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The Black Plague

Published: 
Friday, August 21, 2015

My pardner, Raymond “Little Ray of Light” Ramcharitar, on Wednesday, in this space, remounted one of his favourite soapboxes, that of the PNM/Afro-Trinidadian domination and abuse of the politics, the arts, Carnival, calypso and Indian people. (The old Double-R will, I hope, forgive my paraphrasing, which prizes comedy ahead of accuracy.) Raymond has several worthwhile bees in his bonnet but the relationship between Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians is perhaps his busiest hive.

But I don’t think he gets it right; but, then, why should Raymond Ramcharitar get African Trinidadians right when no one else in the place does (including most African Trinidadians).

All my life, I’ve been puzzled at how peremptorily anything connected to black people is dismissed, anywhere in the world. 

The Jews have spun the Holocaust into a world question of conscience; Native Americans have spun their near-extinction—the greatest sin of our species—into casinos; the Chinese in railway boom—and the Japanese in World War II-America, the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, Hindus in Pakistan, Muslims in India, Christians in the Lebanon—every group ever abused in history is afforded instant recognition and empathy by everyone other than their particular exploiters—except black people!

Nearly 200 years after Abolition, the direct, persistent result of our brand of chattel slavery—distinguished from all historical predecessors by being racist and limited to African people—is that, all over the New World, from the favelas of Rio to the back alleys of Brooklyn, black people are expected to occupy the lowest social strata. 

Even Cuba, the most progressive New World society from the perspective of equality, has advanced medicine farther than its dark-skinned citizens. 

Even in the Old World, black people define the lowest social rung, below even fundamentalist Muslim immigrants—and, post-Charlie Hebdo, we cannot even be sure black Europeans socially outrank jihadist murderers.

And they are expected to stay at the bottom of the pile and suck salt. Consider the reaction by anyone who is not black to the Reparations petition put to the English House of Commons by UWI Cave Hill vice-chancellor Hilary Beckles. 

Over the course of 180 years (about the same time as has run since Emancipation), as Prof Beckles told the British House of Commons in July 2014, British slave ships brought five-and-a-half million African slaves to the Caribbean who were treated so cruelly that, at full Emancipation in 1838, a total of only 800,000 remained alive; had British manufacturers lost 85 per cent of their machinery, the British Empire would have collapsed—but four million black people could die—be killed, really—and it remains, not just unremarkable, but downright unsporting to bring it up.

Earlier this year, the NGC Bocas Literary Festival prizewinner, the poet, Vladimir Lucien, told me he came “from a place in St Lucia where you literally don’t see the white population.” 

Almost 200 years after supposed Emancipation, the national perspective on Africans in Trinidad remains that they are expendable, at best, and should positively be exterminated, like rats, at worst. Compare the number of young black men shot dead with any other group and see if there is any grey area.

We have developed all sorts of labels and concepts to deny the massive, historical and actually undeniable claims of African West Indians to be considered as social equals, or even as full human beings. 

From the Trinidadian sublimation of tragedy into comedy—“Don’t come to me for your great-grandfather back-pay”—through high-sounding excuses like “Dependency Syndrome” to the Jamaican veneration of fair skins to the point where, for a full anthropological generation after Independence, only a white or whitish man could be prime minister, black people have been made to know, and keep, their place.

Despite our relatively short history having been for so very long defined by the extreme kind of violence needed to maintain slave societies, we have never set up a truth and reconciliation anywhere in the West Indies. For debate about our past—indeed, for contemplation of it—we have substituted casual declarations of dismissal: if you white, you all right; if you brown, stick around; if you black, get back. 

St Lucia’s most outspoken poet since Derek Walcott had to come to Trinidad to meet white people and the only black Bajan you will find at the Yacht Club will be carrying a tray of drinks or pushing a broom.

Black leaders, from Tubal Uriah Buzz Butler through Dr Eric Williams to Jean-Bertrand Aristide have been co-opted and black commentators contained or ignored. Not even our finest writers, like Earl Lovelace, are allowed to make the point (or allowed to have it stick) that black people are the foundation on which everything we have today is built.

The failure to recognise—no, the determination not to see—the basic humanity of African West Indians from our very start is precisely what lands us in the kind of predicament where my pardner Ray can sweep history, and four million dead black people, aside en route to dismissing them again this week.

And that social myopia leads to the emergence of leaders who represent the only quality we—including the Africans who now form part of our ruling sector—have allowed them: a readiness for the kind of violence to which they have been habituated. Blind yourself to our history, and inure yourself to those that have borne the brunt of its hurt, and you tempt the same rebellion slave-owners feared, and dehumanised themselves to avoid.

We could, if we had the will, discern our challenges and work towards our triumph over them.

But we don’t really care; after all, is only black people.

n BC Pires is a closet Rasta. You can email your black magic women to him at [email protected]

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