Facing the Past

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 21, 2021

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeOn Thursday last, US President Joseph Biden signed into law an important bill (the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act) that makes June 19 a national holiday in the United States to commemorate the end of slavery.

In signing this bill President Biden reminded Americans: “The promise of equality is not going to be fulfilled until we become real—it becomes real in our schools and on our main streets and in our neighbourhoods” (NYT, June 18)

This national holiday has its roots in the long delay it took before the news of the formal freeing of the slaves reached Galveston, Texas. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 but more than 250,000 African Americans remained enslaved in Galveston, Texas, until June 19, 1865 when Union general Gordon Granger brought the news that “all slaves are free”.

Why did it take so long for these unfortunate people to hear of their freedom? Matthew Dowd noted that this “tragic and unconscionable situation” occurred because news reporters and commentators failed “to communicate the federal law, the slave masters did not tell their slaves they had been freed,” and there were few federal troops in Texas to enforce Lincoln’s orders.

Tom McClintock, a Republican, objected to making Juneteenth a holiday on the grounds that he didn’t believe “it’s healthy to reach into the dead past, revive its most malevolent conflicts and reintroduce them into our age”.

McClintock should have read William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun which, as one critic reminds us, “concerns spiritual redemption for past evil deeds through suffering and the recognition of one’s guilt”. In that novel Nancy Mannigoe’s defence lawyer, Gavin Stevens, says to Temple, another character in the novel, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Faulkner, born in Mississippi, explored the question of race relations, particularly as it shaped the American South. He understood that a country’s past, no matter how abhorrent, if left unattended, could poison that country’s future and lead to its destruction. Biden understood that one can deal with the evil of the past only by confronting it and admitting its impact upon a nation’s development.

Needless to say, there was great rejoicing among African-Americans that those in power are recognising and confronting that whole system of racism that has stymied their progress. During the signing of the bill President Biden singled out Opal Lee, who at the age of 89, walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, a distance of 1,400 miles, to get Juneteenth named as a national holiday. He called her “a grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and got down on one knee to greet her in the audience” (NYT, June 18).

This symbolic act of repentance touched black people a lot.

This atonement and remembrance of the past is a very important act in the maturing of any nation. In Germany and even Canada it is a crime to say that the Holocaust didn’t occur. Jane Hirschmann writes about how her parents lost everything as they fled from the cruelty of the Nazis.

Once the war was over the Germans paid her father reparations for the loss of his business. She writes: “He received a monthly check until his death at the age of 91. Both of my parents were welcomed back by the German government and told they could get their passports and their citizenship returned” (Truthout, June 17).

Canada, Germany and the United States are large countries with large issues but they realise that the act of repairing is an important symbolic and psychological act in achieving the wholesomeness of their country. We live in a small country where the issues are smaller but we must exert greater energy to understand our past and where our strengths and failures lie.

As a nation we live in a state of long forgetfulness. We do not study our past to find out what we can learn from it. There seems little national purpose or the creation of any mechanism to bind us together as a cohesive people. We are not civil towards our opponents and say the most hurtful things to one another, particularly at the political level.

We want to disparage Kamla Persad-Bissessar because she warns the nation about the coming dangers if we continue to perpetuate the inequalities that we find within the society. But the fault lies within. Bob Marley urged his people: “Open your eyes, look within / Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?” Every great nation, small or large, must look itself in the mirror, ask where it’s going and what it wants to achieve.

President Biden was correct when he said that the US would not become a real nation until the facts of Juneteenth, the Tulsa massacre of 1921 and all the other atrocities committed against its minorities become a more inclusive part of American history. He noted at the White House: “All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history.”

Yet, I disagree with him on one thing. Slavery is not America’s original sin. America’s original sin resides in the genocide that it committed against the First People and that too the nation must come to grips with.

Let us commend President Biden for reaching out to correct a sin that blighted the land but let us learn from it by taking our history seriously and making it part of our national curriculum. At Independence, the Mighty Sparrow urged: “Spread the word anywhere you pass / Tell the world, there’s a model nation at last.”

Perhaps we can still struggle to reach this ideal.

5 thoughts on “Facing the Past”

  1. “But the fault lies within. Bob Marley urged his people: “Open your eyes, look within / Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?”
    Yes it is time people open their eyes to the life they are living. The fault lies within. The man who lost his job and cannot find another, sir the fault lies within. The woman who have to prostitute herself for her children education. Ma’am the fault lies within. Those who cannot get a good education because of their parent’s poverty, Child the fault lies within.

    Open allyuh eyes, As Dr. Rowley said he weaning all of off government. All must expect to pay taxes and be satisfied because the fault lies within. Keep votin PNM

  2. And you won’t believe that dem two little islands set off this Emancipation (Juneteenth) Day observation ting!

    Wiki says: “On August 1, 1985 Trinidad and Tobago became the first independent country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery.
    In Trinidad and Tobago, Emancipation Day replaced Columbus Discovery Day, which commemorated the arrival of Christopher Columbus at Moruga on 31 July 1498, as a national public holiday.”

