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Emancipation From Mental Slavery
Posted: Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A "Right On" to Andy Johnson, (Trinidad Express) with additional comments

By Linda E. Edwards

My friend of the written word:

If emancipation was done at the stroke of a pen, then all of my people would have been freed on the morning of August 1st, a hundred and sixty-seven years ago.

They would have been free to choose to:

A: Return to the land of their ancestors, their passage there paid for by the people who stole them and made themselves rich in the process. This did not happen. As a matter of fact, when Jonas Mohamed Bath petitioned the British Monarch for compensation for those who had already purchased their own freedom; particularly the Mandingo Society that was located in the Belmont area, the request was laughed at and not taken seriously. Arabic writing Africans wanting to go back to Africa from Trinidad? Nonsense, their labour was needed on the island. In any case the request was deemed impossible to follow up on, because by that time, so many millions of Africans were stolen from that vast continent, that it would have been impossible, based on British ideas of geography and place names, to repatriate a few Africans, and so, set a bad precedent. British law is based on precedent.

B: Select a piece of crown lands suited to their needs, that was not already under cultivation, and go into farming for themselves, and so establish an economic base from which to jump forward. This farming on their own would have put them in direct competition with white farmers who had acquired large tracts of land, either under the Spanish rulers, who had encouraged the French who had fled Haiti's African Anger, their slaves in tow; or under the British who were making every attempt to undo the Hispanic-French influence on its newly acquired colony, and were encouraging English settlement in TnT. In either case, a large African land-owning community in close proximity to, and possibly competition with white farmers was a no-no. This was a tacit agreement between "gentlemen". There were African farmers, those who were given land in Moruga, Hardbargain, Brothers Road and some areas of Arouca and Manzanilla, but they were far from the cities, and their existence may have been practically unknown to other Africans.

That neither of these happened is part of the record.

Some urban Africans used skills acquired during slavery to set up trades of their own, but the majority of Africans were landless, unskilled and poor, and no attempt was made by the state to change their status, for by now the world was carefully demarcated between Africans and non-Africans, and both outside and within Africa, it seems to me, that there was a tacit agreement that the life of the African was to be one of subjugation. Economic subjugation is the most pernicious form of slavery. Working for free and working for next to nothing are so closely related as to be indistinguishable. They are the identical twin children of racist systems.

Wherever in Trinidad and Tobago, an African prospered it was due to his having some contact, blood relations, outside the back door, to a European person.

The role of the indentured Indian is well documented, except that no one has openly said, and repeated enough times, that he was to be seen as a buffer between White economic domination and African aspiration. The Chinese, whose indenture predated the Indian's was also an economic buffer, and their exploitation of the African was tacitly agreed to by the Europeans.

Antigua, which has a miniscule Asian population, is in strong contrast to Trinidad and Tobago, in modern times, in terms of African entrepreneurship. The difference in Antigua, from my observations, is who controls banking. With a John Benjamin as head of Antigua Commercial Bank, an Antiguan with a business plan is seen as one of my people.

There is an amusing story John told me in 1989, that I could repeat now. His neighbour is long gone back to wherever. John was given to working up a sweat after work by stripping bare back and cutting his lawn. He lived in a posh neighbourhood, as appropriate to his bank manager status. After two such lawn cutting sessions, he was approached by the Ex-pat woman living next door, who asked him if he would cut her lawn also. John agreed, and proceeded to mow. She wanted to know how much he would charge. "It's OK" he kept saying. He was a very dark skinned African looking man, and she was not satisfied to take advantage of this poor guy offering to cut her lawn for nothing.

When she insisted that she must give him "something". He asked her to come by and open a deposit account at Antigua Commercial Bank, where he was the manager. It was a hot afternoon, and that partially explains the cooked lobster colour her face assumed.

The Benjamins are one of the dominant families on the Antigua business scene. In Trinidad, they may have commanded a stall in the market, nothing more; because those giving loans have a fixed idea of who may succeed.

