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Master’s Voice: Fear of the dark; addressing Trinbago’s ‘Nigger’ question (Pt One)

“Where a black man, by working about half an hour a day (such is the calculation), can supply himself, by aid of sun and soil, with as much pumpkin as will suffice, he is likely to be a little stiff to raise into hard work! Supply and demand, which science says should be brought to bear on him, have an uphill task of it with such a man.”  — Thomas Carlyle “Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question” (1853)

“The negroes […] have no fear of the devil with whom they become like a crony and companion… At Guapo. The negroes who occupy this part of my parish are real savages.” — Abbe Armand Masse, parish priest of Oropouche in the 1880s

“Local government (falsely so-called) is the curse of the West Indies. In many islands it means only the rule of a local oligarchy of whites and half-breeds—always incapable and frequently corrupt. In other cases, it is the rule of the Negroes—totally unfit for representative institutions.” — Joseph Chamberlain, head of the Colonial Office (1895)

“Whether it be washing cars, planting a garden or being a handyman—get a job so you can gain experience, which is what employers look for. Stop waiting for handouts which only encourage laziness!” — Ms R De Verteuil (2016)

Photos: Patrons enjoy the festivities during Trinidad and Tobago’s 2016 Independence Day Parade.
(Courtesy Chevaughn Christopher/Wired868)

Four different sentiments from two different time periods united by one thread: decontextualised ahistorical racist reasoning. One reason I “rejoiced” over Trump’s election was because now a lot more people have been forced to confront assumptions that were racist or stemmed from bigoted beliefs about other cultures and peoples.

The most dangerous ones, for me anyhow, come from liberals and well-meaning people. They who could not stand to be in the same room as Donald Trump are often unaware that their own ideas and assumptions about what is wrong with society and the world come from the same racist/sexist and ultimately imperialist rationale.

It remains to be seen when we in this country will get around to the kinds of conversations already being held in libraries, churches and academic centres in North America and Europe.

Because with the exasperation that comes from watching our rotten institutions collapsing, we still have, in 2018, way too many people holding on to a made up, constantly shifting construct called “race” in order to advance themselves or to address challenges in our society.

Almost all will deny it of course. They, like many North American liberals, will insist that “race” does not matter because they are “colour-blind”; and many of them honestly believe that they are. But that’s a dangerous myth as Dr Robin DiAngelo points out here—in my opinion, it’s more dangerous here where people of colour have pretty much ran the place since 1956.

Photo: A protester is taken away for medical attention after being attacked by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

Because you see, the admittedly offensive title of this piece still sums up the question and fears surrounding the labouring class base of Trinbago, like other colonised regions, since colonial rule. It’s one of those things we inherited from a Britain that pretends to be egalitarian but really was based on highly inflated beliefs of the Self by European elites played off against firmly embedded ideas of polluted, polluting peasants and non-white peoples and/or cultures.

That it’s still being talked about in 2018, that we still use metaphors that refer to criminalised gangs and communities as “pests,” “cockroaches” and “dogs” as Gary Griffith does—and Akilah Holder, who went further and sexually (slut)-shamed the mothers.

That we still use imageries of a man of African descent in a rat-trap along with with a bucket of KFC—as Stephen Broadbridge did, excusing it as free-speech that he didn’t know was offensive—is testimony to how deep racist ideas remain soaked in the fabric of this society.

Many may be uncomfortable, even offended, hearing this but so be it. That discomfort, that offence, is necessary. We have been sweeping “de race talk” under the carpet for too long because many are terrified of doing the self-examination that is necessary.

Face reality: in societies like ours Black lives don’t truly matter because, for the couple hundred years during which time this society was developed, dark-skinned peoples were placed outside humanity by academics and writers in highly respected scientific and medical journals.

Photo: A controversial meme by Stephen Broadbridge.

That thinking shaped cultural attitudes influencing how, for instance, the police were trained to interact with certain communities that responded likewise, thus creating self-regenerating cycles.

Understand that these are toxic ideas that were embedded, using “scientific” authority—convictions about the pathological nature of African and Indian people and/or their ancestral cultures. Notions about the “innate” criminally violent nature of African behaviour and predatory sexuality continue to inform attitudes and actions on all sides of the divide.

Indeed, it is astonishing how easily people speak about crime, law and order, economic activity and productivity, as if these are ideologically neutral or merely a case of simple binaries—that is productive managers/lazy workers. This kind of delusional foolishness will get us into plenty trouble.

Racist/sexist ideas are internalised every day, guiding actions and policies of influential people, even if they belong to the ethnic groups such ideas were describing. Even after the colonisers supposedly retreated back to England and France, their ideas and values continue to determine who has the “right” to rule this sunny clime.

In the previous article we saw how the Euro created his self-image, a key part of which involves creating adversarial others against whom he could supposedly prove his superiority by comparison.

Whether based on genetics or culture, racist ideas anchored to notions of “purity” vs “polluted” were/are frequently employed.

