How African Culture is Erased For the Sake of Multi-Culturalism: An Example from Trinidad
Very often African people are asked to shed our particular cultural identity for the sake of forging national unity in multiracial societies. In From Colin Kaepernick to Donald Trump: A New Age of Crisis I reviewed Patrick Buchanan’s State of Emergency. In his book Buchanan complains about the fact that beginning in the 1960s African Americans adopted African names. Buchanan’s vision of a national American identity is an Anglo-American identity and he expects African Americans to conform to this identity.
This is also true in the Caribbean, where Africans are often expected to shed or reject their culture and history for the sake of national unity. In the 1960s Walter Rodney pointed out that the government of Jamaica refused to have an African language taught at the university because of how diverse Jamaica is, despite the fact that 95% of Jamaica’s population is black. In fact, many Caribbean leaders denounced the Black Power movement in the Caribbean, which they saw as being a movement that promoted racism and division in multiethnic Caribbean societies.
Caribbean society is a very diverse society, especially an island like Trinidad, which is an island that includes Africans, Indians, Chinese, Syrians, and Europeans. The two dominant racial groups in Trinidad are Africans and Indians, and, much like in Guyana, the politicians in Trinidad often exploit racial tensions between the two groups for electoral purposes.
Some see the solution to the problem of racial division in Trinidad as promoting a vision of a mixed society. Brother Marvin’s song “Jahaji Bhai” is an example of this. In the song Brother Marvin celebrates Indo-African unity in Trinidad by pointing to the fact that Marvin himself is “part seed of India.” The phrase “jahaji bhai” means “boat brother” and is used to invoke unity among Africans and Indians, two racial groups which arrived in Trinidad by boat. Although the intentions behind what Brother Marvin was trying to do may have been noble, Brother Marvin’s song invoked a very negative response from many Africans, who rightfully took issue with the fact that Brother Marvin both distorted history and erased the African experience for the sake promoting national unity. Critics took particular exception to these lines from Brother Marvin’s song:
For those who playing ignorant
Talking about true African descendant
If you want to know the truth
Take a trip back to you roots
And somewhere on that journey
You go see a man in a dhoti
Saying he prayers in front of a jhandi
Brother Marvin also sings that there is no more Mother Africa or Mother India, only Mother Trinidad. In saying this Marvin invoked a similar sentiment that was expressed by Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. Williams wrote: “ There can be no Mother Africa for those of African origin, and the Trinidad and Tobago society is living a lie and heading for trouble if it seeks to create the impression or to allow others to act under the delusion that Trinidad and Tobago is an African society.”
Brother Marvin’s sparked a backlash throughout the country, with several Africans responding to Brother Marvin through editorials and through songs. One commentator noted that Marvin’s song “has been criticised for seeming to sell out Africanity in order to claim Indianness, and Marvin has been accused of taking his own personal situation and his own personal journey and projecting it as if it were the truth for all descendants of Africans.” There are two responses that I wish to focus on specifically. The first of which is “Jahaji Blues” by G.B., who accuses Marvin of being an “ungrateful Negro” for not taking greater pride in being an African descendant. G.B.’s main issue with Brother Marvin’s song is that Marvin distorts African history. G.B, asks: “How can you so denigrate my African history.” Throughout the song G.B. also suggests that Brother Marvin “jump off African business” as well.
G.B. also invokes Pan-African leaders and intellectuals such as Kwame Ture, Malcolm X, J.D. Elder, and Nelson Mandela, all of whom G.B. suggests would be very disappointed with Marvin’s composition. This is important because it invokes the larger global struggles of African people, which Marvin does not speak to at all. Kwame Ture and E.D. Elder are especially worth noting because Trinidad and Tobago is a nation that has produced many influential Pan-African leaders and scholars. Ture and Elder are two examples of this. Among the English speaking Caribbean islands, Trinidad had the most branches of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Cuba was the only Caribbean island with more branches of the UNIA. So there has been a very well-established Pan-African tradition in Trinidad and Tobago.
I point this out because this notion of “no Mother Africa” which was expressed by Eric Williams and invoked by Brother Marvin ignores the reality that Africans in Trinidad have always retained a connection to Africa, the rest of the African diaspora, and to the global Pan-African struggle. In African Cultural Survivals in Trinidad and Tobago, E.D. Elder wrote:
To all Diaspora Africans in the Americas and the West Indies, this my message: [to you for Africa Week, 1979]. Distant as you are from Africa, only your ethnic identity can endure. Cherish it and be proud of it and, by demonstrating our own pride in it, exact respect for it from other ethnics around you. Because any human group without an ethnic identity is at best a suspect partner in a nation-building enterprise. The members will have nothing unique to contribute if they throw away their ethnic heritage.
In Ready for Revolution, Kwame Ture described his own identity as being Pan-Caribbean because his grandmother was born in Montserrat. Ture explained that “it would be inaccurate — actually incomplete would be a better word — to call me a Trinidadian.” Many Trinidadians have an ancestral lineage which can be traced to other Caribbean islands — especially Grenada, where prominent Trinidadians such as the Mighty Sparrow and Tubal Uriah Butler were born. Moreover, there “Merikins” which were African Americans who settled in Trinidad, so there are also Trinidadians who trace their roots to the United States. For those of us in the African diaspora national identities are not fixed identities because of migration, but what is fixed is the fact that, as Kwame Ture explained, “our roots are in Africa”.
