By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 28, 2020
Thirty years ago, the Jamaat-al-Muslinmeen, under the leadership of Imam Yaskim Abu Bakr, attempted to overthrow T&T’s elected government. They failed. Yesterday, President Paula-Mae Weeks called upon the group to make an “unequivocal apology” to the people of the country for its actions” (Express).
The President noted that “the assault shook the country to its core and robbed many people of their livelihoods, dignity and peace of mind….A commission of enquiry appointed in 2010 provided some chronology of the events but, without the testimony of the principal, did not offer the full understanding that the nation and, in particular, the victims rightly deserved.”
Eleven years ago PNM brought a measure to parliament to relieve the sufferings of the impoverished youths of Laventille. UNC objected. PNM left the project alone. Today, it has appointed a committee to come up with solutions to deal with this persistent challenge. It took a disturbance/an insurrection to remind the country that the poverty of Black people, particularly Black youths, still remains a problem.
The youths who followed Abu Bakr in 1990 and those who took to the streets a few weeks ago tried to tell us about their abject conditions and something about ourselves. It was not simply an attempt to loot and to shoot but a need to remind the world that they exist.
In 1957 Albert Camus, the existentialist philosopher, examined the important role rebellion plays in our lives. He said: “In order to exist, man must rebel, but rebellion must respect the limit it discovers in itself—a limit where minds meet and, in meeting, begins to exist….
“In our daily trials rebellion plays the same role as does the ‘cogito’ in the realm of thought: it is the first piece of evidence. But this evidence lures the individual from his solitude. It founds its first value on the human race. I rebel&mdaqsh;therefore we exist” (The Rebel).
Twenty-two years later, Bob Marley, our Caribbean philosopher, spoke of the value of rebellion and how it undermines and challenges the systems of inequity and inequality. He sang:
“We refuse to be/what they wanted us to be/We are who we are/That’s the way it’s goin’ to be./”
“You can’t educate I/for no equal opportunity (talkin’ ’bout my freedom/ people freedom and liberty.”
“We have been trodding on the winepress much too long/Rebel, rebel!”
“Me say de Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire,/Sucking the blood of the sufferers.”
“Tell the children the truth….” (“Babylon System”).
In 2004 the Mighty Shadow, our home-grown philosopher, reminded us that “Everybody is somebody.” He rhapsodizes: “If a man is born in luxury,/They prove to me in history,/He is somebody./But if a man is born in poverty, starvation and misery/He is nobody.”
He summarizes: “Everybody is somebody/Nobody is nobody/The pauper, the wealthy/Everybody is somebody.”
This need for recognition and liberation—that is, the need to be somebody—is at the heart of the human experience; rebellion is one of its principal ways of expressing that truth. It has nothing to do with good or evil or even the need to apologize for simply being. It’s a humanizing activity. No one can dictate how these acts of rebellion take place.
This is why one should object strongly to the nihilism that Fitzgerald Hinds and his PNM colleagues offer when they seek to explain the behavior of Black youths. Says Hinds: “A growing ‘army’ of idle young men in East Port of Spain poses a danger to TT.
“And I urge them to root out of their spirits the spirit of evil and the spirit of idleness and the spirit of jealousy, and imbibe [in them] instead a spirit of hard work and a spirit of prayer and a spirit of love for yourself, for your family, for your community, for your country.”
One may ask, “Why did God make them so evil?”
Hinds continues: “They spend their day looking at the ground, looking at the sky, or watching other people and the world go about its business and doing preciously little on their own and for themselves” (Newsday, July 5).
These are things a slave master would have said about the enslaved two hundred years ago. But the enslaved or even an alienated being was never inert and unthinking. They may be idle, doing nothing seemingly, but they were observing the injustices practiced against them. This is why Camus noted that “the history of mankind also demonstrated…that the first movement of rebellion was the rebellion of the slave.”
In 1955 Eric E. Williams, one of the preeminent scholars of his time, made two important observations. He wrote: “The recognition of racial equality is a part of the larger world struggle for freedom in general” and “The Negro will not achieve moral status until he achieves economic and political status” (“The Historical Background of Race Relations in the Caribbean”).
No one can deny that over the past fifty years the overall economic conditions of all Trinbagonians have improved. While Black people have achieved a certain degree of political power, they have yet to achieve economic power commensurate to their numbers in the society. Nor, for that matter, has their relative condition vis a vis other groups changed very much.
The measure of any group in a society cannot be reduced exclusively to its economic position but it helps to understand that its economic status is essential to its well-being and how it feels about itself. That is the challenge our society faces if it wishes to keep its faith with Black people.
A people dies when it fails to rebel against the injustices that are practiced against them. That’s just the way it has to be.