By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 20, 2022
The controversy started when Camille Robinson-Regis called Kamla Persad-Bissessar out of her name. Kamla responded by casting aspersions on Camille’s “slave name”, which played right into a deep cultural fissure that exists within our fragile social structure. Whatever the merits of either argument, as my mother would have said, “Is de answer does bring the row.” Hopefully, in this case, the answers should allow us to see our cultural blindness.
Black people were not “stripped” of their culture and religion when they arrived on this land. People are literally their culture. They cannot exist without it. They are also culture carriers. They take their culture and religion with them wherever they go, and adapt them to the new land in which they find themselves.
In an illuminating documentary, Bigger Than Africa, African filmmaker Toyin Ibrahim Adekeye traces how the “Yoruba culture survived and transcended slavery beyond imagination to remain alive till this day in the New World” (Deadline, May 4, 2022). The documentary examines the practice of Yoruba in six countries (Brazil, the United States, Cuba, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Republic of Benin) and demonstrates how our people adapted themselves spiritually to those countries.
Therefore, it goes without saying that African people brought their religion and culture to Trinidad and Tobago, adapting their religion and culture to deal with the realities they encountered. It may be insulting to accuse an African person in the Americas of having a “slave name”; such an accusation can also be interpreted as meaningless drivel. It is not as profound or as thoughtful as the insulter might think it is.
When I grew up in Tacarigua, I resided within the bowels of Yoruba culture. My grandfather, Robert James, son of Jonathan and Amelia Cudjoe, was born on December 5, 1869. He married Delcina Moriah Bonas, born in Barbados in 1875, but migrated to Trinidad. Delcina, as all women are, was the major culture carrier of the family. Every November she faithfully cooked the saltless meals for the Shango festivity that took place at Mother Gerald’s palais. Mother Gerald was the major Yoruba priestess in the village. My grandmother also observed and passed on other Yoruba rituals and practices to her children and grandchildren.
This became evident to me five years ago when my cousin, Marva, and I visited Mislet, the eldest surviving member of my father’s line, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Once we arrived, she asked us to take her to the supermarket to buy some fish. We asked her why she wanted that fish so badly.
She said: “I want the fish to make my annual offering to our ancestors.” When asked about the offering, she said it was a meal that “consists of one slice of saltless fish, rice, dhal, and any kind of provision. When I am finished preparing the meal, I place a glass of water and a glass of white rum beside it. Then I begin to pray to our ancestors, calling them by their names, saying I brought you food and drink and ask them to guide us all. Then I leave the food overnight for them.”
I asked her who taught her this and how long she had done it. She replied: “I saw Ma [meaning our grandmother] doing it. When Ma died, I continued to do it.”
She confessed that we were the first people she had told this story to. At 88 years of age, she still resides in Fort Lauderdale and presumably still continues the practice of preparing annual meals for our ancestors.
I don’t know if Delcina Moriah is a slave name. Even if it is, the name has little effect on making black people who we are. As I have tried to explain, our culture is the primary factor in making us who we are. Our experiences during slavery, particularly in Trinidad and Tobago, are secondary factors in determining our identity.
Although it is meant to be insulting when one accuses an African-Trinbagonian of possessing a “slave name”, the observation is not as profound as it is supposed to be. It only means one has adopted a name that fits into the culture into which one had been deposited. It does not mean one is dispossessed of one’s culture because one had to adopt a new name in a new environment. It only means one had to make a “historic compromise” with one’s new environment.
A person’s name is not an indicator necessarily of how one lives one’s life or the degree to which one pays allegiance to one’s Africanness. Although CLR James, Walter Rodney or George Padmore (Malcolm Nurse before he adopted the later name) possessed “slave names”, it did not in any meaningful way affect their identity or a sense of who they were. They worked to better the lives of black people and produced tomes that help us to know and to understand who we are.
James, the son of an enslaved African, was willing to join the Ethiopian army when Italy invaded Abyssinia (or Ethiopia). Padmore, the author of The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers, devoted his life to the liberation of black people throughout Africa and the diaspora. Rodney wrote the seminal work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. He died at the hands of another black man who resented his devotion to African and Indian people alike. Their “slave names” were never an indication of who they were.
So that while Kamla wishes to preserve the sanctity of her name, she should be careful that she does not dishonour the lives and struggles of others in the process. It is something that she needs to think about carefully.