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Emergence of afro-trinis
How have Afro-Trinis as a group in their social-class sub-divisions fared in the 50 years since political independence? Have they advanced or regressed? That’s the question being asked in relation to the Afro-Trinis and all of the major ethnic groups in this series of reflective articles. To begin with Afro-Trinis, the answer requires an historical perspective.
Afro-Trinis emerged in the post-slavery period as traders, hucksters, freeholders of small portions of lands for provision grounds and for sale in the markets—and this was notwithstanding the determination of the British Government and its crown colony creation in the island to set minimum landholding levels for farming at over 300 acres to preclude the emancipated “Negroes” from becoming small farmers. It was a policy to ensure labour for the continued existence of the plantation and the metropolitan market.
Segments of the population began acquiring something of an education through the arrangements (inadequate as they were) of the British Government to provide a level of funding for the freed population to begin to acquire the basics of an education and religious tutoring; the churches and missions were pre-eminent in providing schools.
To illustrate the point of the acquisition of an education, John Jacob Thomas, born three years after slavery was ended in 1838, emerged as the first black intellectual, perhaps the finest, of the 19th century and challenged the might of British scholarship and anti-black bias in Froudacity, his response to the bigoted interpretation of the state of the “Negro” by British historian James Anthony Froude.
Later in the 19th and into the 20th century, Emanuel Mzumbo Lazare and Henry Sylvester Williams were shining examples of the ability of the freed African to demonstrate the capacity to advance from the state of degradation, dehumanisation and subjugation. They both acquired legal qualifications, Lazare from the local base and Williams in London having gone there to expand his possibilities.
Both Lazare and Williams involved themselves in politics, Lazare becoming a member of the Port-of-Spain Borough Council and Williams as the main organiser of the first Pan African Congress. The achievements in education illustrated by these two Afro-Trinis turned into a tide in the 20th century. It continued to flow for the first 75 years with intellectuals of the ilk of CLR James, Eric Williams, HOB Wooding, Best, Demas, Ellis Clarke, the McShine brothers and a few generations of blacks acquiring scholarships, going abroad and demonstrating the capacity for intellectual accomplishment equal to any.
In business, the names of achievers such as Cyril Duprey and later on the likes of Bob Yorke and William Munroe achieved a measure of success. At the level of small traders and skilled artisans, the shoemakers, tailors, barbers, shopkeepers and others began the fight for space in the economy; and this notwithstanding what has been reported as a deliberate attempt by the finance houses to marginalise black business operators.
At the working class level, the assault against the colonial establishment was taken up in the 1930s by the then emerging labour movement. It took riots, the loss of life and limb and the confronting of the British military and the colonial constabulary to begin the construction of a society in which people of African heritage and indeed other non-European peoples had an equal place.
At the political level, the struggle of the African went back as far as the turn of the century and gained full momentum in the 1940s leading right up to Independence. Dr Eric Williams and a band of middle-class blacks, along with others including Indo, white and Chinese Trinidadians and Tobagonians, created the People’s National Movement to win political power from the colonial authorities and put in political office a party consisting predominantly of Afro-Trinis.
So here again in the initial organisation of the society out of crown colony government, Afro-Trinis and Tobagonians were out in front. They acquired and exercised political power in the run-up to independence and in the decades that followed.
Soon enough blacks began to fill the civil service and replace the British expatriates at the top of the service. The return from study abroad of doctors, lawyers, engineers and other high-level professionals placed blacks in a position of command in the professions.
At the broad level of culture, blacks not only developed their ancestral heritage, but created what President Richards, a good Creole, said last week was the only true innovation of the society. In the popular arts, including the Carnival creations, Afro-Trinis have been in the forefront of not only developing the cultural forms, but have exported them to distant lands.
• To be continued
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