Decentering Dr Williams: debasing the PNM

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 20, 2021


Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeOn January 29, 2011, I delivered a lecture on the pitfalls of multiculturalism, at a Multiculturalism Conference at Gaston Court, Chaguanas. It was sponsored by GOPIO (T&T), the leading purveyor of Indian culture, when then-PM Kamla Persad-Bissessar introduced her cultural policy to engender greater equity within the society.

She called her policy “multiculturalism”, hoping to make T&T “the best example in the world of unity in diversity”. She claimed that while the previous PNM government “did not pay much attention to the Hindu population…”, her government would. Anand Ramlogan, then-attorney general, added: “People think of Trinidad and Tobago as a predominantly African country. We want to rectify this misperception. Previously there was “discrimination manifest in subtle ways… one of which was the allocation of State funding”.

I contrasted these sentiments with those of Eric Williams who, in History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago (HOT&T), declared: “There can be no Mother India for those whose ancestors came from India… There can be no Mother Africa for those of African origin, and the Trinidad and Tobago society is living a lie and heading for trouble if it seeks to create the impression or to allow others to act under the delusion that Trinidad and Tobago is an African society.”

I argued that any multicultural policy must unite the various groups in the island into one national entity by establishing “a transcendent culture that creates one national identity”. Any society that aspires to a cohesive national identity “must be willing to accept all of its history, not just parts of it… Dr Williams is considered the father of our nation because he was the leader… when it was formed—regardless of his race”. We remove him from that pinnacle at our peril (“Multiculturalism and its Challenges in Trinidad and Tobago”,, 2011).

In 2003, Shashi Tharoor spoke of the historical obligations that Indian people owed PM Jawaharlal Nehru. “The very term ‘Indian’ was imbued with such meaning that it is impossible to use it without acknowledging a debt… As an Indian writer, I am conscious that his legacy is ours, whether we agree with everything he stood for or not. What India is today, both for good and for ill, we owe in great measure to one man.” (Nehru: The Invention of India)

Williams was not a perfect man, but his legacy is ours. A few of us— Trinbagonians and PNM members—had our differences with Williams and the PNM, going back to CLR James, who Williams once called his “godfather”. However, it is a mistake to deny Williams’ position as “the father of the nation” in the national imagination or to claim, as Kirk Meighoo does, that “PNM did not fulfil the dreams of our ancestors, they perverted it”.

Georg Hegel, a German philosopher, followed the Haitian Revolution through the pages of Minerva, a German magazine, which led him to declare that “freedom from bondage could not come in the form of a gift”. After defeating the French, Dessalines, a leader of the Haitian Revolution, affirmed: “We are men who have founded our Independence to the prejudice of that consideration which powers never concede to people who like us are the authors of their own liberty.” (“Before Malcolm X, Dessalines”, 2007).

Williams’ success was built on the shoulders of heroic men and women who preceded him and those who served with him. Sudhir Hazareesingh, a perceptive Oxford scholar who was born in Mauritius, noted that the power and achievement of the great Toussaint Louverture “rested on strong collective foundations. It was grounded in his republican army as well as the free black population, which after the abolition of slavery in 1793 embraced the principles of freedom, equality and justice”. (Black Spartacus)

It is inaccurate to say that Great Britain “gave” T&T independence. Many gallant men and women, some of whom Meighoo named in his editorial, fought relentlessly to free the island from slavery and colonialism which led Britain to see the futility of keeping Trinbagonians enslaved and colonised. Williams led the charge for Independence even when the Opposition was against it, which is why we honour his memory by calling him “Father of the Nation”.

Williams, Washington, Nehru, fathers of their respective nations, are symbolic of a larger diachronic discourse about the unfolding of their nation’s history, just as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, USA, represents the sacrifices of men and women who gave their lives for their nation. No one knows how many people lie in that grave, but it symbolises “a place of mourning and a site for reflection on military service”.(Arlington National Cemetery website). Many other countries have created their own Unknown Soldier monuments.