Pearl Entou Springer, who wrote a response to Brother Marvin’s song titled “Remember the Africans, Brother Marvin,” explained that the “perpetuation of the foolishness of no Mother Africa or Mother India must also stop.” It must stop because it is often used to distort the historical experiences of African people for the sake of forging national identities. This is the same criticism that I have had of the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) movement, which was founded as an attempt to forge a tribal identity for African Americans. As I have pointed out in a prior article, in order to accomplish this the ADOS movement has to essentially ignore the historical connections between African Americans and Africans in the Caribbean. Likewise, the narrative of “Mother Trinidad” is one that ignores Trinidad’s connection with Africans throughout the diaspora.
Brother Marvin ignores Trinidad’s Pan-African history and instead attempts to impose the particular cultural and historical experiences of Indian people over African people. This is one of the problematic aspects of what is sometimes called “douglarization” in the Caribbean. “Dougla” is a Hindu word to describe the offspring of Indian and African parents. The term stems from a Hindi word that described children born to parents of different castes. For this reason the word has often carried a negative connotation, and is seen as the equivalent of terms like “illgetimate” or “bastard.” So from the onset we see that it is a Hindu concept — a concept which stems from India’s caste system — which ultimately defines the identity of mixed persons in the Caribbean.
As G.B. points out, the term “jahaji bhai” is another term that was used “by Indians only”. The “brotherhood on the boat” which Brother Marvin invokes was originally brotherhood among Indians, not brotherhood among Indians and Africans. Both Africans and Indians arrived in the Caribbean on ships, but the two journeys were very different. Likewise, the experience of slavery was different from the indentured labor that Indians endured. This is not to suggest that Indians did not endure inhumane treatment and abuses. In The Devastation and Economics of the African Holocaust I discussed some of the many hardships that Indian indentured laborers endured, but the brutality was still not as terrible as what Africans endured. Moreover, Indians were able to retain many aspects of their culture, whereas during slavery there was a systematic attempt to erase the cultural identity of African people.
For this reason the boat ride which brought Africans to the Caribbean was much different than the ride which brought Indians. Black Stalin’s “Caribbean Unity” was controversial because Stalin spoke of Caribbean unity in terms of African unity, to the exclusion of other races:
From the same place
That make the same trip
On the same ship
Stalin is speaking to the collective experiences of Africans in the Caribbean and the vision of Caribbean unity that he expressed in his song is unity among the descendants of Africa who are the descendants of the same historical experience. As I noted in Malcolm X, Bob Marley, and Other Essays, Bob Marley also invoked the Middle Passage in several of his songs. Marley invokes the Middle Passage as a very brutal and haunting experience. It is not one that Marley celebrates. In “Mama Africa,” Peter Tosh describes the experience of the Middle Passage as taking him away from his mother before he was ever born. So there is a lot of pain and trauma attached to the African journey to the Caribbean that was not shared by the Indians who arrived in the Caribbean.
It is very difficult to try to conflate the Middle Passage with the Indian journey to the Caribbean because the two journeys were radically different, starting with the fact that Africans were forced onto the boats. All boat rides to the Americas were not equal, which is why Malcolm X explained that the boat ride that Africans experienced was not the ride that the Pilgrims experienced.
The second response that I will discuss here is Sugar Aloes’ song “Unity.” Like G.B., Aloes takes issue with the fact that Marvin only singles out Africans for criticism in his song. Sugar Aloes intones:
He proclaim to be so proud to be part seed of India
He big up he grandma and pa
But I was ignorant
To claim African descendant
Throughout the song Sugar Aloes also points out that the cultural exchange in Trinidad is not an equal one, as many Indians often refuse to participate in African cultural celebrations. Sugar Aloes also suggest that Brother Marvin was being used by Indians to promote their agenda. Sugar Aloes suggests that Brother Marvin sold out Africans for a few pennies because despite all of the love that Brother Marvin received from the Indian community for his song, Brother Marvin came third to last in the chutney contest. Despite this, as Sugar Aloes notes, Brother Marvin was embraced by Sat Maharaj, a Hindu religious leader who has often spoken about against the douglarization of Indian culture in Trinidad. Other Indians, such as Kumar Mahabir, praised Brother Marvin for being “honest enough to condemn blacks for being prejudicial towards Indians,” but Brother Marvin did not see fit to condemn the prejudicial attitudes of Indians towards Africans.
Neither G.B. or Sugar Aloes are opposed to the idea of unity between Africans and Indians, but they both suggest that this unity must be based on mutual respect between Africans and Indians, rather than being based on an attempt to erase the cultural heritage and history of African people by imposing the cultural and historical experiences on African history in Trinidad and Tobago. As I said, what Brother Marvin attempted to do may have been noble, but in the end his song represented an example of the fact that some believe that unity means that African people must forget our history and our culture.
Sadly, as the clip below points out, many Trinidadians believe that they must forgo their African identity for the sake of their Trinidadian identity. In fact, many of us throughout the diaspora attempt to hide from our African identities behind nationalities. This is what many in the ADOS movement attempt to do as well.
I will close this article by citing one more calypso, which is “They Ain’t See Africa At All” by Chalkdust, who criticizes those Africans who attempt to run away from their African identities. As Chalkdust reminds us: “Black people must stop running from their race.”
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.