Choosing Your Coffins

An Emancipation Address on the occasion of the 8th Annual Emancipation Dinner of the National Association for the Empowerment of African People [NAEAP] at Andre Kamperveen Hall, Center of Excellence, Macoya, Tunapuna, delivered on July 31, 2008. Professor Cudjoe is the President of NAEAP

EmancipationToday is an historic occasion. It is an occasion on which the people of Trinidad and Tobago stretch out their hands in reconciliation to our brothers and sisters in Ghana from where so many of our ancestors came. We are pleased that His Excellency John Kufor, President of the Republic of Ghana, has consented to join in our celebrations here in Trinidad and Tobago. We are equally as pleased that the Hon. Patrick Manning, our beloved Prime Minister, has had the foresight to invite such a distinguished brother to our shores as we reflect upon the pain and suffering; joy and transcendence; blessings sought and blessings received throughout this perilous journey in another land. On this glorious night, we revel in our bright, shinning selves as we are sure our brothers from across the ocean see their noble reflection in us. Though divided by the water and history we remain one people. Tonight we give praises for all of our blessings.

Our sojourn in this land has been rather short. In 1797 approximately 15,000 of our 18,627 inhabitants were enslaved Africans and people of color. Although the Ibo constituted the largest African ethnoi, there were also Mandingos, Koromantyns and Fanti peoples in this small island of ours. From the moment we arrived, we struggled to free ourselves from the oppression of slavery and later from colonialism. Indeed, Africans have been the first to begin the liberation struggle yet remain the last group that is struggling still to be freed. Even as I speak our liberation is incomplete. Young men in our inner cities or in the ghetto as they like to call their place of residence are choosing their coffins as one of our young calypsonians, Maximus Dan, reminds us. Few of them expect to live beyond thirty years of age. In our ghettos, death stalks our children and young people with a vengeance, a condition that characterized the era of slavery as a recent Harvard scholar has reminded us. During slavery, few Africans lived beyond the age of thirty. One was fortunate if one survived the cruelty and punishment of that evil system.

So even as we commemorate one hundred and seventy years of formal freedom we face a massive crisis on many fronts and while we are aware that we cannot expect government to do everything for us, people in democratic countries elect governments to do the things they necessarily cannot do for themselves. When African people elect a black government to conduct its affairs it expects that its chief function is to take care of their affairs.

The state of Black Trinidad and Tobago is not as healthy as it ought to be. First, we are concerned about the condition of our black youth. Even the government acknowledges that our black youth are in crisis and something must be done about it. We acknowledge that it is very much a psychological problem, the residue of the slave experience that has not been thoroughly vented by the society or in our school system. We suggest the massive mobilization of black organizations; social workers; university students; and others of such an ilk to assist in transforming the mindset of young children through vacation camps, enrichment programs; jobs for teenagers during the vacation period; and the introduction of national service as a burning imperative. A society cannot move forward if we do not construct an ideological vehicle through which to impart those values that we thing are necessary for their survival.

Secondly, we note the performance of our young people in exams that are exam-driven that do not conduce to the all-round development of our students nor, for that matter, do they encourage problem-solving and critical thinking. We note the results of the SEA and the CXC examinations and the commentaries of Satnarine Maharaj and Dr. Bhoendradatt Teware who ask why our young people are performing so badly on them. Mr. Maharaj notes that religious schools copped 87 of the top 100 places in the recent SEA examinations and concludes that “the Government has a lot to learn from the denominational schools” which should be expanded. Dr. Tewearie makes a connection between the urban areas in which crime is rampant and the poor showing of African students. He seems to suggest that these schools may be the spawning ground of criminals rather that a setting where education takes place.

It might be that our teachers are not teaching young black children or that young black children are suddenly incapable of learning. There is a gradual slide into functional illiteracy and an absence of cultural literacy among our students. Absent too, is what the Minister of Local Government calls, a lack of self-esteem. Yet what is needed is not more religion in schools but teachers who are willing to teach our children; teachers who go to school and principals who see the children in the schools as their own children who are precious gems that need to shaped and cultivated.

