Saturday, 23 July 2016

Black Lives Matter in the Caribbean Too

Do black lives matter? Of course they do. But don’t all lives also matter? Yes, but that is not what we are talking about at this time. There is a sometimes lethal crisis that has existed for too long now and a focused intervention is now necessary to address it in the United States and everywhere else some of its less evident features appear, including right here. It is not that other causes are to be side-lined or denied by this.

The BLM standoff at the Pride rally in Toronto recently stressed the point that none of the current struggles against prejudice, discrimination and lethal official posturing is mutually exclusive and that in too many instances there is a siloed approach to the question of human rights, the universality of which is not often grasped.

The debate is nothing new in our neck of the woods, even though we had our own “Obama” moment back in 1959 and the question of a statistical minority is irrelevant. I only have space to focus on a narrow set of anecdotes and circumstances that have led me to believe that the BLM movement has everything to do with us in the Caribbean, albeit under conditions that are somewhat different from what obtains in the United States and other countries of the Americas where the millions of Afro-descendants have been the subject of systemic discrimination and violence in all its forms.

I employ the term “Afro-descendants” with a pretty good level of awareness of its linguistic implications. It became my preferred language over time when I considered how degrading it might be for someone to constantly be referred to by the colour of his/her skin. Just a personal quirk, I suppose, because many enlightened people continue to speak about “white” and “black” people – almost as if two geometric poles are required to define everything and everyone along a spectrum within which I am required to locate myself and my family.

As a person of mixed heritage, my curiosity about this was first aroused during my early QRC days - having moved on from my primary school in Caroni - on the heels of the 1970 Black Power protests. It was further awoken by a former teacher who openly declared that as part East Indian I was obliged to describe myself as “Indian” and to not associate with people of the “N” persuasion. Thankfully, such encounters have been very few and far between and we have moved forward somewhat.

I was even more challenged by the fact that around 1986/87, as a newspaper columnist producing two pages of commentary every Saturday, I was asked by my then editor-in-chief (who once wrote a column that used the term “old nigger”) to write about the controversy generated by tourism minister Ken Gordon’s pronouncement overseas that T&T was a “black country.” The column rather simplistically found debaters prepared to argue the “two sides” of the argument both of which I found great difficulty associating with.

By then I had long discovered CLR James and his classist arguments which, while ceding some ground to the Pan-Africanists, contended that the struggle was actually much deeper and wider than many had thought in his day.

But there always was this suspicion that with Afro-descendants - “black people”- we were facing something clearly distinguishable from almost everything else.

For one, there exists a political narrative in our country which asserts that ethno-linguistic coding by early politicians, accompanied by a gratuitous programme of targeted social services support in the early years of independence had rendered one group of people hopelessly and terminally injured – damaged cultural goods requiring political subservience, economic tutoring, the intervention of others purportedly better equipped to run the show and the strongest arms of the law.

You won’t know how pervasive this narrative has become until you apply such a lens to political messaging and action over the years. The diagnosis of terminal damage has been there through all of the political administrations I have observed, from the notion of urgent affirmative action to targeted abuse of state security resources, including what I continue to assert to be the unlawful State of Emergency of 2011.

It’s not us alone. In 2005 at the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Argentina, Article 32 of the Mar del Plata Declaration, for the first time in the summits process, introduced the challenges of this group of people in the hemisphere, following mellow hints that had journeyed from the First Summit in Miami which addressed the problem of discrimination.

But, in Argentina, the leaders were prepared to declare a commitment “to respect the rights of Afro-descendants and to ensuring their full access to educational opportunities at all levels, and to decent work that will help them overcome poverty and social exclusion and contribute to their increased participation in all sectors of our societies.”

By the time the Summit approached its Fifth edition right here in T&T in 2009, Article 32 had been dropped as was any mention of the commitment made only a few years before. All lives clearly mattered, but the imperatives of a focused, magnanimous effort to end this undeniable travesty was for that moment set aside, of all places, in Port of Spain. Today, it is going to be much more difficult to get away with doing so, however packed the change agenda.

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