Thursday 12 January 2012

Lessons in history

Without really understanding what it implies, people with sage expressions arranged on their faces say something like: "How can you known where you're going if you don't know where you've come from?" The listener, aware that he is being straightened out with the warm iron of good intention, also arranges his physiognomy in a manner compatible to the conversation, and awaits his turn to be profound.
Lessons in history should be, in truth, much more than platitudes. We make everything in our own image. What is different is often hard to understand and might even be dangerous. Only as we grow in maturity and understanding do we discover that differences can be used creatively and that they are exciting and enriching.
This is why Trinidad and Tobago, in fact the Caribbean on the whole, is so full of challenge, and so full of creative energy. There is a chance here and now to create a new kind of society. These islands can be to the world of today what the Aegean was to the world of Homer, Echnaton or St. Paul: a place where many ideas and cultures are fused together, a place where philosophy, science and the arts grow and flower, a world which knows that unity is not the same thing as uniformity.
West Indian history shows what happens to a society that promotes division and hatred, that puts a premium on prejudice and discrimination. Turn for a moment to the history of the French islands, and consider the manner in which history arranged itself with regard to the "mulattoes", people of colour with both European and African ancestors, of Martinique, Grenada and Haiti for example.
In these islands, there was at first no prejudice against European men living with Carib or African women. Indeed, this was a general practice. In theory, the children of those unions were free, but in fact the boys did not become free until they were 20, and the girls until they were 15. Many of the people of colour married French men and women. The crafts and trades were open to them, with the exception of the trade of goldsmith, and by the time of the French Revolution in 1789 thery were in that trade also. They could own property - as in Spanish Trinidad -, though in Martinique there were restrictions. Over the decades, free people of colour increased in number and grew prosperous.
The French government was alarmed at this. It feared that the growth of the free coloureds would endanger white supremacy. Institutionalised segregation was organised for the setting-up of divisions between Europeans, mixed people, and Africans on the basis of skin colour. Part of an official report read:
"These people are beginning to fill the colony and it is a scandal to see them increasing in number, mixing with the whites, overtaking them in opulence and riches, they give refuge to vagabonds and fugitives."
The work of division went from generation to generation. Some restrictions read like those which the Nazis imposed on the Jews in the 1930s. The colour of a man's grandmother became important. African blood kept some out of the judiciary, out of the militia, out of public service. A white man who had a coloured wife would be kept out of those professions.
In Haiti, d'Auberteuil, the Governor, rejected the princile that either the sons or the grandsons of emancipated slaves should be considered worthy of being free men. Special laws were passed to prevent the coloured mistresses of Europeans from inheriting property willed to them. There were regulations on clothes that might appear too luxurious, against using wheeled transport, and on holding dances.
In Haiti in 1792, the world exploded. Coloureds and the slaves rose against the French in a storm of violence. But the lessons of Haiti were not learnt in the British islands, because the same society that existed in French slave islands existed in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad: one where human rights were denied to a vast percentage of the population.
In Trinidad, a significant individual, a man of colour, Dr. Jean Baptiste Philippe, made a herculean effort to maintain the rights and privileges of his people. In Grenada, Fedon staged a bloody revolution. Toussaint L'Ouverture, the hero of the Haitian revolution, died in a French jail and the coloured creole Simon Bolivar liberated the South and Central Americas. We have travelled far since then, but in these days, when we face the challenge of maintaining our independence, we need to remember that these old prejudices die hard - they in fact tend to reverse themselves.
On Saturday night before Carnival, I found myself sitting opposite to a black woman at a dinner party, whose anti-white-Creole, anti-Indian views were the very same as expressed by white people I knew when I was a boy growing up. I was intrigued. Not knowing history very well, she was afraid of the future in much the same way as the whites were 200 years ago!
We can give a positive meaning to being independent as a people, if we can commit ourselves to the idea that all human beings are created equal. Already, as a nation, we have exploded the myth of racial superiority. Already, we are progressing to a higher level of human relationships that many countries do not know - in spite of some counterproductive leaders such as certain calypsonians or politicians. For many, the terms tolerance and acceptance don't even apply, as they imply that something or somebody needs to be tolerated or aceepted.
We have to understand that we are each a part of the whole, of each other. In the same way as two centuries ago, prejudices often arise out of economic insecurities. In this time of opportunity and challenge in our national life, let us learn the lessons of history, in that economic stability comes about when, and only when, the majority of us are neither afraid of the past, nor of the future. We have come too far not to have it our own way!

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