The races deal with history differently

Dear Editor,

From time to time there bursts onto the public scene a comment from one of our Guyanese activists lamenting the retrogression or lack of progress of one of the two major racial groups.

As we know the declaration is never in vacuo but serves to rouse the concerned race to greater effort or circumspection, to send a message to its adversaries, mobilise the laggard or complacent at critical moments ‒ or it emerges from a political rallying call to cast or to reaffirm the caller in the desired political light. In general it reinforces a certain narrative and serves to remind the race concerned that concerned leadership is safeguarding its welfare. It has been a peculiarly strong feature in slave/colonial and post-colonial/ post-slave societies with high points in the Garveyite/Rasta traditions in our part of the world.

The lamentation/reminder/rallying call/protest passes with or without notice through the body-collective of the people concerned. Reception and receptivity vary with the circumstances. Diagnosis is done, solutions prescribed, and almost invariably recommendations of a moral order are made. There is the matter of situating the race concerned on a rung of the socio-economic ladder and therefore a hierarchical ordering is necessary.

Two points here in a Guyanese context and in recent times.

The first, being that the mode of comparison has occasionally been projected backward into the historical past with the question being raised ‘which of the two major races suffered more at the hands of the colonisers.’ The question we leave to the specialists and to Hugh Tinker’s treatment in his work A New system of Slavery: The export of Indian Overseas Labour 1820 -1920. Suffice it to say, the question raises interest.

The  point being that the condition of the given race is not conceived by its members always in absolute or even universal terms, but more often in relation to the other major race and with the shadow of a long historical wake. So there is the diachronic, where we look at the place of the race over time, and then the synchronic where we focus on where they are today. Foundational then, is some form of measuring the disadvantage to which the race is subject, its causes, and the strategies for overcoming it. And the rendering of the ‘state of the race’ cannot only be statistical. It is often against the backdrop, evoked or not, of where the race expects itself to be and what its projects, collective, are. It often takes off from a position of what is wrong.

In Guyana’s terms, a racial ethos built around sentiments of ‘suffering’ of ‘revolt and redemption’ and of an eventual ‘seizure of one’s due place in the scheme of things,’ is at the basis of our collective self-consciousness. It varies with the race but is identical in the way that it structures each racial discourse and drives the narratives on which it is borne.

Hence, the discussions of who has suffered and is suffering more have something more elemental to them than the emotional release for this or that activist or group.

Our politics, as I have noted before, is the politics of grievance and thus our political action and the ideas motor to it, are grounded in the specificities of suffering or, more precisely of ‘sufferation’ defined by modern dictionaries as a West Indianism to describe the subjective state of enduring hardship, etc.

This, the crossroads of our history, political chronology and internalised sense of self-esteem, is where the historical encounters the subjective. For the races deal with history differently.

Sufferation, for Indo-Guyanese, occurred  in Guyana from the days of indenture, through the PNC years, to roughly 1992, and was continued by kick-down-the-door (of which the PNC is accused by some) rowdy marching and other abuses. The Afro-Guyanese bring a different chronology and content to the narrative trajectory of ‘tribulation to triumph.’

The matter of any interest is how does each race interpret ‘triumph.’Inevitably, it is a ‘being pun tap’ for some as versus something else for others.

So when Mr Annan Boodram says in a letter this week that Indian communities suffer from the same economic and social problems as African Guyanese we need to understand whether ‘suffer’ here relates to objective criteria such as poverty rates as set out in statistical form in World Bank/IMF type studies, or we are speaking of ‘sufferation,’ the sense of deprivation in an imposed situation in which injustice, racial prejudice and an unfair seizure of the collective patrimony are its defining characteristics.

Mr Boodram needs to bear in mind that suffering in its objective sense is due not to prejudicial and racist action (whatever the mindless propaganda says), but to the structural and historical factors that have placed the Indian as a sort of castaway on a sugar estate or a small agricultural holding or on the margins of a poor state and society.  But as a palliative the Indo-Guyanese is comforted by the fact that he has boundless possibilities before him. His group has political power.

The Afro-Guyanese, equally shipwrecked, but in the strictures of the public service, does not see himself with equal possibilities. He suffers a sense of deprivation (of future possibility) in an additional way.

So, subjectively the statistics do not count. What has always been important to the social psychologies of the peoples here is the perceptions.

Our political elders, conscious of this, have left a pattern of placing members of all races in visible positions. But, it is not enough. Arguments for changes in the constitutional arrangements and in what I have called ‘the architecture of the state,’ represent the only permanent solutions. Decentralisation with real devolution of power, shared government and similar proposals are one way forward. The other is to continue with awaiting internal changes in the parties themselves. The PPP, today, has a figure of mixed racial heritage in the post of General Secretary and another as President. The PPP, representing the Indian bloc is changing in the context of a conservative followership. We need to see how the situation evolves.


For one may imagine that it is music to the ears of listeners in the Indian camp to hear that one is marginalised and in great sufferation. In a way worse off than they. They, like us, understand instinctively that had the Afro group the keys to the corridors of power, immediately as if on cue, their group would have set up the same ‘sufferation’ chant. Bringing us back to the second point, which is that while the social degradation of suicide/alcoholism/domestic violence is part of the Indian condition in our country, for nothing in the world will they change that for a suicide-free world under the PNC. There are other factors at play in the choices that go beyond the rational/objective.

Yours faithfully,
Abu Bakr

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