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Facing our brutalities
As we approach the celebration of emancipation of African enslaved peoples in T&T on August 1, we share here thoughts of the creative writer Earl Lovelace—the award-winning novelist, playwright, short story writer and essay writer.
A writer who probes the paradoxes often inherent in social change in T&T, Lovelace is best known for his novels The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979), The Wine of Astonishment (1982), Salt (1996, winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 1997), and Is Just A Movie (2011, winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Literature prize). Lovelace was recognised nationally with a Chaconia Medal (Gold) for literature in 1988, and received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of the West Indies in 2002.
Lovelace himself is part of our living national heritage, a person who has enriched our lives and understandings through the imagination of his writings and the keen insights they contain about our community, identity, social inequalities, divisions, political betrayals, spiritual strengths and potential in the world.
Last month, on June 29, Lovelace gave a talk on Reclaiming Rebellion, hosted by the National Trust of T&T, at the Old Fire Station, National Library, Port-of-Spain. He argued that we need to confront the injustices and crimes of our past, and look critically at our brutal histories in order to truly understand why we are so divided as a people today, and from that understanding, start to rebuild a new society.
He made the point that too often, we only see the version of history defined by those who once enslaved us and exploited us. We hear more about Wilberforce, for instance, than about local freedom fighters.
Instead, we need to re-tell our history to reflect all of us, including those who rebelled against injustice and who dared to see their own lives, thoughts, values, ethnicities, beliefs and creations as worthwhile when the rest of colonial society was telling them they were inferior and worthless.
The abandonment of Emancipation
Lovelace argued that Emancipation in 1838 was not so much freedom but abandonment, as the lawmakers gave their former slaves absolutely no reparations, land grants or other practical means of assistance to help them rebuild their broken lives. People’s labour was stolen, their lives were violated, and then they were discarded, to fend for themselves.
Earlier, the white French settlers to Trinidad were given land grants—later, Indian indentured labourers were given plots of land, if they chose to stay—but the descendants of Africans were given nothing, Lovelace noted.
This deliberate economic inequality, created by our former colonisers, persists to today, he said, and helps to explain the justification for the angry 1970s Black Power marches in Trinidad. It also explains the violence of the 1990 coup attempt which was enacted by those Lovelace called the “abandoned children of the 1970 generation” urban black youth “under a leadership more intimately attuned to the depressed and abandoned communities— which in the aftermath of 1990, are now established as the principle trouble spots in the country for both the gangs and the most violent effects of the international gun and drug trade.”
Black culture: Repressed but rebellious
Economic inequality was not, of course, the only kind in our history. Colonialism dictated racial and social inequality as well. Lovelace reminded us that in the years shortly after Emancipation, British colonisers repressed African-influenced forms of music, religion and culture by banning the Spiritual Baptists, banning the beating of drums, bongo dancing, censoring calypso, and basically making the religion and culture of the black working class a criminal offense.
He noted that blacks, and women, were deliberately kept from political power for 112 years after so-called “Emancipation,” implicitly reminding people of the longevity of entrenched power systems.
Lovelace spoke of rebellion in terms of black people fighting for the right to express their own culture—so that “the fight for culture, the fight to make meaning and take ownership of ourselves and our creative space, and the means to sustain them both, would constitute rebellion.”
Rebellion as an assertion of selfhood became transferred from politics to cultural expressions, he argued for example, irreverent calypsos, and the creative, dynamic, combative early steelband culture.
Lovelace spoke of rebellion as an act of spiritual strength as well as a process of gaining clearer understandings for the real reasons behind inequalities and divisions that persist to today and block our growth.
Inequality is the problem
Our real problems, Lovelace said, are not due to our racial or ethnic differences, but to deep-rooted inequalities and cultural divisions set up by the profiteering, divide-and-rule system of colonialism.
The arts, in helping us to see, connect, understand and re-define ourselves, can be tools of rebellion/liberation, he argued, but only if these arts—whether film, theatre, literature or other forms—are rooted in a real understanding of our own historical past realities. Otherwise, the arts can too easily become something separate and irrelevant to our selves.
He asked: “But what if the film, theatre, fiction on display maintain the view of a society with no accountability to the past? With no real sense of the need to show the people of the region themselves, but simply existing to maintain the idea of a nationalism, or on the other hand, a globalisation that allows anything in its name?”
“If the State is to give support to the arts, the State has to answer what it wants to achieve. It is not enough to say that we want film, or television, or theatre, that simply imitates the action of the day. We need art that engages the landscape of this region, that is not only concerned with technological development or natural geography, but the history of experiences, struggles and dreams that people have had in this place.”
Lovelace said there needs to be an open discussion about reparations issues today. And he implied that reparations need not (only/solely/even) come from abroad—we have been self-governing for a long time now, so why can’t we help ourselves?
Without ever once using the word “neocolonial,” Lovelace argued that our early nationalist movement, headed by Eric Williams, was essentially just that—a government led by a black man who squashed the legitimate economic and cultural protests of Black Power in order to continue running things, largely, as before, according to values of middle-class colonials at the time.
While Williams sought to create a single nation, Lovelace argued that at no time did Williams acknowledge the need to first redress past injustices in some form, in order to help poor black people rebuild their lives.
He said: “The unanswered challenge to T&T and to the region was to initiate fundamental reconstruction and address questions of reparation that the society had chosen to avoid.”
Perhaps Lovelace was hinting at the need for local affirmative action policies, but this was unclear.
Lovelace’s talk ended on a note of hope and optimism, as he challenged all of us to not only envision the possible reality of a better society, but to also embrace a creative problem-solving approach to free ourselves of past prejudices and brutalities, and “make something new of our condition.”
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