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My Reflections on the Black Power Conference

(Oh Yeah, It Actually Had One)

By Corey Gilkes
October 02, 2010

From the 17th – 19th September the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies was the venue for a conference marking the 40th anniversary of the 1970 Black Power Movement. This conference was preceded on the 16th by a panel discussion at the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies.

I was privileged to attend the panel discussion as well as Day 2 and 3 of the conference and listen to the various scholars and personalities, some of whom were active participants of the Movement, present their papers. All in all a lot of very important and interesting points and anecdotes were brought up particularly during the periods for questions. Just when I thought that the books already written covered pretty much all of the main facts of this very important period in this nation's history – particularly Selwyn Ryan's Black Power Revolution – certain discussions showed just how much more needs to be analysed, discussed and more importantly taught.

Which brings me to what I really want to get off my chest: the way conferences like these tend to come and go without the most important people (to me anyway), those of the "babahgreen," to borrow Sprangalang's term, participating or even knowing about them. The conference, like a few others I have attended over the years, was for the most part an exercise in intellectual incest; a lot of preaching to the "converted" and in fact, many of the listening audience turned out to be other presenters!

Now I recognise that there has to be some space where academics and other learned people can meet or discuss among themselves. But if, at the end of it all, themes and events like these do not reach and enlighten the ordinary people, then how are they going to become enlightened? How are they going to possess the knowledge, self-confidence, pride to transform their various spaces? Indeed, how are they going to provide more people for the clichéd ivory tower? I myself only knew about the conference because I collect and read the Trinidad and Tobago Review. But what about those who do not (or cannot) read it or read at all? What about the people who one would expect to be the most important target group – those aged 21 and under – who generally pay little attention to mainstream media and who have no understanding about, let alone respect for, historical events that facilitated the things they take for granted today?

As ah saying so, ah wonder if I's de only one who pick up on de fact that while dis focus on one of the most seminal periods of we nation history was held on UWI campus, it had very little UWI students attending it.....wha's dat one dred? At least during the George Padmore Conference I saw a couple of A-Level classes present on at least one of the days. Then again – I have to give allyuh this story – during that conference, I ran into an old friend of mine who was doing her degree in sociology and she had no idea who George Padmore was. This is what happens when we want to compartmentalise everything. Even when I got there on Saturday, I ended up on a know-your-campus-tour before I found the conference the building right near to whe I did park mih car in the first place.

My point is that this conference was as important as the historical event of the "February Revolution" itself and need not be treated like a state secret. Discussions like these not only educate but also provide spaces where networks are formed, ideas are traded and solutions to problems may be developed. Have we adequately identified and targeted a group or audience and reached out to them using the available technology to its fullest? One of the presenters, Josanne Leonard, made a very important point. She spoke about using the Internet and features like Skype, to organise podcasts, video conferencing, etc, to transmit these kinds of conferences and discussions to far flung areas of the country (which really eh dat far eh). In much the same way Lionel Seukeran, Lloyd Best and many others used to go all over the place holding rap sessions in and under people's homes and in bars (trust mih, I know, I've been to quite a few), the same way we can stay from wherever we choose and use people's homes and cyber cafes, of which there is no shortage even in most rural areas, to create venues for new types of interactive rap sessions.

Now I fully understand what my friend Tyehimba Salandy was saying when he complained about the difficulty in getting local media, especially state-run media houses, to support indigenous and Afri-centred programmes, etc. But while I understand, I am no longer prepared to accept that. It is no longer a reason as it is an excuse and don't mean that to disrespect or take away from what he said at the conference. My point is that advances in technology have made a lot of the traditional media all but irrelevant. The power some people once held in determining what the media did and didn't highlight has long since been broken. In any event, as I said before, for various reasons many young people don't pay much attention to most of the established media houses anyway and have essentially created their own. The challenge more has to do with how do we get and keep their interest given that for many of them the academic study of the past – or the study of anything that is not directly linked to making "ah money" – holds next to no interest (Best used to suggest we use their popular music as an avenue). More importantly, how do we get them to see the importance of any of this in what is increasingly being called, and dishonestly so, a "post-racial," "global" community? Don't get me wrong, it is very heartening to see what the struggles and challenges to the old, more overt racist, sexist and classist institutions of white masculine privilege have brought about. But I believe one of the reasons many youths have such an anti-intellectual, apolitical, disposition is because of the insidiousness of the new racism and patricentrism. The one that creates a seductive idea that to be enlightened (or cool) is to be colour-blind (ent America have a black president now? Wha more proof yuh want?) and to embrace a model that focuses on the "bottom line" (material wealth, profit margins, etc) and in the case of TnT, narrow, outdated ideas of development/industrialisation.

To the conscious observer this streamlining of ideas and blurring of identities, indeed the positing of the notion that to view the world and history through prisms of ethnicity, culture, gender and sex is backward or counter-progressive is itself a masking of old racist, patricentric ideologies. The conscious observer can see straight through that – as Burton Sankeralli seems to have done judging by the handout he circulated all through the conference entitled 1970 or the 70'S? What is projected as the progressive, enlightened model incorporates the same traits, ideas, mannerisms, moralities and assumptions that informed the masculinist, aggressive, racist and religiously bigoted assumptions of the ancien regime....just in a much nicer form and now championed by those who were the victims of it. Put in a different way, the physical violence that undergirded enslavement, Jim Crow, colonialism and Euro-centred expansionism has merely been replaced by psychological, economic and environmental violence. But it is still violence.

We must keep in mind that the political changeover on May 24 was only a change of administration. The colonial institutions are for the most part still there, many people are still myopically tribal, and many are still politically unconscious although they are clearly struggling to become more aware and mature. There is much work to be done at the grassroots level to create the new politics often talked about (if not always sincerely) and the sense of identity that will empower in a real sense and to put restraints on the holders of high office no matter who they are (already we are seeing signs that some reining in is needed).

Which is why conferences such as the one just concluded and the weekly sessions such as what David Mohammed and the people at the Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies are so important. But that is not enough; there has to be more people interacting, debating, talking, reasoning, exchanging, cussing if need be, to tease out new ideas informed by clear understanding of what was if we are to make any headway. We can point fingers to Dr Williams and the Afro/Indo-Saxon middle class who messed up our independence and continue to do so even now. But we were and are their accomplices and will remain their accomplices if we continue to do things the way we are doing.

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