Saturday, February 24, 2018

A vote against racism

 “If we as a nation are to truly continue walking forward we are the ones who will hurt ourselves if we remain locked in the past.”—Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar in Parliament last Friday.

In spite of its many errors, some of them naive, others blatantly egregious, the one reason I will be sorely tempted to vote this People’s Partnership Government back into power is to declare a stand against the vicious racist comments that I have been hearing of late, apparently triggered by the expectation of a general election in the offing.

I can just imagine the hounds of war snarling and straining at the leash to get at my throat merely for saying this.  That’s okay. At least I’ve got some attention.

Frankly, I have been both surprised and taken aback not only by the vehemence of these racist sentiments but by the very fact that they can still be invoked because I was under the impression, mistakenly I fear, that by this, our 52nd year of Independence, the old “nigger-coolie” divide would have been hurdled, bringing us closer to the reality of the words expressed in our national anthem, “here every creed and race find an equal place.”

Forty years ago, when I wrote the screenplay for the locally-made movie, BIM, I crafted a scene in which a black politician approached the then on-the-rise newcomer Indian  politician, Bim Singh, and suggested that they begin to co-operate in the interest of the society at large.

And, reflecting what I perceived to be a reality  in the pre-Independence era of Trinidad and Tobago, I put these words in the mouth of the Indian anti-hero Bim (played by Ralph Maraj): “Nigger and coolie doh get together in politics, man!”

Even then, writing that screenplay in 1974, I felt I could point to such an issue in our national life because it was no longer true—or, at the very least, it was something that belonged to the past, not the future.

For even though the People’s National Movement (founded by the venerable Dr Eric Williams in 1956, brought this country to Independence in 1962 and  went on to rule for 30 unbroken years) remained largely a “black people” political party while the traditional opposition remained basically an “Indian party”, I have had good reason to believe that over the ensuing years the racist element in our politics was merely an historical accident and would, with the passage of time, become less and less relevant.

Certainly, no credible leader of any political party in Trinidad and Tobago today would dare use racist slurs against his or her opponents in public without being roundly condemned by all and sundry.

Or so I firmly believe.

And this very fact has added to my optimism about our evolution away from the racist politics of the past. To the point where I have recently applauded the declaration I have come across on the social medium, Facebook: “I am not African. I am not Indian. I am Trinidadian.”

Several years ago, my daughter, Mandisa, a budding film-maker, made me proud when she produced a documentary titled African Skin, Caribbean Identity in which she related the fact that some young people in Trinidad and Tobago today, both male and female, didn’t see themselves in the old cliched racial terms as “African” but rather as “Caribbean people”, representing a wide and largely indefinable mixture of races and creeds.

Naturally she was strongly criticised for this by those of us who insist on retaining an “African” identity, which, we are, of course, freely entitled to do: just as other Trinidadians who see their identity in Caribbean terms are also free to make that choice.

But I then accepted that documentary as factual and perhaps even prophetic in that I believed it really heralded our evolution as a people away from the old, standard, cliched racial categorisation.

Sadly, I have discovered of late that this is not entirely true. Some of the anti-government sentiments that I have been hearing recently have been couched in nakedly racist terms. 

“Them coolies and them have to go!” one ‘gentleman’ (and I use that word advisedly) ranted in a conversation I was privy to recently about the possibility of a fresh general election.

Another black Trinidadian was arguing with him and suggesting that he was being foolish, not to mention old-fashioned in his views.

But I noticed as the conversation, if it could properly be called that, proceeded, it had less and less to do with disagreement over the Government’s policies or projects or even personal dislike for Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar—which I have also heard articulated on several occasions—and everything to do with the old, cliched, hoary racist divide between “niggers and coolies”.

For all I know, this may not be a one-sided racist stance: it may be echoed among some individuals in the Indian community as well. So my voting this Government back into power probably won’t resolve the problem from that point of view and would be an entirely pyrrhic gesture.

Well, I must say I find that very, very sad—not to mention backward, if not antediluvian.

Cliched as it may sound, this country and its people are not really going to get anywhere progressive unless we step away from these racist bogeys and start dealing with one another as fellow citizens, regardless of race, colour, creed or class..

 It may also be naive on my part to expect that such a day will soon be with us. But I have to cling to the hope that we will hurdle this racist claptrap and move on. 

The alternative, after all, is backward ever, forward never! MARK MY WORD.