Where we stand‎ > ‎News & Comment‎ > ‎


posted 13 Sep 2020, 18:31 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 13 Sep 2020, 19:25 ]
Raymond Watts
I left Central early to attend the final send off for Comrade Raymond Watts, anticipating traffic congestion en route and in Arima itself. I was wrong. I did find a parking spot by a park near to the funeral home and waited until close to the time of the ceremony.

It made no difference. The officials at the funeral home pointed out that there would be no service because when we found Raymond his body had already begun to decompose and it was going straight to cremation. They misled me somewhat, I found out from his relatives later. I could have gone in,

My last link with him this side of Heaven was a neon sign, flashing over the chapel, giving the relevant information. Raymond Watts, completing his transition in a Christian chapel! Wonder what would have been his views on that? Driving back, I reflected that like two of his closest comrades, CLR James and Lloyd Best, Raymond, world traveller in politics and culture for some five decades, now lay at rest back home in Trinidad.

When I drove into Raymond's yard two weeks ago, I had planned to help him organise his books and writings. Usually I would park outside but there were boxes in the car to offload. His lifelong comrade in arms and politics, Ibrahim Mahmoud, stranded in Jamaica because of Covid, kept in touch with us both and we agreed to keep a closer eye on him because his circumstances had changed significantly over the last couple of months.

When I came out of the car and looked through the open windows, I saw Raymond lying with his head at the foot of the bed. I noticed that he was not breathing. The fan was on. It soon became clear that he was gone. The next three hours were spent contacting his landlord; his relatives; calling the police and the medical authorities; Mahmoud of course. The next day we sent news of his passing to his comrades and acquaintances, old and new.

I first met Raymond at National Workers Union’s ''Pavement lime'' in 2017; that is the beginning of year lime we hold in front of our NWU offices. We invite comrades, labour movement colleagues,
At NWU 2017 pavement lime: Lutch Rampersad, Kasala Kamara, Raymond Watts, Brother Book
intersectional activists, friends and family. I do not recall saying much to him; I, then, knew nothing of his history in political struggle but several other comrades did. That was to change significantly.

We in the NWU have documented the contributions of comrades who have not become household names, but whose contributions to the revolutionary struggle are no less valuable. I was given the task of interviewing Raymond. In doing background research, I came upon a book written by David Austin Fear of a Black Nation. It dealt a lot with Caribbean politics in Canada in the '60's.

Raymond was mentioned as the main organiser behind the seminal Black Writers' Congress of Montreal 1968.This was a conference of leading Black Activists from the English speaking Caribbean, Haiti, Canada and USA. CLR James, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Rosie Douglas, Walter Rodney, Lloyd Best, Orlando Patterson, Kari Levitt, Bukka Rennie, Miriam Makeba, Rocky Jones, James Forman, Harry Edwards, Bobby Clarke, Jan Carew Alvin Poussaint, Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Le Roi Jones had been invited but Martin Luther King had been assassinated that April and the U.S government was not about to let US citizens attend such a gathering.

Though he was the key organiser, Raymond did not participate in the forums, rather overseeing operations and the entertainment segments. This conference was the forerunner of events that would shake and shape the Caribbean in a way nothing had since 1937.

Over the next 3 years we would provide further opportunities for Raymond to reconnect with old comrades and to provide primary source, first-hand accounts, of significant historical events he had participated in or initiated. These would include the anti -war/ ban the bomb demonstrations of the 1960's in London; promoting the steelband in London; participating in Writers’ Congresses in London; 9 years after the Montreal Congress organising the Congress of Commonwealth Caribbean Immigrants An Appraisal of one decade of Immigration to Canada from the Caribbean; the 1970 uprisings in Trinidad and Tobago.

When he fell ill in 2020, we were going to record his prescience in addressing the issue of the immigrant worker way back in 1976 Today, some 44 years later the issue of migrant labour and refugees bedevils much of North America, Europe, Africa and Latin America today. How he had moved from a shoestring budget for the '68 Congress, greatly aided by Lloyd Best, to getting sponsorship from the likes of the "Chilean Association/The Communist Party of Quebec/The Canadian Council of Churches/Union of Vietnamese des Canada/Association of Concerned Guyanese. To tell why he chose to chair this conference unlike 1968.

Through the kind and interested intervention of Dr. Jerome Teelucksingh of the UWI History Department he would twice visit the campus. Unfortunately,
he did not manage to meet Dr. Teelucksingh. There were mix ups and delays based on timings. He was down to participate in the ''History Fest of 2020'' but ill health prevented that. He did attend a seminar at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute to attend a workshop organised by Dr. Hamid Ghany. To his utter delight, he renewed acquaintance with Kari Levitt, whom he had not seen in decades. He walked across one of the greens outside the history department, laughingly recalling how he had terrified 'poor Lloyd'. He had been sent to tell Lloyd the role he was expected to play when the military coup they were planning came off. "Lloyd would always lend me his Volkswagen,'' he recalled.

His life story is audio recorded at the Alma Jordan Library at UWI. It took us 3 mornings to complete. This was possible through the intervention of Dr. Glenroy Taitt. Outside of NWU's video, Raymond was interviewed by Wesley Gibbings for the Trinidad Guardian, by the Heritage Division of NALIS in Port of Spain, facilitated by Ms. Janice Regis. He spoke on Llewellyn "Short Pants' McIntosh's radio program. He was to do the same on an Andy Johnson program but that fell through because, if my memory serves me right, Mr. Johnson had to travel around that time.

