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The Blackness of Black or, How Black is Really Black?

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 06, 2013

In responding to my article of her representation as to who was the first black legislator in Trinidad (see the Trinidad Express, July 26), Professor Bridget Brereton, one of our most distinguished historians, raised more questions than she answered even as she sought refuge in the philosophical theory called solipsism. Professor Brereton is unwilling to concede that St. Luce Philip possessed any blackness (or did he possess just a little bit?) because, as she says, he was of mixed race; light-complexioned; married a white wife and would not have considered himself black, nor would he have been so considered by Trinidad society in the 1830s.

She says Cyrus Prudhomme David was the real deal (the quintessential black man) because he was "a dark-skinned person of mainly or entirely of African descent," which makes him the first black legislator in T&T. In other words, all that David needed to qualify to be black was the color of his skin never mind the content of his cultural or social attributes.

Let us admit that the use of the word "black" to describe a person's race or ethnicity (they are sometimes used interchangeably) is not the most "scientific" or felicitous manner by which to define a person of African descent even if we all understand that within certain societies the word black is sometimes used as a synonym for a person of African descent. When I say that a person is black, I do not mean that he is literally black, but that he is and can be identified with social and cultural practices that characterize the African race.

In doing so it is clear that a person, any person, is defined primarily by his history (his position in time), his geography (his location in space), and the social and cultural mix that such positioning embodies. Therefore, if I say a person is an Indian, I intend to mark such a person as being from India and to suggest that his Indianness consists in the content of his historical and cultural experiences which, as we would agree, is different from the color of his skin.

In using such an analogy I admit I am generalizing to make a larger point since a country as diverse as India contains different ethnic groups, religions, languages, and cultures and that even in pronouncing a person Indian may not give the most comprehensive description of who or what s/he is. The generalization, however, is a useful point of departure to define someone from that Asian continent.

This brings me to the main point of my argument: that is, a person cannot be defined primarily by the color of his skin even though in societies such as the United States and South Africa one's color is a powerful signifier of a person's identity. Perhaps we can tweak C. L. R. James's race/class formulation to underscore this argument by saying that the color of a person's skin is always secondary in determining his or her identity and that to think of identity in terms of color is disastrous. However, to make the color factor merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.

Let us concede then that almost everything Professor Brereton says about Philip is correct but are these statements sufficient to rule him out of the race or to prevent us from identifying him as a person of African descent? She notes that St. Luce's cousin Michel Maxwell Philip was "light-complexioned and [possessed] 'European-type' facial features." However, Michel was proud of his African heritage and supported the liberation struggle of African-Americans. In fact, he wrote Emmanuel Appadocca (1854), the first novel of Trinidad and Tobago, because he was disturbed by "the cruel manner in which the slaveholders of America dealt with their slave children" (Preface, Emmanuel Appadocca).

I am not too sure Professor Brereton wishes to say that a person should be considered black (or blacker than black) because he or she possesses a dark skin and "Europeans features." If that were so, then even a Madrassi Indian would be considered blacker (and by her definition more African) than some Caribbean people of African descent. There are other permutations of the question, but the point is made.

An individual's identity is a social acquisition. He acquires such an identity because he is born into (or is a member of) a social and cultural group that possesses certain social and cultural characteristics. To be sure, he or she may grow to despise his linkage with that group and change his affiliation but that is to argue for the exception rather than the rule and we know that one should not generalize from exceptions.

Philip and David were both men of African descent which, by common consent, make them black. Since St. Luce Philip sat in the Legislative Council sixty-six years before David, logic dictates he is the first black person who sat in T&T's legislature. While I agree with Professor Brereton that we need greater precision when we use these "slippery and ever-changing terms," I hope she can allow us to split the difference by accepting that both Philip and David were black men even though David may have been more vociferous and committed to the empowerment of people of African descent than St. Luce Philip was.

Professor Cudjoe, a professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. His email address is and can be followed on twitter @ProfessorCudjoe.

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