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A Letter of Comfort

Candidate for Laventille West (N.J.A.C) Makandal Daaga
Candidate for Laventille West (N.J.A.C) Makandal Daaga

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 12, 2010

Dear Mr. Manning:

I was disappointed when you called upon Makandal Dagga to apologize to Christians for his having desecrated [your words] the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception during the Black Power Revolt of 1970. I was even more disturbed when you castigated him for wearing a dashiki in these post-Black Power Days although you wear African clothes on Emancipation Day, one of the few concessions that you make towards your African-ness.

In your speech, you reminded Christians that what happened in the past is likely to happen in the future so that they ought to be on their guard against Dagga. Therefore, you requested that the leadership of the R. C. Church demand "a letter of comfort" from Mr. Dagga to assuage their doubts and to ease their fears. Given Mr. Dagga's busy schedule, I thought I would provide you with a letter of comfort since you display a misunderstanding of our history particularly when he is contributing to the national debate of healing and understanding.

As I listened to your remarks, I was tempted to remind you that the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church were used to enslave Africans in this land. As early as 1789 the governing authorities issued a Cedula which made every slave owner obligated to instruct his slaves in the principles of Roman Catholicism. It did not matter if the enslaved Africans were Igbo or Hausa and that they practiced Yoruba or Islam that believed in monotheism and an afterlife.

In 1797 when Ralph Abercromby captured Trinidad for the British, only the Roman Catholic Church was recognized by law and supported by the Government. After February 1797, every person landing in Trinidad had to become a Roman Catholic or be prevented from worshipping in any other church. Thank God, the Hindus hadn't arrived on these shores yet.

From 1817 to 1824, the British Government asked the churches to assist them in preparing enslaved Africans for emancipation. An Order in Council of 1824 provided religious instructions for all the slaves and ordered the clergymen to deliver to the Commandant of each Quarter (something analogous to a county) the name and place of abode of every enslaved African who was instructed in the principles of religion. In 1834 when slavery was abolished the Home Government gave lots of money to instruct the newly-freed Africans in the Christian religion.

I cite these facts to let you know that the Roman Catholic and the other established churches played a large role in obliterating the religion of African peoples and contributing to our dispossession in this land. In 1848 Lord Harris was forced to affirm that "a race has been freed but a society has not been formed" and in 1970 at a special PNM Convention Eric Williams reminded us that Trinidad and Tobago was founded on the European colonial values of racism-the assumed superiority of white over black.

At that convention which I am sure you attended Dr. Williams asserted that "the most pernicious affect of colonialism...for the West Indies has been that many Black people have 'internalized' this [European] value system and have come to believe in the deepest recesses of their minds that black is in fact inferior to white. Black dignity in the Caribbean, as elsewhere in the New World, will be achieved only if [a] sense of worth is established [among Black people.]"

It was this revulsion against presumptions of white superiority that led the followers of Black Power to call for the elimination of all manifestations of whiteness from their systems and their accompanying symbols. I am sure you would remember that the promotion of African cultural values was an inescapably part of that revolution of values that took place among black Trinbagonians.

I do not know where you were when this revolution against the pernicious influences of whiteness was taking place but I know that the Church began to take a deeper look into its participation in a value system that was detrimental to the liberation of the African person. Out of this ferment came a theology of liberation.

Therefore, to the degree that the doctrines and symbols of the Roman Catholic Church contributed to the devaluation of the lives of Black people it is to that degree that the purveyors of Black power were correct to consider painting the entire church in black if such an action contributed to our spiritual reclamation.

You are fond of telling the story that when you first went up for screening Dr. Williams asked you if you read Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. You would remember that Fanon talked about the cleansing nature of violence as a way to expunge the crippling psychological aspects that colonialism had upon the psyche of our people. While Dr. Williams may not have agreed with painting all of the symbols of the Roman Catholic Church black he would certainly have understood such a desire on the part of any progressive black man of the time was perfectly reasonable.

It is commendably that such an action did not take place but to ask Mr. Dagga to apologize for a gesture that spoke to the psychological cleansing of the wretched of this nation is to blaspheme against all that is best in our people. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates an ignorance of what we, as a people, had to overcome to get us where we are today.

I hope that you give a second thought to your utterances. Perhaps you may have the courage to apologize to our brother for your ignoble suggestions. As Dr. Williams understood only too well, we can only reconstruct our society if we understand where we were in the past; what we had to do to get where we are today; and the imperative that we honor those who helped us to see our condition particularly at moments when we tend to be blinded by our eyes and become tone deaf by our rhetoric.

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