“[…] In aiming a retaliatory blow at Robinson-Regis, the Opposition Leader struck at Afro-Trinbagonians in general. That’s a big deal for someone who has led the country, and aspires to lead it again.
“[…] If you continue playing the tape, [Kamla Persad-Bissessar] does go on to pay tribute to African ancestry. But she sounded like someone who realised, in the minute, that she’d made a gaffe and was doing clean-up. It did not erase what preceded it…”
In the following guest column, Orin Gordon dishes out praises and criticism of Opposition Leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar:
I’ll get to my criticism of Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s remark about the ‘slave master name’ of Housing Minister Camille Robinson-Regis, but I want to start with some general praise for Persad-Bissessar.
In sartorially symbolic recognition of the multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious pelau that is Trinidad and Tobago, she has generally risen to the occasion. She stuns, whenever she dresses the part. To the fair-minded, which don’t include her implacable critics and partisans in the red corner, she’s had visual impact and effectiveness in what is—sort of—her Mother of the Nation symbolism. And she’s said the right things.
Emancipation Day is going to be awkward. Outside of her core political support, who in the T&T African diaspora is going to believe that her homage on 1 August is sincerely held?
Let’s be clear, in aiming a retaliatory blow at Robinson-Regis, the Opposition Leader struck at Afro-Trinbagonians in general. That’s a big deal for someone who has led the country, and aspires to lead it again.
If Persad-Bissessar was self-critical, if she’d been properly advised, or both; she’d not only have apologised… she’d have done so the next day. If you continue playing the tape, she does go on to pay tribute to African ancestry. But she sounded like someone who realised, in the minute, that she’d made a gaffe and was doing clean-up. It did not erase what preceded it.
She should have had the filter to see that the comment was racially insensitive, the self-reflection to realise that she had erred, and humility to apologise.
Instead, she deflected. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley had himself ‘mocked’ their predecessor, ANR Robinson, about receiving a Nigerian honorific title in 1991.
“Ken Valley said to wear African clothes he would look like a mook, remember that!”, she went on. Roodal Moonilal’s own name had been twisted, in a way that carried unsubtle racial overtones.
This is an illogical defence. If you justify your actions by citing those of others that you clearly feel to be wrong, you’re arguing in effect that you also have a right to offend—or they were not wrong after all.
Her own partisans weighed in. American civil rights activist Malcolm X had spoken of black people divesting themselves of their slave names, said one of the more vigorously vocal ones on this issue. A UNC Senator offered justification, also along the lines of self-defence.
But what’s noticeable is how few in her party have stuck their necks out in defence. By my count, three of her fellow MPs have ‘slave master’ names, including one who, clearly, also has Indian immigrant ancestry. Same with three UNC members of the Senate. The most prominent of those Senators would not be drawn on the issue.
To those of us who are descendants of slaves, our names are more than just slave master names—they’re the names of our fathers and grandfathers. We embrace them and have no intention of changing them, even if we could conduct conclusive genealogical traces.
Claude Ivan Gordon, my paternal grandfather, was a carpenter who had a furniture stall in the famous Stabroek Market (Big Market, as it was commonly called), in Georgetown, Guyana. An unfailingly genial man, he knew a hundred risqué jokes, some of which barely passed age restriction. He’d laugh at his own joke, uproariously, well before he got to the punchline, sometimes too cracked up to get it out.
Claude made things, not just chairs and cabinets. He was a terrific cook, and soups were his specialty. He brewed the best Fly, a Guyanese fermented drink made from sweet potatoes, as well as plum and jamoon wine.
He passed on his skills to great effect to my uncle, Maurice Gordon, who established Tripee’s Restaurant, the most famous Guyanese restaurant in New York in its day. Tripee’s gets a mention in Parkway Jam, a calypso about Brooklyn’s Labour Day carnival, by Trinidadian artiste Rootsman.
I visited Edinburgh as a young postgraduate student in the UK, playfully seeking out the Gordon tartan, and buying a souvenir kilt for my mother. Dad made it clear that he didn’t have the legs to carry it off. All good fun.
More sobering was a 2018 visit to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, with my own daughter—then a university student in Glasgow. Kelvingrove holds reminders of Scotland’s role in the slave trade. My name, bestowed long ago by a Scottish landowner, is for keeps.
Robinson-Regis knew what she was doing, with repeated, mention of the Opposition Leader’s full name: Kamla Susheila Bissessar. The thing about racially-infused mockery is that the recipient knows it when she hears it. She first heard it on the primary school playground, and her young self probably told friends to call her Karen.
In the Housing Minister’s barnstormer to the PNM faithful, neither the covert racialised taunts nor her overt homophobia was subtle. The party officer most prominently in shot behind Robinson-Regis didn’t seem to know whether to laugh, clap or cringe. She did them all.
Rowley couldn’t help getting into the mud, posting on Facebook a clip of Kunta Kinte from Roots, who even under a whipping, would not give up his African name.
None of the participants in this drama is racist. I know enough about them—though I don’t know any of them well—to remove that label from this discussion. But none seem hesitant about unapologetically using racially-infused aids in the political arena. Knowingly, or not.