“The race rises as its women rise. They are the true standard of its elevation.
“We are trying to produce cultured men without asking ourselves where they are to find cultured wives. We forget that cultured families constitute a cultured race and that a cultured race is an equal race.
“The elevation of [black] women to equality with [their] white counterparts is the Condition Sine Qua Non of the elevation of the Negro race.”
Editor Robert Love, Jamaica Advocate, 1895
In 1899, Robert Love, Bahamian-born, came to Jamaica and soon established a reputation as a fearless journalist. He was particularly concerned with the social conditions there.
One of his enduring themes was that a group cannot rise above the standards of their womanhood. A mere 20 years before, the English writer Charles Kingsley compared black women in Trinidad to the “delicate”—and less publicly visible—East Indian women.
This controversy about the feminisation of African women as compared to their White and East Indian counterparts dates from the 19th century. It persists today.
Our national narrative is content to brush past the yeoman work of our black women done for the oppressed class. We step past the groundbreaking successful challenge of Elma Francois against sedition charges or even her work with Buzz Butler. Ignore Audrey Jeffers of the Coterie of Social Workers fame.
The memory of Clotil Walcott and her crusade for better conditions for domestic workers is barely observed.
A woman like Thelma Williams—of whom Errol McLeod said, “I consider Thelma Williams as the matriarch of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), and by extension, one might say, of the labour movement of the country”—would not be welcomed in polite company today.
She joined the union at age 19 on 7 February 1938, eight months after the union was formed. At that time, she was unemployed and had only six cents in her name.
Instead, we perpetuate the ‘Jamette’ persona to belittle the effort of unsophisticated black women struggling to make ends meet.
“All the crime we have been facing in Aranguez is being committed by the urban youth…They are products of a failed education system, of failed parenting, of a state that has thrown up its hands and said now that you’ve fallen through the cracks, it’s OK, stay there.
“They emerge post-pubescent to terrorise because they’re looking for a little change to give their mother, who has 14 and 15 children to mind.”
This latest slur is a modified US version of a “welfare queen”; the implication is that black women use their sons to gain illegal income.
This stereotype stigmatises the black woman and criminalises poverty. It explicitly connects childbearing by black mothers to criminality. It generalises their children as criminals or would-be criminals.
Based on CSO data on household size, the era of such large families, as suggested, is past. It makes the fathers both absent and invisible. This smear skilfully skips past the question of: “what kind of society we wish to live in?”
It plays upon the fear of dependency on the state and focuses on short-term political wins. It refuses to responsibly address our long-term interest in helping families on society’s fringes. Instead, guns are the proposed solution to this plight.
We disregard the 60s and 70s history of the East-West Corridor, particularly Laventille. Do we remember the losses of some 1500 jobs and community pride when the Port of Spain lost its standing to the new Point Lisas port?
Note the objective of the South Trinidad Chamber of Commerce was:
‘The emphasis of any southern group…must necessarily be on the promotion…of the prosperity of the South. By that, I mean it should fill not a passive role, merely seeing that things work smoothly in the South, but an active role in the improvement of the economy of the South and, incidentally, of the whole island.”
The members of the Committee began to examine the establishment of a deep-water harbour and quickly realised that… if the new deep-water harbour were to be constructed, it would need to attract significant new freight, and this would require promoting new economic development.
The Committee, therefore, began to explore the possibility of establishing an industrial estate linked to the proposed port facilities in south Trinidad.
What did we expect when the economic downturn and policy decisions decimated the companies and entrepreneurs that once lined the Eastern Main Road?
Is this why we moan about the loss of the Petrotrin refinery because of its potential impact on working men and their families? Is it that we know what happened to Laventille that we fear the same in the Pointe-a-Pierre community?
When you destroy jobs for any group of people, they will decline their desire to work, and the family will weaken. (Wilson, J 1996). Laventille had family life and responsible men in the pre-1970s. Black male joblessness directly affects family disruption, which in turn results in high rates of urban violence among young Black men (Sampson, 1987).
Why, then, are we content to ignore the long-term pain there? Or worse, blame the women of Laventille?
During that period of job losses and the economic downturn, those women, several of whom migrated to find money to support their children. These children became known as the barrel children who got physical goodies in a barrel but suffered greatly from feelings of abandonment.
“Although barrel children may receive money and goods, they often lack the emotional support they need from their parents. Mental health professionals say this can lead to low self-esteem, depression and feelings of abandonment. These feelings, they say, can lead to behavioural problems and poor academic performance.
“Some children are also left vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse and are predisposed to risky behaviours. Even when reunited with their parents, they face difficulties repairing the bonds damaged by separation.”
These children were the first to attend the newly established Junior Secondary Schools. The gaping sore created by these schools has produced the grandparents and parents of today’s youths.
Now, we slander these women for our past societal mistakes.
Single mother-headed households account for approximately 30% of our households. These women bear the double burden of working to earn an income and caring for their children.
A Central Bank 2011 report (Roopnarine and Ramrattan) demonstrated that single women who head households are likelier to work than those in relationships. East Indian women were less likely to work than women of African descent. The less education the woman has, the more likely she is to work.
The urban single mother who heads a household is not waiting on crime proceeds to live. She labours. Yet, the income she earns from tending to our various retail needs, guarding us and our property and caring for our homes cannot support them and their children.
As former minister Raziah Ahmed remarked: “…women understand many things that the traditional male leadership has never understood or have chosen to neglect sometimes.”
Is blaming black women the end game? More anon.