Books on race in Guyana
Arts On Sunday
November 16, 2003
[Kampta Karran, Race and Ethnicity in Guyana - Introductory Readings, Georgetown, Offerings, 2000, 270 pages]
In one of his interventions during the current debate over Kean Gibson's publication on the subject of race in Guyana, Kampta Karran reminds readers that there are two other books on the same subject published recently. He offers a subtle complaint that despite their importance, they have been ignored, forgotten and left to languish at the bottom of a sea of neglect while all the attention is focused on Gibson riding a high tide of controversy. Karran was referring to Race and Ethnicity in Guyana - Introductory Readings (Georgetown : Offerings, 2000) edited by himself, and Contributions Towards the Resolution of Conflict in Guyana (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2002) by Judaman Seecoomar.
Gibson's The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana (NY : 2003) attracted immediate interest in Guyana the moment it was released because of the outrageous nature of its claims and serious doubts about the validity of those claims, the quality of research and the publication's capacity to incite divisions. It attracted attention as well because it does arise out of a situation that has developed from the issues of race and politics in Guyana over the past six years.
But in 2000, Karran released Race and Ethnicity in Guyana, published by Offerings, an outlet which he founded in the 1980s and through which he has published several issues on literature and cultural matters. He calls this book the Millennium Issue of Offerings and through the many articles collected in it under his editorship, addresses those very issues that have plagued Guyana for several years, in particular since 1997. Karran's is a more substantial but quieter document than Gibson's; it covers some of the same issues but, unlike Gibson's, passed almost without notice.
One reason for this is the timing. It came out after the political upheavals of 1997 and 1998, but before the even more alarming developments of 2002. The alarm bells disturbed by the criminal violence which exploded in that year rang much louder and were all the more frightening because of the convenient alliance between a level of violent crime previously unseen in the nation, and race politics, which criminals found very convenient. Gibson's book came after that.
While not prompted by those events, which escalated following the elections in December, 1979, Karran's contributors treat many of the relevant issues. Seecoomar, for example, contributed Strategies for Resolving Protracted Communal Conflict, a chapter from the book he later published. Starting from the politically motivated disturbances in Georgetown, which lost no time in acquiring racial characteristics, he goes on to propose 32 "Rules" of procedure in attempting conflict resolution.
However, the vast majority of contributions attempt a much wider and general sweep of issues and developments that are not bound by dates or try to cover the developments of the past fifteen years or earlier. The book includes a number of topics that have been repeatedly aired many times before. The subjects are therefore not new, but the advantage of the publication is that it at least documents the several approaches, opinions, analyses and discussions about the long-standing issues. These are varied and wide-ranging both in subject and quality.
Because the collection is made up of such sustained discussion of long-standing topics, therefore, its publication provoked no fireworks, sensation or controversy. Neither was that the first appearance of the articles since Karran had published most of them before as an issue of Offerings, printed and distributed on a more modest scale, but nevertheless publicly released. In addition to that, some of them had already appeared elsewhere as parts of books already published and known, such as The Portuguese in Guyana, a chapter from Prof Mary Noel Menezes' book on the same subject. Others were previously published papers or conference presentations such as CY Thomas's Revisiting Theories of Race and Class in the Caribbean.
However, many of them are not academic research papers. These include invited comments and the texts of oral presentations made at a seminar organized by Kampta Karran while he worked with the Ethnic Relations Commission in Guyana. The volume, therefore, draws together many disparate elements, which must have been difficult to organize. There are 32 papers grouped in 6 sections over 270 pages. It is obvious that few of them were prepared as a part of a single publication and while this kind of collection of essays is common practice, in this case, it leaves the book lacking in focus. It is a pot-pourri of almost everything and anything on race that the editor could get his hands on. This impedes easy reading of the work as an organised collection.
Despite the range and variety, Race and Ethnicity in Guyana is not a cohesive, comprehensive study of the subject. There is little real unity of theme within some of the groups. This may be discerned in the sections titled Race and Ethnicity, and to go further, there is little thematic difference of any import between the articles of the two groups. It is not enough that all the essays in one section include the word 'race' in their titles while all those in the second include the word 'ethnic.'
