August 8 marked the death of Makandal Daaga, leader of the 1970 Black Power Movement in Trinidad and Tobago.
Daaga challenged the status quo that perpetuated under-development based on ethnicity, leading a mass uprising which saw Indians and Afro-Trinidadians uniting in a historic movement for change.
He and his comrades were disillusioned by the then black PNM government which they believed had not done enough to empower the black/non-white masses. The reins of power and wealth remained largely in the hands of a few. The movement initiated a change in consciousness about race inequities in the country. Before then, for example, it was acceptable for banks and others to hire only ‘light-skinned’ persons. Some mistake Black Power as being merely about black pride. Daaga and thinkers like CLR James recognised that it was much deeper. It is about addressing structural inequities in societies stratified by class divisions supported by manipulative and divisive race paradigms. True black empowerment could only come about by equitable developmental models.
Daaga and his NJAC party were shunned by the black establishment and middle classes. They never seemed comfortable with its disruption of the status quo. As a teenager I recall the scorn heaped at those dashiki-wearers – “Go back to Africa”. African wear is a popular fashion statement today, but is the ‘good trouble’ that goes with black-empowerment which John Lewis promoted accepted? The Black Power Movement was stopped by military force.
The under-served – the dispossessed, remain largely invisibilised and marginalised, but recently, they protested. Many felt these youths, mainly from identifiable depressed communities, were troublemakers and ‘criminals’ who ‘deserve it’. When a pregnant black woman was killed, they asked - what was Vernella doing there? “She looking for trouble.”
We hear victim-bashing from our own black brothers and sisters: “If you want a nice car, get a job”, “Why you allow yourself to get pregnant/beaten up?” “We gave free education, you don’t want to work, go to school – I did it” – are other popular public narratives. Dependency is certainly not the pathway to development of a people, but, if true empowering mechanisms are not in place . Affirmative action is based on this recognition that historical inequities need tangible, supportive tools to level the playing field toward equality. Patterns of discrimination and stereotypes born out of them are acknowledged and disrupted, not ignored.
Those protests were about more than alleged police brutality. Like Daaga, the disenfranchised were rebelling against the decades of social injustice. They were highlighting the cruelties and ironies of a system upheld by their own, but to which they did not belong, or benefit.
Daaga never let go of his struggle to rehabilitate the economic and political structures that perpetuate class and race-based dis-empowerment. It led him to re-enter formal politics in the PPP in 2010.
Equality is not the same as equal treatment if people start from different places. Perhaps we are now prepared to challenge stereotypes. Yet, the most damaging stereotypes are the ones that we do not see, nor wish to confront. Our education, judicial, financing systems etc. are weak equal opportunity providers.
Coming from the wrong side of the bridge is not a death sentence, but the odds are stacked against you. Many are unable to overcome them without meaningful support and understanding. Some schools are “prestige” and have every resource. Others have falling roofs, no laptops and children who go to school hungry.
Small black businesses have difficulties getting loans, or foreign exchange. The make-up of our prison, remand population and ganja arrests tell similar stories. We turn a blind eye to these even as we join the bandwagon of Black Lives Matter. Reserve some outrage for those.
Reparations has fallen on deaf ears because we have not connected the enduring historical inequities in our social structures and underlying systemic race-class biases,
Daaga saw these contradictions in our nation. He spent his life in Laventille educating youths about empowerment. He lobbied successfully for Emancipation Day to be declared a symbol of upliftment. Has his message been heard? This year I attended an NJAC Black Power 50th memorial in the RC Cathedral. The crowd was sparse. There was no one from The UWI, or the Government.
Racism is about power relations. It is more than stereotyping, which is merely a tool to uphold that unequal power. It demands more than lip service. Its enemies and friends come in all shapes and colours. This is why, attending Makandal Daaga’s funeral, the idea of a law scholarship emerged. Empowering young people and creating change-agents to build more just societies can make a difference.
The image of the proud black man or woman is one we should aspire to, but it is not achieved by pretending that the other image – of the oppressed, un-empowered, poverty-ridden person does not exist, or should be unseen. Only in confronting these deep societal issues squarely and honestly can we move forward to real progress, genuine equality, unity and peace.
I hope one day true black heroes and leaders like Daaga are formally recognised with the respect and gratitude that they deserve. RIP, Makandal, and may your inspirational spirit guide us.
Prof Rose-Marie Belle Antoine
is Dean, Faculty of Law,
The University of the West Indies