Thursday, September 21, 2017

Little black citizens

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I was a little black boy once. I haven't got much bigger since. I'm still black, however. Black, not negro. But I shall come to that in another article.

Academically, professionally and otherwise, I haven't done badly; it would be churlish to complain. I've had my share of good luck—that is always important, good luck-but mostly I've had to work very hard to achieve whatever success has come my way. That is how much of my generation of blacks was brought up: we were respectable, but generally not well-off, and it was drummed constantly into our heads by our parents and guardians and teachers, even our peers, that we had to go to school and learn, and to work hard and honestly, if we were going to get anywhere in life. But times have changed. How they have changed.

You therefore understand why Gypsy's calypso appeals so much to me, and I am disappointed to hear that there are black people in this country, even of my generation, who are desperately unhappy with Gypsy because, in their view, the words of his song denigrate our race. How can that be? What has Gypsy said that does not accurately reflect a great deal of the reality of today's Trinidad and Tobago? And was he not urging a change in attitude?

Of course, all little black boys these days are not pipers and posers and maxi touts; of course, several will become doctors and lawyers and bankers. But hasn't there been a considerable decline over the last 20 years in the numbers of the black upwardly mobile as a percentage of the population? When the A-level results are published every year, how many black faces do you see among the scholarship winners? Why is that so?

What you can say is that little boys and girls of whatever colour cannot be expected to make it on their own; they need a support system. The family, first and foremost, but also the school and the community, among other structures. For black children, that system is crumbling at a disproportionate rate. Why is that so? After all the studies and the seminars on the subject, why is that so? Why the growing illiteracy when, on the eve of a more difficult century, education has become a sine qua non of survival? Why the increased crime, the poverty, the social dislocation etc? What has happened to the black exemplars? Who are the bulk of the bandits? Is Gypsy exaggerating when he sings:



Look at de drugs, see who's de dan man;

Look who eatin' outa dem garbage can;

Look in de jail, see who you see too;

Ah bet a little black boy just like you?



Is he exaggerating? I hardly think so.

But if black people who are in a position to help, to give guidance, prefer to take embarrassed and high-minded offence at what he is saying, then hope for little black boys, and thus for a calmer society, fades even faster. As for me, I shall continue to do what I can. The other day, for instance, I told an errant black parent that, while I did not wish in any way to suggest that I was threatening him, I could give him no guarantee that I would not report him to the education authorities if I was presented with any further evidence that his children were at home pretending to be Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley when they should be at school trying to become Willie Demas and Kofi Annan.

You can also say that Gypsy's calypso doesn't directly address the issue of values—but then, a calypso of limited length cannot deal with everything. Education is more than reading and math, more than correct responses to multiple choice questions, and the fact that you are a brilliant lawyer or engineer doesn't necessarily mean that you are a good citizen and someone to be emulated. Just look around for instant proof.

Some years ago I was introduced to the Teachers' Handbook on Education in Human Values, published by the EHV Society of Trinidad and Tobago. Five basic values regarded as essential to civilisation are identified: truth, right action, peace, love and non-violence. The objective of the EHV programme is to impart these values to the growing personalities of children, enabling them, and the societies around them, to extract maximum potential for the benefit of all.

This country more and more needs an approach like that, for the descent is everywhere. The presidency is offered before the general election (and, I assume, after as well), apparently as part of an intended arrangement. (But it was not the first time this had happened. If the offeree gives me permission, I shall write one day about what took place in 1986.) Violence—public and domestic—is perpetrated almost as a norm of casual behaviour. Racial divisions widen. Means, however cynical, are considered to be justified by ends, however flawed. And, to the consternation of the multitudes, the feckless Dr Vincent Lasse announces with a straight face that he is a man of principle.

We had better confront these issues, this conjuncture to which we have led ourselves, and confront them quickly and with dedication. The adults in our society have a particular obligation to do so, because we cannot reasonably expect our children to add lustre to the society if we daily demonstrate our shortcomings to them. This goes beyond race, it goes beyond socio-economic status because, as Ramesh Deosaran never tires of pointing out, the fact that you are poor does not necessarily mean that your children will turn to crime and amorality. Or vice versa.

Often, when I hear people talk in this country I am reminded of the ostrich. He thinks that if he doesn't see or face up to the danger there is no danger; he is safe. But, in bending down to bury his head in the sand he leaves a sensitive part of his anatomy exposed.

I am advised that a lot can be done to that part.

• This article was first published in the Express on February 25, 1997