This level of superficiality continues within the groups because not all the articles in a section were meant to address the theme of that section. It turns out that most contributions in the section named Ethnicity were really talks given at a seminar on 'Ethnicity and Enterprise.' The appended Select Bibliography by Macuro Kurosaki is fairly arbitrary with no apparent understanding governing the titles included or the several relevant ones left out.
Yet these 'Introductory Readings' are good to have. It remains an achievement for Karran to have assembled the work of a number of very well known and respected scholars addressing crucial problems that have been a part of Guyana's recent history, issues that have their roots in the country's more ancient history as a colony. The Offerings series of publications have been in existence for at least 15 years. It produced a significant collection of Guyanese Indian poetry (circa 1990). This book, Race and Ethnicity in Guyana - Introductory Readings, is its most ambitious and most important achievement.
(Kampta Karran's book is available at bookstores around Georgetown. A review of Kean Gibson's Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana will follow in a subsequent issue.)
Books on race in Guyana - Part 2 Kean Gibson's The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana
One of the most objectionable problems with race politics in Guyana is that one has to be prepared to support, condone and defend any atrocity performed by members of one's own ethnic constituency, and feel duty bound to do it. To avoid being considered a traitor, one cannot criticize any piece of nonsense executed in the name of the group. It is race politics that caused an amazingly large number of misguided Black Guyanese to look at the recent upsurge in violent and organized crime as a part of some 'armed black resistance.' The situation created by ethnic politics was well exploited. It was too easy to convince too many that harbouring criminals and joining criminal gangs were strategies in 'the Buxton resistance' against marginalization. Those were some of the most recent symptoms of an unhealthy situation in Guyana. Kean Gibson's The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana (Lanham : University Press of America, 2003. 97p.) is another.
Such problems arising from damaged race relations have been topical in the country for many years. They have escalated to critical proportions and the appearance of publications on the subject is not surprising, but rather, expected. Kampta Karran's direct involvement with the race relations commission prompted him to edit his self-published collection of articles and interventions of varying types and quality. Race and Ethnicity in Guyana (2000) treats the continuing issues in a very general way, while Judaman Seecoomar res-ponded to the more pressing problems that escalated in 1997 and 1998. his contribution towards conflict resolution, published by Peepal Tree Press, addressed the violent confrontations that were just barely contained after January 12, 1998.
Books like these have a role. Readers look to them for studied analyses of the issues, reliable documentation of events and developments, and even guidance so that there might be insights leading to understanding of the difficulties and, hopefully, ways of dealing with, or resolving them.
We have to consider Gibson's contribution in the context of the circumstances that produced it, its usefulness, and its role in the search for understanding and solutions.
Gibson sets out to "characterize racism in the past and the present," sketching out the history from pre-Columbian times through slavery, the post-Emanci-pation period, the 1950s, pre-Independence PPP rule, the PNC era, and the present PPP/C government, showing how each had its brand of racism. In so doing, her aim is to trace a historical cycle of racial oppression in Guyana and to establish that it is particularly in evidence today under the PPP/C.
She asserts that there is a close similarity between the "pernicious" brand of European racism and East Indian racism. Fundamental to Gibson's argument is the claim that East Indian racism "lies in culture;" Indians are taught to be racist by the caste system practised in Hinduism.
The PPP government is driven by "Hindu ideology" and "armed with a divine sanctioned color- coded racist ideology." They, like the Nazis, believe that they are a superior race and therefore have a right to rule and dominate Africans, who are the inferior caste. Just as the Nazis slaughtered the Jews, they are carrying out a plan to "kill" and "decimate" Africans, with a view to wiping them out altogether; there is an "onslaught against Africans, that is, the attempt to turn them into slaves."
"Africans are aware that attempts are being made to enslave them" by the Indian government. These are just some of the several strong claims advanced by Gibson.
Throughout the book, a wide range of charges is levelled against East Indians, the government, public officials and other individuals. Because of the very serious nature of the accusations, one expects a responsible writer to provide documentation, reliable sources and hard evidence to support the claims. In a true work of scholarship, one expects good analysis of data gathered from thorough investigation. But all of these are lacking in Gibson's account, which does not reflect proper research or much scholarship.
