Thursday, January 21, 2010

Indians & Negroes (Life in Trinidad)

By Nicholas Stix

Trinidad Series, Part II
Toogood Reports/A Different Drummer
October 3, 2000

“White man, you know where you goin’? You limin’ [just hanging out]?” In the marketplace in my wife’s South Trinidadian town, the Negro produce peddler isn’t hassling me; in some ways, people are simply more direct here. I answer in kind: “Yeah, black man.”

The peddler saw me looking into the ruins of the burnt-out building, overgrown with weeds, in front of which he and his competitors are plying their wares. I obviously don’t belong; the less than one percent of whites who remain here dress, look, and act differently than I do.

I am looking for a safe place from which to engage in a natural, necessary function that could cost me $100 in New York. Although the TT police routinely commit what New Yorkers would consider acts of unspeakable brutality against career criminals, law-abiding citizens, and TV cameramen alike, they do not consider public urination an offense, provided it is done discreetly.

While I lean to my left, to hear if anyone is sneaking up in the weeds as I do my business, my driver, “Mr. Singh” (not his real name), watches my back.

Trinidadians may be more polite than Americans, certainly than New Yorkers, and adults may not routinely “bad-talk” (insult) each other in public, but that doesn’t mean they don’t despise each other any less. Unlike us, however, they don’t cling to a phony ideology of integration, and of not only tolerating, but “celebrating” each other’s differences, that almost no one in America believes in.

For an example of the way a typical Indian feels, one said of America, “The Europeans [whites] must keep the blacks under control.” Another said of blacks, “They cannot run a business,” adding proudly of the industrial firms in central Trinidad’s Point Lisas area, “They all run by Europeans.”

An Indian taxi driver points out that virtually all of the robberies are committed by Negroes, more often than not against Indians. “The Indians do drugs,” he grants, by way of balance. In early June, 1999, the government hanged Indian drug kingpin Dole Chadee, and eight of Chadee’s henchmen, for the murder of four members of the Baboolal family. The Baboolals had worked for Chadee, who suspected them of skimming drug money.

The cabbie asks where I came from. New York. “Queens?!” he asks excitedly, as all Indians ask, when someone says he comes from New York. His brother is in Queens. “Hospital administrator.” The brother’s son is going to medical school. “In America, there is opportunity.” I inform him that American blacks disagree. “Like them,” he says, pointing at some Trini blacks lolling at and on a white cement wall, by the taxi stand. He says some of the blacks by the wall are nothing but beggars.

When my wife grew up during the 1970s, much larger, broader black girls would call her “Coolie!” the equivalent to the “n” word, an epithet which goes back to the Indians’ days as indentured laborers (“coolie labor”). Think, Kipling’s Gunga Din. (“It was ‘Din! Din! Din!/You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?/You put some juldee in it/Or I’ll marrow you this minute/If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!) She’d respond, “Nigger!”

At 7 a.m. on TT Independence Day, August 31, a dozen or so black “poor people’s marchers” stride up and down the road in my wife’s town in the South, demanding support through megaphones.

Afterwards, one of my in-laws asks, rhetorically, “How many was Indian?” Just one. He clucks, “They don’t want to work; they don’t want to persevere.” Meanwhile, a couple of days before, the TV news had reported the government’s plan to “guarantee upward mobility” for “the poor.” “The poor” is a euphemism for welfare recipients, the vast majority of whom are black.

Until after World War II, the majority of Indians, who lived in dire poverty, did not even know English, and parents did not send girls to school. (The notion of sending even boys to school was relatively new.) Most of the Indians spoke almost exclusively Hindi, until Presbyterian missionaries taught them English. More than a few Indians converted, let themselves be baptized, and adopted new, Christian names.

Because the blacks had no linguistic hurdle to jump, they enjoyed huge advantages in politics and the civil service that last to this day.

In spite of, or perhaps because of this late start, the most important Trinidadian novelists, Vidia Naipaul (1932-) and the late Sam Selvon (1923-1994), are Indian.

In Naipaul’s tragicomic masterpiece, the 1961 novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, the Indian title character’s successful aunt translates, whenever the family has to deal with non-Hindi speakers. In 1915, the day after the title character is born feet first, and with six fingers on one hand, the pundit (Hindu priest) pronounces his fate:

“Hm. Born in the wrong way [feet first]. At midnight, you said.”

Bissoondaye [the boy’s maternal grandmother] had no means of telling the time, but both she and the midwife had assumed that it was midnight, the inauspicious hour.

