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Africa Speaks

'Disturbances' of the 1970s

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By Leslie
Posted: June 13, 2004

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Another challenge to the white and near-white authorities was the reclamation of African identity, which was beaten out of enslaved African forefathers. African names were replaced with European ones, African religions went underground in order to survive, African dress was replaced by European and American wear, and African kinky hair was either pressed out with an iron comb or straightened out by chemical processes. Black Power was a call for Black pride among Africans - a call to abandon white cultural and aesthetic standards in favor of ones fitting to Black Africans. Black Power activism involved the recovery of African self-respect and love for African cultural uniqueness.

During this time, the Afro hairstyle became a popular symbol of Black pride. Thus, the revolutionary attire of the radicals challenged the white, conservative dress code. As Rosemary Stone pointed out in Express articles in February and March 1970, vests with flared pants, homemade jewelry, sandals, military bush jackets, berets, tie-dye jerseys, dashikis and Afro-combs were all worn as symbols of the revolution. She went on to stress the importance of moustaches and beards worn by males who longed to explicitly redeem their "manhood". This 'manly' appearance also symbolized a retrieval of male power that had been lost during the epoch of enslavement. In addition, there was a re-acceptance by African-Trinidadians and Tobagonians that black skin was indeed beautiful. In fact, the Miss Angel Face of 1971, who was chosen based on public poll selection, was a dark-skinned female who wore an Afro. Also, and still popular today, is the African-styled weddings and the acceptance of African (and East Indian) delicacies which also gained popularity among the middle classes.

However, this challenge to white aesthetic pre-eminence was to a large extent a fleeting episode in the history of Trinidad and Tobago. Some aspects of the cultural challenge have remained. More women have adopted to wear their hair 'naturally', embracing the natural kink of their African hair. Some have opted to wear dashikis and sandals, rejecting totally European beauty standards. There has also been a resurgence of African religion, which indicates the abandonment of European cultural norms and values. But most people have retained the physical and cultural outlook of their former colonial masters. Many women in Trinidad and Tobago today straighten their hair to conform to Euro-American standards of beauty. In fact, the phenomenon of "black blondes" is quite prevalent in the country. Even the dress code of the locals closely resembles that of Euro-America. The Afro-wearing male and female is a rarity in the country, and the Christianity that was imposed by Europeans predominates. And so despite the fact that the Black Power movement provided a major challenge to white cultural domination, it was not, to a large extent, lasting in its consequences. This is not to say that the movement failed to bring about changes in the culture of Trinidad and Tobago, but Western culture dominates, giving weight to the view that the Black Power cultural element was not sufficient for bringing about permanent change in society.

Black women in Trinidad had promoted the cause of the Black men who dominated the Black Power movement. As a result they began to question their own subordination as women and as Africans. Thus, the rise of feminism, which was a direct challenge to male authority, grew out of the Black opposition to white dominance. Even organizations such as NJAC failed to deal with women's issues because that was not the focus of their struggle. The NJAC believed that a woman's place was beside the man, which served to entrench existing gender relations. Although the feminist struggle was not as visible as the Black Power movement, it was just as important and had lasting implications for women today. In fact, Victoria Pasley points to the existence of female guerillas in Trinidad during the 1970s who "encouraged a subtle challenge to the gender system." Feminist activists had followed in the footsteps of the heroine Angela Davis, the self-proclaimed, "black woman communist" and used her example to lure women to join the movement in Trinidad and Tobago.

Women also became more sexually liberal, especially with the promotion of the birth control pill. Pasley refers to a statistical report in February 1970 which indicated that approximately 50,000 Trinidadian women were on the pill. Furthermore, with the assistance from The Ministry of Labour, the Division of Women's Affairs was established in 1971, "aiming to assist women in the labour market". Also, the government of Trinidad and Tobago sanctioned the establishment of the National Commission on the Status for Women in 1974, which was done in preparation for the United Nations International Women's year in 1975. The report of the Commission documents the discrimination that women faced in the workplace and in the larger society. Women's organizations such as HATT developed to discuss the grievances of middle-class housewives. Thelma Henderson, a former Black Power activist, now took up the mantle to fight for the cause of women. Henderson brought many issues to the fore, such as the discrimination against women at the workplace and the sexual division of labour in the typical household.

