By Raffique Shah
April 23, 2011
FORTY-ONE years ago, almost to the week, tens of thousands of mainly idealistic young people thought we had killed and buried the “race bogey” in this cussed country. We had grown up knowing that race-tension lay beneath the veneer of peaceful co-existence that those in authority had proclaimed. Too often, we had heard the epithets “nigger” and “coolie” bandied about, suggesting that after almost 150 years of living together in this melting pot, our people of different races and cultures were clinging to prejudices of a distant past.
So we took up the challenge to right this wrong. The descendants of slaves and indentured immigrants would set right what our forebears had failed to do. We took our destiny in our hands. We confronted the politicians on both sides of the fence, they who thrived on the divide-and-rule doctrine our British colonial masters had found so beneficial to their dominance. We marched, we wrote, we shouted “Unite!” from the rooftops. We even mutinied in the military.
We were beaten with police batons. We were jailed. Some among us faced no charges, but spent months behind bars. Others faced capital charges—treason, mutiny—and ended up enduring long trials and even longer periods in jail. But young as we were, we took it all in stride. We did not cry. We did not beg. We stood defiant, proud of our actions to rid the country of racism, of inequity. We wanted our parents and their generation to rid themselves of prejudices engendered partly by history, partly by political and religious allegiances. Yes, we sacrificed our careers, our lives in instances, in the hope that we would herald a new dawn, the Age of Aquarius, an age of love, light and humanitarianism.
How deluded we were. How elusive were our lofty goals. We were fools—and worse, we did not know it.
I look at Good Friday’s edition of the Express banner headline, “Daaga: Stop race talk!” Makandal was the leader of that “youth-quake” back in 1970. Yesterday’s headline was “Race Talk in House”. The PNM’s Keith Rowley and the UNC’s Jack Warner were counting heads and hair-type. Yesterday, too, Khafra Kambon, another leader of the 1970 mass movement, was protesting the inhumane treatment meted out to illegal immigrants who happened to be Africans. On the same day, another activist protested the alleged slave-like treatment three Indian workers suffered at the hands of a local employer, presumably an Indo-Trinidadian.
Every day I scan the local blogs on the Internet, the natives are going after each other’s hair, if not their throats. A white American, Archbishop Gilbert, blames “bigshots” for promoting racial tensions. Basdeo Panday rises from the dead to inject his customary dose of poison. Race, he insists, must remain on the front burner. Translate that to mean racial strife must always be there, a jackass that politicians and human-asses would ride until they fall dead…only to allow other race-jockeys to mount and continue their campaign of hatred.
When I addressed this issue mere weeks ago, I did not think I would need to return to it so quickly. But here I am, forced by the purveyors of race-hate who cleverly disguise themselves as promoters of peaceful co-existence, having to return to the scene of the crime, in a manner of speaking. What do these people want? A racial conflagration, a cataclysmic clash of cultures that would spell the end of the limited harmony we have enjoyed?
Many supporters of the Government are calling on their leaders to cleanse the public sector of “PNM leeches”. These perceived enemies of the new government are in the main senior public servants who have served successive administrations. I, too, see many of these functionaries as a hindrance to progress, but not because of their race or perceived political loyalties. In my interaction with them, I have griped about their indifference to the people they serve because they seem to be “coasting”, waiting for retirement and the benefits that go with it.
Bureaucracy, not party affiliation, is their only creed.
Of course, they are entitled to enjoy the fruits of years of employment in a service that undervalues people’s labour. I often question, though, if many of them worked diligently at any time in their careers. But I hardly ever judge them by their race, since I have learned that that is inconsequential. We have delinquent public sector workers of every race and political persuasion.
I often wonder about people who see race in every face. Theirs must be a very miserable existence. Imagine, for example, commuters waiting for a bus or taxi or Warner’s soon-to-be-legalised “PH”, and watching the driver’s race before boarding the vehicle. Or, put in another perspective, the driver screening his passengers by race. This may well happen at times: the level of people’s stupidity must never be underestimated.
Rational-thinking people would hardly succumb to such base instincts. But when so many are blinded by race, by religion or by political loyalty, anything can happen. Four decades after the young and the brave stood firmly for equitable treatment for all our citizens, it seems that we have made a full circle.
Back then, we fought against the relics of what we thought was a dying colonialism. How were we to know that our slogan, “Indians and Africans Unite!” would fall on barren ground? Jesus, arise! Put a hand, Lord, before this society implodes. After all, this is Thy weekend, Boss.