By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 12, 2011
I regret I was not in Trinidad to share in the national grief when Sir Ellis Clarke died. My visit to Ghana over the past two weeks prevented me from attending his funeral. Michael Harris described Sir Ellis and those of similar ilk as Afro-Saxons. I disagree with such a characterization since it neither captures the essence of those gallant men and their contribution to our society nor does it tell us much about their location within the national landscape. Even in our grief we should resist a tendency to mischaracterize our patriots and set up false notions of who they were or what they ought to be.
It was the late nineteen sixties. I was a faculty member of Fordham University in New York. I invited Dr. Eric Williams to deliver a lecture at our university. After expressing his regret at not being able to attend (I remember his using the phrase “Whilst I am unable to attend…”) he suggested that I invite Sir Ellis to replace him. Sir Ellis graciously accepted our invitation and delivered a masterful, though low-keyed, lecture to our faculty and students.
This was the first time I met Sir Ellis. He was about 53 years old; I was in my late twenties. He was our Permanent Representation to the United Nations; I was a young instructor at Fordham University in the Black Studies Department. He had distinguished himself as a legal scholar and capable diplomat; I was striving to be an academic worthy citizen. He was a colleague of Dr. Williams while I, a young man, sat at Dr. Williams’s feet at the University of Woodford Square and the College of Auzonville Park in Tunapuana learning what it meant to be an educated person.
It was in these forums I first learned the names of the Greek philosophers and a place called Athens. It was the fifties and my world was constrained by the narrowness of my village (Tacarigua) and a curriculum that glorified “Dan Is the Man in de Van” and the singing of racist songs such as “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” that were offensive to African Americans. I studied under a kerosene lamp, upon the shade of which was inscribed “Home Sweet Home,” as its tiny glow pierced the darkness that was broken only by the night sounds of the bats, the owls and some stray dogs. My home did not receive electricity until I was about 12 years old.
It was that mental and physical darkness that Williams, James and Learie Nicholas Constantine (to name a few) sought to illuminate. It was not that we did not possess our own indigenous knowledge of our surrounding (my mother knew the uses of aloes and fever grass) or were undergirded by our culture of shango and protected by our orishas. It was only that our formal education was geared to keep us subservient rather than to liberate our mental capacities.
Over the years I conversed with Sir Ellis many times. He offered his insights into life and death and shared his thoughts of Panday’s government. I distinctly remember his having told me that he was related to Emmanuel Mzumbo Lazare (1864-1929), an outstanding African solicitor/lawyer and freedom fighter, who represented a bridge or transition from the slave to the colonial era. Lazare deliberately took an African name, “Mzumbo,” to show his pride in his African roots.
Apart from making lots of money, Mzumbo devoted a considerable amount of his time to serving his country and his people. Bridget Brereton, one of our distinguished historians, observed that Mzumbo “always encouraged racial pride among his people. He became involved in local politics and played a leading role in the campaign against Crown Colony Government which led to the Water Riots in Port of Spain in 1903.”
This was the atmosphere in which Sir Ellis (1917-2010) was born. He fashioned himself after Mzumbo and drew much inspiration from him. Necessarily, those proto nationalists who were offended by British colonialism drew upon their native culture and sought to understand the modes and methods of their oppressor to attack the evil of colonialism. This is one reason why Williams wrote Capitalism and Slavery and James wrote Black Jacobins and Oliver Cromwell Cox wrote Caste, Class and Race. It is almost as though these early nationalists were forging the tools of liberation to make their assault against the bastion of colonialism.
As a national/political entity Trinidad and Tobago was just in its formative process. If the nineteenth century reflected a society having to accommodate various nationalities and people of different religious persuasion who come to its shores, the twentieth century consisted in our society having to consolidate its nationness (Trinidad and Tobago only became a political entity in 1889) and a gradual working through of its national identity, a process that is still in formation. This is the ontological vise in which these emergent nationalists (and I am using the term loosely) found themselves at the beginning of the twentieth century.
These are the challenges that faced these first Trinbagonians as they face the might and authority of the colonial powers. They had to form a people and make a nation.
It is against this background that I would like to examine Harris’s contention-meant to be complimentary– that Sir Ellis was the last of the great Afro-Saxons of the twentieth century. He argues that although they were “eminently capable as Afro-Saxons…in leading us to self-government and political independence, they proved to be equally incapable of providing the kind of leadership required under conditions of independence” (“Last of the Great Anglo-Saxons,” Express, January 9).
I am not too sure about what Harris wished to convey in his last observation but one only has to look at countries such as Ghana and the catastrophe that is taking place in the Cote d’Ivorie, its neighbor, to understand the important job these stalwart Trinbagonians did in laying the foundation for modern Trinidad; keeping the society together; generating economic prosperity; and crafting a political stability they have bequeathed us, as a nation.
