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Sunday, August 14, 2016

The passing of Makandal Daaga last week permits an opportunity to celebrate his life as well as to reflect upon his contribution to the society. The 1970 Black Power uprising is largely associated with the movement that he led called the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC).

The term “Black Power” appears to have been coined by the Trinidadian-born American civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael who is reported to have used the term on June 17, 1966, at a rally in Mississippi, USA.

In the context of T&T, it represented an affront to the pre-colonial race and class structure that had largely remained intact after the granting of independence.

The fact that nothing of significance had changed with regard to that structure after independence led to a struggle that would place Daaga (who was known as Geddes Granger at the time) firmly at odds with Eric Williams and the PNM.

There is debate about where to locate the first pangs of the movement that would challenge Williams on the issue of Black Power. Some say it was the later reactions against the enactment of the Industrial Stabilisation Act 1965, others contend that the spark came from the sit-in by black students at the Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Canada, in February 1969, another view is that the national bus strike of April 1969 led by the Transport and Industrial Workers Union was the spark. 

Whichever it was, the leadership of Daaga and his colleagues allowed a wide range of grievances to earn a forum through which a movement emerged. That forum was NJAC. The biggest battle for the demonstrators in 1970 was how to challenge Williams and the PNM on the issue of black disadvantage and overcome the power structure that supported them.

In 1970, it was the killing of Basil Davis on April 6 that led to an increase in public support for the movement and Davis’ funeral was an event that raised the level of awareness of the cause. Indeed, on April 13, 1970, ANR Robinson resigned from the Cabinet of Dr Williams and the PNM over his support for Black Power.

It was the unconnected Regiment mutiny that led to a full frontal attack on the stability of the Williams regime. The Government was facing a possible collapse which it averted by imposing a state of emergency on April 21, 1970.

Daaga had raised the level of black consciousness in the society through his movement. Their concept of black power was that the Afro and Indo populations of T&T needed to unite because they had been divided by the colonial authorities for political purposes and those divisions were being perpetuated in the post-independence period in order to sustain the pre-colonial power structure.

This was a struggle that Daaga never gave up throughout his life and it is one that is clearly identified with him. Some may argue that because NJAC unsuccessfully contested general elections that they were not relevant, others have argued that their contribution came from their influence over changes to social attitudes towards employment practices and the adjustments that Williams and the PNM had to make after 1970 in changing course for their survival.

Indeed, Williams recognised that he had to change his direction and he called a special convention of the PNM in November 1970. At that convention he was able to have the PNM approve “The Chaguaramas Declaration: The People’s Charter Revised.”

That document gave the PNM an intellectual trajectory that answered many of the cries of the demonstrators in the streets for state control of the economy and the rejection of foreign ownership of the commanding heights of the economy. 

There was also an intellectual battle inside of the Black Power movement insofar as divisions existed between some of the key advocates. Writing in his recent book Critical Interventions in Caribbean Politics and Theory (University Press of Mississippi, 2014), Brian Meeks argues as follows about the differences between Lloyd Best and NJAC:

“There were certainly differences between NJAC’s more race-centred positions and Lloyd’s ‘indigenous thought’ approach, but I suggest these were not substantial enough to warrant a distancing of the two trends. Both approaches shared a reflexive hostility to foreign domination; both were rooted in some notion of Caribbean authenticity accompanied by a cultural revolution in values and new approaches to living. Were they related to a clash of ‘doctor’ politicians, in which Lloyd, the senior doctor and indeed teacher of many of the NJAC leadership, would be asked to enter the alliance as a junior partner, in an unacceptable role reversal ? I have no doubt that this is part of the story.” (pp 88-89).

This factor together with the adoption of a substantial portion of the NJAC agenda by Williams and the PNM as their own may have contributed to the survival of the PNM and the decline in public support for NJAC.

Daaga’s work is not finished, but his legacy is there for all to see.


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