Photo: A depiction of slaves serving their masters in Trinidad.
(Courtesy Netssa.com)

In Trinidad and Tobago, the mystification of whiteness that Raymond Ramcharitar, CLR James and David Trotman highlighted in their respective works can also be called the normalisation of whiteness—hence why places like Touch-n-Taste Restaurant and 51 Degrees could put up “strict dress codes” that are not enforced when flagrantly broken by white foreigners or local ones.

As Priyamvada Gopal pointed out in this discussion, the white masculine model is so deeply soaked into the fabric of most societies they’re not seen as “ethnic”; he—and she on the feminine side—is the default model.

They don’t have to see themselves as a “race”, for it is their values, their political structures, their patterns of dress that are normal while the rest us us are “ethnic” or “exotic.”

This was the elephant in the room when the hijab incident at Lakshmi Girls Hindu School came up: if Ms Nakhid was wearing only Western clothes—the normal benchmark for “proper” or “professional” attire—no one was batting an eyelid.

So, whether it’s the visible signs that our independence was a hollow farce—such as the suit in a tropical climate; or prohibitions on sleeveless dresses and blouses in government buildings—or the retention of colonial institutions, laws and education schemes; here the default Euro is universal.

There have been many push-backs, yes, but until we directly confront the masks that hide Eurocentric universalism, we will achieve very little.

Photo: OJT trainee Nafisah Nakhid was stopped from working at Lakshmi Hindu School unless she removed her hijab.

The issue of race in the way we understand it today—a hierarchical social construct determined principally by skin colour, comes, ironically, from a region that was among the last to enter into what is called civilisation.

It did so by appropriating ideas and technologies from older cultures to the south, even as its academics projected Western culture  as the pinnacle of what went before. In fact, depending on the academic school of thought being used, it cemented through its history, political and science books that nothing of value existed before; that the rest of the world waited in violent disorder until brave European explorers tamed the savage lands and peoples for their own good. This was especially the case with the African.

So we have people like the “dean” of History, David Hume, authoritatively declaring in 1754, using a script his people didn’t even invent:

“I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.

“No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans,  […] still have something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular.”

A few years later, another scholar still respected today, Hegel, informs us in “The Philosophy of History”:

“At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it—that is in its northern part—belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilisation; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia.

“Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.”

In the 20th century, we see no change as is exemplified by Lothrop Stoddard in a book with the very revealing title “The Rising Tide of Colour”:

“…the brown and yellow peoples have contributed greatly to the civilization of the world and have profoundly influenced human progress. The negro, on the contrary, has contributed virtually nothing. Left to himself, he remained a savage.

“[…] The black race has never shown real constructive power. It has never built up a native civilisation. Such progress as certain negro groups have made has been due to external pressure and has never long outlived that pressure’s removal, for the negro, when left to himself, as in Haiti and Liberia, rapidly reverts to his ancestral ways.”

Photo: Toussaint Louverture was the best known leader of the Haitian revolution.

We get the same thing if we scour writings from de las Casas to Montesquieu to Voltaire to Kenneth Brecher. Indeed, up to a few weeks ago that hubristic notion about “taming” was trotted out in a commencement speech.

During the Age of “Discovery” and the enslavement period—as it is today in the age of “Globalisation”—distortions like this had an economic and political function.

As part of the process of seizing and controlling whatever resources are coveted, dehumanising subjected people was and remains vital in order to justify harsh, repressive measures such as physical and psychological violence.

The “othered” group must be presented as being in such a savage, childlike, or irrational state and presenting an existential threat—or some/all of the above—so that the harsh measures implemented against them are considered necessary to save them from themselves or to prevent the society constructed by the white male from descending into the chaotic state that they found it.

This is of course in keeping with the image the Euro/Euro-American created of himself as the grand conductor of order.

Photo: An artistic depiction of the encomienda system.

But while we can make that argument to understand the Euro, how are we to explain similar sentiments from someone who lectured in the University of the West Indies? Here’s Sally Radford:

“Homo sapiens fled Sub-Saharan homelands as soon as they evolved over a million years ago and continue to flee voluntarily across, despite having most of the world’s arable land and rich mineral resources.

“Europe brought education, culture, science, architecture, agriculture, engineering, industry and faith based on peace and truth.” ICDN website (2017)

It’s not hard to trace the roots of such thinking. By the time the Spanish and especially the British took possession of Trinidad and set about turning it into an export processing zone, hubristic myths about their exceptionality were deeply seated.

In piecing together this myth, the British borrowed ideas from Spain, France and Portugal where, as far back as the 1480s, discrimination on the basis of “blood” and religion were marginalising Jews, pagans and Muslims.

Editor’s Note: Wired868 will publish the second and final part of Corey Gilkes’ column on Trinbago’s ‘Nigger’ question on Sunday 24 June.

About Corey Gilkes

Corey Gilkes is a self-taught history reader whose big mouth forever gets his little tail in trouble. He lives in La Romaine and is working on four book projects. He has a blog on https://coreygilkes.wordpress.com/blog/ and http://www.trinicenter.com/Gilkes/. Vitriol can be emailed to him at coreygks@gmail.com.

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