By Dennis Nichols
Race and class! We Guyanese talk about it and joke about it; we may even attempt to analyze it as a social construction. But how many of us express what is truly in our hearts when it comes to the ideas and characteristics associated with a particular race, or to be more precise, with a particular ethnic group. And let’s be real here. When we refer to each other as Black, Coolie, Buck or Putagee, how much is it a mutually-accepted term of convenience and friendly exchange, and how often does it carry a more subtle connotation of social status or stigma?
Search your heart. How many of us look to our ancestry, our culture and our race and find solace or strength in them; and how many of us do the same only to find mostly wretchedness or oppression there? And how many of us will admit to feelings of superiority or inferiority based on observable differences in appearance and behaviour of one ethic group versus another. Not many I would suggest.
Ever since I was very young, I was aware of differences in the way certain groups of people, children and adults, looked and acted. I accepted that for what it was – people looking and acting differently. Then gradually as I observed more, listened to conversations and arguments, and thought about the way these groups related with each other, I began to pick up a few impolite nuances in verbal and non-verbal expression by the mostly Black and East Indian inhabitants, about each other, in the East Coast Demerara village of Highdam where I spent my earliest days.
At school, the East Indian children were generally quiet, mild-mannered, and spoke poor English. They appeared small in stature, and the smell of curry always seemed to waft from their sauce pans. The Black and Portuguese/Mixed children appeared bigger, more argumentative, more playful, and spoke marginally better English. The few ‘dougla’ children I recall, appeared closer to East Indian than Black in their mannerisms, but with more liveliness of expression. At the time, these perceived differences meant little to me. They would acquire more interesting significance later on.
As I grew older, in the early sixties, I was mildly surprised to discover I was entertaining ideas about racial differences that seemed to show a bias in favour of one race over another. But I was also intelligent enough to realize that it was more fancy than reality, and reflected mostly what I’d heard adults and my peers say about the two major ethnic groups.
Later on, after I entered Queen’s College, I observed a pleasant difference in the way the children there spoke and carried themselves irrespective of skin colour or hair texture. Apart from the two major races, there were Portuguese, Chinese, White, a sprinkling of Amerindian, and an indeterminate mixture of brown-skinned boys, but ethnicity didn’t seem to matter much there, at least not as much as class.
Outside of Queen’s was another world, a stratified social order having to do as much with intellect as it had to do with colour and money. At the top, supposedly, were rich, educated, light-skinned people, and at the bottom were poor, uneducated, dark-skinned people, or as some people put it, high-class and low-class. Of course there was some overlapping across the dividing line, but generally that’s how it seemed to be. My family struggled somewhere in between.
Despite whatever biases I thought I held, my childhood friends reflected the entire range of ethnicities and shades of colour, with the exception of the few Whites whom I vaguely observed from a distance. The racial problems of the sixties did little to change this reality, even when I noted my parents’ tacit disapproval of the way certain people behaved.
Exposure to West Indian historical slavery increased my sense of alienation from Europeans, and conversely drew me closer to the descendants of those who had laboured on the plantations, more so to the narrower group of Afro-Guyanese perceived by some to be on the lowest rungs of the social ladder – my people.
But even as I identified more closely with this demographic, and as I matured, it appeared to me that something was wrong. My people weren’t progressing like other groups. They were loud-mouthed, aggressive, uncooperative, superstitious, and licentious. Not all, but many.
In the late sixties and seventies, there was a trend toward Black upliftment worldwide with the bourgeoning Black Power/Black Pride movement in America. But it did not impact here sufficiently to negate the effects of a couple hundred years of colonial oppression and the economic woes of the early eighties following the government ban on several essential imported consumer items.
Some of my people became businessmen and businesswomen, underground economists and contraband traders. Lawlessness and corruption grew, and a few overnight entrepreneurs grew rich concurrently, but many of them stayed poor. Some turned to illegal drugs and crime, and a few may have profited by this.
Young men and women who suffered from lack of education (or miseducation) couldn’t find decent jobs. They tried to deflect their poverty and growing sense of hopelessness by becoming more vociferous, aggressive, and flaunting. They substituted form for substance.
Like our ‘branded’ ancestors they now parade the brands of their modern-day ‘masters’ – Nike, Prada, Armani, Gucci, Hilfiger, Sean John, Aeropostale and Rocawear, never mind the fact that many are fakes, and even here in Guyana, beyond their means. Outsize cosmetic jewellery, designer fingernails, artificial hair/eyelashes, and bleached skin complete the caricatures, and we’re not talking only about the female sex. Thankfully, it appears that they are in the minority, their minds apparently still fettered nearly 200 years after emancipation from slavery.
Today, in Guyana, some of my people have beaten the odds against success, wealth and social standing. But many are still living in abject poverty, surrounded by the concomitant signs of brokenness. As in New York, I can look at the houses and the enclaves where they dwell, the clothes they wear, the words they speak, and the jobs they do. And, as in Brooklyn, New York, and Kingston Jamaica, in Bain Town Bahamas and in Khayelitsha South Africa, they tell a story.
The other day as I walked around Georgetown, around the business areas and the municipal markets, I saw groups of my people doing the dirtiest and most menial jobs you could find. They dug, and scraped, and fetched; they argued and cursed, and bent their sun-burnt backs, and seemed to bow under the indignity of it all. I could sense it. In fact, I once lived it, when at 16, I joined the road gang of the Georgetown Sewerage and Water Commissioners, and worked in close proximity to literal filth.
I didn’t stay there; I moved on. And even as I commiserate with my people, I harbour the hope that all of us will heed the words and the warnings of Marcus Garvey, and thoroughly emancipate ourselves from both physical and mental enslavement.
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