By Corey Gilkes
August 06, 2014
Years ago, the late economist and social thinker Lloyd Best pondered over the question of how does one save a culture from itself. This is a question we have not collectively dealt with as we continue to entangle ourselves more and more in the destructive aspects of this culture that we’re partly responsible for creating. Somewhere along the line, Emancipation, understood as “freedom” – and I’ll come back to that later – was hijacked to become something that was tolerant of mediocrity, the spurning of ambition, industriousness and intellectual pursuits. Small wonder some people say “dey should bring back de white man” because we’ve made a mess of our Independence (and our Emancipation). I don’t necessarily subscribe to such a self-loathing sentiment but much of what we’re doing to ourselves and our space certainly gives credence to it.
I had another piece written for Emancipation Day. But after listening to the talk shows on i95.5 and Power 102 the morning before and the comments made by some callers and the hosts – all of whom admittedly, fall well within the age group I’ve always said need to be politely eased out of any serious discourse on social transformation – I felt it necessary to write this setta ramblings instead. Besides, I always like to comment on things like Emancipation Day out of the “season.”
My mind was made up when that same day I found myself in Rituals on UWI campus, saw a man of African descent walk by dressed in a kaftan and overheard a contemptuous remark made by a young woman ALSO of African descent sitting not too far away from where I sat (“wha he feel he is?”). This on the same campus from which grew a movement that came to shake up this country in 1970 and generated much intellectual discourse before and after that seminal year. The same movement that forced the then power structure to, at the very least, make a better mamaguy at redistributing the wealth and assets of the country. But then this is the same campus that held the 40th Anniversary of the 1970 February Revolution and the George Padmore conference some years prior to that and the seats were more filled with other presenters than neophytes like me. Hell, I spoke to a sociology student at the time and she didn’t even know who Padmore was. So if we waiting for another major social movement, yuh know in what institution NOT to look for it.
Now the statement made by the young woman is often defended by some who argue that the younger generation is moving away from the narrow views and expressions of “race” pride the older generations seem to be trapped in. Such persons argue that today’s youths, by such actions, are embracing the identity of “citizen,” of “Trinbagonian” – the preferred ideal of intellectual Dr. Morgan Job and i95’s Tony Lee along with their respective cheerleaders.
Sorry, I just can’t buy that anymore.
On the surface there’s little one could (and should) find objectionable with that. That IS the ideal we should be moving towards instead of the narrow, reactionary tribalism we see and hear. Certainly, throughout the whole week leading up to Emancipation Day, some of the pro-Emancipation callers to i95.5 and Power 102 displayed levels of ignorance and tribalism bordering on xenophobia that were downright unsettling. Similar views in the context of Hindutva abound and are made ad nauseum from people like the good Sat Maharaj. No really progressive-minded person would want to be associated with that.
But that is the exact same thing was being said by and about young people back in the early 1970s; read the letters to the editor in the Guardian and Express newspapers of the time. The young people then are the middle-aged and older folks of today. The problem is that many people don’t understand that interwoven in this colour blindness, this idea of a “universal” code of values and mannerisms, are assumptions and philosophical ideas developed in a Eurocentric cultural ethic that was firmly individualistic, authoritarian, chauvinistic, xenophobic and linear. Some of these ideas were advanced by thinkers who appeared progressive but were no less elitist, tribal and often racist; two of the leading advocates of democracy in the United States, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, viewed working people – the so-called working class – with utter disdain and had no liking for universal suffrage. We can level similar charges against Voltaire and Rousseau, two of the 18th century philosophers those of Twain’s generation (and ours) drew from. On Facebook, we can see quotes from Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, I think I even saw one from William Wilberforce, posted by people with no apparent understanding of what these otherwise passionate racists and imperialists stood for or who their ideas were intended for.
Much of the problem stems from our very incomplete self-examination and use of history. If Eurocentric scholars use a selective interpretation of history as an academic weapon, far too many of us are using it in a narrow fashion to manipulate tribal insecurities, ideas of entitlement and/or “racial purity” (drawing, ironically, on bigoted 19th century pseudo-scientific European theories of race). It gets no better when, on the one hand, you have one radio talk show host supporting the remembrance of Emancipation Day and the history of Africans but speaking as if it only starts with enslavement. On the other hand, you have another talk show host dismissing Afri-centred history as pointless hubris about “Pharaoh and Sundiata.” This is the same man who speaks at length about Newton, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and Pythagoras, all of whom drew from that same Pharaonic civilisation. The real history and contemporary analysis of Africa is very complex, and, at times, too unpleasant and uncomfortable for many, including Africentrists, to deal with.
