- Published 18 August 2016
“But Trini have a funny funny way of forgetting
Their history to them like it doh mean nothin’.
The history that went down here in 1970s
As though it never was today in this century
I don’t care how they try to tarnish these historic memories
I will always remember the Roaring 70s.”
– Brother Valentino, The Roaring 70s
“Ah man tell me I marched because I hate white people! I never marched because I was black: I marched because I saw people hungry!”
– Makandal Daaga
Born Geddes Granger, 1935, in Laventille, Trinidad and Tobago. Granger, whose race consciousness and sense of historical duty inspired a generation of revolutionaries, changed his name to Makandal Daaga at this height of his popular political power and leadership. Makandal Daaga and the National Joint Action Committee, NJAC, accompanied by militant bodies within the trade union movement, were largely responsible for the political mobilization and radicalization of students and Black youth between 1968 and 1970. The Black Power Revolution drew its inspiration from Pan-Africanist ideologies and struggle, the Black Power Movement in the United States of America, May 1968 protests in France, some Marxist trends and a new nationalism that challenged Euro-American imperialism. But the movement was nearer to the Indigenous struggle of the 20th century Caribbean; the labor movement of the 1930s which laid the ground for the independence movements of the 1950s, which in turn set the stage for the 1970s.
On Aug. 8, 2016 Makandal Daaga died. There were some letters to the editor and column pieces by the usual commentators on the significance of his life but the overwhelming silence on his death was striking. Yet, not surprising. The majority of youth, today, do not know who Makandal Daaga was; the Black Power Revolution was and is not systematically taught in schools; as with any social change movements, the country has divided opinions on the matter still (because 46 years are short in the life of a society); and last, his entry into government as part of a coalition with the Kamla Persad Bissessar-led People’s Partnership in 2010, introduced him to a new political constituency of Indo-Trinidadians, but in a large way, disenfranchised him from a wide section of the Afro-Trinidad and Tobago population, who in some quarters saw him as a “race traitor” bluntly described in, calypsonian, Cro Cro’s Compare and Contrast (2011) as a “prostitute of Black Power” and a “lick buttom African.” It was as if the “March to Caroni” objectives were as relevant today as they were then.
The Black Power revolutionaries challenged the ruling government to fulfill their political promises of independence in the currency of a transformed social and economic landscape. Rather early, almost a decade after independence, the post-colonial state structure was called into question. Today, struggles in South Africa of youth challenging the corruption, hegemony and economic management of the African National Congress, ANC, evoke similar narratives.
Brian Meeks described the Black Power Revolution of 1970 as an “aborted revolution.” For Meeks, drawing on classical Marxist definitions of revolution, he evaluates the Black Power Revolution against the movement’s ability to wrench state power from the hands of the ruling class. The NJAC failed to do so. At the same time, he argues that a revolution can occur even if it never achieved dismantling the dominant political regime; for all that, it was still an incomplete revolution.
During the 1970s there were multiple political trends on the Left and progressive fronts. NJAC, while consistently challenged for their conceptions of race and class, had more success with communicating their theoretical positions on anti-imperialism in Trinidad and Tobago. The growing public pressure against foreign owned companies that determined the major sectors in the economy forced the government’s hand to expand the public shareholding of industries.
Baishanlin Following was a wide nationalization of the extractive industries and financial sector. Government cooperatives were set up in response to the calls for greater participation and “dignity for the black man.” By the 1970s, the state in Trinidad and Tobago had the largest holding of property, after Cuba. However, the cooperatives ultimately failed; the state was not seriously invested in its sustainability nor the mobilization of people to such institutions for the purpose of transforming the economy. On one hand, a concession was a concession, just that. On the other hand, the oil boom soon followed and expanded the political patronage of the state to quell popular discontent.
By that time, the shake up to the social order as an outcome of the social revolution of Black Power moved a significant number of ordinary Afro (and Indo) citizens into the upper echelons of society. In more ways than one, there is merit in the statement “NJAC was a ‘midwife’ to the new society” (Ryan 1995). The “revolutionary” sentiments and proposals of the growing discontent of the urban working class, unemployed and students who formed the based struggle in 1970 were eventually coopted by the state, the ruling PNM, to usher in a period of reformism. The break that Daaga, NJAC and other leaders wanted from the ruling party ultimately was not achieved. But the revolution achieved breaking the perception that the ruling political party was untouchable and unaccountable to ordinary people.
On seeing the headline of the news of Daaga’s death, I closed my laptop immediately. Sat quietly. Began reflecting on his life. I begged myself to think that his revolution was not in vain. The social attitudes of the society and the bureaucracy have significantly changed since 1970 but people power and participation is far less active than in the past.
In 2011, I had the opportunity to meet the Chief Servant Makandal Daaga at Duke Street, Port-of-Spain. In the crumbling NJAC building, upstairs, I waited for him as anyone would wait for a high government official, until I was summoned by one of his staff. Daaga was a frail old man, with sharp mind, but his energy was not as radiant as the regal colors of the dashiki he wore. We spoke about the Caribbean Court of Justice and the conditions of the poor in East Port-of-Spain. I told him that he helped birth an entire generation of children who were given African names. I thanked him for his contribution on behalf of young people; even though I knew my generation would walk pass him in the street with little to no recognition. I wanted to honor him for his struggle, not just show him my respect for what he had done but also show him respect for the man he was. I left Port-of-Spain that morning unimpressed. The man, who commanded the crowd with his fist in the air, stammered and spoke slowly. The closest he came to a “power fist” was when his hand clenched the handle of his teacup.
Five years later, I know that it was my interpreting eyes and not my vision that was off. Few have the fortune of Fidel to age with their revolution. I had never seen a revolutionary at 40, 60, 70 and 80 without his/her revolution. In my vision of the Che, the Bob Marley and the Maurice Bishop, they were all young and beautiful and died that way. I sometimes wonder if Christianity would have succeeded had they not market their own young and beautiful martyr, Jesus Christ. What is beautiful about old age when so much that you have struggled for has produced very little today and is forgotten by so many? How do you make peace with your youth of large crowds to walks on the pavement with little recognition? What happens to revolutions that do not grab hold of the state or even mythical power? How do revolutionaries wake up every morning to no revolution, make tea, talk to their husband or wife, make groceries and travel the corridors of powerlessness? Many are afraid to die but some people fear that their dreams die first. Makandal Daaga saw his revolution die. And he saw his people march on through history as if nothing was ever there.
The UWI Socialist Student Conference and the UWI Afrikan Society hosted a small gathering in remembrance of Makandal Daaga and his radical vision for Trinidad and Tobago. The majority of the youth who attended said that they did not know who him but wanted to learn more about his life. Their humility must count for something. When we are denied our history and our liberators are forgotten, remembering becomes a revolutionary act.
Amílcar Sanatan, interdisciplinary artist and writer, is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies and coordinator of the UWI Socialist Student Conference at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. Follow him on Twitter: @amilcarsanatan