“... First of all the features of this unfortunate boy. He will have good teeth but they will be rather wide, and there will be spaces between them. I suppose you know what that means. The boy will be a lecher and a spendthrift. Possibly a liar as well. It is hard to be sure about those gaps between the teeth. They might mean only one of those things or they might mean all three.

“What about the six fingers, pundit?”

“That’s a shocking sign, of course. The only thing I can advise is to keep him away from trees and water. Particularly water.”

“Never bath him?”

“I don’t mean exactly that.”

He raised his right hand, bunched the fingers and, with his head on one side, said slowly, “One has to interpret what the book says.” He tapped the wobbly almanac with his left hand. “And when the book says water, I think it means water in its natural form.”

“Natural form.”

“Natural form,” the pundit repeated, but uncertainly. “I mean,” he said quickly, and with some annoyance, “keep him away from rivers and ponds. And of course the sea.

"And another thing,” he added with satisfaction. “He will have an unlucky sneeze.”

I suppose we should count ourselves lucky. My wife and one of her sisters decide that the cause of our six-month-old son’s mysterious stomach ailment, which limits his ability to eat, is “maljo,” which the Indians translate as “bad eye.” (It translates better as “the evil eye.”) Someone put the evil eye on him. Well, that explains everything!

And so, one day while I am in town, my sister-in-law puts our son on the bed, surrounds him with onion and garlic skins and some other produce, and says a Hindu prayer. Afterwards, she burns all the vegetables.

My wife insists that our son’s bowel movements smell much better since the ritual.

It could have been much worse. After all, no one has pronounced him a future lecher, spendthrift, or liar, ordered him kept away from all bodies of water, or warned that he would have an unlucky sneeze.

But dangerous, old nonsense is replaced by dangerous, new nonsense. In a store in town, a saleswoman tries to sell us a frilly, cotton “onesie” shirt for our son. When I object that the shirt is for a girl, the Indian saleswoman responds, with a straight face, “They’re unisex.” Refusing to buy such rubbish, my mother-in-law goes shopping elsewhere, where she buys her grandson some “no-frills,” boys’ outfits.

(Although Naipaul is known around the world, and among his foreign, critical champions as “V.S. Naipaul,” I have never heard a Trini—even a college professor—call him anything but “Vidia Naipaul.” This peculiar populism, born of local pride, stands in stark contrast to the arrogance of the man himself, who long ago stopped identifying himself as a Trinidadian. And if we are to believe Naipaul’s former protegé and friend, the novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’ memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, fifty years after Naipaul left Trinidad and his impoverished youth to study at Oxford on a scholarship, he dismisses longtime friends -- e.g., Theroux -- whom he deems no longer of use on a whim, the way a spoiled, rich man suddenly dismisses a faithful, old servant.)

In spite of Indian literary achievements, University of the West Indies historian Bridget Brereton has reduced all of post-1917 Indian culture to one dependent clause:

“McBurnie and Gomes, in quite different ways, were each in the vanguard of the postwar renaissance, which also produced brilliant Trinidadian novelists like Vidia Naipaul and Samuel Selvon.

Brereton’s work, A History of Modern Trinidad 1783-1962, is a standard textbook used in high schools (British-style “A” and “O” levels) and universities. Meanwhile, Brereton rhapsodizes for pages on the political and cultural value of Trinidad’s crude steel pan and calypso music. But they were both invented by poor Negroes, a fact which endows their creations with magical powers. Brereton practically swoons over calypso king The Mighty Sparrow, from two of whose songs she quotes:

Leave the damn doctor,
And don’t get me mad.
Leave the damn doctor
Or is murder in Trinidad.

Well the way how things shaping up,
All this nigger business go stop.
I tell you soon in the West Indies,
It’s please, Mr. Nigger, please.

(The phrase “The damn doctor” refers to Dr. Eric Williams, who as leader of the black, People’s National Movement (PNM) party, was from 1962 until his death in 1981, TT’s first prime minister. According to The Mighty Sparrow’s website, he was born Slinger Francisco in Grenada in 1936; his family emigrated to Trinidad when he was a year old.)

Brereton is unmistakably a black supremacist, though she would surely prefer the term “Creole” or “black nationalist.”

One of the marks of the West Indian black supremacist is xenophobia regarding foreign investment. You don’t have to be Milton Friedman to appreciate the blessing that foreign capital represents to any economy, but never more so than to a capital-poor, “developing” economy lacking a manufacturing, technical, or scientific infrastructure. Yet for the black supremacist, foreign capital is a curse.

