May 17, 2000
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By Terry Joseph
TO discover that, as a national of Trinidad and Tobago, you finally accomplish some lifelong pursuit, only to be later told that it was primarily on the basis of ethnicity instead of actual skill, must make a person feel more like a tool than a talent.
In that scenario, even our shining knights are reduced to mere pawns in a callous chess-game played by political and tribal grandmasters, whose great minds lead them to believe that numbers today hold the same value as in ancient times, when wars were fought by foot-soldiers armed with spears.
A fitting comparison would be the kind of games that silly little boys play, measuring obvious externals and making their findings public, in the attempt to establishing superiority by the only route they know. Grown-ups, I falsely imagined, would arm themselves with much higher intellectual values.
But sadly, the schoolboy level is precisely the point at which we find ourselves, nearly 50 years after the Mighty Sparrow called on us in a calypso sung at the inaugural Independence competition to: “Tell the world there’s a model nation at last.” But then, didn’t he say in the same song:
“We will follow our leaders”?
Well the model either never really existed or has gone severely wrong, if we are to judge from the constant calculating of how many persons of Indian, African, French Creole, Chinese or Syrian origin comprise every level of each activity that advertises itself as “national”. And as for our leaders, as tempting as it may be to pin this unsavoury development on the current Prime Minister, our history points us to quite another person, albeit in the same office.
It was the very Father of Our Nation, Dr Eric Williams, who first introduced the concept of checking for skin tone, colour of eyes and hair, during his stewardship as Prime Minister. Immediately after the social upheaval of 1970, Dr Williams even demanded that every major business house present him with documented evidence of its overall ethnic mix.
It was Dr Williams, too, who had earlier dictated that, by way of full sponsorships, industries run by French Creoles should spend part of their profits on the steelband movement which, at the time, essentially comprised otherwise unemployable men of African origin. To maintain good relations with the government, banks were also forced to hire black girls from Behind de Bridge, whether or not their training up until then suited them for such careers.
Rather than planning a long-term strategy for equal employment opportunity, our leader opted for a series of knee-jerk reactions, in response to the social upheaval of 1970. All that has happened in the 30-year interim, is that the concept has now engulfed every sphere of activity, making this system of measurement the standard replacement for other devices historically used to asses real talent.
You would think that by now, we would have recognised that this measuring tool that has served us no good purpose, but if we have a show, someone has to count how many Indian dancers or tassa drummers are on the cast. For every tabla, there must be a talking-drum.
Last week, this paranoid audit hit a new low, going as far as counting and comparing how many headlines, front-page mentions or colour pictures were published in the national media about two dead men.
The writer of that column (a doctor, if you please) evidently felt that he was doing a major service to the cause of national unity, by bringing to the fore, trivial details about the quantity of newspaper space given to the deaths of Kitchener and Sundar Popo. Again, there was no mention of quality of reporting, because it was only the numbers that counted.
The intensity of this dotishness has somehow heightened during a period dedicated to the forging of national unity. And as fate would have it, Basdeo Panday, the man who loudly touted that concept upon his ascendancy, became one of its first victims, losing the tag of being the first labour leader to become Prime Minister. Instead, he became known as the first Indian to hold that position.
Lindsay Gillette was never as Chinese as when he was asked to act as Prime Minister. William Munro is widely referred to as a Black Syrian, because he manages to make his business work and more than a murmur surfaced, after calypsonian Black Stalin was the only entertainer allowed to perform at the funeral of a Hindu crossover artiste.
Hopefully, the same culture that provides feedstock for the racists, will one day lead us out of the downward spiral. At least for the present, Jit Samaroo and Pat Bishop are still seen as great musicians, rather than having to bear the cross (oops!) of other people’s ethnic machinations.
A day at the races is supposed to be fun, if only for purchasing hot doubles and katchouri. But now it seems as though one has to find an equal quantity of bread and shark or pelau, just to have a good time, even if it means resorting to pharmaceuticals made by people of neither race to relieve the resulting indigestion.