The chief cornerstone
September 02, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
IN February 1898, the Trinidad Mirror said some choice things about our Carnival and made an invidious comparison between Anglo-Saxon and Trinbagonian sensibility. Our Carnival, they reported, was "the most pitiful piece of tomfoolery it is possible to imagine." They could not conceive where "the fun comes in dressing in this way [that is, covering their faces and heads with handkerchiefs, masks and gloves], and then to go dancing and jumping through the hot dusty streets, with crowds of others, to the sound of squeaking clarinets and scraping fiddles, singing till almost choked with dust and heat the eternal 'Hi-I-I—yi-yi.'"
Last Monday, 1.2 million persons paraded in the streets of west London in Europe's largest street festival. Another two million come together in Brooklyn tomorrow to do a similar thing. That is how big our Carnival has become and the magnitude of the gifts we have bestowed upon Europe and America. As black, brown and white danced in Notting Hill to sounds of calypsoes and soca, I could not help but wonder how the stone the builder refuses sometimes becomes the chief cornerstone.
That same editorial advanced the notion of the superiority of Anglo-Saxon culture. Conceding that human nature is the same all over the world, it argued: "Carnival is said to pertain more to the Latin Races from whom the people of Trinidad has borrowed it [not true!!!]… The only difference is the Latin and Anglo Races conduct their fooleries with a certain amount of wit and a decided sense of humour which is lamentable lacking in the debased masquerade of Iere." As the Laventille Rhythm Section, consisting mostly of white folks, danced in those London streets, I marvelled at how the rambunctiousness of the debased had triumphed over the sophistry of the unctuous. Taking part in the London tomfooleries, Amnesty International proclaimed: "Carnival Unites: Racism Divides."
In August 1898, the Mirror reported on the Emancipation ceremony. Some speakers reminded the audience of the capacity of the "African race and how he was kept down by the European. They spoke of the want of unity and love between the Negroes, which impeded their progress." A few days later Norman Alleyne essayed a more comprehensive interpretation. He pointed out that if our foreparents had not "been liberated from the fangs with which they were held by the serpent, Slavery—had not the British government seen that the horrible practices indulged in by the planters were incompatible with the laws of the civilised world, we would have been to this day, still groping in the ignorance and blindness of the enslaved races of the past."
He also had harsh words for brothers who "ascended the ladder of fame" and forgot "to aid their companion of childhood days." Showing tremendous knowledge of international events, Alleyne advised: "The Negro should unite like his fellow race in America and Liberia. In the former country he has had no chances whatever to advance, but, by the dint of self-perseverance, self-energy, self-interest, he is taking a place today among the foremost ranks in the race of civilisation." He concluded: "The future of the Negro depends upon himself. Be more thrifty; be less imitating. It is on you that the future of your race depends. We require Agricultural Colleges... We must be taught Agricultural Chemistry and all up-to-date sciences to equip us for the purpose."
Sylvester Williams, who was living in London, responded to Alleyne with enthusiasm and asked him to form a branch of the African Association in Trinidad. Williams' organisation had protested against the slave policy of the whites in Cape Town, South Africa, and suggested ways to improve the conditions of the people living in the "distressed islands in the West Indies." Anticipating the first Pan African Conference, Alleyne wrote: "The Association also hopes in 1900 to be able to hold a Congress in England of all their people to demonstrate their capacities in the various branches of civilisation and thus enlighten the eyes of the world as to the often slighted ability of the 'black man'."
With less than a quarter million persons, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago were formulating the central issue that shaped the 20th century. Out of this conference, the prophecy for which WEB Du Bois became famous ("The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line") was enunciated. Even at this point East Indians had already set up the East Indian National Association of Trinidad to take care of their business. Taking care of African people's business required the systematic intervention of an organisation of which the African middle class had to be instrumental. They possess the financial, social, and human resources that any successful group requires.
This is why, 100 years after Alleyne and Williams, the National Association for the Empowerment of African People calls upon Trinbagonians to join us at our national conference on money. Bill Campbell, the Mayor of Atlanta, Sherma Batson, county councillor of Chells, England and a product of Trinidad, Clarry Benn, CEO of Unit Trust, John Rahael, MP, and Louis Lee Sing, radio entrepreneur extraordinaire, among others, will come together under the leadership of Jennifer Johnson, a former MP, to talk about "African people and Money—Money Demystified."
Enlightened African organisation, embracing the talents of all our citizens, must free up the energies of African people. We must harness their power as consumers and their ability to create wealth. Just as the "debaucheries" of Carnival fused the imagination of millions, so, too, the sophisticated uses of money and wealth creation are important ingredients in our redemption. This is why we invite follow citizens to join us on Saturday, September 8, at La Joya Auditorium as we demystify money and seek to establish mutually respectful commercial ties among one another.
The Independent (London) recognised, somewhat belatedly, that Carnival represented "the slaves' celebration of triumph over painful adversity" (August 28). To triumph over present adversity, we must continue the work our forefathers began. Through entrepreneurship, savings, wise investments and conscious consumerism, we will become the cornerstones of our society.
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