Being Black Black in T&T
The first time I became aware of colourism was as a child and being on the receiving end of an insult that began with “yuh so black that…” It could have either been in primary school or in my neighborhood trading picong with a friend. At that point, it wasn’t confusing because it reminded me of the story that my mother told me about when I was born, a story that she repeated for over 40 years and without exception, most recently on my forty-fourth birthday.
“When yuh older brother was born everybody wanted to see de little chinee baby”.
From my mother’s account, his skin was fair and she was showered with compliments and gifts for producing this beautiful brown baby boy. But when I was born the reaction to seeing me was “wayyy, he black boy”.
I could only imagine now that the people saying this were either expressing a repulsion to black skin or condolences in advance knowing that as a black, black boy, having to grow up in post-colonial Trinidad & Tobago, things would be different for me. In a sense, I am grateful for those people who said those things to my mother because it made her cherish me even more and this world would be a much more cruel place without the shield of a parent’s love.
I can safely say that for the first twelve years of my life I didn’t want to be black and I didn’t want to be Baidawi. I wanted to be brown and would have much preferred to be a Kevin, Sean, Nigel, Anthony, or something more common so I could fit in.
I hated being different but it was a truth about myself that I never spoke about until one day I unwittingly exposed myself to my English teacher in what would be the most embarrassing moment of my life but simultaneously one of the most defining moments.
Miss Morton-Gittens would often have these exercises in class where she would ask us to describe scenarios. On this particular day she asked the class to describe the person of their dreams. I remember being called upon to participate and I started describing the girl of my dreams, she had fair skin and long hair and… Miss stopped me in my tracks and said “Baidawi I am going to tell you something… never be ashamed of who you are”.
In that moment Miss Morton-Gittens had seen right through my description of the person of my dreams as a projection of my own thoughts of inadequacy. She reached beyond my words and in front of the entire class, which to me at that point felt like the entire world, stripped me of all my armor and exposed something about me that I never wanted to share with anyone. This devastation was what I needed because it forced me to rebuild an image of myself starting with those words “never be ashamed of who you are”.
Another milestone on my journey to self-discovery came a few years later while watching a football game on TV. My father came into the room and asked who was winning and I said “the negro team” and my father replied “the what?” so I repeated “the negro team”. He then asked “what is a negro, what country negro people come from?”. That was the end of the conversation but the start of my new education in learning the importance of saying “African”.
The importance of saying African.
The exploration of my African-ness has taken me beyond the boundaries of the definition of being black in the Caribbean and Western civilization. I learned the origins of the words used to describe us from negro to nigger. I continue to have an uncomfortable relationship with nigga because I have an understanding of the dehumanization and genocide that the phrase is built upon and I have a profound lack of desire to perpetuate the trauma of my ancestors by using that word. But, I also appreciate that my experience is different from that of a black person in America and if they want to reclaim the word and breathe new energy into it, they have every right to do so.
In Trinidad & Tobago however, we are still very much under the influence of colonialism and white supremacy. It’s been many years since I’ve heard a “you so black…” joke, but I am not naive to believe that the thinking no longer exists. A joke so steeped in self hate could only have been cultivated in a society and a system based upon white supremacy. People who have not done any research or spent any time thinking about the topic think that white supremacy is only hooded white men on horses with nooses and burning crosses.
White supremacy is the reason you prefer lighter skin women/men for romantic partners. White supremacy is the reason why your parents told you don’t go out in the sun you will spoil your good skin. White supremacy is the reason why the phrase “late for school hair” exists. White supremacy is the reason why when you think of God, you see a white face. White supremacy is the reason why you think marrying a white man/woman is advancing your social mobility. White supremacy is the reason why you think Orisha and Shango is devil ting.
Our colonial past is built upon the idea that whiteness is superior and we (Africans) are nothing. We were not indentured, we did not have contracts, we were not promised lands, we came here as property, as beasts of burden. These people did not see us as human, they saw us as sub-human at best. They tried to strip us of everything that connected us as a people then forced their culture and their hatred of us unto us. These truths are why I have no tolerance for the idea that we need to preserve our colonial past and why I believe it is important for us to reconnect with our place of origin.
