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Taking stock of racial politics

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Jamaica Observer’s intoxicating editorial on ethnic stocking in T&T, published on December 11, 2012, made a lot of otherwise level-headed people rather tipsy. Unable to hold their liquor, commentators across the region weepily lamented the crudeness of the Jamaicans in daring to bring into the open the closeted subject of racial politics in the two-island republic.


The provocative headline of the editorial, “The more important issue is abuse of substance,” managed to pretend that speculation about alleged alcohol abuse in high places was a relatively minor matter. It is not. In these times of global crisis, Caribbean nations need leaders with a sober head.


As they say in T&T, “Gopaul luck eh Seepaul luck.” That’s the equivalent of our Jamaican proverb, “Puss an dog no have di same luck.” Except our version is not race-specific. Perhaps, it’s because Jamaica is not as racially diverse as T&T. Our proverbs probably don’t need to be quite so racialised.


In any case, since my name is not Paul—whether “Go” or ‘“See”—I know I’m stretching my puss luck by doggedly putting my mouth in the lingering debate about ethnic stocking in T&T. I really ought to take Jack Warner’s advice. As a mere Jamaican “cockroach,” I should not foolishly interfere in the “fowl” business of the people of T&T. We go see.


Raymond Ramcharitar must take full blame for dragging me into the fowl coop. In his article published in the T&T Guardian on December 19, 2012, with the rip-off headline, “Who is Jamaica?”, Ramcharitar makes a completely unfounded claim: “An indispensable preamble to the Jamaica Observer’s December 11 “ethnic stocking” editorial is an op-ed by Jamaican (UWI) academic, Prof Carolyn Cooper, in the NY Times on August 5.”


I suppose Dr Ramcharitar is an agile creative writer and cultural critic who usually manages to leap over ideological hurdles with ease. But this jump is rather wobbly. Ramcharitar attempts to hang on to a very tenuous link that only he can see between the Observer editorial and my much earlier article which had absolutely nothing to do with ethnic stocking in either Jamaica or T&T.


The focus of my polemical piece was the self-centredness of the “colour-blind” elite who continue to assert the fiction, enshrined in the national motto, that Jamaica is a multiracial society: “Out of Many, One People.” Misrepresenting my argument, Ramcharitar tries to turn me into a spokeswoman for what he contemptuously dismisses as “garden variety US Afrocentrism.”


Living in a racially divided society that polarises “Africans” and “Indians,” Ramcharitar apparently cannot resist the urge to pick a side. And my supposedly “Afrocentric” side of the argument cannot possibly make sense. So Ramcharitar gives a garbled account of what I say. This is how he puts it: “...the imperative of (Afro) Jamaicans is ‘rejecting the homogenising myth of multicultural assimilation.’” But the “Afro” is Ramcharitar’s issue. That’s his insertion. 


My argument is not quite so simplistic. It’s not only “(Afro) Jamaicans” who need to reject the myth. It’s the collective “we.” 


This is what I actually wrote: “The roots of our distinctive music, religion, politics, philosophy, science, literature and language are African. But the culture of African Jamaicans has been marginalised in the construction of the nation-state. Fifty years after independence, we must revise our fictive national motto, rejecting the homogenising myth of multicultural assimilation.” 


This is not “garden variety US Afrocentrism.” It’s pure Jamaican common sense. 


But what is wrong with Afrocentrism anyhow? Particularly in the US, where African-Americans are a minority group, it is essential to affirm one’s distinctive heritage and identity. Ramcharitar does not seem to understand this need. In fact, he appears to chide the New York Times for publishing my “Afrocentric” article. In his opinion, my argument “is not logic the Times ordinarily endorses.”


But an op-ed piece, by its very nature, is an expression of the opinions of a single writer. It is not an editorial reflecting the “party line” of the newspaper. In fact, the “op” in op-ed is not an abbreviation of “opinion.” It means “opposite.” The op-ed appears opposite the editorial page. And in many instances it is oppositional in its politics, disdaining editorial endorsement. This subtlety is, perhaps, lost on Dr Ramcharitar. 


Making yet another clumsy leap, Ramcharitar asserts that the Observer editorial and, by implication, my opinion piece both prove that “there’s no difference between ethnic fascism and cultural criticism; and racial ignorance and free speech are the same.” And this rather sorry state of affairs is, allegedly, all the fault of the University of the West Indies, where “US Afrocentric nonsense thrives.”


Ramcharitar further declares that “cultural studies at St Augustine is understood as an ethnic (Afrocentric) pursuit, despite the fact that elementary knowledge of the subject refutes this.” His sly use of the passive voice—”is understood”—apparently absolves him of all responsibility to disclose which academics, exactly, at St Augustine actually practise cultural studies as “an ethnic (Afrocentric) pursuit.”


Widening his attack on Caribbean/cultural studies beyond UWI, Ramcharitar claims that in many US and Canadian universities, “Caribbean history and society have become an appendix of African-American history, another theatre of slavery and black oppression, erasing all other histories.” 


But writing history from an Africanist perspective need not erase Indo-Caribbean or any other history. There are multiple Caribbean histories to be written, from diverse perspectives. Despite Dr Ramcharitar’s disdain for UWI, the UWI Press, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, has done an excellent job of publishing a wide range of books that try to tell the whole story of Caribbean history and culture.


It is my intuition that the admittedly inflammatory Observer editorial gave Dr Ramcharitar a good excuse to display his own brand of ethnic fascism: undermining the scholarship from UWI and elsewhere on African people in the Diaspora. The pertinent question raised by Ramcharitar’s bilious column is not, “Who is Jamaica?” It is, “Who is the real racist?” 


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