By Michael Benjamin
A few nights ago I had a dream that was so horrible that I jerked out of my sleep in beads of perspiration. I dreamt that Guyana was in the election period and people were lined up at the polling stations patiently awaiting their turn to cast their ballots when someone uttered a racial slur and civil war broke out.
I cannot remember what the person said but it was an outlandish remark that developed into taunts and subsequently a fight. It started as a fistfight and quickly developed into a gun battle. I literally felt searing lead grazing my body. Suddenly, I awoke, drenched in perspiration; my heart palpitating at a terrific speed. Slowly I realized that I had been dreaming. I breathed a sigh of relief. For approximately three minutes, I had experienced the results of civil conflict and believe me, I did not like what I saw.
Guyana is a plural society and I have seen the six races enjoying the thrill of cohabitation while learning and appreciating the different cultural adaptations of each other. I have seen the ‘Seepersauds’ stretch out a friendly hand to the ‘Clarkes’ with no hard feelings. During my school days, Africans would poke gentle fun at their Indian friends referring to them as ‘coolie wata rice’ while Indians, in turn would rib Africans with ‘black man masala.’ These were comments spoken, and taken in jest until election time. Inexplicably, the two groups that respond affirmatively when ribbed with the above epithets are now highly offended.
In order to control adverse racial rhetoric, the politicians enacted a bill against ethnic slurs. So the fond ‘coolie wata rice’ and ‘black man masala’ are now taboo and one can end up in jail if heard uttering them.
Guyanese have become insensitive towards each other’s feelings and thoughts. We are so caught up in the economic mire that we have lost the deep sense of nationality and love for our fellow man. Instead of loving people and using things, we now love things and use people.
All of our heroes are dead! While alive, our outstanding citizens are treated like ‘floorcloth’ and the only time you hear good words of them is when they are lying stiff and cold. That is why I plan one day to play dead just to see what funeral I am going to get! I can imagine the glowing tributes that will emanate from the lips of (oops! I almost called names.) I could also imagine the amount of crocodile tears that will flow because, “a true son of the soil has departed” and “life can never be the same without him.” I would lie unmoving and then suddenly get up, take a bow and say, “Thank you ladies and gentlemen for such kind, caring words.”
We are a hypocritical nation because we fail to acknowledge the feats of our heroes in tangible ways when they are alive and are better able to appreciate the tributes, yet we raise a ballyhoo when they move on to the great beyond.
I was never a good history student. As a matter of fact, I detested the subject to the core. I often wondered why it was necessary for me to be interested in the feats of Cuffy, Damon or even Burnham and Walter Rodney. Maybe, former President of Guyana, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham nailed this anomaly when a certain gentleman approached him and professed to be a dead PNC member. Burnham looked him in the eye and said, “Son, you are of no use to the Party! We are more interested in stalwarts that are alive!”
Notwithstanding my dread of history, I knew that I had to get a passing grade before I could have attained a degree so I battened down to the task. Mr Lloyd Kandasammy was my lecturer. He allocated 10% of the grade points to course work. For his first assignment, I was required to research one of our political stalwarts and write a biography on him/her. I chose Ms Janet Jagan. Before I started the research process, the only historical fact that etched my memory of Ms Jagan was the famous ‘throw it over her shoulder’ act of which everyone is familiar. My research widened my perspectives. I learnt that Ms Jagan, nee Rosenberg, was married to President Cheddi Jagan on August 5, 1943 in contravention of her family’s wishes because she believed that she had found the one she loved.
My research further took me to the Red House on Main Street where I viewed a 30 minutes documentary ‘Thunder in Guyana’, which depicted the racial strife of the sixties. I read how Ms Jagan lived in Chicago where Whites were prejudicial to Blacks. I read how she defied her father’s wishes and went ahead with the marriage ceremony that united her with Cheddi Jagan. Later on Ms Jagan boarded a seaplane en route to Guyana to be with her husband.
She later became embroiled in local politics much the same as the struggle that had characterized her life in Chicago. There is much more but for the sake of the point I wish to make, I have said enough.
I now shift my attention to the late President L F S Burnham. I read that he was the second in command in the PPP Government when Cheddi was the Premiere; I read of the split that brought the PNC into existence. I also read of the CIA’s involvement in a plot to oust the PPP from Government because the American administration was not comfortable with Jagan’s communistic ideals. Some key CIA documents that chronicle Guyana’s politics have been released, and the researcher will gather a better understanding of the raging feud between the two major parties that now characterizes our daily existence.
Irrespective of the bad deeds plastered on Burnham, Jagan, Walter Rodney, Hamilton Green and the many other politicians that ruled this beloved country, one thing cannot be denied; they have all made viable contributions to our development and if we must move forward, we must learn to appreciate these contributions.
There are certain great moments in history that remain firmly etched in the mind of mankind. One such moment occurred on August 28, 1963, when civil rights activist, Martin Luther King delivered one of the most memorable speeches at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington D C.
“I have a dream” is the name given to the historic public speech by this civil rights activist when he spoke of his desire for a future where blacks and whites among others would coexist harmoniously in America as equals.
One year later in 1964, and in a different continent, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for life for sabotage and left to rot in a South African jail. He spent most of his 27 years behind bars serving hard labour in the Robben Island penitentiary off Cape Town. Tomes have been written documenting Mandela’s long walk to freedom. He was released from prison in 1990 and jointly with former South African President, F W DeKlerk awarded the noble peace prize in 1993. On May 10, 1994 Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically elected state President of South Africa.
On yet another continent, this time North America, Barrack Obama defeated John McCain on November 4, 2008 to become the first black American to enter the White House. All of the above occurrences have strengthened my belief that Guyana will one day succumb to the global world order. I believe that irrespective of the racial imbalances that exist in our beloved land, one day my fellow Guyanese will cease to measure issues in black and white and simply elect leaders that present firm policies and ignore racial overtones.
This time I am wide awake but I still have a dream.
I dream that one day Guyanese would live harmoniously irrespective of colour or creed. I dream that one day the politicians will wake up and discover that the race card is very ineffective and unless they are prepared to effect viable policies, they will be cast in the wilderness. I dream that Guyana will once again rise, like the mighty phoenix as a force to be reckoned with.
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