By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, June 26, 2020)
It is a painful experience to listen to persons of influence say there is no racism in SVG. Some say that there is colourism, by which they mean discrimination based on skin colour. And you got it: the darker the skin, the greater the discrimination; the lighter the skin tone, the more privileged the daily life experiences. Clearly, colourism is the twin sister of racism. It flows from the same demented head and has identical destructive effect and impact.
Racism is where systems are put in place to keep people in their place. Colourism manifests itself in a similar fashion. Once you are assigned a station in life, it may take more than a revolution to get you from one place to another. Those in authority or because of the ingrained societal norms, will do all to keep you down, even as those at the bottom of society, the black majority, fight like hell to throw off the oppression.
From the time of conquest, throughout slavery and for another century after the physical shackles were removed from our feet and hands after emancipation, the black majority was kept in its place, brutally oppressed, mercilessly exploited and criminally discriminated against.
An awakening began with the emergence of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the United States. A new consciousness gripped sections of the population and impacted SVG and the rest of the region. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture, H. Rap Browne, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton and George Jackson became popular, at least among the progressive and intellectual sections of the community.
Organisations like Black Liberation Action Committee (BLAC), led by Renwick Kamara Rose, and the Organization for Black Cultural Awareness (OBCA), led by Jim Maloney and Patches Knights, popularised and transformed the slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’ into sometimes of an ideology. The more conscious elements in our society started to highlight the fact that colonial England committed genocide on our Garifuna/Kalinago forebears, enslaved thousands of Africans kidnapped from the African continent and brought them here to work for free, thus enriching a white parasitic elite.
These organisations preached race pride, encouraged citizens to reclaim their cultural heritage, to wear African clothing and to adopt African names. Other organizations such as Young Socialist Group (YSG), led by Caspar London, Hugh Ragguette and Glentoy Tswala Browne, and with whom Ralph Gonsalves has some connection, emphasized the class divisions in society.
In 1974, BLAC, OBCA and YSG merged to form the Youlou United Liberation Movement (YULIMO) with Renwick Rose at the helm — Youlou and the Begos being an indigenous name given to our country. By its first anniversary celebration in August 1975, the considered view was that the struggle between classes, especially that struggle between the workers and peasants and the owners of the big plantations and businesses, was the primary factor that determined how the society advanced. As a result, at least among the progressives, issues of race increasingly took second place to matters of class. Issues of race were de-emphasised and class as a standard mode of analysis gained in ascendency. The new mantra was for genuine independence, people’s ownership and control.
But it is instructive that matters of race then and now played a key role in understanding Vincentian society. Up until independence in 1979, England continued to have control over much of what took place in SVG. Then as now, the commanding heights of the economy were owned and controlled by mostly white foreigners. A regional elite that is white or near-white has also muscled its way to take a slice of the commercial sector. Persons of Indian extraction and whites who arrived after the abolition of slavery were given preferential treatment. Many became overseers or got other privileges which helped them to gain a stake in Vincentian society. Some black individuals have strived and owned businesses, but they are in the minority even though most citizens are of African heritage.
In our country, matters of race and class merge and intersect, but we ignore or downplay racism to our eternal regret. The poorest and most marginalized sections of the population are persons of African descent. Black people here as in the rest of the world, remain the faces at the bottom of the well. They are the most exploited and oppressed. They remain the most dehumanized.
Euro-centric ideas still dominate all sections and sectors of the country. Our history and heritage are not taught in a systematic and organized manner. Large sections of the population practise a kind of self-hatred that is sadly self-defeating. It is not surprising to hear people verbally murdering each other by describing themselves as ‘black and ugly’; for so many of us to despise our complexion or kinky hair; for men and women to express preferences for mates with lighter skin tone or softer or long hair. The false hair/weave/extension craze among our women, bleaching of our black skin give testimony to this false sense of what constitutes beauty.
We despise our noses, lips and hips. All of this hatred comes from the fact that all things African were drummed into our heads as bad. Africa was the dark continent with no history, and a place that made no contribution to world civilization. Our images were images of contrast Black magic and White angels, white purity and black filth. A few decades ago, no one of a darker complexion could have found work in a bank in Kingstown. Positions that brought businesses into contact with customers who were white or of the ruling classes, were reserved for those with a light complexion.
At this late date, it remains much easier for a white foreigner to see government officials or get preferences to engage in a host of activities than for black individuals. The darker you are, the more suspicions your presence creates. Is it a mere coincidence that for 35 of the 40 years since independence, Vincentians have made a particular set of leadership choices? We need to interrogate our choices to ensure we are not making sad commentaries of ourselves.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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