He continued to attended workshops and celebrations as an observer at Cipriani College of Labour, Lennox Pierre Auditorium, OWTU offices, Henry Street, Port of Spain and inadvertently the 2020 commemoration of 1970 at the Anglican Church downtown Port of Spain. He was supposed to be in the march to outside the R.C cathedral. That galled him.

Ellie Mannette was one of his closest friends. When Raymond returned to Port of Spain from Rio Claro, he became a pan player. He spent time with the likes of Ellie Mannette and Cobo Jack. When he migrated to London, Ellie posted him a tenor pan. Our invention was to open doors for Raymond in ways he could hardly have imagined.

Raymond was a frontline percussionist who loved the congas. He played with Edmundo Ross, then Trinidad and Tobago's best internationally known dance band which played Latin music. Raymond said Ross was not much of a musician and a terrible, grumpy employer.

He was part of a powerful study group run by CLR James but he was soon playing in and around London at rallies put on by political organisations. It was in this context that he came to know Bertrand Russell, the world renowned mathematician and philosopher, as a close friend. Russell was a leading figure in the anti-war movement and Raymond's combo was the musical accompaniment. Together with another famous Trinidadian, Russell Henderson who was the promoter, they would tour Europe to do concerts.

We often speak of how Claudia Jones is buried to the left of Karl Marx at Highgate cemetery, noting the political double entendre. He would tell the story of her passing and how she was buried there. The morning of her funeral he went to tell CLR, who was conducting a study class. "They took up a collection," he said. "I think it was some ten shillings…I bought a floral arrangement for her at the funeral home. She is buried there because of her membership in the Communist party. They handled her funeral arrangements. The Holness family, who were affiliated to the Party made it possible.''

He pointed out that Claudia was at odds with many of the leading political activists at the time because she remained a communist. At the time there were multiple factions of the Left, each contending that they had the correct line and ideology. China, Yugoslavia were challenging the hegemony of the Soviet line which held that communism was to be guided centrally by Moscow. Adherents of different lines were in ideological war

Raymond would meet with Malcolm X when the latter, denied entry to Paris, stopped over in London. "Malcolm asked to meet us, some activists. Michael X had told him that there was a ten thousand strong membership of organised activists in London. Malcolm wanted to know if it was so. We told him that was not the case but the group began planning how to work in tandem with Malcolm, who at the time was building a new organisation, having parted ways with the Nation of Islam. I remember he gave me a copy of his famous speech. The ballot or the bullet, in the sleeve of a Sam Cooke record. Some 8 days later we heard of his assassination in New York.”

Although Raymond had major health issues over the last few years of his life, it was clear that this renewed activity energised him. Our major undertaking in 2018 was a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Black Writers Conference. We formed a committee which operated out of the NWU's office in Barataria. We set about contacting persons who were still alive, at home and abroad.
Grounding with another generation

We identified all the tasks involved in such an undertaking and began contacting major institutions primarily at home to support the initiative: the universities, the labour movement, the governing body for the steelband, political groups, certain sectors of corporate Trinidad and Tobago.

We were able to attract Paula Bonas, Megan Sylvester and Corinne Gregoire three young female lecturers from the Cipriani College of Labour and Co-operatives, whose enthusiasm and professionalism encouraged us older heads very much. Elicia Douglas, a young officer of the Transport and Industrial Workers Union was also a member of the committee as were Lloyd Taylor and Oliver Joseph a community activist from Barataria

We engaged in heated debate within the committee over strategy and tactics. We noted that there was not much of a response from many of the political and educational institutions who clearly had grown away from the spirit of the '70's. But for him it was a period of rebirth and a chance to share with a new generation. 

Our work came to end because the U.S. intervention in Venezuela was causing greater tensions in the region. Trinidad and Tobago as Venezuela's nearest Caribbean neighbour was fully focused on that situation and we sensed that our major potential sponsors were not about to pay us much 
With his close comrade Ibrahim Mahmoud
mind at that point. Other concerns side-lined us. Following that, we were organising to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1970's uprisings but the Covid pandemic intervened. 

Alas Raymond's last year with us was a sad one for him. A young lady drove into his trusty Volkswagen Golf in the heart of Arima, severely limiting his ability to move around. Somehow he lost his computer. He had a protracted legal family battle that had been ongoing for years. Raymond lived alone. The legal matter resurfaced in 2020 and the endless cycles that characterise these matters began to wear him down.

Mahmoud, his closest comrade had to attend to family business in Jamaica and Covid prevented his return. His strongest family support came from his cousins, here in Trinidad. But he had grown tired of it all as he would confide to Mahmoud and me struggling to support himself. Mahmoud worked miracles in that aspect. During our last conversation, he sat at the edge of the bed, saying to me "I am really tired.''

At 82, a life of revolutionary struggle, professional musicianship, profound authorship, remarkable organisational ability, true 'saga boy'' has drawn to a 
close. Like another giant who fell in March, Michael "Scobie' Joseph of Southern Marines Steelband Foundation, somehow we do not mourn their passing but rather miss them. They move on and cannot be replaced. But that is not replacing or replicating. When the baton is passed one does not reverse. All Raymond, Scobie, and all those who served and gave so much, would ask is that we continue in the spirit in which they lived
Gerry Kangalee,
13 Sep 2020, 18:42