By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 20, 2021
On 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”, trinicenter.com, 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).