On August 31, several citizens were honoured by the government on behalf of the national citizenry. Few were however aware of the history that lay behind those honours. Many assumed that the awards were associated with Independence in 1962 as were the flag, the anthem, the coat of arms etc.
Few were aware that the honours were first awarded in 1969.
The back story about how the practice of giving awards to citizens who had distinguished themselves came about was told some years ago by Roy Mitchell during the launch of my book on the 1970 Black Power Revolution in 1995. Mitchell was a onetime associate of Geddes Granger who later became Mackandal Daaga. As Mitchell tells the story, Granger formed a cultural group in the early 60s to which he gave the name Pegasus. Pegasus was the mythical white winged horse from which the Greeks drew their courage and inspiration.
The myth of Pegasus was to become the inspiration for Granger's plan to transform Trinidad and Tobago into the nation which it did not become in 1962 when the state of Trinidad and Tobago was born. The nation had however not yet come into being as it surely has since done.
Granger's first strategy as executive director of Pegasus was to establish a public lecture series and invite distinguished individuals to give open lectures on subjects of interest. Among the many persons who were invited to speak were Tommy Gatcliffe and Rudranath Capildeo. One of his declared goals was to focus attention on the country's artists to assist them to gain respect and recognition. As Mitchell, who was the president general of Pegasus wrote, "Political independence was a fact of life for us, but the spirit of independence never seemed to match the reality of the political state. We were convinced that one way to deal with this was to try to bridge the gap between the cultures in the expectation that the blending of the artistic talents of the various ethnic groups would set the stage for the creation of a unity of spirit which was so desperately needed among all our citizens.
"So we brought together for the first time, the Chinese, the Indians, the Negro and the Portuguese on one stage at the annual concerts which we used to promote at the Town Hall on consecutive nights to celebrate the independence of our country, the steelband, the calypso, the song and dance. You name it and it was there—and it was free: all the artists performed free of charge for all the citizens to enjoy free of charge."
The movement outgrew the Town Hall as a suitable venue and was shifted to Queen Hall. Among the outstanding awardees were Beryl Mc Burnie, Vidia Naipaul, Ralph Baney, James Lee Wah, Ken Morris, Carlyle Chang, CLR James, Esmond Ramesar, Earl Lovelace, Errol Hill, Slinger Fransciso, Olive Walke and others of that ilk, the then cream of the citizenry.
As Mitchell continues, "Yes, there we were, taking the lead in honouring our citizens, long before any government national awards were introduced. To us, the awards were symbolic of the struggle of the artist to achieve distinctiveness, to awaken a consciousness and appreciation of the arts, to stimulate interest in development, to increase participation, to let the country benefit from its natural and human resources. It is symbolic of the struggle which defies, yet searches the past, challenges, yet tolerates the present, fears, yet seeks the future.
"The Awards were distinctive in other ways. It was not awarded because the individual had contributed the most to the development of the arts in any particular field but because he had also earned the right to place himself in the vanguard of the struggle. It is not only an award for contributions made but an incentive to continue the struggle with greater purpose. It was not only an expression of appreciation of the people of Trinidad and Tobago, but also a constant reminder of what was demanded of the individual. It was never given, always earned."
It could safely be said that Granger was the father of the National Awards movement and not Eric Williams. The growth of this civil society movement in fact caused grave concern to Williams who saw Granger as a potential rival for the people's political affection. Granger believed and openly remarked that any man who champions the cause of the black man will become the next Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago."
Granger also felt that people other than artists should be honoured. National heroes should also be honoured. The first two national heroes to be chosen were Arthur Mc Shine, one of the founders of the Co-op Bank (aka the Penny Bank) and A A Cipriani, one of the best known national figures. Effigies of these two "heroes" were built, and were paraded in the streets of Port of Spain on the afternoon of Independence day. The official ceremonies were held in the morning. The parade, which included elements from the army and the civic gentry ended in the Savannah where hortatory addresses called on people to be self-reliant etc.
The political establishment saw what was happening and was not very amused. The parade was reportedly closely monitored and some of the organisers were harassed at their homes. The fear was that Granger's movement could grow into a full blown civic revolt. These were years of militant labour unrest which would later emerge as the "black power" movement.
Williams realised that there were new "heroes" on the bloc competing for legitimacy and political space and it is in this context that he set out to establish an awards system which was more sensitive to the changed mood. Granger had forced his hand. He had in fact done more.
Granger had plans to transform Pegasus into a national alternative to the PNM and was able to persuade many critical elites to join him in "Project Independence", a project which would include building a National Stadium on land donated by the private sector in Trincity, and a properly planned city for Port of Spain. Among the persons whom Pegasus attracted to Pro Port of Spain, as the project was called were Ken Gordon, who chaired its sports committee, Hamilton Maurice, Vernon Charles, Frank Worrell, Alex Chapman, Gerry Gomez and many others.
Williams was worried by what he saw and sought to smash it. On the day that the independence project was to be officially launched at the Town Hall, Williams counter mobilised and brought out his political troops and loud speakers to disrupt Grangers's meeting which had to be postponed. Embarassed and frustrated, Granger vowed that he would "bring Williams to his knees," which he almost did in !970. Granger had a dream, and was not to be deterred by Williams. What was achieved in 1962 was not enough. Independence was achieved, but a nation was still in the womb of the old colonial society.
Granger changed his identity. He was now not merely Geddes Leo Granger, but the African warrior, Makandal Daaga, the man who would rescue the black man whom Williams had abandoned.
Permit me to use this medium to sincerely thank those many persons who phoned or e-mailed to offer me their congratulations on the occasion of the Award on August 31 of the "Chaconia Medal Gold". Your comments were generous and I am deeply humbled by your assessments of my professional career over the decades.