A former Telco manager tells a similar story, of an Ex-pat whom he met at the airport, who ordered him to carry his bags. The Telco manager quietly did, and dropped him off at the Hilton. He was at his desk, in his capacity of AGM for installations, when the Ex-pat reported to him the next morning. The man was so embarrassed, but my friend offered the experience as a learning opportunity. We can document what ex-pats do because they are so overt, just learning; others are more discreet, secretive.

The significant thing about these two stories; is that they both happened between 1984 and 1988. More than a hundred years after the Emancipation of the African in the Caribbean from chattel slavery. They happened after Bird and Bustamante, Adams and Williams had succeeded in convincing the British Parliament that granting independence to these islands would not result in a mass massacre of former plantation owners. In each case, I suspect, certain guarantees were given, not in writing, gentlemen's agreements. They would have been different in each island, but no island has the mixture of populations Trinidad and Tobago has. In Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua, Africans, descendants of former slaves, have risen to powerful economic positions. It has not happened in Trinidad and Tobago to the same extent. The buffer zones of people are still in place, despite the economic inroads made by the UWI class of 1967, St. Augustine.

What seems to be needed to emancipate the Afro-Trinidadian from the last at the bottom position on the economic ladder, is a massive dose of self confidence, based on seeking and studying models that work; a revision of the banking laws, as they apply to small business loans; and governmental oversight of who in fact gets these loans, and with what guarantees.

I know from experience, that one can get a loan if you know someone who can serve as guarantor for that loan. Now, how many poor people, wanting to move up from a tray at the side of the road, to a stall in the market, and then to a small supermarket, and then to multiple supermarkets, can find a "friend" who will serve as guarantor for that loan? Very, very few. So the bank can look at your loan proposal, if you have enough sense to write it out as a proposal, and decide it's too risky. They could make a very different decision for someone else, based on "gut feeling" or who is the guarantor. That gut feeling has to do with looks to a great extent. Long dreadlocks, may not be the desired look for the African man seeking a loan. Rep. Fitzgerald Hinds could not get a loan in a place where he was not known as the rep. for Laventille. Even some obviously African looking bankers might object to him based on his hair. Let him wait until the Hon. Eulalie James is comfortable on her crutches, and let them both go to try to get a loan, she passing off as his mother or his auntie, and see what reception they get. (He would not be allowed to use the restroom, most likely, even if the bank had restrooms for patrons.)

This is part of the dilemma of being an African looking person in Trinidad and Tobago, in 2005. It's our land, and it's not our land. Those who have made it, are asking those who have not to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and failing to notice that they have no shoes. Now, that they have no shoes is not because they "wutless" but because of structural poverty, dictated by both the international banking community, and the local banks. If you have to have specific collateral to get a loan, and you don't have that collateral, you do not get the loan.

Now, what collateral does the poor people of Trinidad and Tobago have? Well, here it is.

Divide the estimated number of barrels of recoverable oil in our soil and our waters, by the number of people in the population; add to that a factor of $x for the value of the cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, that each person would own, as a citizen. Then add up those two sums, at today's prices. Let half of it represent the part that goes to the oil companies, half of the rest goes to the state for economic development, and the rest. 25% of one person's share is what that person is worth to the banks. If a person is head of a household of four, then his family owns this much potential dollars, if he is a solo act, with no acknowledged wife or children, he owns x much. This could be the basis of a small business loan to everyone who wants to try to start something different.

In talking about this kind of structural poverty, I like to use the simple analogy of the rented TV set. It's a US model, with implications elsewhere.

The poor woman who rents a two room apartment cannot afford to buy a TV set for cash, and she has no credit, so she rents one, it's only fifteen dollars a month, less than a dollar a day. If it breaks, or stops working, and it's not her fault, the agency will replace it, free. So she rents it to keep her kids off her nerves, and because it's too hot to play outside, and dangerous too. Three years later, she is still struggling. She has paid $540.00 in TV rentals for a small, 23 inch colour model that retails for $215.00. She will never accumulate enough to buy the set. The renter makes all the profits. She is on an economic treadmill. If she could have obtained a loan for the set, she could have finished paying for it, and continued saving that same amount. This kind of exploitation was very prevalent in the 1960s in some US inner cities. It's changed now, better education, better jobs.