People argue that “Africa is not a country, it is a continent and we don’t even know what tribe we come from” and that argument is exactly the point. Without a point of reference or a cultural cohesiveness that ties us to an ancestry where we were a people of inventors, philosophers, and artists we will continue to lack a viable strategy to dismantling racial prejudice and inequality.
My father once told me “Baidawi if you study these people history they will have you believe the history of the African began with slavery”.
We commemorate our trauma every year when we celebrate emancipation and independence. It is a reminder that the reason we are here is because we were brought here and this is the only mainstream narrative for African people. We have nothing else mainstream that ties us to our rich culture and heritage on an ongoing basis. The majority of our families bear the names of our previous owners. We subscribe to the religion of our previous owners. We have no radio stations or TV channels that celebrate our music, art, and fashion. We do not have a business community that is heavily invested in promoting our culture within our community. The African community is a fringe movement looked upon by the sophisticated blacks as a radical movement. In other words, we have largely become the stalwarts of colonialism. There is no post-colonial period, we are still in it.
People who claim they are Trinidadian as a response to drawing ethnic lines, do so from an either uninformed or disingenuous place. Trinidadian is not an ethnicity, it is a nationality and asking people of African descent to accept Trinidadian as their ethnicity is to ask them to accept rape, murder and subjugation as their defining attributes. It is either completely ignorant, deeply dishonest and repulsive, or worse, both.
The myth of individualism.
For a people who largely have a problem with the rewriting of history, individualists love to rewrite their own history. Many black people who have risen to positions of economic or political power believe they have done so by pulling up their own socks, tying their own shoe laces and grasping every golden opportunity our fair and unbiased system has granted them. They see their success as a testament and lay it as an offering to the monument of establishment and look back on the less fortunate with disdain. People like this fail to acknowledge that the mere possibility of their success came at the expense of the blood of past rabble rousers. They look down their noses at present troublemakers and wag their fingers.
Egotism explains the mythology of individualism. The well off, upper middle class professional is easily seduced by the idea of being self made. After all, it could only be by their sheer brilliance and determination that they could overcome insurmountable odds and the reason why others cannot achieve the same is because they are obviously too lazy or too unintelligent to do so.
In our society we can accept that a child who has been physically, emotionally and sexually abused may never fully overcome that trauma. At the same time it is unfathomable that after centuries of abuse that we can still be experiencing great trauma. These people lack any understanding of psychiatry and may very well be the same people who repeat things like “my parents beat me and I turned out ok” as a defense for corporal punishment.
These self-proclaimed critical thinkers apply critical thinking to everything except themselves, but any thinker dedicated to applying that rigorous process to their thoughts and ideas knows that the first place of scrutiny is oneself. If you have not applied critical thinking to examine yourself, the impact of your life experiences and your biases, you are not a critical thinker. You are simply just critical.
A walking contradiction.
At a glance and on the surface I am just a black man to many but the truth is my family is mixed we share ancestry with the indigenous people, Chinese, Indian and African. I could be one of those people who claim multi-ethnicity as a celebration of our diversity and a misguided case against Africanism; but I will never do so. For me, the most important component of my journey to self discovery is honesty and I cannot in honesty deny the pain and trauma of black people in the Caribbean and around the world. It will continue to inform and guide me through life and shape who I want to be.
I am also acutely aware that my life was set on a course by the stories I received at a young age and my current way of thinking is molded in the image of my experiences. This will remain a universal truth for the individual as well as the collective and is the reason why we have to tell ourselves better, or, more complete stories.
In the words of Ramona Edelin “we need a cultural offensive… All groups move forward by the strength of their culture” and as people of African descent we need to redefine our culture and identity with a focus on our positive contributions to the world before the trans Atlantic slave trade.
Originally posted on Medium.com