Lengthy and complex debates await anyone wishing to challenge her theories about Hinduism, the Nazis, East Indian behaviour and Guyanese politics, but one does not have to go that far to note the many inaccuracies and questionable interpretations that characterize the account. The following set the tone for the entire work.
Gibson provides an account of the launching of GIFT (the Guyana Indian Foundation Trust) in which she accuses the Foundation of soliciting "questionable and unverified claims of assaults on Indians during the riots of January 12, 1998." A reading of GIFT's data will show that Gibson is correct; many of the testimonies are indeed unverified and therefore questionable, but the same can be said of the entirety of Gibson's claims in this book.
For example, she states that the Prime Minister was "the only African present" at the launch. I happen to know that that is inaccurate because I was there.
The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana's argument that the PPP government is driven by Hindu ideology runs into a problem. The party and its major players have been dominated throughout its history, not by Hinduism, but by Marxism. President Jagdeo was not sworn into office on the Gita, but by affirmation; Hindus are a distinct minority in the Cabinet and the party leadership, although they might be strong among the supporters. In her account of the 1950s and the split in the original PPP, Gibson relies on a single source, viz, Guyana: Democracy Betrayed by Jainaraine Singh, who supported Forbes Burnham against Cheddi Jagan. Singh was an interested party in 1955 and by no means impartial.
His book is not history, it is personal memoirs of a partisan nature, and dependence on it alone leaves the research one-sided, insufficient and scanty. No attempt is made to reflect any other witness.
This type of deficiency in research is an over-riding characteristic of the book. Even putting aside the many logical leaps in the analogies among Hindu dogma, the Third Reich and Guyanese politics, the work collapses around the paucity of its research.
Too many conclusions and hasty generalizations about large, important issues are based on data that is much too limited. There is no attempt to exhaust or even explore the literature; instead there is the use of single sources, as well as sources which are unreliable, biased and dubious.
The following are some examples of sources used: writers of letters to the editors of newspapers, whom Gibson cites as authorities on issues and sources of information; callers on TV talk shows, particularly Channels 9 and 6; Channel 28; Kaieteur News, the New Nation; known political activists and comments from partial individuals, and a letter written to a newspaper by the author, herself.
The citations are littered with entries such as "an accusation was made"; "my father was told"; "an African acquaintance told me"; "an Amerindian caller on a TV talk show"; "reported on At Home with Roger"; "interview on Voice of the People, Ch. 6"; "broadcast on Evening News"; "many Guyanese feel"; "some African Guyanese say". No attempt is made to verify claims and personal opinions presented as factual by Gibson. There are also lengthy passages of assertions and rumours.
All these help to make The Cycle a very dangerous document, because it misleads. At one point Gibson writes: "some Africans are now wishing the authoritarian rule of the African-dominated political party had continued and thus completely shut out the possibility of the majority East Indians ever achieving power." The statement suggests that nothing is wrong with racial oppression if the right side is practising it. Gibson does not discourage the attitude or show that it is not a solution, but rather puts it up as a justifiable wish.
It occasionally quotes from Eusi Kwayana's No Guilty Race to support its identification of a guilty race, ironically ignoring the fact that Kwayana is making the opposite point. Gibson also makes the twin error of identifying a pure race. Although she occasionally says Blacks are also capable of racism, it is invariably followed by an explanation and a justification for the act.
Make no mistake about it, however, this book signals that there is a real problem in Guyana where racial perceptions are concerned, because, if nothing else, it does reflect a situation that is real. The government is best advised to take serious note. This is not a book to be simply dismissed because of its flaws.
In her conclusion, Gibson points out that perhaps "power sharing is a way out of the impasse" but it "is not a view that is taken by the PPP nor the present PNC directorate."
Because of this double rejection of a fairly reasonable solution, "the struggle in Guyana will be prolonged and destructive, and Guyana's underdevelopment will continue." This is a rare moment in the book when Gibson offers a constructive criticism and a way forward.
But coming after 77 pages of an extreme, one-sided denunciation, it does not rescue the work. The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana remains a work that is not a part of any solution, but rather contributes to racial divisions in Guyana. It is not only a symptom of the problem; it is a part of it.