good as it ought to be.
I raised these concerns two years ago in the presence of the then prime minister on behalf of the African community in Trinidad and Tobago. At the time, the predominantly black government did not see fit to endorse the idea of making a sustained effort to deal with the problems that affect black children and black youth. Two years later the conditions of the black youth have deteriorated, sinking to catastrophic levels. I began my speech by saying that my cousin was assassinated in the Congo yesterday. It was a targeted murder since the assassins took neither the gold nor the money that was on his person. Honesty demands that I acknowledge that he was a pusher of drugs. Three other young black men were killed in the Congo over the past two days.

As I noted previously when I asked my neighbor who is in his thirties why they call the area the Congo, he asserted casually, "Because Congo people live there." When I asked another neighbor around the same age "Who lives in the Congo?" she replied, "Uncle Selwyn, only bad people live there." It never occurred to either of these two young people that they should ask "where the real Congo is" and why they would call a place that breeds so much antisocial behavior and so much crime and killing the Congo.

Last night I went to the dead house as we say. Hundreds of black youth, looking purposeless and seemingly in need of guidance had come to show their solidarity with their friend and to bid him farewell. While I was there I commenced a conversation with a young woman who works at this very Center of Excellence. She said, "Selwyn, the Center of Excellence borders the Tunapuna Cemetery. Every day I witness the funeral of black youths. Usually, they wear the picture [or photograph] of the deceased on their jerseys."

Then it occurred to me that we are losing a generation of young men. You ask why such senseless killing? But then it turns out that these killings may not be as senseless as they seem. These young people are venting a rage that does not seem to have any other outlet than a kind of savage getting back at society through the only means they know how: demonstrate their macho-ness though acts of physical violence and the annihilation of their so-called adversaries.

The next question one may ask is this: What are the values to which these youths subscribe? We cannot say they do not subscribe to any values, because no matter how despicable those values might be to us, no matter how destructive those values might be to themselves and others, no matter how anti-human those values may seem, they still reflect a set of beliefs and feelings-call it ideology-to which they subscribe and which directs how they respond to their world.

If this is true, the question becomes: How do we change those values and thereby challenge the resulting behaviors in ways that contribute to their survival and the best overall interest of the society?

You would remember that they called their place of residence the Congo. I am not too sure if they know that there are two Congos in Africa today: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the third largest country in Africa, and the Republic of the Congo or Congo-Brazzaville, Brazzaville being the capital of this smaller region. I do not know if these residents of our Congo know the history of the conflict that has plagued this region in recent time; that since 1998, there have been close to 3.5 million deaths from violence, disease, and starvation. Nowadays in the DRC, Tutsi rebels fight the government that is accused of supporting the Hutu refugees that were responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda where close to one million people died.

I am not too sure that the people of this area who named their place of abode "the Congo" know the significance or relevance of these facts and the turmoil that has pushed this area into a serious state of unrest over the last two decades. I don't even know if they set out to emulate the political violence that we see in this area. But what we must know is that some of these residents have chosen the worst reference by which and through which to define their lives. And if it is that they have patterned their lives consciously or unconsciously after the most negative example of some of the African people who live in this region it seems to me that our society has a lot of work to do to transform their mentality and challenge their energies into more productive enterprises. In fact, what we see happening in our Congo on this emancipation day may just be a metaphor of our time.

Make no mistake abou it. As long as the antisocial behavior persists in these and similar communities and the killing of young black men proceeds at its present pace, very soon the black community will be denied its most productive workers and our most potent procreators. Losing these young men at the zenith child-bearing years could have devastating consequences on the family, the group, and the economy. More important, at the very least, it can lose a generation of people and lead to a continued dip in the percentage of Africans in the population.

I repeat, black people are in crisis. How we turn around this crisis constitutes the major challenge of our society over the next generation. What we lack most in the black community is a sense of self and of self-respect. I am an educator. I believe in the power of education rather than in the endearments of certification. Today there are more certified black people than there were yesterday, but the state of the black community is worse today than it was yesterday, which means that additional certification is not the answer to our problems. I believe in the power of social capital over and above the power of financial capital no matter how important the latter might be.

Part of the answer lies in our inaugurating a broader based education agenda that allows young black children to take pride in themselves and in their past: not only in an African past but in the past of their forefathers in Trinidad and Tobago such as Daaga, Philip Douglin, Sylvester Williams, Prudhomme David, Tubal Uriah Butler, C. L. R. James, and Eric Williams. Our students ought to know about the contributions that Africans have made to world civilization, in areas of religion, philosophy, and science. Most of all, they need to know that they can be anything that they want to be and that their community no longer looks down on entrepreneurship which is such an important element in our development.

Then there needs to be programs that employ and engage these young men in developing their mental and social faculties. It's to the lasting shame of the last government that over the last ten years it has spent more money in the building of stadia and other complexes without developing a library system that should have spanned the length and breath of Trinidad and Tobago. And in this context, I speak of libraries not simply as places where one can borrow books but as a place where the community can congregate and thereby engage the world through a whole system of integrative technologies that are fit for both the young and old alike.