Brereton laments the transition to independence that lasted from the late 1950s through the early 1960s:

By and large, the expected development of a local entrepreneurial class involved in manufacturing did not materialize in this period, and the industrial programme increased the country’s dependence on foreign capital, technology, markets and expertise.

We should all be so dependent.

But Brereton does not hate ALL foreigners. Her problem with foreign capital, etc., though she won’t come out and say it, is that it invariably comes from whites. She also holds the Indians in contempt, as shown by her reduction of their history to their subjugation by the white man, to those post-independence Indians who subjugated themselves to black supremacists, her diminution of Indian cultural achievements, and her corresponding exaggeration of Negro cultural attainments.

I wouldn’t hold my breath, waiting for Brereton to explain her contempt for the Indians. Anti-colonialism can be used as a cover for anti-white racism, but in that case, consistency would require that Brereton and her allies embrace the Indians. I think understanding the anti-Indian racism of Brereton and other black supremacists requires that one tear away the anti-colonialist mask, and see the racist within.

The political reason for Bridget Brereton’s embrace of the Negroes is simple: Negro racism was already institutionally established; Indian racism wasn’t.

The University of the West Indies (UWI; pronounced, “you-we”), in the northern, capital city of Port-of-Spain, has long been a hotbed of black supremacism, where Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) is lionized. In working towards realizing his dream of a worldwide, anti-white holocaust, Garvey was thrown out of one Caribbean country after another, and ultimately deported from America in 1924.

Insisting that he was the father of fascism, “the black Moses” derided Mussolini and Hitler as mere imitators.

When I first read Brereton, I assumed she was black. It turns out that she is white, but is married to a black man. I’ll never understand the pull that black supremacism has for certain white women, who ignore (or embrace?) black supremacists’ oft-stated hatred of them. Brereton’s role as a white black supremacist makes as much sense as would a 1930s’ German Jew seeking to join the Nazi Party (or for that matter, a contemporary Jew supporting “Palestinian” nationalism). But in this case, the party let the “Jew” in!

That different races and ethnicities should hate each other is not extraordinary, but rather the norm throughout human history. The interesting question is why in some societies mutually antagonistic groups manage to co-exist without killing each other.

Substantial portions of the TT populace have long maintained a Victorian restraint that the British often honored in the breach, and long ago gave up. And so, while despising each other, Negro and Indian adults are for the most part able to tolerate each other much more peacefully than do Americans. It also can’t hurt that in Trinidadian culture, the university and its propagandists—Brereton & Co.—still play a relatively minor role.

(And yet, other Trinis have apparently declared war on all restraint. Thus it was that last year, when American hip-hop content-provider DMX (Dark Man X) gave a concert in Port-of-Spain, it ended early with his arrest. It seems Mr. X had started cursing on stage; cursing is an integral part of his “performance.” Public cursing happens to be against the law in TT, a law the concert promoters were well aware of. They provoked a confrontation with custom and law, and lost. For the moment, at least.)

To appreciate the degree to which Indians are still often shut out of TT culture, note that last summer, when a committee convened to choose a TT sports hall of fame, of the 100 sports figures chosen, only one was Indian.

In politics, the Indians have also had to play catch-up, a story I’ll catch up on in my next dispatch.


Raymond Ramcharitar said...

Your interpretation and characterisation of Bridget Brereton and her work are inaccurate and monstrously distorted. You should read her Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad 1870-1900. Prof Brereton is one of the most generous, open-minded, and least prejudiced people I have ever met. But she does not need me to defend her. I urge you to read her books, and do some more research. You have also not been given the whole story on Indian politics.

Nicholas Stix said...

Dear Raymond Ramcharitar,

My characterization of Bridget Brereton's book is accurate; I suggest you try reading it yourself.

I will purchase Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad 1870-1900 some day, if the price goes way down. It is currently selling for $53 new, and $40-70, used, way too much for a 264-page paperback of middling interest.

In any event, the book you recommended would have no bearing on my interpretation of Brereton’s A History of Modern Trinidad 1783-1962, in which she discusses the Indians during the period of indentured servitude (1846-1917). But as soon as indentured servitude was ended, she wrote as if the Indians had all been kidnapped by Martians.

“You have also not been given the whole story on Indian politics.”

The foregoing is as vacuous as both the rest of your criticisms of me, and your praise of Brereton. I gather that she is your friend. That makes you a loyal friend, but a lousy intellectual. No one has ever been given “the whole story on [insert any geographical name] politics.” A political writer does the best with what is at hand.

A skilled, honest writer uses concrete language, not empty bombast.