By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 15, 2017
On August 1, 1849, the Friends of Freedom sponsored a dinner at Juteaux’s Building in Port of Spain to celebrate the anniversary of their emancipation. Two hundred and fifty of the most distinguished black and colored citizens attended the dinner. Only three government officials (white) attended: the registrar of the Supreme Court, the clerk of the Petty Civic Court and the police inspector. The celebrants were joyous at having been emancipated and proud of the achievement of their race in spite of the obstacles that had been placed in their way.
John O’Brien, a speaker at the dinner, affirmed the equality of all men and women by drawing on the Bible verse that proclaimed: “[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell together on all the face of the earth.” He seemed to have been anticipating the national motto of an independent Trinidad and Tobago: “To dwell together in unity.”
O’Brien saw his generation’s task as combatting the errors “of those descendants of the African race who disclaim all sympathy with the slave, upon the simple ground that they, or their immediate ancestors, were not slaves (Loud Cheers). If these want an example, I would point them to that great man, Alexandre Dumas (Cheers). Does he deny that he is a descendant of a son or daughter of still degraded Africa? No! He prides himself upon it, and lest he should be mistaken, he nobly and exultingly points to his curly hair, and says, ‘Here are my credentials!’ (Loud Cheers)” (The Trinidadian, August 8, 1849).
Any Trinidadian reading the French newspapers at the time (and many of these French-trained intellectuals were) would have been aware of Alexandre Dumas’ accomplishments and his father’s exploits. In 1850 close to 75 percent of Trinidad’s population spoke French and/or French patios. The Trinidadian, the only black newspaper at the time, published sections in English and French. J. J. Thomas, a Trinidad linguist, claimed that the Creole spoken by the Trinidadian native was a combination of French and African words.
I was reminded of O’Brien’s words when I visited Dumas’ village last week. I was also aware of how France treated General Dumas after his astounding feats in Egypt. Although General Dumas commanded up to 50,000 troops for the First French Republic after he fell out with Napoleon, he was relegated into obscurity. Today, a French schoolboy knows nothing about the service that General Dumas rendered to his country.
France has treated its black subjects in the Caribbean and its Muslim population in North Africa in a horrible way. In his book The French Intifada, Andrew Hussey has demonstrated the cruelty Muslims in North African experienced when the French ruled their territories. He has even argued that the French Arabs suffered from deep psychological trauma (in some cases deep psychosis) of which Franz Fanon speaks in some of his psychiatric work.
France has never integrated its black and Arab populations into its national framework of identity. Pap Ndiaye, a professor at Ecole des Hautes in Paris, has called blacks “an invisible” minority in France. In The Black Condition, he highlights the paucity of French scholarly works that focus on the role of blacks in French society. He contends that “despite the republican credo that citizenship should be blind to race, in France ideas of race are too often defined by skin color…. We need non-white heroes in France…to extend Frenchness beyond the ethnic dimension” (Financial Times, April 21).
Muslims in France suffer a similar fate. Many of them live in the banlieues, the poor suburbs of the French cities. Their behavior, according to Hussey, can be considered anti-civilizational — that is, a tendency to transgress “every code of behavior that holds society together.” Seventy percent of inmates in French prisons are Muslims.
These startling facts bring me to our T&T condition and our social problems. Lloyd Best argued that nine distinct “tribes” exist in the society, a concession to the reality that varying groups in the society possess different allegiances to the body politic. Implicit in this formulation is an inability to absorb these various tendencies smoothly into the society.
One may argue that this inability to absorb these various tendencies into the society creates a sense of no-whereness; a condition in which many citizens do not feel a sense of Trinidadianness and Tobagonianness and/or what it means to act in such a way. Some scholars have argued that a citizen can’t understand his society if he does not understand his country’s history.
Like France, T&T possesses its own banlieues, the cultivation of which is having devastating effects on our society. I may be naïve but it seems to me that introducing our history into our curriculum, at the primary and secondary levels, may be one way to combat this sense of no-whereness. France did this in 2002.
It may not be important that our forebears sought inspiration in the achievements of the Dumases. However, it might be helpful to understand that we cannot know who we are unless we do an inventory of our past and hand it down to our children.
Such an exercise may be vital to national survival.