Despite my shameless semi-appropriation of Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots,” this in no way suggests that I place myself close to the same league of this giant ancestor. This is just my paltry message to those in my country, particularly those who live where there isn’t much grass, far less roots; but a whole lot of asphalt.
And I’m writing this—taking a break from my ongoing babbling rant about white supremacist racism in the “non-white majority” Trinbago context—knowing full well that many of those to whom I’m writing this may never read it.
Mind you, this isn’t necessarily because some aren’t able to read or are intimidated by “big” words and books. Having met with inspiring people like one of those behind the “Niceness” bottled coconut water brand from East Port of Spain or listening to people like Sherma Wilson and some of her listeners, I know there’s a very keen interest to learn about the self through the past.
It’s that because of the ever-increasing rat-race we are running in, most simply don’t have much time to read, far less contemplate and organise to agitate for change.
Most people are—or rather, have been made—too busy to protest in an era of frozen wages, longer hours in response to demands for still more production to meet demands for constant economic “growth”; while hard-won benefits are chipped away, clawed back and circumvented by managers bent on extending the bottom line.
It’s hard not to be a conspiracy theorist when one stops and contemplates all this—assuming one has the “idle” time to do so. It’s hard to think that much of today’s reality isn’t being deliberately engineered.
But, however we got here, we’re here—and the cycle is a vicious one; and familiar too—we’ve been here before, and not once either. Depressed living and social conditions, debt bondage, wage slavery, demands for more and more, it’s hard to even say at what stage the cycle began.
Back then the natives were given trinkets and superficial nonsense to keep them amused; today we are hung up on getting the latest iPhone or the Galaxy S-whatever’s the f***ing number now.
Back then the natives were given muskets; today it’s AR-15s, Mac10s, Glock and Kalashnikovs.
Back then “tribal” conflicts existed (expanded by the Euro) but had systems of conflict resolution (ignored and rubbished by the Euro); today tribal conflicts continue, are more irrational and savage, and are “mediated” by the UN and aid agencies that entrench cycles of dependency, corruption and conflict.
Back then, it was about Western Europe plundering the resources they did not have and desperately need; today it’s still about Western Europe and a Euro-American power structure plundering resources they do not have and desperately need. It’s simply deepened to now include data mining and selling; as pointed out in this interview, data is the new oil.
It’s easy to be disheartened, the MeToo movement was preceded by the Me First Movement, and we’re now all but locked away in little insulated bubbles.
Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi argued in her book “The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse” that Western ways of creating and defining gender have been deepening colonial-era problems through bodies like the UN and are using Western-centric middle-class ideas of humanism to impose new imperialist policies on the global south.
Scholars like Deepar Kumar and Ifi Amadiume go a little further and warn us that much of this is being done through people who themselves are often very progressive, anti-racist and anti-imperialist; but are trapped in Western liberal ideologies and organisations.
Additionally, the resources of the US government and corporations are vast and are now in the hands of some really hateful people. Add to that the emerging waves of far-Right sentiment across many parts of Europe. We are definitely living in some very dangerous times.
But dangerous does not mean hopeless. This may very well be the wake up call needed for indigenous peoples and grassroots organisations in North America and those of the tropical south to once again network and engage in collective actions.
So, for me, days like Emancipation Day, inasmuch as it’s already being celebrated—yes, I have some issue with that too; we celebrate a day the British decided to grant we, as opposed to the days we tried to seize our own destiny—are days not so much of celebration, but reflection of all what was done since the last Emancipation Day to transfer ownership… to ourselves.
And that is perhaps the first thing we need to understand; the cunning, insidious way we are made to understand certain words.
Dr John Henrik Clarke used to say that when the Euro colonised the world he also colonised the dictionary and meanings of words. The root of the word “emancipation” actually means “transfer of ownership,” which indicates how crafty the Euros were in tricking us and adjusting the scam—which is always adjusting and adapting, to maintain the old order.
But the first step in confronting a problem is to identify and name it. So, “People of the Asphalt”, time to analyse on your own; emancipate yourself and look at old canons with different eyes.
Some of our treasured literature will have limitations. CLR James’ masterful “The Black Jacobins,” for instance, had an important weakness in that it didn’t explore the significance of the fact that a large part of the enslaved population of Haiti were freshly trafficked from Africa and were soldiers and political figures on the Continent.
So, before the philosophical notions of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” they already had their own ideas of freedom plus the military and political experience they brought with them.
This introspection will be messy and very unpleasant too because it will mean looking differently at many who supposedly were/are our liberators. Figures like Bartholome de Las Casas, William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, were the forerunners of Jimmy Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair: respectable racists.
