By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 18, 2017
Besson argues that Trinidad and Tobago’s independence venture failed because more than 30 percent of the African population left the country since1962. “These emigrants,” he says, “were mostly urban, secondary school educated, more or less middle class….At the same time, about the same amount of people or more than that of those who left, have come from the islands of the Caribbean.” He elaborates: “Those immigrants’ background were mostly rural and primary school educated. This unique demographic transformation has impacted on Trinidad and Tobago politically, socially and culturally, and has significantly diminished the identity of the AfroCreole [read black] sector.”
I don’t know how the addition of Grenadians and Vincentians diminishes the identity of black people in T&T. Identity cannot be defined as a quantitative phenomenon (as in ten pounds of sugar.) Rather, it ought to be seen as a qualitative phenomenon in which the addition of peoples, possessing different traditions, adds to the richness of our society. The United States of America, a multicultural society, has not been diminished by the rich amalgam of people who entered its borders since the beginning of the 19th century. Immigrants brought their rich cultural traditions to their adopted society thereby enriching the latter. However, things are always different when we speak of black people or, as Besson would have it, AfroCreoles.
Besson is not content to utter such banalities. He continues: “More than a ‘brain drain,’ it [the exodus of T&T’s middle class] was a deep cultural alteration within the context of the local AfroCreole culture. The fruit of that culture, produced throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th century, have emigrated taking their legacy with them.”
When I immigrated to the United States in 1964, I didn’t know I depleted T&T’s black cultural capital by taking the black cultural legacy that was cultivated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It is true that the immigration of large numbers of black people removed a rich source of leadership, skills and talents from the country. Immigration, however, is the social subtext of the 20th century, something that is accelerating in the 21st century.
Besson claims that the Indian-descended segment of the population prospered during the independence years whereas the African segment, for whom independence was crafted (his words), wasn’t so fortunate. I do not know how independence was crafted for one group against another. I always thought colonial peoples, back or white, always wanted to control their political affairs that led to the creation of independence movements.
It is possible that the achievements of the Indian segment during independence reflected the openness of the society that allowed all groups to pursue their passions and inclinations. There is no doubt the “primitive” accumulation of capital and the religious orientation of the Indian community, particularly the Hindus, assisted greatly in their economic and social advancement. Sat Maraj would argue that Indian-Trinbagonians succeed not because of but in spite of independence. I don’t think he would say that independence “was crafted mainly for the advancement of the AfroCreole sector.”
Just when you think things couldn’t get worse, Besson declares: “The second fact that has negatively impacted our collective identity as a people, certainly on discipline and on productivity, was the end of agriculture….One of the effects of the loss of the agricultural sector is that we have become a compassionless society.”
During the boom years of agricultural production (1953-54) all of us devoted our lives to “the bringing up of livestock, market gardening, vegetable planting, cocoa and coffee cultivation and so on. [Then] you [had] a people who have a lot of love for their animals and for their plants.”
How do we recover that lost paradise? Well, you simply “have to love your donkey.”
And then comes the splendid philosophical deduction from his abundance of wisdom: “When things lose their relevance, their meanings change.”
That’s it. That is all this erudite gentleman can propose.
Besson summarizes his offering in the following way: “The social transformation caused by emigration and immigration with the Afro-Creole segment, in combination with the destruction of the agricultural economy as well as other factors, created a profound dissonance in the body politic and in commonly held ideas of identity and a shared understanding of legacy.”
Tamas Szentes in The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, the book that Walter Rodney used to develop his basic thesis of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, suggested: “History, after all, is the most important yardstick and test for the validity of the theories of social sciences.” In other words, if one gets one’s history wrong, it invalidates any grandiose explanation of society that one might offer.
Szentes also argued: “The logical consistency of a theory can be measured exactly by the logical extending of thought in both directions.” Besson’s analysis of our social history does not help us to get a better grasp of our past condition neither does it point where we ought to go in the future.
Loving a donkey will not make us a better or more compassionate society. We transform our social condition when we offer a more rigorous and sophisticated readings of T&T’s story. In this regard Besson has failed miserably.