The Elephant in the Room


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Category: Trinidad Society 30 Mar 14


A strange thing happened to me recently. Twice. Each time I was out lunching with a close friend considered “white” (which is a sloppy way to describe entire continents of people with varied historical, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, features and skin tones, but we like to keep it simple here).

At the end of the meal the waitress on one occasion and the waiter on the other brought the bill and squarely placed it in front of my “white” friend. Both times, as it was my treat, I slid the bill over my side to pay. It’s happened before (not in quick succession like this) but I dismissed it. I scrub up decent enough to pay for a meal at an upscale restaurant. That was an atavistic response from within the bowels of our people. Duskyskinned people don’t pay. We prey upon ourselves.

I thought of all the surly waiters and salespeople I have come across over the years who look deeply offended if you ask them to serve chicken at KFC, coffee in a coffee shop, or show shoes in a shoe shop. I was under the impression that it was an inherent pride of the people who felt that service was beneath them. The Asians could bow, even the Europeans could scrape with their oldworld oppressive class structures, but not the Trinis. We are a proud mix-up people.

So let’s get back to the inverse of service, servitude. It appeared on each occasion there was servitude towards colour. We mistake resentment for independence and with our passive aggressive lethargy make ourselves slaves to those we believe are really in charge. Since we are all “coloured” (black to the world) we actually really believe either America or some other white country is in charge of us. We refuse to be like the St Lucians and the Bajans. But here we are, after half a century of independence, doing THIS? Deferring to a person’s skin colour and all that it implied under colonial rule? Submission, awe, inferiority, assumptions that they are wealthy, the benefactor?

We don’t often speak of the elephant in the room. Race. We draw on it during elections, but refer to “it” with a canny subtlety, sly references, in watertight concentric circles. Being transplanted away from the atavistic tribalism common in the old world which we sailed away from, away from in deeprooted histories, in turbulent journeys we are thankfully tolerant (even outwardly gushing) about our callaloo mix. That’s about the only thing we got right. By default. Forgetting to kill over tribalism. But we kill over everything else. We have among the highest rates of murder in a non-warring country. Already over 110 and it’s not April yet. We kill if someone objects to a bad drive, or loud music. We rape to destroy, we saw off limbs of our victims while they are alive.

Our illiteracy rate is shocking— over 400,000 of us are functionally illiterate. It’s great we have developed a dialect but we also have a people who can’t communicate with the world in standard English, who can’t write and (mostly) don’t read. I would love to do a pop quiz on books with some Cabinet ministers or leaders in public life. If there is little civility at the top, what hope is there for everyone else? We are soaring in the corruption index. From Toco to Manzanilla we have a forgotten people. In some pockets we have a people addicted to alcohol, where incest is the norm. In others, guns.

Someone working in St Ann’s said that up to 60 per cent of us are suffering from depression. So who the hell are we? We are attacking one another while deferring to the ghost of a colonial massa. We are all victims of ourselves. I remembered something the playwright Tony Hall said when I was interviewing him about his play on Gene Miles. We were speaking of the character of this white woman who was brutalised, raped, shoved in the “madhouse” for speaking out against corruption; that she was the victim of a non-country. Tony remembered as a child the euphoria of the promise of independence.

A disembodied promise which crumbled because we never took charge. “Nobody is in charge. We live in a working anarchy. It’s a field day for anarchists. Nobody has been in charge since the 18th century, since the Spanish, British and French squabbled over us. Why didn’t we name our city? What part of Spain is this Port-of-Spain?” How can a slave, an indentured labourer decide this place is paradise unless he owns it? We are constantly living someone else’s dream. He was right, of course. We began attacking one another, calling one another names, coolie, black, Chinee, instead of attacking illiteracy, poverty, brutality, while looking like beatific idiots in thrall with SUVs who entourage “gangsta” style at a terrible twisted smiling face of the ghost of planters saying: “You see, we knew you labourers couldn’t do it. Look at the mess you made.

“Check, please. Yeah, give it to the people who looked like us.”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur