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THE BLACK QUESTION by Burton Sankeralli

posted 5 May 2016, 07:59 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 5 May 2016, 08:02 ]
I. Introduction

Let me say at the start that I intend the title – The Black Question – ironically. We ought to know how the “Jewish question” perturbed a certain European country in the first half of the 20th century and how such “questions” lend themselves to final solutions. Moreover to keep it simple and avoiding such debate, in this piece by “Black” I mean African. On the other hand I want to make it clear that while the focus here is on dispossessed African young people, no true community and true community-based struggle can be isolated and demarcated. It is understood here that the process involves solidarity and continuity.

There is a programme aimed at uplifting such poor Black youth being advertised on the radio, now I really know nothing of this programme and nothing I say here ought to in any way be viewed as a critique but I comment on the advertisement I heard.

The thrust of its message to such youth is that – your success is entirely up to you – you have a right to succeed. Now this is consistent with a message that is widespread. All you need to do is to work hard and you will succeed. Up North they call it the “American Dream”.

Now this is all fair enough until we interrogate its implication. In this case, if you remain poor and disadvantaged it’s your own damn fault. If you wallow in criminality and end up being shot by the police you deserve what you get because the wuk of the police is to defend we goodly citizens and our great capitalist democratic way of life from the criminal riff raff. And of course I said this is a version of the “Dream”, it is the great promise of capitalism that success is a matter of hard work. But of course it is not true.

The most economically successful got there more by luck of birth and many poor people have been struggling all their lives. There is no level playing field; we all do not take off from the same starting point. So what we have is really a Lotto. True if you do not buy a ticket you don’t have a chance but as we all know you can buy a ticket everyday of your life and never win the jackpot.

But I do not want to oversimplify. A great deal of people born in disadvantaged circumstances has significantly improved their life economically and otherwise, and this is a good thing, it ought to be encouraged. But this still begs the question as to in what does the good life really consist? Is it the capitalist dream? This may all appear rather philosophical but if we cannot answer it we will not even know whether we are being oppressed.

II. By Way of Comparison

Now one thing that human beings invariably do is compare. So there will be comparisons made between Africans and other groups in the society. So it is not my intention to cast aspersions on any ethnic group but here goes… “Look how well Syrians have done!” Well the Syrians came here with their social communal networks intact this with a strong ethos of commerce and they were thus able to effectively insert themselves into a capitalist system. And really and truly this rounds once you not actively involved in doing harm I don’t blame anybody for surviving.

There is also that matter of race and colour, here light is right, and once you are stigmatized as poor with that…black skin, you will find doors being slammed in your face. “Massa day done…" notwithstanding this remains a racist colony at every level.

Then there are, inevitably, the Indians. And in case you didn’t know there is also an “Indian question”. Again the Indians came here with the communal fibre more intact (Africans have a problem here due to a little something they call “slavery” but we’ll get to that) and while indentureship did involve coercion, unlike the “slave-system” they did come here with defined economic goals that they were eventually in a position to pursue.

The Indians as a community have here achieved significant success in “business” and it has been a legitimate means by which they have fought oppressive conditions. This ought to be commended as it is a key instrument through which the community has grounded itself in and defined our landscape. Now here is a supposed model of success and fulfilment that the capitalist dream offers, moreover it is so presented to Africans to emulate. But does this really at the end of the day liberate?

As with the Indians I do believe that proposals to empower by “Black business” may be useful as a means to an end but this can only take one so far.

Not only does the capitalist system depend on oppression and exploitation at all levels, of people and environment, but even to here “succeed” involves one in a framework of existential ontological alienation (and I use the word). This is the case in any system based on the “individual” and needs to be addressed by any authentic programme of struggle. Hence the real issue is how are we to re-articulate a fundamental idea and praxis of community that is truly liberating. What manner of community “vehicle” are we searching for?

Then there is Indians and education. Let me preface this by looking at how and when Indians as a group swelled the ranks of the “middleclass”. Again, by way of comparison. Africans began moving into the middle-tier from before Emancipation, and after in a more or less constant stream. Here they played a pivotal, though of course, subservient role in the “mainstream” itself. On the other hand while it is true there were always “elite” Indians, this alienated community really moved into the middleclass in defining numbers in a short period of time from the 1970s, post black power and the oil boom.

This means to say that Indians in large numbers as a defined and defining “middleclass” only properly entered the higher levels of the education system when it had stopped educating.
It may surprise some that up into my lifetime the model of an educated human being in Trinidad and the West Indies was the Black man. It appears that the whites who came out to the colonies sought to escape education.

Of course one may point out that it was a colonial system of education, which is true. But Queens Royal College did produce CLR James, Eric Williams, Lloyd Best and VS Naipaul. Now, the said Eric Williams came along and proceeded to dismantle all this which may have been a good idea except he did not replace it with anything (Junior Secs not withstanding). And here were sowed seeds of the very crisis of the youth we are discussing. However, in the ferment of the 1960s and early 70s critical thought continued. But the PNM pacified this by guns and the oil boom.

And so along came the Indians and they entered a void. Across the board we now really have a system of stupidification aimed at producing a class of bureaucrats and technocrats.

Note this, Patrick Manning, political degenerate that he was, still managed to call the name “Frantz Fanon” on the political platform. Roodal Moonilal can’t spell “Fanon” (err…that’s French right?).

III. Recommendations

Back to our young people: I think it is great that they are exposed to positive role models and urged to “empower” themselves and strive for success including economic but the question is how are such messages framed.

I make three recommendations by no means exhaustive but relevant to this specific discussion. First of all there has to be a proper engagement with the reality of slavery or more accurately “enslavement” (we were never slaves we were enslaved). Some will object. (I can hear a gasp of horror). Has not this subject been beaten to death (pardon the expression)? Does it not encourage our youth to be victims? To make excuses? To seek handouts? Indeed to go out and take by violence?

But there can be no proper understanding not only of the African community but our society as a whole without such an engagement. In terms of the sweep of time “Emancipation” in our society is a recent historical event. Moreover we need to be clear that the enslavement of Africans was not only an episode involving Africans, it is a key fundamental and defining process of modern Western history. It is not only a matter of what the West once upon a time did to others but it reveals how the modern Western world continues to define itself and to unfold.

We are really dealing with one of the great processes of mass genocide – involving the dislocation, the oppression and the extermination of hundreds of millions – that has ever been perpetrated. It is a process that is really ongoing. It thus stands alongside what these same modern Europeans did in the attempted extermination of the First Peoples of the Americas. It continues to cast a deathly pall over everything our still Modern Age attempts.

Now, some will object that the plantation was not as extensively established here in Trinidad but we were fully integrated into this Caribbean and indeed global “slave-system”. Also our population is to a very large extent constituted by migrants from other Caribbean territories.

Yet in this country “slavery” is like something out of a science fiction movie, like some kind of romantic fantasy in reverse. It is really elsewhere I have encountered it as a material reality. The countryside of Guyana that is still laid out as a string of plantations (now largely occupied by Indians). Or Africans herded into a church in Suriname where enslavement was just the other day. Or the experience of my Jamaican friend showing me a shackle and feeling her wince. The phrase “The Middle Passage” does not refer to a book by VS Naipaul.

The truth is that there is no past only occurrence, it is all very present … overcrowded boats still haunt our lives… the plantation has not really been done away with until the very oppressive power-relation has been abolished. Here has our community substance been shattered as we are broken into fractured “individuals”. Moreover, this historical violence of enslavement has fractured and warped our landscape as a whole. We are still ALL caught up in it. This is the reality that our young people in the “ghetto” live with every day. So let’s talk about it.

Second, we need to talk about “the system”. This is the capitalist system the nature of which needs to be analysed. The conglomerates and multinationals, global imperialism, the one percent that’s sucking the earth dry, class warfare etc. This is the political system, Westminster democracy etc. There has to be a critical interrogation of Eric Williams and his legacy, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Some time ago I heard a remark to the effect that the discussion concerning African people has been stuck and has not gone anywhere for a long time. There is a sense that it revolves around talk about “suffering” and clichés offered as solutions or that it is about drums, clothes and Egypt. But it can be no other way. Now don’t get me wrong I am all for drums, clothes and Egypt and not all offered solutions are clichés but the point is any real discussion has to be grounded in and to be about the material reality of African people, the real power-relations.