Symbols are important in a nation’s story. We can deny the centrality of Williams in our national story, declare he is not the “Father of the Nation”, replace him with someone else, and/or cease to have any father at all.

However, once we cease to honour our distinguished men and women, deny their importance to the nation’s development, and reduce them to political footballs, we do them a disservice and diminish our standing as a people and a nation.

Nations are tenuous formations. We can break them up with fiery outbursts of irresponsible emotional statements. Sometimes the problem lies in resealing those fragments and making them whole again. Maybe that is the UNC’s goal for our country. If it isn’t, UNC should repudiate Meighoo’s statement and support Williams’ final vision for T&T embodied in Zephaniah: “For I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the LORD.” (HOT&T).

4 thoughts on “Decentering Dr Williams: debasing the PNM”

  1. Williams said prior to his death “no monuments”. Whilst visiting Cuba I looked around out tour guide told us that Castro said “no monuments”. At the plaza de la Revolución in Havana there is the image cut out of Che Guevara draping one of the building. Opposite is the Jose Marti is considered one of the founding fathers of the Cuban revolution, roughly equivalent to the United States’ Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln. Jose Marti was a prominent figure in Cuba’s struggle for independence against Spain in the latter half of the 19th century. A writer and poet, his texts and ideology were part of the foundation of the Cuban revolution and are still taught extensively in Cuba’s schools today.

    Che Guevara, despite being a foreigner, is a beloved national Cuban hero. He was instrumental in the 1959 Cuban revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista government and brought the Castro brothers to power. Fidel Castro, who ceded power to younger brother Raul in 2006, first met Che Guevara in Mexico in 1955. The two future revolutionary heroes strategized the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista, who took control of Cuba in a 1952 coup d’etat. After two years of guerilla warfare, rebel forces took control of Havana, and Batista finally fled the country on New Years Day, 1959. Che Guevara served as the president of the National Bank of Cuba before leaving the island just a few years later to participate in other revolutionary efforts in Africa and South America. In 1967, Che was captured and killed in Bolivia. Che is considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern Cuba.

    I visited Revolución square where Castro made his famous 5 hour speech, where the Pope stood and had mass. There are no monuments to Castro across the island, unlike Sadam who had monuments of himself all over Iraq.

    Great men do not need accolades or monuments. They understand their role as a work for the betterment of their nation. Williams name bring tears to eyes of many PNMites and as such he will be forever the father of the nation…..

    1. Dear Mamoo:

      I thank you for your insightful comments on Castro, Che Guevara, and the Cuban situation. Castro and Che mean a lot to and inspire many Cubans although I am sure that quite as many despise him (Castro) as I discovered when I went to South Africa. When I asked the younger folks how they felt about Nelson Mandela many of them has doubts about Mandela’s importance in their world.
      One question though: In your considered judgement, is it that Williams’s name and memory only bring tears to PNMites?

      Selwyn Cudjoe

      1. Dear Doc:
        You cornered me… Yes I must admit that Williams most famous statement was “the future of the nation is in the children school bags”. Williams gravitas on education as I remember you once wrote of the impact he had on you in that area. So to thousands of others. Put a Trini anywhere in the world and he is better or more knowledgeable than most. My personal sphere of gratitude stems from the education system that I was fortunate to be a part of. I just managed to get into secondary school…my other two brothers didn’t.

        As for PNMite tears for Williams it is understandably so. Not that I did not shed a tear when my cousin son small as he was came running up to see me saying “Eric Killiam dead”, he had to repeat it a few times until I catch what he was saying, then the tears came….. but for people to have shed tears they had to live through that era. Today’s generation perhaps don’t understand because they are not taught.

  2. Sorry I misspoke. What I meant to suggest is that when I went to South Africa I found that many of the young South Africans were skeptical about of Mandela’s contribution to South Africa as I am sure many Cubans are about Castro’s contribution to the development of Cuba.

    My question still remains: Is Williams name and memory only sacrosanct to PNMies.

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