The Potency of the Word

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 15, 2020

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeThe savage murder of Ashanti Riley touched many of us. It led us to reflect upon the kind of society we have created and the citizens (social beings) we are cultivating. Ashanti’s murder led the prime minister to talk about “the monsters” we are cultivating within our midst. Phyllis Bruce, another mother whose Black son vanished on March 19, sympathized with Ashanti’s mother in her grief: “Even from one mother to another, I can’t find the words to comfort her. But I would say to her, be strong. Hold on. Keep courage” (Express, December 11).

Bruce was concerned about our national pain and quality of social and cultural life. Her eloquence reminded me of observations Hollis Liverpool made this week in a letter to the prime minister about the importance of publishing stories about local heroes and heroines and the sacrifices they have made to make us who we are.

Liverpool bemoaned that secondary school boys and teachers in a school in which he was doing some research “could not tell me a decent educative word about [Tubal “Uriah”] Butler,” one of the most important fighters for Black liberation in his country. He was even more disappointed for the reason that a local bank refused to buy his book, God, the Press and Uriah Butler, because it was focusing “on assisting school children with computer devices to support online learning.”

I readily identify with Liverpool’s dismay. My works are to be found in 12,592 WorldCat library holdings around the world. WorldCat is a global catalog of library collections. V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading is held at 2,471 WorldCat libraries worldwide while 958 libraries hold copies of The Slave Master of Trinidad. NALIS, our national library collection, does not possess a single copy of Slave Master.

In 2018, I asked the leader of a major banking facility to buy a few copies of The Slave Master. He (or rather his communication specialist) told me that they would buy a copy of the book if a school requested that it do so. I wonder if they would have used a similar rationale before it purchased copies of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery or C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins.

Many of the stewards of our culture do not understand the power of the “word” in building a civilization. Saint John reminds us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Words, or the possession of words, play a tremendous power in shaping the individual. In fact, it is the possession of the word that makes a person human. The Greeks start with the logos, the principle of the divine and the creation order. Aristotle used the term to refer to “reasoned discourse.” African traditional philosophical thought speak of Nommo, an expression of will and creativity of the great Muntu. Among the Akan people of Ghana a person does not exist until s/he is named at his traditional naming ceremony that occurs eight days after a child is born.

So when Liverpool suggests that “children become civilized [a very heavy word] by reading about their world,…especially books about their own society,” he is getting at the heart of what it means to be an educated Trinbagonian. I would have emphasized the distinction between being trained, formally or otherwise, and being educated, which I have defined as “acting purposefully in one’s social environment.”

Bruce’s comments portray a country that has gone astray. She said: “This is not the country of my youth, that was filled with love and peace and our future looked so bright….I feel it is time to form a body, an association or support group where people can counsel each other but also come together and put pressure on the authorities to get crime under control” (Express, December 11).

Ms. Bruce lived in a simpler time when
Life-giving words were more important than the filthy lucre to which we all gravitate. Our earlier leaders like Butler, Williams, James, and Donald Granado (foundational members of the PNM) did not place a supreme value on how much money they had or what they possessed. Rather, they valued the goodness of people and how one treated his fellow citizens.

Butler and James died in abject poverty. Williams died a man of modest means. Granado died of cancer, a pauper at the Living Waters Hospice, in 1999. John Humphrey called him “a forgotten man.” Ken Valley, a distinguished member of the PNM, said of Granado: “He is one of those who has been able to leave us an institution, that is the PNM, and a way of doing things in Trinidad and Tobago” (Hansard, September 6, 1999).

Not so today. The top four PNM legislators who hold leadership positions are millionaires. Their private businesses are so intertwined with the public business that they have had to recuse themselves 97 times. One only recuses oneself when there is a conflict between one’s private interest and one’s public duty. Such conflicts were rare in Ms. Bruce’s youth.

Monsters will continue to grow as we privilege money and material wealth over the living word which the Bible tells us is a manifestation of the living God, no matter how one perceives that God, or the good. Different cultures speak of the power of the word differently, but in the end it comes down to this common sentiment: we must respect life, the most important human value. We seem to have forgotten this sentiment over the last seventy years of our existence.

Sadly, we have forgotten how to care for one another, especially, our womenfolk.. God may not forgive us for this grievous sin.

2 thoughts on “The Potency of the Word”

  1. Literature is perhaps one of the most disrespected and underfunded effort of the government. One of the books that made a great impression on me was Jan Carew “Black Midas” a book set in Guyana post colonial era about the class struggle and the desire for upward mobility by the main character “Shark”.
    Jan Carew lived in London and was given money that he used to purchase book and send to Guyana to help cultivate the spirit of literature in the “mud land”.

    Trinidad with all the resources has failed to do anything to capture a new generation of thinkers and culture shapers. Instead the cumbersome doldrums of the unregenerated leaders has denied us the likes of future Naipaul, Michael Anthony, Sam Selvon etc.

    Why are there no literature competitions, awards, writing workshops? To think that this country produced a literary son name V.S. Naipaul winner of the Nobel Prize for literature (not an easy achievement) and have wilted back into pre colonial thinking.

    We all see mountains and then stop climbing. When we see the mountains we should be ready to run forward and climb.
    I could go on but it is my hope that in the future there will be sons and daughters who will achieve literature glory. It is possible to thrust the flaming torch to the youths but alas no vision, no mission, no achievement.

  2. We have become imposters. We have become phonies. We have become fakes. T&T society led by its politicians in their imported suits and female fake hair has deteriorated into an abyss of foreign imitation.
    The Indians are decorating themselves in eastern “costumes” which few know anything about as they imitate Bollywood. The African youths are determined to imitate everything American. Indian Arrival day and Emancipation day are celebrated in foreign costumes and headpieces which have little relevance in real culture of T&T. An expression of true identity and roots takes more than ethnic dress and food.
    The tragedy is that the country is still languishing in a state of “third world” as politicians pretend in their fancy dress by superficially imitating the window dressing, jargon and tokens of developed nations.
    Things have fallen apart. The neglect and to some extent the rejection of our history and literature are more examples of the downward slide into a culture now dominated by violence, greed, corruption and hate. Will we ever learn?

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