Harris contends that these Afro-Saxons had so successfully imbibed a notion of “schooled to rule” from the British public school that it “dictated a style of politics and governance in which the people could not be trusted to be masters of their own destinies.” Although Harris may be on to something here, he must tell us how this notion manifests itself in the general populace; what evidence he has to demonstrate his thesis; and what would have been the outcomes if these leaders trusted their people. In the process, he may even be able to demonstrate one example where this noble condition obtained.
Most of these Afro-Saxon leaders (political, economic, legal, or otherwise) in Trinidad and other colonial territories came onto the national stage when their countries were led by the British. Initially, they opted to persuade the colonial powers that self-government was the only way their people could go forward. In 1930 James wrote “The Case for West Indian Self-Government” although it was published a few years later. In January 1930 Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Kikuyu Central Association of Kenya, traveled to the Colonial Office in Britain to present his case for Kenyan self-government.
Although there was much agitation in all of the colonial counties to obtain self-governance, most of these societies (and we are talking of the British territories) needed leaders who understood the political culture of the “mother” country to strengthen their demands for self-government and eventually independence. Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1971), the great champion of Ghana’s independence studied in the United States and did preparatory work in London before he returned to Ghana to lead his country into independence. Kenyatta studied anthropology in Britain, wrote Facing Mount Kenya, a study on the Kikuyu, before he returned to Kenya to lead his people to independence. Nnamdi Azikiwi (1904-1996) attended Howard University, Lincoln University and the University of Pennsylvania where he received a Master’s degree before he returned to Nigeria to lead his people to independence.
All these leaders studied outside their countries before they returned home to serve their country. I wonder if Harris is willing to call Nkrumah, Kenyatta and Azikiwi Afro- or African-Saxons because they studied abroad and, in the process, acquired accoutrements and even taste of those foreign countries? Are they less African because they sought higher education abroad which, in many instances, their home countries could not provide?
Although Harris has sought to temper his characterization of Sir Ellis and others by suggesting that the term “Afro-Saxon” is not meant to be derogatory no one familiar its connotation is inclined to see it as being complimentary. Even if it were complementary it does not capture the essence of these men or any other significant attributes of their personality and national identify. It cannot be interpreted as anything but derogatory.
An Anglo-Saxon is a member of one of the Germanic peoples (one does not say tribe) who settled in Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is used to describe some one whose language and culture typify the Angles and the Saxons, the two major groups that make up the Anglo-Saxons. The variation of the term, Afro-Saxon, which Lloyd Best used to describe Sir Ellis and others, does not and cannot capture Sir Ellis’s national identity, his intellectual formation and academic achievements because it seeks to emphasize-or to give equal weight to–his Africanness and what Best sees as his English accoutrements.
No one in his correct mind will characterize Williams, James or Sir Ellis as having more in common with the Anglo-Saxons than they do with Afro-Trinidadians. No one would say that Williams, James and Sir Ellis were more English than they were Trinidadians nor were there cultural accoutrements that made them more Saxon than African. Such a description neither speaks to their uniqueness nor their cosmopolitanism. No one dares say that their academic excellence makes them more English and less Trinbagonian. This would be an insult to common sense and our national psyche.
No one is born out of his time or his place; each of us being circumscribed by his place and his time. Trinbagonians who were born during the first quarter of the twentieth century can rightly be described as the first Trinbagonians who sought to “educate” themselves (not school themselves) as they strove to understand themselves, their society and the larger world in which they lived. They took different paths to those objectives and, in the process, emphasized different peculiarities none of which made them less Trinbagonian than Best or Harris. They were, in the best sense Trinidadians and Tobagonians.
The historical task of these first Trinbagonians was to build a nation; create a democracy and lay the foundation for modern prosperous nation. They did that with élan and style so that in the twenty first century a Hindu-Trinbagonians could come to power with the support of Afro-Trinbagonians and claim leadership of the society without there being any rapture in our political or ethnic fabric. In our land today, the seeds of our fathers are being manifested in the works of their children.
Ghanaians have a proverb that says: If you have not been out of your home you cannot say that your mother’s soup is best which suggests that before you speak about the tastiness of your mother’s soup or your uniqueness you should experience other people’s soup or their culture. Ghanaians have another proverb that says that one must come out of one’s house before one can learn about others. Mzumbo, James, Williams or Sir Ellis could have realized their fullest potential if they had been educated only at home.
I do not know what Harris expects that post-independence leaders should have done to acquit themselves as he suggests. Perhaps he has a model in mind or knows a priori how leaders ought to act to create the ideal post colonial states. He suggests that now that era of the great Afro-Saxons have ended that we must now look for an appropriate model to achieve the “perfect” state and to discover what it means to be fit to rule under the conditions of independence.
Trinidadian and Tobagonians have been doing a good job in the fifty years since independence. It goes without saying that the character of the state will change as the majority population takes its rightful place in ruling the society. This is prophecy not description. But to suggest that these noble patriots missed the boat because they studied abroad is a position that I am not ready to support.
Sir Ellis was as African as Mzumbo. Like Mzumbo, he was and Trini’ to de bone. Let us not mar that achievement with any hyphenation that takes anything away from this exemplary Trinidadian. And let us also give thanks for a life well lived.