However, because of the inability of feminist activists to mobilize a large support base from the masses, it was unable to agitate the authorities to any significant degree. Males, both Black and white, still asserted their dominance over women. Black women in particular had a double burden: they faced racism in the workplace and male-dominance in the home as well as in the workplace. Today, although women have shown their worth in the workplace and many have opted to be independent of males, they still are underrepresented in the managerial positions in the workforce. Thus, the feminist movement of the 1970s was neither a highly visible nor effective movement, and the status quo has largely remained unchanged.

The Black Power movement in Trinidad and Tobago also spoke out in solidarity with Canadian anti-imperialists. Black Power revolutionaries demonstrated in camaraderie with the students of the Sir George Williams University in Montreal to protest racism in Canada. Some students from Trinidad and Tobago were arrested in the effort. In response to Canada's acceptance and perpetuation of racism, students at the Trinidad branch of the University of the West Indies prevented Canada's Governor General from entering the campus. The banking institutions which were run predominantly by Canadians were common targets of the Black protestors. In fact, Canadian banks were subjected to repeated fire-bombings and window smashing during March and April of 1970. The Canadian authorities claimed that they would not capitulate to such acts of violence because they provided for the safekeeping of money and gave aid to countries in the so-called "periphery." However, as John Riddell pointed out, "47 percent of Canada's foreign 'aid' consists not of grants, but of loans that must be repaid with interest." Further, foreign aid "is simply consumer credit for the purchase of Canadian goods...Terms regularly stipulate that aid recipients must spend the money in Canada even when the goods in question can be bought more cheaply elsewhere... To add insult to injury, it is Ottawa which approves or rejects the projects for which aid is given." The employees of banks were either white or near white, underscoring the blatantly racist practices in which these banks engaged. Banking administrators were forced to establish a quota ensuring that more black Afro-Trinidadians and Tobagonians were visible employees, although to this day the boards of directors of banks and other companies remain overwhelmingly white.

Dr. Eric Williams, the former Prime Minister for the PNM government was under much attack from Black Power protesters. His regime was seen as repressive and a mere extension or replica of authoritarian, capitalist rule. The economic policies of his government were insufficient to create enough jobs or to secure any serious redistribution of income. Many had looked to the PNM government to rectify the problems which had existed under slavery, indentureship and colonialism. However, the PNM regime merely perpetuated the existing system of oppression. It was a Black government with a 'Black face' but its objectives and actions were for the benefit of the white capitalists at home and abroad.

Was the revolution won? Some might assent to this view, given the short-term reforms meted out by the PNM regime. Williams claimed to endorse the Revolution by paying the fines of the Trinidadian students in Canada. However, despite his attempts to keep things 'in order', there was visible division within his Cabinet. In fact, Williams' Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of External Affairs, A.N.R. Robinson, resigned from the cabinet. Williams, in an attempt to forestall a sweeping strike by the supporters of Black Power, declared a state of emergency, which was announced on April 21, 1970. His government introduced several measures in an attempt to control the population, which had been shaken up by prevalent Black Power sentiments, including the purchase of arms from the United States and Venezuela to supply the Defense Force.

Williams failed in an attempted to pass a bill advocating strict state management over public meetings and the limitation of certain freedoms such as the freedom of speech. In fact, due to common skepticism about these and other measurers, a new constitution was drafted in 1976. In addition and as a direct consequence of the 1970 Black Power revolution, the PNM lost popularity among the electorate and was forced to address the nation for the first time in 5 years in order to confront the issue of Black Power. Williams in his speech expressed the PNM rejection of liberal-capitalism as well as communism. In their stead, he claimed, "...we follow the pattern that is being increasingly developed in developing countries, of state participation in the economy, to the extent of up to 51 percent in particular enterprises, to ensure that decision making remains in local hands."

Thus, government tried to reduce foreign ownership to key sectors in the economy by nationalizing major industries, especially in the telecommunications and the petroleum sectors. In addition to the nationalization of industries in Trinidad and Tobago, credit was now made available to small entrepreneurs by the opening up of the Industrial Development Corporation and the Agricultural Development Bank.


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