They were the frontrunners for Bono, Sir Bob Geldoff, Barrack Obama insofar as the racist, imperialist, neoliberal Western-centric power structure was never open to debate.
Similarly, a large part of our current social problems here including violent crime stems directly from betrayals by generation after generation of self-appointed “educated” political elites, schooled in Western models so as to run the region on behalf of the absentee Euro.
These Afro/Indo-Saxons—some of whom truly meant well—as a body have continually manipulated, then dispensed with the underclasses whose backs they have always ridden when it was convenient.
Bukka Rennie’s book on the working class people was very clear on this. Cultural vacuums have often been filled by opportunistic “radicals”—or “moderates”—who pimp Africa to project a sophisticated patriarchal, capitalistic (or Marxist) messiah, often wrapped up in some Abrahamic religion.
There’s one I know who talks about uplifting Africans in Trinidad but is immersed in ideas that came out of the London and Chicago Schools of Economics. She never read a book or paragraph by Cheikh Anta Diop, Ifi Amadiume, Ivan Van Sertima, Walter Rodney, Dr Lawzi Lushaba, Yosef ben-Jochannan, Chancellor Williams (or for that matter, Eric Williams), Amilcar Cabral or Kenneth Kaunda.
Others have, but skipped over the parts where they called for ground-up grassroots-based co-operative institutions and philosophies.
Don’t misunderstand me, if you want to follow any of these Abrahamic religions or Marxist philosophies, go right ahead. But regarding the reclaiming of Africa for Africans, home and abroad, the humanistic principles of pre-colonised Africa must be non-negotiable even as we do the un-African thing of practising what Dr John Henrik Clarke called the essential selfishness of being closed to outsiders in order to survive.
He also called for the injection of those African principles into these religions. It’s not impossible; no religion is independent of cultural ideas and customs.
Fr Tissa Balasuriya understood this when he examined the way Sri Lankan people incorporated the Virgin Mary into their indigenous belief system in his controversial book “Mary and Human Liberation.”
Hundreds of years prior, devout Muslim women in West Africa espoused Islam the faith, rejected patriarchal Arabic customs, and continued dressing how they damn well dressed, unveiled, breasts sometimes bared and most importantly, keeping the powerful matri-axial customs that existed for hundreds of years prior to Islam.
This is no time to be nice; this is most definitely a time to fight. Any and every option must be explored.
Conversations and informed exchanges of ideas must come first though. Short, medium and long term goals must be planned. All this of course hinges on a serious reversal of the way many of us reflexively see Africa itself.
In the battle to secure control of mineral resources and to extend Western geopolitical influences, the first shots are fired at the mind. It’s a no-brainer that the vast majority of peoples in the Caribbean came from Africa—enslaved and free migrants. But there’s an instinctive recoiling from openly asserting African culture in most circles.
Further, even in 2018, many schools’ history, sociology, economics and science books do not properly reflect the depth, complexity and sophistication of ancient and modern Africans in these important fields. We’re still saddled with the default notion of the “dark continent” of savages, tribalism, lacking any history of organised political formation.
So the prospect is daunting admittedly, but even the power of giants can be blunted or circumvented.
It was done in Poland when thousands of women boycotted work and took to the streets to protest a proposed ban on abortion in all circumstances. It happened when there were mass protests in Guatemala in 2015 that led to the resignation and charging of its president Otto Perez Mollino.
There was the historic World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle in 1994. In all these cases, the power of mass protest actions forced the authorities to make decisions more in keeping with the people’s interests—or in some cases, made politicians resign.
Across the globe subjected peoples are reasserting themselves, often taking the State head on. It’s interesting that many movements looked not only to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but the more militant radical movements like the Black Panthers. Yet we’re trying ever so hard to forget 1970 even happened.
Make no mistake, there is a seething mass of disgust towards the proverbial establishment.
Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were revolts by many against political elites owned by major corporations that see working peoples as mere minions if indeed they see them at all. What these events showed—aside from the racism and xenophobia that Trump and Nigel Farage used to hijack them—was how many people had finally woken up to the reality of just how corrupt and elitist the political system is.
However, lacking proper avenues to express their outrage at being betrayed by those they hoped would protect them from the political and corporate elites who held narrow, bigoted agendas, they went with the racist populist.
As the old orders are being shaken, even from within, Africans home and abroad must unapologetically embrace Africa in all its dimensions and fashion models and institutions that span continent and oceans.
Then that ownership will be properly transferred.