'Stand Together, ye Damned of the Earth'
By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 06, 2023
Jonathan Smith (not his real name) is one of my dearest friends. Last Sunday, after reading my column, he sent me the following note: "Dr Cudjoe, I can't remember when last you wrote so much unrealistic and unadulterated crap. I never heard your good friend Sat Maharaj or any Hindu leader pleading the case for the poor, dispossessed African community. Why not make the case for the Orisas or the Shouter Baptists or the Rastas? Which society in the world has woven all their cultural and racial/ethnic strands into the perfect tapestry you seem to want to yoke the government with? The US, France, Brazil?"
Jonathan is sincere in his beliefs but I disagree with him on this particular issue. I also disagree with him on matters such as homosexuality, same-sex marriages, or a person using preferred pronouns such as him, her and them. "What is this," he would say, "I ain't calling no hard-back man 'they'!"
But I digress. I want to get back to why I urged that we named someone of the Hindu religion as our president. I believe we must keep in mind what it takes to construct a multicultural and multi-religious society.
You cannot know a person unless you spend time studying his/her Holy Books and what s/he believes in. I have lived among Indians all my life. Kumar Dabooram, a Hindu, was one of my best friends when I attended Tacarigua EC School. We sat side by side in class and shared our meals. Roy Sobers, another schoolmate, and I, protected Kumar when others wanted to harm him.
When my mother died in 2003, my Indian neighbour, Rajo Basdeo, in full Hindu attire, came over to our house and sat silently at the side of my mother's corpse for about three hours. In January when her son-in-law, Roopnarine Ramphal, died, I attended his wake on Saturday night (January 14) and the funeral services on the following Sunday morning.
I believe I was the first Trinidadian to do a full-length study on Naipaul's work: VS Naipaul: A Materialist Reading (1988). It was described as one of the best critical books on Naipaul's oeuvre up until that time. It remains one of my most widely-regarded books. It is held at 1,834 libraries worldwide. I argued that A House for Mr Biswas is nothing more than a retelling of the Ramayana, the legend of Prince Rama, living in the wilderness of Trinidad.
After examining about 18 critical studies written on Naipaul's work then, John Clement Ball, professor of English at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, wrote: "Selwyn Cudjoe's VS Naipaul: A Materialist Reading (1988) does an admirable job of articulating ideological and historical contexts... Scholars looking for a more balanced approach to Naipaul can either read [Timothy] Weiss and [Rod] Nixon together, or, preferably look up Cudjoe's Materialist Reading. Of all the recent studies, Cudjoe's offers the best combination of original readings informed by respect for Naipaul's achievement and a historicised accounting for his limitations."
In 2003, in Beyond Boundaries, I devoted ten pages to the contributions to Trinidad's intellectual culture of Charles Assee and E Bernard Acham. They were distinguished poets of Chinese descent at the end of the 19th century. The Trinidad Reviewer (1900) described Acham, who later changed his name to Eugene Chen, as "the first lawyer of pure Chinese extraction who has ever practised law in any British Colony other than Hong Kong".
Chen, the subject of Walton Look Lai's recent publication, West Meets East, became the right-hand man of Sun Yat-Sen, the first president of China and his foreign minister. In 1921, the US Consul General in Shanghai, called Chen "one of the ablest, if not the most able, of Chinese political writers" (West Meets East).
In 1983, in a lecture, "Cultural policy and social development", that I delivered at Port of Spain's Public Library, I argued that T&T should develop a national cultural policy. I also bemoaned the absence of a well-developed and articulated political ideology to achieve this objective.
I asked, if we want to create a more homogeneous society, "Do we begin by teaching all our students the Hindu language, do we make the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita mandatory at all schools; do we make John Mbiti's African Religions and Philosophy and Janheinz Jahn's Muntu: African Culture and the Western World mandatory for all our children? It is only by possessing full knowledge of one another's culture that we can begin to aspire towards a truly homogeneous Trinbagonian culture. The same would be true to some degree for the culture of the Chinese and other groups." (See "Multiculturalism and Its Challenges in T&T," trinicenter.com, March 9, 2011.)
I have been pushing the gospel of inclusion for a long time. At the same time I maintain that we cannot lose sight of the plight of black people in this country. I do not see these two objectives as being contradictory. Even though the central thrust of the Haitian Revolution was about the liberation of black people, "It was the first time that the emancipatory logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was seen through to its revolutionary conclusion" (Kenan Malik, "Pandaemonium: clr james, frantz fanon and the meaning of liberation"). Needless to say, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was first articulated in France in 1789.
We either stand together or perish collectively bashing one another needlessly. We cannot do this continuously. It may be difficult to weave our cultural and ethnic strands into a unified whole even as we respect the unique gifts that each group brings to the national table. However, we owe it to ourselves to give it a try.
—Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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