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Demonizing Black People

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
November 25, 2020

"Me nah know how we and dem a go work this out/But someone will have to pay/for the innocent blood/that they shed every day."

—Bob Marley, "We and Dem"

There is a notion that Trinis are a happy-go-lucky people, a description that may be more applicable to African-descended people than to members of other groups of the population. Such a description may be more illustrative of those of us whose world view has been influenced by African religions and philosophies as put forth by John Mbiti in African Religion and Philosophy, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, or Chigozie Obioma's An Orchestra of Minorities.

Such a notion ("happy-go-lucky Trinis") has led others to believe that we care mostly about the celebration of the flesh and other worldly pursuits as depicted in our carnival celebration. Some have even said that while their people were "beating books, we were beating pan," a cavalier dismissal of an important aspect of our creativity and identity.

This is why we should examine the Avinash Sawh incident more carefully. Some may argue that Sawh was directing his anger at an unfortunate Black woman who was trying to better herself while others are convinced that it reveals the contempt that other groups have for us. At its worst, it signifies our deteriorating economic status and solidifies our position as the footstool of the society.

Dr. Sawh presented his wealth as one of his major attributes, while dunciness (intellectual and economic backwardness) was the defining aspect of Black people. He was contemptuous of what he saw as our non-redeeming values and non-contributors to our society. As he looked down upon us from the pinnacle of his financial wealth, all he saw was our miserableness.

Dr. Sawh never saw his medical gift (the healing of the sick) as a way of contributing to the uplift of his brothers and sisters. Nor does he see the practice of medicine as a special bond between a physician and his patient, an act of faith in which the latter places his most precious attribute (his life) into the care and keeping of the former. Too many human beings lose their lives when doctors see them merely as a means to acquire more money.

Few people are likely to place their lives into the hands of a physician or surgeon who possesses the racial views Sawh holds. When I was operated upon for prostate cancer, I placed my life into the hands of the doctors and nurses who were assembled to ensure my wellbeing. I never believed that I was given lesser or inferior care because of my race.

Dr. Sawh is a naturalized citizen who emigrated from Guyana to Trinidad several years ago. This is not and should not be an important fact under normal circumstance. However, his acceptance of Trinbagonian citizenship takes on a different dimension when one realizes that what should have been accepted as a blessing (his having prospered in his new land) was used as a machete to castigate those who offered him that blessing and made his wealth possible.

Dr. Sawh's behavior is almost as unforgivable as that of an Afro-Trinbagonian who goes to the United States, becomes a naturalized citizen, prospers and then castigates Black Americans for not having the fortitude or intelligence to utilize the benefits that land of honey offered him. It is almost as though he forgot that the wealth and prestige he obtained arose because of the arduous and unrelenting struggles of African-Americans.

Using the color of one's skin as the sole criterion for offering a job to someone in a multicultural society can lead to disastrous consequences. This is not a long leap from using other physical criteria to get a job in our society. In China today, certain employers in job descriptions use the height, weight, and attractiveness of women as requirements for employment. The New York Times reports: "In a 2015 job posting, Alibaba said applicants must have 'reasonably good looks.' Female ushers hired for the 2008 Beijing Games were told that they had to have a 'standard body shape with good proportions,' and only those between 5 foot 6 and 5 foot 10 were considered" (November 16).

Ethiopia is a multiethnic society. Until recently, it enjoyed a fair amount of ethnic tolerance although the Tigrayans, with just 6 percent of the population, dominated national politics. Two weeks ago, violence broke out between the Tigray People's Liberation Front which ruled Ethiopia for 27 years and the present government installed in 2018 and led by Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Prize-winner.

On Thursday Amnesty International said that "scores likely hundreds, of supposedly, mainly ethnically Amhara residents of southwest Tigray were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra with machetes….The human rights group also had digitally verified gruesome photographs and video of bodies strewn across the town," adding that the dead "had gaping wounds that appeared to have been inflicted by sharp weapons such as knives and machetes." (FT, November 14).

These atrocities led Josep Borrell and Janez Lenarcic, officials of the European Union, to observe that "ethnically targeted measures, hate speech and allegations of atrocities occurring in Ethiopia are deeply worrying. The demonization of ethnic groups is a vicious and lethal cycle from which Ethiopia must be spared."

Ethnic relations, in any society, can break down within the twinkling of an eye unless we listen to the cries of those groups that are suffering from ethnic bias and do something about it. Dr. Sawh's outburst signifies a larger problem that demands immediate attention.

Forty years ago Bob Marley warned about the consequences when such social breakdowns go unheeded. Let us learn from our prophets and do something about it.

Prof. Cudjoe's email is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe