THOSE who closely follow American politics were moved by the eulogy which President Obama recently delivered at the Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charlestown, South Carolina, USA. The symbolism of a president dressed in choir gown and breaking into his own version of “Amazing Grace” caught many off guard and became headline news. That gesture and its heart-warming symbolism almost overshadowed the loss of life he came to eulogize. When the gathered mourners added their voice, the united melody of that age-old tune, sent a powerful message that reverberated over all America. It touched the hearts of South Carolina Christians some of whom were drawn to racism by the old poison of slavery, ignorance – and the civil war.
The killing of nine black worshippers inside that church, including a State Senator, aroused new fears of home grown terrorism. The Charlestown massacre reminded us of the day two young men entered the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Castries, Saint Lucia, and set unsuspecting worshippers on fire. One priest and a nun perished that morning whilst others in the congregation were so badly burnt they had to seek medical attention in America. The Castries assault and its horrific impact may well prove more painful and longer lasting than that of Charlestown. It left survivors with permanent burn marks that will not go away.
These two tragedies share a deep psychological trauma. Some observers have predicted that the Charlestown attack will change racists thinking in the state of South Carolina forever – and for better. No such statement has ever been made about the attacks in Castries – but the island remains hopeful, in its prayers.
In the weeks following the attacks at the Cathedral in Saint Lucia, I was in a barber chair in Trinidad when it was discovered that I was a visitor from Saint Lucia, who had recently arrived in Trinidad. The words of the barber have stayed with me ever since. ‘All you Saint Lucians ain’t easy na; I thought Trinidad was bad, but we don’t kill people in church.’ I remained speechless, unable to find a quick and appropriate response. I had not gotten over the incidence at the Cathedral and I was embarrassed not finding suitable words to dull the sharp criticism of that barber.
These two church attacks coupled with increasingly divisive election campaigning in both Trinidad and Saint Lucia had me thinking of the use of race and political symbolism by politicians. Interestingly, when the gunman who killed the nine at the church in Charlestown was caught, he confessed that he wanted to start a race war. Yes, a race war; over 150 years after the (north vs. south) U.S civil war, and the abolition of slavery, in the USA. In has now been 50 years and counting since the march on Washington and the consequent empowerment through legislation, of African/Americans. In the interim we have often been reminded that governments cannot legislate the way people think – racism remains a matter of the heart.
Be that as it may, successive U.S, Trinidad and Saint Lucia governments have sought to legislate the limits to which people may use symbolism (and gestures) in election campaigning. Crucially, these three countries are yet to place firm limits on campaign financing and the sources of election campaign funding. Dishonest politicians and their advisers will find a loophole to ply their trade regardless of man-made laws. Gaining political office can resemble the work of evil. The hiring of expensive lawyers to the advantage of corrupt governments has not gone un-noticed in Saint Lucia and the rest of the Caribbean. Breaking and bending the laws governing politics and elections are not new. Its growth is cause for concern.
The latest racial incident in Charlestown reminds us of an aspect of racism in the Caribbean which often raises its ugly head at election. Trinidad & Tobago is a good example of this. There, nationals of Indian extraction are deliberately pitted against Afro/Trinidadians, by desperate politicians seeking political office. Interestingly, these two dark-skinned peoples live as one nation under God, aspiring and achieving together peacefully and respectfully, except during the ‘silly season’ of elections. That ‘season’ casts a spell on normally sane, intelligent and often kind people, transforming many into political junkies for hire. Afterwards, they seem to agree that fanning the flames of racial difference is a shameful road to travel; and discard such findings at the next election cycle.
Not surprisingly, when viewed within the prism of racism (in South Carolina and elsewhere), Hindus, native American Indians, Africans and other minorities are all heaped together and discriminated against. Indeed, it is fact of life that minorities are often easy game for discrimination and racial abuse. Unfortunately, the divide and rule approach to U.S politics is still alive and well notwithstanding the election of a black President in 2008. In America as elsewhere, racism is often fuelled by politicians in order to serve their selfish purposes. The same fear mongering unfortunately applies to Trinidad and the rest of the Caribbean.
An acknowledged symbol of racism in South Carolina is the Confederate flag. It represents the blood and sacrifice of the people of South Carolina in the war of American Independence. It also represents racism and the harsh treatment of Americans of African origin. The flag therefore sends a mixed message to many, especially the young who better understand that history cannot be allowed to keep people divided and against one another. Today, that South Carolina flag sends an unflattering message to the rest of America – and to the rest of the world.
There are of course, those who will argue that the events in South Carolina do not represent the heart and soul of a majority of white Carolinians – or Americans. Yet there’s little doubt that an undercurrent of racism and division exist in the USA, in Trinidad and even in little Saint Lucia; and will not soon go away. Such attitudes make little sense in a fast changing world, increasingly concerned with economic survival and personal safety. Still, some remained stained with hate!
Saint Lucia may not exhibit the same degree of racism and division as does South Carolina or Trinidad. Still, the Helen of the West has to be on its guard against desperate politicians and their symbols of division, racism and hate. Unfortunately, some desperate losers will go to any lengths in their support of equally desperate politicians.
In ending, I return to my pet theme of ‘Education and Training’ and how crucial it is in the fight against racism, demagoguery and narrow, self-serving politics. I remain convinced that education, and the self-confidence it builds, is indispensible in the fight against racism and dirty politics. Every means to shun racism and cheap politics must therefore be pursued. It’s already happening in South Carolina where the legislature is debating (and has recently passed) legislation bringing down the old Confederate flag – still a symbol of racism for many Americans.
Next week I will tackle ‘change’- what it means, and what (and who) should lead it.