To make sense of this one should acknowledge a deep-seated culture-based sense of shame stemming from an acceptance of information that was more propagandistic than factual. Africa has been presented to us as primitive and barbaric when dealing with its past and a muddled basket case when dealing with its present. Books by J.A. Rogers, Cheikh Anta Diop, Joseph Inikori, J. Danquah, Ivan Van Sertima, John G. Jackson, Jacob Carruthers, even Sir Flinders Petrie, Gerald Massey, Martin Bernal and E.A. Wallis-Budge were and are all but unknown to many. So it’s almost impossible to think of Africa as the place where hydraulic engineering, astronomy, biological psychiatry, high carbon steel smelting, advanced medicine and ocean travel were developed at a time when there was no Europe to speak about.
How else can one explain the attitude of the young woman in Rituals? How else can one explain the evangelical, bible-waving ignoramus – a regular caller to i95.5 – who, with the deepest sincerity, hopes and prays that we all emancipate ourselves from “certain African practices” and instead come to accept the true and living lord Jesus Christ and his word the Holy Bible as the only way for salvation. Hurl obscenities at her and the radio if you must (I certainly f***ing did), but she said what many people here otherwise believe: Africa, Africans and “African practices” are backward, savage and barbaric. If there’s anything can make that continent and its people civilised and stable, it cannot be found WITHIN Africa. This toxic thinking is as much of our making, especially those of us over 40, as it is “de white man.” And I personally don’t fault the European colonisers; people holding illegitimate power do not educate those they colonise to take power and influence from them.
A closer analysis of this Emancipation we speak so much about may offer some illumination. Emancipation is an interesting term that does not actually mean “freedom” but comes from a Latin term that means “transfer of ownership”. In the context of ancient Rome and the latter-day British (their former slaves) who studied them, that meant you could pretty much continue to govern your local affairs as long as you understood and acknowledged who was the ultimate ruler. Looking at our situation, one can argue without fear of successful contradiction that that meant a deceptive shift from the physical restraint to a mental/psychological one, all the while the coloniser maintained positions of dominance. Those who are subjected to that are given illusions of progress, tokens that suggest real advancement – some of which may indeed be real – that in the wider analysis doesn’t really alter the balance of power and, instead, put the people in even greater dependence.
And as such, I suppose we can’t be too harsh either on the generation of educated – more correctly schooled and churched – elite who grew up in that period. The colonial education in the British West Indies, inspired by and largely taken from the U.S. Tuskegee vocational model and the Phelps-Stokes Report of the 1920s, was designed principally to produce a large semi-skilled labour force and small, schooled middle-class elite trained to run the colonies for the British. So even though there were scholars who used that warped education system to challenge colonialism, they were no less products of it (did Dr. Williams not say words to the effect that if the British political system was good enough for them it good enough for us too?).
But what about the rest of us?
At what point are we going to ask and answer the awkward questions about ourselves? At what point are we going to decide to break the cycle even though it will most likely cause deep division among a certain “class” or age-group in the society, many of whom did otherwise yeoman’s service since 1962? Inasmuch as the root of emancipation means “transfer of ownership,” exactly when are we going to transfer at least some of it back to ourselves? None but ourselves can free our minds Marley said, while Lancelot Layne reminded us that it’s a mental block that’s hard to unlock. Recognising that and even getting past it is going to require an almost defiant sense of pride in the products of our creativity on its own terms instead of trying to fit it into foreign standards and ideas of success – which is what we’ve been doing thus far.
Lloyd Best, again, was one of the few back then who speculated that intellectual talent would become the next frontier to be explored and exploited in the never-ending process to create more and more wealth. We see that that is precisely what is taking place. The truly emancipated mind will find ways to capitalise on that and yet also find ways to place proper restraints to the inevitable excesses for which the capitalist ethic is infamous. The laws being drafted to protect intellectual property are a double-edged sword particularly when it comes to indigenous knowledge as Dr. John Mugabe has shown in his paper.
Of course, recognising *that* will have to mean a radical transfer of mental ownership from the Bible-waving, Quran-clutching con artists with nice clothes and smoother (or more aggressive) words. Dr. John Henrik Clarke never tired of pointing out to us that African peoples will “out-pope the Pope and out-Mohammed, Mohammed.” That overly-trusting, overly innocent way in which spiritual beliefs are embraced in their purest forms, have been the downfall of African peoples over and over and over. Every single one of the major religions of the world can be traced back to humanistic cultural and philosophical ideas in Africa thousands of years ago. Yet, infused with authoritarian, domineering worldviews from other cultures, every one of them eventually did Africa more harm than good. African people had conceptualised, discussed, modified and discussed again the complexities of the Divine and had all, I say again, ALL the elements that went into Judaism, Christianity and Islam thousands of years before any of these faiths came along; their thinkers and theologians borrowed and appropriated Wisdom Teachings that can still be read today in books like Miriam Lechteim’s “Ancient Egyptian Literature.” Some of us need to be inspired by that instead of being filled with horrified anger and denial.
