An incomplete revolution

By Raffique Shah
March 02, 2020

Raffique ShahFifty years after the Black Power Revolution shook Trinidad and Tobago’s foundation, many people, mostly older folks, are trying to quantify what benefits, if any, were derived from those tumultuous events. In contrast, younger people have no idea that anything significant happened in 1970, nor are they interested in our history. Hell, they have little or no interest in history as a subject, far less in local history.

The maxim “if you don’t know where you’ve come from then you won’t know where you are going”, means nothing to today’s cyberspace generations. So my generation, which crafted and to a great extent executed the events that constituted what we saw as a revolution, might as well spare ourselves the trauma of remembering and reliving “The Revo” every year, as much as we may think we have made a contribution to our country.

Most of us will agree that if what we participated in was indeed a revolution, it was incomplete. But it’s not as if we can throw aside our walking sticks or wheelchairs and seek to address the unfinished business from so many moons ago. True, we kindled black consciousness among Africans in the society who had all but forgotten their roots. And we placed on the national agenda ownership and control of the commanding heights of the economy (fancy words there). Hell, we even restored pride to many Indians who had earlier surrendered to the deleterious effects of colonialism, sacrificing their identities, names, cultures and religions on Massa’s altar of the Great White God.

During those 50-odd days of wrath between February 26th and April 20th 1970, large swathes of the country were engulfed by the fires of revolution as we, the bulk of us no more than 25 years-young, some much younger, acted out the romanticism of fighting to liberate our country from the jaws of neo-colonialism, the long reach of imperialism.

Our fertile imaginations had been fired by the writings and speeches of heroes such as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Walter Rodney, Martin Luther King. We were dazzled by the charisma and lightening-fast fists and feet of the greatest boxer ever, Cassius-Clay-turned-Mohammed-Ali, who stood like a giant in the ring and outside, condemning racism in America and defying Uncle Sam’s call-up to fight an unjust war in Vietnam. Ali never wavered when he was stripped of the title and faced imprisonment for refusing to go to war. “No Cong ever called me nigger!’ he said, “Cong” being the Vietnamese fighters.

Uncle Sam sacrificed the lives of tens of thousands of mainly poor American young men in a war it could never win: The most powerful military in the world was humiliated when, in 1975, its last flight of helicopters fled Vietnam, its defeated troops in disarray. Ali was vindicated, but the cost of the war in human lives and material was huge.

Such was the calibre of men who inspired us, whose life stories were required reading in soldiers’ barracks, in school compounds, under street lamps at nights. In depressed communities where nowadays teenagers learn to use guns against each other, during the revolution, university students would tutor poor children in their academic work, then fortify them with a discussion on a book or other topic of the day. The brothers, meaning every male in the struggle, respected the sisters, and everyone, even children, and especially older people, felt safe walking the streets of East Port of Spain, Laventille, Morvant—in fact anywhere in the country.

There were protest demonstrations every day, sometimes two, three simultaneously, in different parts of the country. There were mass public meetings day and night. Woodford Square was renamed “The People’s Parliament”. Issues of national importance were raised and debated at such meetings. Attendance ranged from 3,000 or so in the Square to a full 25,000, while the demonstrations had similar numbers.

When a stupid police corporal shot the unknown Basil Davis dead just outside the Square, he unwittingly made a martyr for “de Revo”. Davis’ funeral on April 9th extended from POS to San Juan, where the body was interred. Attendance estimates ranged from 30,000 to 100,000. Secondary school students had by then joined the ranks of the protestors. Hundreds of people left their homes each day and reported to the Square, not their jobs.

Initially, those who participated in the revolution comprised mostly young, unemployed Afro-Trinis from the capital city and its environs. By mid-March, small Black Power groups from rural towns and villages joined to show their support. These came from districts such as Arouca, Arima, Point Fortin, Sangre Grande and even Tobago. Then trade unions like the OWTU and TIWU openly identified with the umbrella National Joint Action Committee. And other workers whose unions stayed aloof of the mass movement also joined.

The only important link that was missing from the sea of protestors was Indo-Trinidadians. NJAC’s foray into Central Trinidad on April 6th, under the banner “Indians and Africans unite” had yielded much goodwill and hospitality all along the Indo-dominated route. But Chan Maharaj from Arouca, who headed the misnamed National Freedom Organisation, was still the only Indian on the podium.

That was set to change on April 20th with strike action by most workers in the vast sugar industry, who also happened to be mainly Indians, and who would defy the notorious Bhadase Sagan Maharaj, their union leader, who had openly called on Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams to stamp out the mass movement—as if that was possible.

Therein lay the seeds of “unfinished business” that Catholic Archbishop Jason Gordon referred to in his homily at the Cathedral on Ash Wednesday. I see it as an “incomplete revolution”, and I shall focus on it in the weeks ahead as we mark the 50th anniversary of Black Power.

5 thoughts on “An incomplete revolution”

  1. ‘70’s

    Do you remember 1970, the guns and the fear; the state of the fear and the fear of the state,

    The human blood on asphalt and the broken bones, and the broken promises down to the bones;

    Where the people had to break the law because the law was used to break the people;

    When there was no vision in sight and the sight had no vision;

    When all that was being asked was for opportunity, and opportunity was not being given to those who asked?

    Do you remember hands being folded into fists of power and there was no power in the fold of the people?

    Do you remember when the statue was painted as black as the night and the night could not blacken the hopes of the people;

    When the people wore the soles of their shoes down seeking their lot and their lot was under someone else’s sole;

    And freedom fighters were called guerillas and guerillas freely fought for their belief;

    When some soldiers took up guns against the life of the state and the state gunned for lives of some soldiers?