There should be learning centers throughout the island where children, black as well as Indians, can go to do their homework and learn about civic, social, and moral values. For the past six years NAEAP has maintained a school to achieve some of these objectives but we had to close it down because of the lack of support. How could we hope to train our youths if we do not engage those organizations that are vitally concerned with their well-being? It just seems to me that African-centered organizations are much more likely to reach more African youths than centers that are not designed to reach them in ways in which they are specially geared to fit their needs.

And for God's sake let us get back the spirit of doing for self; sacrificing for ourselves and our progeny rather than standing in line for a handout. Whatever we do, let us get back to the notion that once persisted in our community that mama may have; papa may have, but God bless the child that has its own. The world owes us nothing. As Gandhi was wont to say, "We must become the change we expect to see in the world." We must become the change agents in our society.

Today the African community finds itself at a crossroads. We are quickly becoming irrelevant and the quality of our particular civilization is diminishing. We are in a crisis and one of the ways to arrest this deterioration is for the government to call together a conference or a meeting of the relevant African groups and those who possess the necessary expertise to put together a ten-year plan that allows Africans to find the necessary means to act in ways conducive to their own self-interest and the well-being of the nation. Unless we do this, the killing will continue, crime will continue to increase, and those who can will continue to reproduce themselves without any serious consideration of what it means for the overall progress of the race and of the nation.

Theory without practice is blind but action without any conception of what we want to conceive is disastrous. We may pop the necks of those who commit capital crimes, but it may be wise to recast the words of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the great Haitian liberator, who said, "In overthrowing me, you have cut down in San Dominique only the trunk of the tree of liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep." This may not be the proper analogy, but the causes we are trying to fight for in black communities such as the Congo are numerous as well as they are deep. Unless we tend to the cause of these behaviors, we are likely to be faced with them for a long time.

Madame Prime Minster, there is a lot of urgent national work ahead. One cannot afford to live in a society or take comfort from the fact that one of the strongest limbs of your society is in trouble. We have outlined a plan of action and stand ready to assist in any way in which you think we can help. At the end of the day, all of us, no matter what our religious, ethnic, or party affiliations, are in the business of building a better Trinidad and Tobago. It benefits us nothing if we do not get hold of that which is dysfunctional and summon up all our nerves and sinews to turn this thing around.

In his book The Religion of the Yorubas, J. Olumide Lucas observed that "religion dominates the whole life of the Yorubas, and therefore their conception of man is essentially religious." He goes on to tell us that "man [and by that he means men and women] is viewed from the standpoint of his relations to the gods; his life in the present state of existence and his destiny in the future life are all brought into the orbit of religious conceptions." In other words, African men and women always stand in a tripartite relationship between his gods; his present being, and his disposition in the future world. In order to keep in balance, African men and women should also try to stay in some kind of unity with these forces: that is, your relationship with your god; your responsibility to your brothers and sisters while you live on this earth so that you can prepare yourself for what may greet you in the future world. We owe it to ourselves to be involved in improving the lives of our brothers and our sisters while we live on this earth.

My grandmother and by extension the great-grandmother of Bevon, who was murdered in the Congo, was an avid devotee of the Shango festivities. She never missed the annual four-day ceremony which usually began on a Tuesday night with a prayer meeting. On these nights of the festivities Eshu (or Esu) who is identified with Satan, had to be dismissed before powers of good could be summoned. In order to do this an assistant brought a calabash filled with water and ashes (Satan's food) into the palais and placed it on the ground as the devotees sang the following song for Eshu:
Satan go away from here,
We want nothing to do with you.
We ask you to run away from here.
Do not interfere in our business.
We are going to give you everything we have.
We have no use for you.
We compel you to stay outside and not come in.
We are glad we can keep you away from our ceremony.
The calabash was then carried outside the palais and emptied, symbolizing the ejection of Eshu from the ceremony.

After Eshu was dismissed, Ogun, the god of iron and war, who symbolizes protection and help to achieve success was summoned as the worshipers chanted:
We have already given Satan all that he wants.
We ask Ogun to stand at the gate.
To prevent Eshu from coming in.
Prevent Satan interfering in our dance.
We ask you to prevent Satan from coming in
For you are the conqueror of Satan.
We are glad Ogun that you have answered our prayer
And we have prevented Satan from entering our dance.
Protect us during the time of our feast and our ceremony.
We are going to rejoice in the name of God
In our feast and our ceremony as long as you stand at the gate.
Tonight we ask that Ogun stand at our gates and protect us from the harm that is threatening from all around, particularly at the crossroads at which we stand. In Yoruba thought, the crossroads represent the juncture of the spiritual and phenomenal or sensory world. It is a luminal space where sacrifices are often placed and where the trickster deity also resides. And, as one theorist has noted, "As an ambivalent spot, it is also a perfect place to make a ritual adjustment."

Today we stand at an ambivalent spot in our history. We need to make a ritual adjustment in terms of where we wish to go. If we do not make that decision, as my brother Giles would say, "ALL FALL DOWN." If we don't take stock, we will pay for it dearly. The question remains: What sacrifices are we, as a people, willing to make to take us over the threshold? The crossroads is an ambivalent spot. Somewhere, deep within our bosoms, we must find the courage and the wisdom to make that adjustment. Literally, it could mean the difference between life and death.

As we do so, may the Supreme Powers bless our nation and all the endeavors that we undertake to achieve our salvation.

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