THE FOLLOWING quotation is from Party politics in the West Indies, the 1962 book by the late CLR James; he was speaking about Trinidad. “People of all classes, Indians and Negroes, have told me that, apart from election periods, those two sections of the population may grumble at one another, as people always do, but there is no basic antagonism between them…The politicians do not seriously meet the racial differences. Not one of them ever says anything which shows thought, investigation, awareness of problems, which the people can hear and from which they can learn. All you hear is abstractions and dishonest platitudes about living harmoniously together…
“The danger is that the situation can easily become worse. No attempt is made to explain, clarify the present situation, say how it arose, the attitudes of different classes, and how to put an end to it. It is not a new problem…[A] national flag and a national anthem and colonialism dressed up in new clothes do not make a new society. The first necessity is to speak the truth and speak plainly about what we face and what we have to do. A nation is built not on abstraction, but on tackling and solving the problems which occupy its people.”
James went on: “I would suggest that at least two people…be set to work on a history of the Indian people in Trinidad and Tobago. This would give the conditions under which they came here, with a section on the conditions under which they lived in India. Then section by section would be told the manner in which they have lifted themselves, until there would be a full, detailed and accurate description of their place in the population today.”
Nearly 60 years have passed. What has changed?
I conspicuously lack James’ formidable intellect, but I too, when I was high commissioner to India, recommended to Port of Spain that a history of the Indian presence in this country be written. No reply came. That was more than 40 years ago.
And since then I have more than once addressed the race issue in TT. For instance, I said in a Central Bank speech: “[I speak as a citizen]…who is of the opinion that we are far from being in crisis but that if so many citizens…complain of alienation and marginalisation and being second class, we have a problem, and that we must face that problem squarely and deal with it…
“We must acknowledge that a problem exists, and that hand-wringing and appeals will not make it go away. We must deal with it, and we must make a start by communicating better and by speaking to one another instead of shouting at one another. If we remain within our separate bunkers, there will be no solution. Rather, there will continue to be the megaphone diplomacy and the fretfulness that have become a characteristic of recent exchanges, and that run the risk of leading only to a redrawing of the battle lines and a hardening of attitudes. In such an atmosphere, we all lose.
“If this is a plural society, our school curricula must reflect this, assuming they do not already. The dominant Christian majority – and religion cuts across race in this country – must take into consideration the susceptibilities of the smaller religious denominations. There is no state religion here. We must constantly bear in mind that ‘multi-racialism’ does not necessarily mean ‘non-racialism,’ and that cheerful references to our ‘rainbow country’ do not a nation make. We have to work at building our nation …We must remember that there is no single culture here. We must move towards what Lloyd Best calls ‘not just a sharing of space but a making of space and a bending backwards to accommodate and even to adopt the values of the Other…’”
That was May 1990, 30 years ago. What has changed?
David Abdulah is now calling for a series of public conversations on race, class, religion and culture, with the aim of societal improvement. And he advocates, as a top priority, changes in the school curricula. The PM joins him in calling for curriculum reform. After the focus of our immediate past minister of education on penmanship – penmanship! – we might yet be entering the 21st century.
Even before seeing Abdulah’s intervention, I had asked someone to ascertain whether the UWI St Augustine campus would be prepared to host ongoing, countrywide public discussions (these days, virtual) on the social issues disturbing us. I have heard nothing, and I shall be approaching the Inter-Religious Organisation.
Enough talk. Enough hollow hymns and ineffectual genuflections to wobbly deities like “all-ah-we-is-one” and “every-creed-and-race-finds-an-equal-place.” It is past time for action.