    Do you remember a power from a foreign land brought to judge the soldiers in the up-rising and the power, rising up, took over a foreign land?

    Nineteen seventy asks of you to remember yesterday and promises that if you don’t, then you would be forced to remember today, tomorrow.

    robert p. james

  2. Certainly a passionate commentary on a by-gone era. Today’s youth have no idea of the struggles of the past. Why? They are simply not interested. Our world today is a sea of information. Walk into a mall and everyone is peering down at a cellphone.

    Yet it was about just over 50 years ago when America subjugated its black population and signs read “white only”. Mississippi Burning captured the intense hatred towards black people from white folks.

    When my son was younger I had him sit down with me and watch the Gandhi movie(unfortunately Sony has the rights and you can’t find it in the internet). At the end of it anticipating some questions, he just looked at me blankly as if to say dad you had your time. Another day I tried to get him involved in history and he said “dad history is about dead people, I live in the present”.

    The sixties, seventies, and half of the eighties was the best time to be alive. We had no cellphone, rather we talk to each other. We sat around actually conversing and building community. Yes we did a lot of crazy things like stealing the neighbour mangoes, or watermelon, getting into fights often as a form of bravado. But we were together. When we met our cousins we hang out, play all day, catch fish, climb trees and took risks.

    The sixties had a different feel altogether. The war was over and babies were booming, families were large and everyone felt free. The air was crisp and nice. The lagoon was filled with the greenest rice, around December month the “Christmas breeze” just made everything fresh and alive. On the culture scene, the Beetles, Elvis and a host of creative artiste emerged. For us Bollywood songs were blasting across the country side. The movies Andaz, Sholay, Farz, plus Bollywood giant Amitabh Bachchan along with Hema Malini and a host of other actors ruled the Hindi Cinema. In TnT it was Sparrow, Shorty, Kitcher,Rose, Sundar Popo and a host of others. Yes folks the black power movement rose at a crucial time. This was post independence era where a young nation was seeking to find its soul, its identity and chart its future! It was a sort of breaking away from the past.

    On the labour scene there was the infamous march by sugar workers. They were tear gassed by the Williams administration. Stories emerged of a young lieutenant Shah grabbing Panday hand and scaling a wall to escape the wrath of the police…Joe Young, Rex Lasal, George Weekes, are all names that shaped TnT. Today we have a few jokers calling themselves leaders. TnT knew leadership in the 60s, 70s, 80s
    But not today…sadly

  3. The Black Power revolution of 1970 in Trinidad is very much in the news once again. It is the 50th anniversary of the revolution and there have emerged, at a critical time in world history, much rumination on the revolution of 1970. It is a critical time because so many things are happening in the world that seem out of our control. We are plagued by crisis after crisis in a global sense. Chaos seems to be the order of the day. And yet in the eyes of the “most powerful person in the world”, chaos is good, chaos is cleansing, chaos is creative. But behind the chaos, something is being born. And whether that which is struggling in the throes of birth will save us or doom us is something we must reflect on in a serious way. In 1930 Antonio Gramsci, the famous Marxist philosopher, writing about the world situation where there was a monumental battle between fascists and communists and a tremendous polarization between the radical left and the radical right said about the deadlock, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying but the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” We seem to be, in a global sense, caught within that same polarization, witnessing many morbid symptoms.
    A few years after Gramsci wrote those lines, World War 11 started. It ended in the deaths of millions of people, not only in Europe and Japan and America, but all over the world. It may be that the misery and the death and the destruction were the morbid symptoms that Gramsci was referring to, but the ‘new’ to which he referred was not the Marxist world revolution that he hoped for, rather the ‘new’ that came into being after World War 11 was a world that tried to build institutions (the UN is one example) that would minimize conflict and warfare, that would encourage dialogue between nations, and would realize that injustice, poverty and racism if not addressed would fester and ultimately lead to war and violence. It was of course an ideal, an aspiration, but it gave a pragmatic and non-violent way to deal with injustice. Jaw-jaw, not war-war, as a famous leader is supposed to have said. And a world tired of war, misery and suffering found that it made sense.
    Sometimes the ideals and aspirations of revolutionaries and people of good will (let’s call them moderates or pragmatists) are the same. They seek the good life, a decent life, a life where they can provide for themselves and their families and have a future. The difference is how they believe these aspirations are achieved. Revolutionaries, whether of the left or the right, tend to be ideological, reality must bend to ideology. Pragmatists tend to look at reality and ask about getting results, reality determines how we go about things. Each path has its strengths and weaknesses. Hegel intimated it best: for the revolutionary – the rational is the real; for the pragmatist – the real is the rational.
    Raffique Shah calls the 1970 Black Revolution an incomplete revolution. It is an accurate description. I see its incompleteness as a measure of its deficiencies. It is a revolution that did not succeed. It may have indeed impacted on our history in a profound way, however if we measure it in terms of what it hoped to accomplish – it failed. If we measure it in terms of what it didn’t hope to accomplish, as Archbishop Gordon said it addressed the wound in our soul, it is impactful. I would like to address those reasons why it did not succeed in what it hoped to accomplish in some postings to follow.

  4. The sentiments expressed by the writer are moving. That was a different time and place when the youth were inspired by ‘love for mankind’ and abjured narcissism and naked materialism. That era is gone, never to return, please examine the phenomenon of the Mariel Boatlift, the events which led up to it and the demise of the ‘Cuban Revolution’. Parents of my generation ‘over-indulged’ their offspring, massaging their egos- telling them that they are ‘great’ and ‘entitled’ to the ‘good life’, i.e. consumer comforts–even though they have done nothing to deserve it. We may wax nostalgic, ad nauseam. As it is said, the young people are ‘..not feeling that’.

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