Anti-racism in Guyana
Ravi Dev Column
December 10, 2006
One of the truisms of life in general - and of life in a conflict-ridden society in particular – is that disputants very seldom really listen to each other: as the one speaks, the other is simply consumed with formulating his next verbal salvo. In Thursday's Kaieteur, Mr. Alister Wilson complimented my last week's column, “Race and Racism”, wherein I had supported the notion of an “African Renaissance” but noted that, “just a few years ago, Mr. Dev was one of the most valiant anti-African activists Guyana had ever seen…” In truth, I have been saying the same things contained in the article ever since I returned to Guyana in the late eighties, and have been repeating them at every opportunity since.
Facing a similar charge to Mr. Wilson's in 2003, I noted then that a decade before in 1993 I had written: “Race and racism, as we know them today, are very modern constructs arising out of a European 18th century discourse that ran parallel with the European conquest of the rest of the world and especially with the justification of African slavery. Notable names such as Hume, Kant and Hegel were involved in the project, which gave a social significance to physical markers. This is illustrated in Hume's position that, "negroes…are naturally inferior to the whites", and Kant's view, summarised by his comment, "this fellow was quite black …a clear proof that what he said was stupid." My contention is that "race and racism" are part and parcel of the "Western Enlightenment," exported as one weapon in the European arsenal of imperialistic conquest. The conquered accepted their inferior position in this hegemony once they accepted that by nature they were inferior through immutable characteristics, such as skin colour.”
In fighting this racism, I went on in 1993 to point out, a la Gramsci, that “there is a reservoir of power in civil society that is exercised through “hegemony” that the dominant group within civil society establishes over the minds of the populace. We may define hegemony as the moral and philosophical leadership, which a group seeks to establish in a society, through the active consent of the major groups in the society. These moral and philosophical ideas control people's perceptions and consequently, their activities. These ideas, in a nutshell, form the basis of the popular culture, which the populace further accepts as "common sense". These ideas and values are disseminated by religious groups, the schools, the political groups, the cultural activists, the law and the media and all of the other socialism mechanisms of the society.”
“The European colonists worked hard at convincing the poor souls snatched from across the globe and dumped into their sugar plantations that their culture was the only civilised one. It was this kind of 'knowledge' which was disseminated during slavery and indentureship, albeit now in a more subtle form, which will perpetuate the myth that all light and wisdom came from the West. Darkness envelopes everywhere else.”
I then went on to propose a plan of action that went beyond the narrow conception of politics that our present Liberal-based paradigm insists on.
What is to be done
Firstly, we all have to concede that human consciousness is both constituted and constitutive, without getting in polemics over the exact proportions. There is no question that our environment helps to shape our consciousness … and economic structures are an important part of that environment. But there are many other condensation structures such as sex, ethnic origin, race, etc, which are just as important. Consciousness also becomes, in a sense, part of our environment - the self has the capacity to reflect on itself, initiate thoughts and make changes. We are not simply mechanistic, reflexive automatons. If we have this basic agreement, then I would suggest that we can, and must, respond with a counter-hegemony, which will liberate us from the debilitations of the present dominant paradigm of Creole culture. Without this change in consciousness, our paradigm becomes a Sisyphean fable…against which we struggle heroically but ultimately futilely.
Secondly, this counter-hegemony must be actively constructed by all of us, and must address the many contradictions inherent in our society. Our problematic must begin by addressing the most pressing level of the hegemonic articulation - race. New political cultures and economic cultures will have to be developed.
Thirdly, in the construction of the hegemony the role of the intellectual is crucial. The role of the intellectual, organically grounded with hegemonies, populace has to be broadened and deepened, away from the positivistic, Mandarin notions fostered by the hegemony. 'Value free' intellectual inquiry is an oxymoron. The intellectual, in taking a "side" once he is open about it, is not thereby debarred from being taken seriously. In this regard, Dr. Walter Rodney had some advice for 'the black educated man in the West Indies .' He proposed: 'How do we break out of this Babylonian captivity?…I suggest first that the intellectual, the academic, within his own discipline, has to attack those distortions which white imperialism, white cultural imperialism, has produced in all branches of scholarship.' And I may add, which their successors push, consciously or unconsciously, through their control of the media and other cultural institutions.
Fourthly, intellectual leadership has to live truth, not simply only “know” truth. Intellectual leadership must also be moral leadership. We have to reject the idealisation of the intellectual as only a man of words. For too long we in the Caribbean have been seduced by such a faith in men of words. Truth does not lie in the arrangements of words or sentences, but in the actions of men. Praxis is the only truth.
Fifthly, due to the nature of our society and our history, especially on account of the dual cultures practiced by our two major groups, any counter-hegemony will have to be pluralistic at this stage. Organic intellectuals, working within each group, will have to form lines of co-operation and communication while the crises of confidence, the sense of low group self-esteem and equitable power sharing mechanisms are worked out within each section.”
Even within the strictures of what is expected of the Guyanese political party, ROAR has attempted, in its quotidian practices, to be true to this wider vision. The executives of ROAR are encouraged to be serious about their religions, to take an interest in the cultural practices of their communities and be exemplars of what they preach in their communities. ROAR took the unheard of position for a political party in Guyana - to prohibit alcohol at all their official programmes, to begin those programmes with prayers, etc.
Our central tenet, repeated ad nauseum in our programmes, is that values can only be transmitted in action. Isn't it sad that much of this has been drowned out because in January 1998, we condemned those who would beat their fellow citizens like dogs in the streets of Georgetown ? Condemned by those on both sides of the divide.”
Yes, all of the above, and written in 1993 and repeated in 2003, with countless reiterations before and since. To predominantly African audiences (with the attendance of most of the African leadership) in 2004 at the Square of the Revolution, and again in 2005 at the funeral of Ronald Waddell, I called for African leadership to not ignore the specific problems of African Guyanese that plague them because of the trauma of slavery and its aftermath. Yes, I am pleased that African leaders are calling for an African Renaissance – echoing the earlier call made by Mr. Eusi Kwayana and ASCRIA that had unfortunately petered out. Any effort that makes any one of our several peoples in Guyana see themselves (and become) more positive will give them less reason to belittle others and so make us all more positive. We have been attempting to do this within the Indian community. Let all our groups have their Renaissances.