So there has to be a searing discussion of PNM nationalism and its supposed independence…PNM country… the “Black people” party… about the way our Eurocentric and ethnically divisive political system works. About Black Power and attempts at resistance, the PNM
Randolph Burroughs led the slaughter of the NUFF fighters
suppression and its murdering of the NUFF guerrillas, those brave young men and women who were prepared to take up arms against systemic oppression and paid the price with their blood. And about what this entire nationalist system has done to the African community, the African psyche and African young people, the cultures of self-hatred.

Until the real discussion takes place we are stuck. But of course there are powerful dominating forces that prevent this. Indeed one strongly senses that in certain key ways as regards the Trinidadian landscape at any rate this nationalist political process is even more destructive of our spirit than physical enslavement. This latter being largely (but not exclusively) externally imposed while our politics have enmeshed us in profound rituals of self-mutilation.

Thirdly, we need to talk community. Now of course this means the African community, culture, tradition, spirituality and so forth but this has to again be materially located. We have to talk community and the aspects of oppression we have been here discussing. And we critically need to engage community and the ontology of liberation. Here freedom and liberation is not just to be viewed negatively as liberation from oppression but positively as living an authentic communal existence. Only such communal living and being can extinguish the individual, the isolation that produces all this oppression and violence.

It is here we may move away from the “blame game”. Some want to blame the system and they might want to say that it is not working. But actually it is working very well. Oppression is what it does so it makes no sense blaming the system as it’s doing its job.
Many, very many, blame the youths. True, we must not dismiss their power of agency and most are not involved in “criminal” activity. On the other hand we cannot paper over the issue or romanticize the situation. Many of our young people, in contrast to the young people of the NUFF, are involved in violent activity directed against each other, other youth, members of the community and wider society but not confronting and dealing with the real enemies. These do indeed have a lot to answer for but it is not only their fault. They did not come from outer space.

Who produced them? And guided them? The issue then is not blame but communal collective responsibility. The community must take responsibility for the situation we are in and the path to be followed. The entire collective is involved. It is thus that we need to engage in a collective process and programme of education involving the young people. And I mean education not pacification, not an obscuring of the real issues. And not prepping them to be cogs in the machine.

Let us be clear that true community is inclusive. It is open to all who suffer oppression and who struggle for a better world. The experience of oppression is not the preserve of any one ethnic group. So for instance there are many Indian young people caught up in cultures of violence whom we do not see. Let us not even get into the masses of youth victimized by our mis-education system, the entertainment industry and high technology.

However for this key principle of “collective responsibility” to be materially meaningful we have to re-image re-imagine re-articulate and engage such a communal praxis. We are seeking to thus enunciate a “popular” community vehicle. Here is a vital process that is to unfold on the ground, not preaching to the youth but involving them in this liberating praxis.

Moreover such praxis must cut across divisions that have been imposed on the people by the system itself. It seeks solidarity and continuity and it is a process that flows into the global struggle for freedom and a new world that is possible.

Hence the struggle is inclusive but it is not that of a fake universality as is the mindless nationalist fascist… “all ah we is one. The truth of the matter is that there are forces alive and well in our society committed to oppression.

A comprehensive plan is not being presented here but an attempt to help provide a framework and to make recommendations for an engaging of young people in a meaningful and effective process of self-liberation. Also nothing written here is to be interpreted as a critique of any actual programmes on the ground as I am simply in no position to do so.

It is time for such praxis. It is time for a new “popular vehicle”. Trinidadians (and I leave Tobago out of this nonsense) very much like to imagine themselves to be at the cutting edge of things and at the centre of the world. But to be honest there is a lot of crap going on in this place right now and until we deal with this and get our act together Trinidad matters very little to the rest of the world. Let us hope that the present period of unrest provides opportunities for meaningful mobilization. As a fellow comrade puts it – the situation is excellent.

It promises to grow more so.