In this age of rising religious extremism and fundamentalism – Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Hindu – they’re all guilty of it, no exception – spurring and influencing ecological violence, sexual discrimination and economic fundamentalism that lauds greed-is-good ethics, a rediscovery of truly humanistic principles that were taught in centres of learning along the Nile and Niger, matched with similar teachings from the Indus Valley is long overdue. Some of the aspects of our cultural behaviours that were considered weaknesses must now be turned around and shown to be the positive forces for change that they are. Many accounts by European travellers to Africa commented on the ways in which there was a marked respect for the natural world. As the corporations of the North seek to move their industrial centres – partly because of restraints by powerful environmental laws in their own countries – to other countries seeking to modernise, intimidation and bribery of self-serving local politicians are like standard procedures now. Ancestral cultural ideas of creativity and process-oriented philosophies are what will help create effective balances so that we don’t destroy ourselves in the pursuit of development.
This is vital even in our own space where we have economic and political policies imposed by self-serving elites (it really doesn’t matter which major political party). They suck the Treasury dry, turning the country slowly into an ecological wasteland, engaging in state-sanctioned criminality and shallow, ethnic divisiveness – even as they treat their respective support bases with utter elitist contempt – playing with a time-bomb that apparently never went off in Palestine, Guyana, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and as if there was never any interaction between Africa and Asia thousands of years before Europe was any maritime power.
When all the justifiable finger-pointing is done, it still comes back to our immersion in Eurocentric values, ideas of leadership, institutions and models. This may partly explain why even some Africentrists still like to say that our ancestors were kings and queens when the real power lay in the priests, the griots/djalis, the Royal Great Wife, the council-of-elders and the secret societies like the all-female Sande Society of West Africa. When people use the term “Pharaoh” to describe a style of leadership that is totalitarian, despotic and using false claims of divinity to get away with exploitative rule, they clearly never bothered to research the moral code the Pharaohs had to govern by. So they would not have picked up books by scholars like the Congolese Prof. Theophile Obenga. Ways need to be found to rein in abuses of authority and history, while at the same time, support needs to be given to the attempts to bridge the Ganges and the Nile. Too much of the discourse on Africa and Africans still revolve around very narrow stereotypes of how “de black man” supposed to look and carry on as if the history, culture and even physical features aren’t much more complex than that. And there is also too much talk about restoring “de black man” back to his rightful place in a way that is clearly in keeping with Judeo-Christian/Islamic worldview that consigns women to mere property – albeit highly treasured property.
Our principal problem is that we almost reflexively doubt ourselves and dislike the little we do know. It’s not that we can’t access the history and the research; the idea that enslavement cut us off from our ancestral culture is largely a myth. Since the 1930s scholars like J.D. Elder, Melville and Frances Herskovitz have shown otherwise, uncovering numerous examples of cultural retentions. But most of us just don’t want to and many rather hold onto that defeatist view which I strongly believe has more to do with an instinctive seeking for an excuse for us not dealing with our problems ourselves: it’s easier to blame someone else for our learned helplessness. It’s indeed a mental block that’s hard to unlock.
So, emancipate yourself from mental slavery, starting with the shackles, the ghetto of your mind. Looking past the disrespectful tone, there is SOME validity in the critique that Emancipation Day is just another Carnivalesque jump-up funded by the State for people to “dress up and play African for one day” as Dr. Job likes to put it. If, by the time the next Emancipation Day, the vast majority of those who paraded the year before are no more informed about the current situation in Africa or the Diaspora and how it came to this point, yuh could give de man wrong? Anyone who claims to want to help “little black boys” and never read a line by Diop, Obenga, Amilcar Cabral, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Ifi Amadiume, Gloria Thomas-Emeagwali, C.L.R. James, Lloyd Best, Frantz Fanon, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Aime Cesaire; who could sing line by line a Bob Marley but can’t talk about Fela Kuti, Baaba Maal, Sali Sidibe, Mamou Kouyate, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Ravi Shankar, Boukman Experianz and make connections with Jimi Hendrix, KRS One, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Kitchener, Maestro, Duke, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Ayn Rand, Thomas Friedman, Adolf Hitler, John Calvin, Martin Luther, St. Augustine . . . that person is a con artist. Cuss ‘way dey mudder ass and run far.