We recognize that while the Maha Sabha and the Muslims have their own schools Africans in this country do not even have a high school. Just as the Hindus and the Muslims know how to teach their children Africans also know how to teach their children as well. Over the last three years, we in NAEAP have struggled to establish our own school to teach our children and to engender in them a sense of their own well being. We are yet to get the some assistance from our African-elected government. It is time that the government recognize that there should be a place in this society for an African-based school that seeks to assist our children to discover who they are as they reach out to touch the stars. We need more Malcolm Jones in our society.

Third. I repeat today what I said last year. Eight years ago NAEAP applied for a radio license. We were turned down. We still await a response from the government. We would like to feel that in the same way the government was forced to give the Maha Sabha a radio license to undertake its own form of propaganda, NAEAP should be given a radio license voluntarily to undertake the education of the entire community. Ours, I suggest, would be a more ecumenical undertaking in keeping with our commitment to national building and ethnic strengthening. Once more, I call on the government to ensure that we be granted a radio license like all of the other groups in the society.

Four. We object to the massive transfer of state lands to East Indians at the expense of African people. We find it more than curious that while African workers in BWIA and the Port Authority were sent home with their hands swinging, our government found it necessary not only to compensate East Indians (well, mostly East Indians) to the tune of billions of dollars and handing over some land as lagniappe. Last night a news broadcast quoted an article in the Times of India that said our government “will lease out to Indian farmers seven plots, each measuring 100 acres for thirty years.” Such an action has the possibility of alienating Africans further and souring them towards their government.

Ownership of land is important in any people’s development. Any government that takes it upon itself to transfer lands unilaterally to one group of people threatens the stability of the society especially at a time when the food crisis looms as one of the major international problems over the next decade. As a black organization we are forced to ask ourselves if such an action, consciously or not, will not have the effect of keeping Africans in fiefdom for the rest of their natural lives and reduce them to being perpetual consumers? A people without land are an endangered people. It can only lead to another form of enslavement. NAEAP objects to such a proposition since it cannot conduce to our well being in a land in which we have fought continuously for our liberation.

In 1874, in the New Era, a brother who signed himself Africanus castigated the arrogance of our more fair-skinned neighbors who acted in a condescending manner towards us. He pleaded that we associate more with our selves; see more worth in ourselves and to disabuse ourselves of the notion that anyone is better than us. He concluded: “The tendency to believe them a higher order of creation than ourselves, particularly amongst the more ignorant, is one of the baneful influences of slavery, countenanced and encouraged by those whose interest it is to do so; and can only be eradicated by time and enlightenment. It is therefore the duty of those who have learnt to the contrary to destroy this which without exaggeration is the greatest stumbling bloc to our more rapid intellectual, moral and social advancement.”

Although we applauded the efforts our government has made to transform this land into a developed society and continues to advance our economic interest, I think the time has come for our government to convene a high-level committee with a diversified sectors of Africans to report back within six months to the government about the conditions of African and how we, as a society, can get a better understanding of the African condition. It might be that the government may have to offer specially targeted programs to get at the root of our problems. It is a forum at which all of these grievances can be worked out and one in which we come up with constructive solutions. Ultimately, it is a problem that concerns the entire nation.

I also ask my government not to take African voters for granted. Deal with all of the problems of all Trinbagonians but do not forget our special needs that were caused in part by the traumatic occurrences of the slave and colonial experiences. Africans may a long suffering people but there comes a time when Duke Orsino, one of Shakespeare’s characters in Twelfth Night, who was having a tabanca for Countess Olivia who shows absolutely no interest in him, was forced to declare: “Enough, no more,/ ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before./ O spirit of love, how fresh art thou!”

Although we may have a tabanca for the PNM, the sweetness may be running out of our relationship. I implore those who would listen to remember that ours is a just and noble cause. We ought to complete the work our forefathers begun secure in the knowledge that such work is indispensable for the continued greatness of our country.

2 thoughts on “Choosing Your Coffins”

  1. Another year, another litany of commiseration and self-recrimination from the professionals of “blackness”. What’s new?

  2. “Ask not what your your country can do for your, but what you can do for your country”.

    In the words of Barak Obama, where does personal responsibility lie in all of this?

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