By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 17, 2022
In June 2001, the Japanese Black Studies Association invited me to deliver an address, “Identity and Caribbean Literature”, at Nara Women’s College, Nara, Japan (see trinicenter.com, June 24, 2001). Before I delivered my address, my host asked me to meet the president of her college, to which I agreed. I had stopped wearing ties because I considered it a useless trapping (literally) of colonialism. However, my host politely reminded me I had to wear a tie if I was going to see her president.
What should I do under the circumstances? I was a guest at her college; they had invited me to address them because they respected my scholarship and, in turn, was asking me to respect her college and country’s understanding of what was proper and respectful. I surrendered. She got me a tie, I put it on, and I met her president.
I remembered that incident when I read Farley Augustine’s announcement that he was overturning the current dress code requirements at THA offices for members of the public. He noted: “While employees will still be required to assume professional attire, no members of the public should be turned back based on what they are wearing.” Augustine was doing so in the interest of “shaking off the vestiges of colonialism that we have held onto for dear life… No one can convince us that we ought to turn people back because they are wearing slippers”. (Express, January 10.)
He also declared he would introduce the Show Me A Road Tobago (SMART) programme, which will allow his administration to deal with the potholes throughout the island. He said: “Using some online platform, you will be able to self-report those potholes in your street and your community, and we will be able to geotag those potholes. We will use a mixture of the Division’s resources with labour from the community to begin to patch these holes that WASA has left all over the place.”
I found two encouraging aspects about these announcements: first, it took the words of a babe (Augustine) to tell us that in spite of 60 years of independence, we still have not come to grips with some fundamental psychological impediments that have crippled our self-worth and stifled our initiative; and second, we cannot forget that by engaging and respecting the energies and intelligence of our citizens that we begin to transform their lives.
Augustine’s approach can be contrasted with the attitude of Minister Allyson West on the same problem. She declared that the members of the public in Trinidad who come to Government offices in slippers, sleeveless or in short pants “will have to wait a bit longer to access public office”. Her rationale: “There are just too many more important areas of focus for us to turn our attention to dress codes at this time. Any adjustment to that may come in the future will be a whole of government approach”. (Guardian, January 11).
This contrast in behaviour suggests a different mindset: a condescending, bureaucratic approach to serving one’s fellow citizens (a we versus dem) as opposed to a spontaneous understanding that we are them (the people), and there is nothing more important than focusing on their needs, no matter how they are dressed or their station in life.
Heidi Balkaran, an ordinary, everyday person, noted: “We have to upgrade, because I don’t see nothing wrong if you come in a slippers or an armless, I really can’t see no problem… is clothes we have on”. (Guardian, January 11.)
It was noteworthy, then, that Minister Fitzgerald Hinds apologised to the Beetham Gardens residents for not repairing an open sewer main that was broken for about six months. It took the protest activities of the residents of this community to get the minister off his heels. At least, he did not take them to court because he disagreed with their actions.
Ishmael, a community resident, explained: “For months now the infrastructure in the community has been broken. The area has been smelling of faeces. Day and night, we are living in this toxicity. It is unbearable… It’s women, children and old people living here. Just because we are poorer than you, or live in a community that you might not think the best of, you think we can be treated anyhow?” (Express, January 11.)
An Express editorial summarised the situation astutely: “Is there anyone who believes that had a similar problem developed in an area where Government ministers and WASA executives live, the problem would have remained unresolved for five months?” Particularly in an age of Covid-19?
Frederick Douglass, speaking of the new relationship between the US government and black people after the Civil War, observed: “Events more mighty than men, eternal Providence… have placed us in new relations to the government and the government to us. What that government is to us today, and what it will be tomorrow, is made evident by a very few facts.”
This is why I argued that a Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) victory spoke to something deeper than an electoral triumph over the PNM.
It suggested that the government and the governed must enter into new relations if we wish to get away from the gross disrespect that the government shows to the governed. While we must make concessions at times to accommodate convention (as I had to do in Japan), we cannot lose sight of the fundamental respect that we owe one another and why service is not a favour we do to those we elected to serve us.
It remains an imperishable truth: taxation without the provision of services amounts to tyranny. It might be the lesson that our babes and the “unwashed” of Beetham Gardens are trying to remind us of.