    Not a word… it was like last Friday never happened on TT’s media (African owned media there too), it just slipped passed like, well..

    I guess they failed to understand the significance of this.. and the impact it has as the the ‘great US’ follows ‘little’ TT, some 35 years later..

  3. “We want to disparage kamla persad-bissessar for…”- Dr. Cudjoe

    Who is “we”, Dr. Cudjoe? You are a professed Kamla/UNC supporter! How disingenuous!

  4. Selwyn Cudjoe gives out some elucidating information in the first part of his article on the Juneteenth holiday and then suddenly and for no apparent reason he brings in Kamla Persad-Bissessar, talk about spoiling a good thing. Really it is amazing what lengths some of our black opinion leaders would go to hide the truth from their own brethren, the truth that can help them understand and overcome through that understanding. Selwyn writes, in his article “Facing the Past”, “Biden understood that one can deal with the evil of the past only by confronting it and admitting its impact upon a nation’s development.” It’s truly ironic that Selwyn Cudjoe can use Juneteenth and the massacre at Tulsa to speak about the inequities that exist in Trinidad and Tobago and write about Kamla Persad-Bissessar as if Kamla Persad-Bissessar with her political history could ever correct them. Selwyn continues, “As a nation we live in a state of long forgetfulness. We do not study our past to find out what we can learn from it.” He also mentioned the Tulsa massacre, a very interesting point because the Tulsa massacre happened at Greenwood, a prosperous black neighborhood in Tulsa, it started in May 31st and ended in June 1st, it dominated the news in America just before that Juneteenth holiday announcement. Greenwood was called the Black Wall Street, it was a prosperous black community in Tulsa, where black businesses thrived and it opened the eyes of many to the possibility of black prosperity. Greenwood was completely destroyed by white mobs, more than 1000 black homes and businesses were destroyed, historians estimate more than 300 black folks were killed in the massacre. Black businesses and entrepreneurship took a beating after the massacre. I point this out because destroying black businesses and the Black Wall Street was part of that racial ‘getting them to know their place’ animus directed against blacks in America. Black prosperity was something that could create envy and destructive hatred, black folks had to be kept down to avoid the resentment and envy that could arise from challenging that sense of superiority among whites. In some sense it was the preservation of the economic structure that needed blacks to be cheap labor and to know their place in that structure.
    But we had a similar type of thing in Trinidad and Tobago. After emancipation blacks did not want to go back to the plantations where they had been slaves, they wanted their own land so that they could plant crops, develop small businesses that they had become competent at and make themselves self sufficient. It was the same dream as blacks had in Greenwood, Tulsa. But that self sufficiency was a threat to the former plantation and slave owners. So certain policies were put into place. Blacks were legally discouraged from owning land, East Indians were brought in as indentured workers to replace the former slaves, they were unknowingly and inadvertently cast in the role of strike breakers, and indentured workers were given five acres of land if they remained in Trinidad after their tenure. So blacks were prevented from owning land, cooped up in particular areas in Laventille etc while East Indians were given five acres of state land to remain in Trinidad. I don’t think we can blame either group; people were just trying to improve their lives. One can even excuse plantation owners on the grounds that they were just trying to keep the plantations going. Maybe we can ascribe all of this to the tragedy of history, or the comedy of history, or whatever, but we must confront and admit the past, we must face the past as Selwyn says. The effects of these policies have lasted from Emancipation to today. That is the evil of the past that we must confront and admit its impact on the nation’s development. When Selwyn says therefore, “As a nation we live in a state of long forgetfulness. We do not study our past to find out what we can learn from it” that is what we have remained in a state of long forgetfulness about, and surely we can learn from it, even in the sense that understanding is the first step towards healing ourselves.

  5. “We want to disparage Kamla Persad-Bissessar because she warns the nation about the coming dangers if we continue to perpetuate the inequalities that we find within the society. But the fault lies within. ” I too, wonder about that statement and its inference with respect to the Juneteenth recognition. Much ado is made of Kamla as a political figurehead. What she says and what she does are always two different things. The real question we should be asking is “who is Kamla Persad Bissessar?”. Most leaders come into the political spotlight after they have shown who they are, by either writing a book, showing valiance, being an exceptionally good orator, electrifying a population towards development, showing wisdom, being a good listener, having a history of quelling unrest, restoring peace after disasters, being a good peacemaker, leading from darkness into light, teach and inspire to excel through actions, uses knowledge to educate others, being the change you wish to see in others, leading is about striving to become better than who we are, every time you speak you are auditioning for leadership, leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading good ideas that work. I am not sure we have seen, heard, experienced or even envisioned any of these qualities in Kamla. So, why is she so prominent in the headlines and writings of some of our well-respected?

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