Today is August 1st, 2020.
Emancipation Day on the twin-island Republic of Trinidad & Tobago 🇹🇹.
But I’ve been reflecting on our current state of affairs, 186 years after our ancestors were freed from bondage. I must wonder: How free are we really?
Trinidad is “post-colonial”, but I’m not sure what that means anymore. We are technically a sovereign, independent nation. We’re free from colonial British governance.
But I don’t believe we’ve reckoned with the effects of colonialism on our society and on our psyche. The human consequences of the control and exploitation of our people and our lands have not been fully addressed.
We must, as Bob Marley said:
“Emancipate [ourselves] from mental slavery.”
The Spanish, French, and British have all passed through and controlled our country at one point or another. Their legacies are felt, even today. When we go to our capital city of Port of Spain, we remember. When we speak English, we remember. When we celebrate Carnival, we remember.
Aimé Césaire, an Afro-Caribbean socialist author, discussed the narrative of the colonizer and the colonized in his work Discourse on Colonialism. Some mistakenly believe that colonialism benefited us as a people, but a cursory glance at history challenges that notion:
“So-called Western civilization is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem. What, fundamentally, is colonization? It is neither evangelization, nor a philanthropic enterprise, nor a desire to push back the frontiers of ignorance, disease, and tyranny, nor a project undertaken for the greater glory of God, nor an attempt to extend the rule of law.”
The colonizer others the colonized in order to justify their colonization. That is why they obscure our true history. That is why they gloss over how we functioned before colonization.
We didn’t need their “civilization”.
Colonization relies on racist and xenophobic frameworks that dehumanise its targets and justifies their extreme and brutal mistreatment, as it erases the history and culture of entire peoples. Césaire also said:
“[Our] societies were drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.”
We do not know the depth of our history and culture.
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” — Marcus Garvey
The way that our ancestors lived prior to colonization is, in many ways, far more humane than our current way of life.
Traditional African societies were, for the most part, founded on communalism. A way of life that centred community independence, self-governance, and full involvement of all individuals in the affairs of society. The horizontally-organized societies had leadership, not based on authority, imposition, coercion, majority-rule, or centralization, but out of common consensus. Consensus was central to decision-making in many African societies.
The settlement of disputes was focused on mutual compromise. Emphasis was on preventing the perpetuation of injustice and enthroning equity, on the understanding that no person should be unjustly enriched or denied the elementary principles of natural justice. There were kingdoms and empires in Africa as well, but the binary narrative of “we were royalty” or “we were primitive” limits the scope of our imagination. There was a wide breadth of social organization in the motherland.
The Effects of Colonialism
Colonialism was a terrible force, but what is worse is the ways we continue to perpetuate it today.
Critical thinking atrophies, natural curiosity is broken, and young psyches are damaged as generations are pushed through the system, year after year.
After spending two decades of our lives in school, we graduate as a new generation of followers of the same society that kept us back, unable to challenge the false narrative and devastating system of the colonizers.
Our schools preserve the systems of inequality that we grapple with today. They maintain a society that is hostile towards differences in intelligence and styles of learning that are not profitable. The education system (de)grades, tests, and standardizes our children, ignoring their rich, natural complexity and diversity of thought, development, and ability.
Our so-called melting pot has a racism problem. We have not fully acknowledged how colonial powers designed today’s racial divisions, but it’s time to move forward.
It’s time to confront the overt racism and microaggressions that Afro-Trinidadians face at school, on the street, in relationships, while travelling, and in the workplace.
Racism, and especially anti-blackness, pervades our society.
Our major political parties still stoke racial divides around election times. We need to stand up against the brazen disrespect, racism, and mudslinging so common in our politics.
While many of us embrace our pan-African identity, our refusal to address colourism and texturism in this country will be our downfall.
From childhood onward, dark-skinned Afro-Trinidadians have to face aggression from their parents and their peers.
“Yuh so black I cah find you in d dark.” “She hair rell nappy.” “You rell black boy, yuh didn’t bathe?” “She pretty for a darkie.”
In the workplace, black hairstyles face invasive scrutiny, with criticisms of its “lack of professionalism.” Let’s not forget that professionalism, as we conceptualize it, is deeply rooted in colonial thinking. Discrimination in the dating sphere is dismissed as mere “preference”. Our local photographers and Carnival bands continue to lack representation of our darker-skinned kinfolk, so that creamy brown skin and loose coils are practically a modelling requirement.
Even some Indo-Trinidadians face colourism, part of the legacy of the caste system. We need to overturn these divisions. As Malcolm X once said:
“The greatest weapon the colonial powers have used in the past against our people has always been his ability to divide and conquer. If I take my hand and slap you, it might sting you because these digits are separated. But all I have to do to put you back in your place is bring those digits together.”
The deeply patriarchal society that we live in today is not solely the product of colonialism. While many of our notions of gender arise from our religious culture, forms of patriarchy did exist in some indigenous and African cultures prior to colonization.
However, that is no excuse for the prevalent misogyny that exists in our society today. The flagrant rape culture that permeates the lives of our women from the day that they are born till the day that they die. A culture that assigns the worth of women based on their attractiveness. A culture that has normalized catcalling. A culture that has normalized domestic abuse. A culture that is deeply invested in the control and subjugation of women’s appearance, attire, attitude, and activities.
This, of course, is tied to the toxic masculinity that exists in our culture. Before you groan, recognize, as bell hooks did, that the first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead, patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.
“Feminist politics aims to end domination, to free us to be who we are — to live lives where we love justice, where we can live in peace. Feminism is for everybody.”
Queerphobia, that is homophobia, transphobia, and the other prejudices against members of the LGBTQ+ community, is a glaring component of our culture.
Our prejudice is taught, passed down from colonialism. The reality is that queer folks have existed everywhere, including Africa and India, for millennia. Without the deliberate forces of conservativism, we would not have such a hate for the wide range of our people. Our prejudice is unnatural, not the diversity of gender and sexuality that exists.
The violence of our present society is the result of slavery.
In pre-colonial West Africa, our people saw children as sacred and pure. Ritualized abuse was not introduced until the advent of slavery and colonialism. Europeans saw children as born evil, so their task as parents was to beat them into goodness.
Our tradition of “lix” came about after the master-slave dynamic perpetuated ritualized violence. Parents would physically harm their children for normal, innocent infractions like getting dirty, playing, and showing “attitude”, all to protect them from the wrath of the slave master and make them good, obedient future slaves.
Normal childhood and teenage behaviour continue to be punished as our method of parenting demands total submission. Yet there is an abundance of evidence that demonstrates the harm of corporal punishment; it raises suicide rates, delinquency, intimate abuse, and depression among youth.
We need to heal.
This is where I may lose some people. Bear with me.
It is hard to deny the damage that some religions have caused. Many demonize our traditional practices and further puritanical and patriarchal attitudes in our society. Some bask in suffering and cruelty in the name of God. Others refuse basic medical science and deny free choice, again and again, victimizing the most marginalized of our world.
Whatever happened to a personal relationship with your deity/deities? Why are people bringing spirituality, and in some cases religious nationalism, into the realm of politics?
We need to do better.
At the root of many of our modern problems is the destructiveness of capitalism, the brother of colonialism.
“You can cuss out colonialism, imperialism, and all other kinds of ism, but it’s hard for you to cuss that dollarism. When they drop those dollars on you, your soul goes.” — Malcolm X
Capitalism, as a mentality, rewards the worst aspects of our humanity. It rewards greed and short-term gratification. It produces alienation, the predominance of the profit-motive and the drive for accumulation, dehumanization of workers as parts of a machine, commodity fetishism (including the commodification of people), possessiveness, and the pervasive inability to see exploitative wage slavery as anything other than freely contracted employment. Most destructive is its normalization of hypercompetitiveness, which castigates genuine compassion, cooperation, and solidarity.
Capitalism is inhuman, anti-democratic, unsustainable, and deeply exploitative.
The hallmark of capitalism is poverty in the midst of plenty.
Decolonization of the mind.
We need to rid ourselves of the colonial mentality, an internalized attitude of inferiority.
We try to “change our skin” as a society, attempting to assimilate with the forms of thinking and behaviour of our colonizers, in hopes that we will gain their privileges.
But the privileges of their societies remain in the hands of very few. They are not people we should be trying to replicate.
Our colonial mentality keeps our culture back. Frantz Fanon called for total liberation through organized revolt. Uhuru Hotep saw the core of liberation of the mind through the dismantling of white supremacist beliefs, and the structures which uphold them, in every area of our lives.
We need to educate ourselves.
We need to reclaim our traditions, cultural practices, history, science, language, fashion, ideology, politics, media, and education.
We need to reconnect with our heritage and rethink our future.
I don’t expect this to happen easily. I don’t expect any political parties to help us. You see:
“None but ourselves can free our minds.” — Bob Marley
Happy Emancipation Day.