Ralph Henry suggested some writings ago, that the Unit Trust corporation needed to start a bank of its own. His rationale was that the established banks make huge profits off remissions to the UTC, that could benefit the small investor. (There was a howling and a keening about this, that must have frightened some people. I believe Ralph was and is right.)

I call this the Diamond Vale Idea. Forty years ago, investments were made in houses for civil servants, teachers and other little people who, in the normal course of events, would have never owned a home of their own, based on the pittances that passed for salaries then. Those houses have increased in value far beyond their $12,000 original prices. The majority of those homeowners, as well as those in Bon Air, La Horquetta and Trincity, Pleasantville and other housing settlements, faithfully paid off those house loans. They and their counterparts in other areas of housing would pay off a loan for a small business also, if someone invested in them, and their ideas. To do that however, banking must move in TnT to become an active part of the potential development of the people of TnT. the small people, that is.

We still have here a colony of exploitation, moving towards a colony of development and residence. We need to move, economically, towards a sense of partnership in development of a free people, powered by TnT nationals who look like the people who would be trying to get the loans. Looks like is important. All those who use the Freedom of Information Act to ask how many Indians are employed in this and that government agency, recognize that looks are important. When you walk into a bank, and you see people like you, not as counter clerks, but in offices, as loan officers making decisions, you immediately believe that you have a better chance. That belief is important in applying for and securing a loan to do anything, from minor house repairs, to starting a business.

Workshops can be organized by those who are being successful to help others overcome the hurdles. This is called giving back to the community, and it's a different level of giving back from handing out food packets after church on Sundays, or putting a bowl of coins on the counter on Fridays for the poor to take one each.

Giving back through workshops and teach-ins embody the African principle of not giving a fish, which would feed for one day, but of teaching fishing, which could feed generations of the family, for a lifetime.

We need to teach the emancipated African, freed from slavery in 1838, but still chained to the logs of the plantation, by structural poverty; to free himself and herself, by using the leverage they have, to obtain loans. The state needs also, to review banking, on an ethnic basis, to see how many in this or that category of people applied, and what percentage of each were successful. When the state gives out contracts, like the road building of the Diego Martin highway extension, they need to ask how many of Diego Martin's unemployed youth would get work on that contract, and follow it up to see. They need to insist on a skill-transfer program, so that young people would learn the work experientially. (It is a fiction that African people do not like hard work. All of Africa, as well as the Eastern Caribbean give the lie to that.) They need to ask how many subcontractors are of what ethnic origin. Over the years, a tremendous amount of building work has gone to contractors like Seereram Brothers, Moonan Industries, and Moonsammy. Where are the descendants of the skilled Africans who built Fort George? A conspiracy among the "others" apparently did in the original builder of the College of Liberal Arts forty years ago. Has there not been another contractor of African origin, to emerge in Trinidad, not Tobago, since then?

I can write what I write without fear. As my father said to Dr. Boucaud, more than fifty years ago in Cumuto, when asked why he did not remove his hat when the good plantation owner passed in his car, "I don't work for you, sah." Whoever "Sah" is, required, and does require, tremendous subservience, a certain bowing and scraping, a certain kowtowing and salaaming, for the African to get ahead in the west. Sometimes, the pride of the African in TnT gets in the way of his own development. His personal share of the oil wealth of the country should guarantee that he gets ahead, while keeping his pride in self, in hair, in expression and dress. Without that sense of self, the economic development would be wasted, he would have lost his soul.

An Afro-centric education programme would be a tremendous asset in arming him with the pride it takes to be strong, and successful. Children master school when what they read matters to them. Does the content of the schools' reading programmes challenge the African child of the west to take pride in self? A picture walk through the books could answer that question in a minute.

(I recently donated a large book on King Tut to the National Library, to help the African child see himself. King Tut and I have the same skin colour. I used this book with my children/students in the US, now it belongs to the National Library.)

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