By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 28, 2017
On August 31, Trinidad and Tobago will celebrate fifty-five years of independence. As per usual, there will be an inspection of the members of the armed forces, perhaps a fireworks display (I really enjoyed this as a boy); and many people will troop off to the beaches.
We will also witness the passing of venerable tradition: the conferral of national honors on deserving citizens on Independence Day. Our President has decided he could get more bang for the buck by honoring deserving citizens on Republic Day. Dr. Robert Williams argues: “Handing out national awards on Republic Day is truly symbolic and more meaningful in building and strengthening nationhood” (Trinidad Guardian, August 23).
l am not too sure how far the myriad Independence Day activities go towards rectifying the historical amnesia that has assailed our society. Few of the younger members of our society know what we commemorate when we celebrate Independence Day or why it is important. Apart from knowing the words of the national anthem and the colors of the national flag, few of us know how our nation came into being and the significant signposts along the way.
There is a vague notion that we were brought here as slaves and indentures because the British needed cheap, docile labor to cultivate their sugar plantations. They probably know that gallant souls fought for us to control our own affairs even though some segments of the society had tremendous fears about a society ruled by African people. Many Indo-Trinbagonians, primarily under the banner of the Democratic Labor Party and its leader Rudranath Capildeo, pleaded with the colonial authorities to withhold independence. They were unsure of their fate under a PNM government that was controlled by African people.
At Marlborough House, London, where deliberations on Independence took place, Dr. Williams and Dr. Capildeo worked out a compromise that protected the constitutional rights of our minority groups at the time (such as Indians, French Creoles, Syrians and Chinese) and guaranteed their protection. Dr. Williams, an astute statesperson, knew that a democracy is measured by how it treats and protects its minority inhabitants rather than how it caters to the majority population.
Unbiased observers acknowledge that minority groups flourished and continue to flourish in T&T after Independence. This is a testimony to Dr. Williams’s brilliance and foresight. In fact, an African-led government opened up the way for all of its citizens to enjoy the fruits of the island’s prosperity. No roadblocks were placed in their way.
Today crime, corruption and cronyism are the order of the day. While there is greater material prosperity, much more work needs to be done to make the society safe and to ensure the prosperity of all citizens. We need to work out an arrangement in which there is greater interracial cooperation amongst the various groups, a better understanding between labor and capital, and a more energetic role by government to advance the well-being of the most down-trodden of its citizens.
The economic disparities between the rich and the poor are becoming more pronounced while the growing poverty among Africans threatens the integrity of our social fabric. Increasingly, Africans are sliding to the bottom of the society economically. Many people argue that Africans are averse to taking risks and hence their impoverishment. This observation is not a satisfactory answer as to why Africans are where they are in the society.
Even if it is true that Afro-Trinbagonians are risk averse, can we accept the continued impoverishment of this group without a sustained discussion as to how we ought to tackle this problem?
I have offered the following analogy previously. If there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in the Caroni area, would citizens in other parts of the country describe this catastrophe as an Indian problem which Indians should solve themselves? Would it be acceptable to advise that they adopt better sanitary habits?
If such a catastrophe were to occur, the entire nation would come together to eliminate this plague from the land full in the knowledge that if we did not get this plague under control it would spread until it engulfed the entire nation. Such a tragedy could even mean the end of our civilization as we know it.
The growing poverty and subsequent alienation (it’s a word that some of our Indian thinkers used previously to describe their condition) of our black citizens is a real threat to our future development as a nation. It is not primarily a black problem. It is a national problem with which the entire society should grapple.
The state of Black Trinidad and Tobago should be a part of a national conversation, particularly on Independence Day. Eric Foner of Columbia University has reminded us: “Forgetting is as essential to public understandings of history as remembering” (New York Times, August 20). We forget African impoverishment at our peril.
Independence is a continuing journey. What we choose to forget along the way is as important as what we choose to remember. Thinking of what each of us can do to solve the continuing impoverishment of Afro-Trinbagonians remains a part of the Independence project we commenced in 1962.
All of us should dedicate our lives to strengthening our nation.