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African rising

August 8, 1999
By Selwin R Cudjoe

Although we celebrated Emancipation Day a week ago, I offer some thoughts from Making Love Across the Atlantic, a work in progress. An analysis of 19th century Trinidad narratives in their international perspectives, it examines the construction of a people through their writings. In the process, however, it demonstrates how Africans in Trinidad came to terms with their Africanness. Indira Maharj to the contrary (See "Seasonal Africans", Express August 6), the struggle to articulate what it means to be an African in this society was always part and parcel of our existence.

In this context, it is important to note that the literary and writerly life in Trinidad in the 1870s evinced itself in the inauguration of literary criticism and the reviewing of books that examined local subject matter. In February 1870, the Trinidad Chronicle reproduced a review of JJ Thomas's The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar that appeared in the Anti-Slavery Reporter of December 31, 1869. The reviewer noted that the publication of Creole Grammar proved that someone of "pure African descent" possessed the "natural capacity for purely intellectual pursuits". Some years later, the Trinidad Chronicle printed an excerpt from An Essay on the Philology of the Creole Dialect that Thomas delivered at the London Philological Society in which he reiterated that "Creole, Negro-French or patois" was spoken throughout the Caribbean. He asserted that the "very curious question which remains as yet undetermined is the extent and nature of the modifying influences the idioms of Africa had on the formation and characteristics of the Creole. There seems to be wanting but little evidence more to prove the existence of a dominant African language, bearing to the dialects whose peculiarities characterise the Creole in a relation similar to that which is borne by Sanskrit to the Indo-European languages, or less remotely, the relation which the Latin bears to the Roman dialects".

The 1870s was also a period in which the dominant class attempted to deligitimise all expressions of indigenous culture and promoted a discussion between civility (the behaviour of the whites) and savagery (the cultural practices of the Africans and the Indians). As one critic puts it in another context, this "legitimisation discourse was premised on an investment of whiteness as a uniquely valued property in a society predicated on the power differential inscribed in phenotype". This debate between those who were presumed to be civilised versus those who were thought to be savage located itself at the centre of the primary school education which, among other things, presented itself as a war between those who supported the Ward Schools (secular) and the prelates and their adherents who supported the church schools.

The contrast between civility and savagery, so central to Europe's civilising mission, was transmitted to our students by the church and the school. Inadvertently, Robert Guppy, Inspector of Schools, found himself participating in this dis-alienating discourse when, in his Report of 1875, he bemoaned that poor children in the primary schools spoke patois. Pouncing on this (mis) reading, the editors of the Trinidad Chronicle reminded Guppy that if he took "the trouble to read a work written by a Creole author (Thomas) upon the subject, he will see that what is known here as Creole is a perfectly distinct language, and that there is no reason why it should not be treated as such". Arriving at a perfectly enlightened conclusion, the editors concluded: "It is most desirable, nay most essential, that the children in our schools should be taught the English language, but this should not be done in a way to teach them at the same time to be ashamed of being Creoles or of foreign extraction. Let the Inspector of Schools then leave us in the possession of our Creole patois. He may rest assured that it will never become the language of the sedition."

In this period, the missionary-educational discourse fashioned and supported the authoritarian practices at the heart of the colonial enterprise. Although Christianity spoke about the ideals of human equality, its use of metaphors such as "satanic travesties," "savage customs" and "sons of Ham" reinforced the powerful cultural idioms of colonial domination. In this sense, festivals such as Hosay and Carnival and religio-cultural practices such as Obeah and Myalism acted as counter discourses and thereby reinforced our people's sense of themselves. They mitigated the alienating practices that the alliance between religion and education promoted.

Necessarily, the debates that took place in the 19th century around how Emancipation Day should be celebrated had nothing to do with Sat Maharaj or a UNC government. Today, it is true that their racism has caused Africans to pinch themselves. It is utopian and sheer dotishness to suggest that those who celebrate Emancipation Day are merely "seasonal Africans". Being African inheres in the very condition of our lives. Over-standing the dis-alienating effects that a Christian education has had on our people is an important part of our self-reconstruction.

Emancipation celebrations are a necessary corrective. It recognises that the struggle for self-hood and authenticity is a difficult task and that the obstacles placed in our way are multifold. Yet, the faith and strength that allowed us to survive slavery and colonialism are evident in everything that we do; in every progressive activity that we undertake. Our Africanness remains the foundation of our hopes; the impetus to achieve our noblest dreams. It is the one firm foundation upon which we stand as we face the world.

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