Book: Civil Rights in America and The Caribbean, 1950s – 2010s
Author: Jerome Teelucksingh
Critic: Glenville Ashby, PhD
Jerome Teelucksingh has arguably delivered his most compelling book to date. ‘Civil Rights in America and the Caribbean’ brims over with existential fervor. It offers a detailed analysis of the social and psychic impulses that spurred resistance to overarching political systems that strafed the human spirit.
Here, history lives in the now as the works of Lamming, James, Garvey, Carmichael, and others beg for completion.
Teelucksingh’s narrative rightly acknowledges the nuanced fabric of racial struggles.
There is an unmistakable humanistic element in every revolution. That we are our brother’s keeper is played out unswervingly. Teelucksingh posits that race-based struggles intrinsically transcended colour. His is an integrationist approach to understanding the multilayered response to institutionalized racism. He presents the position of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. to advance his argument.
“Moderate leaders, as King, wanted to accept Whites into the movement who were concerned with reform, progress and equality for Blacks. Without participation and cooperation of some Whites, the Civil Rights Movement would have seemed to benefit solely Blacks and appear as exclusive of Whites. The pivotal support of Whites was seen in the March on Washington in which 75,000-95,000 were Whites among a relatively large crowd of 250,000 persons. This was an important indicator of the positive response which the Civil Rights Movement had generated and the success of the integrationist movement.”
We are also reminded that Jews, having “vivid recollection of the Holocaust” ably support for the Civil Rights Movement., and that [some] Whites “rejected the hypocrisy, materialism and bland nature of the middle-class lifestyle.”
Teelucksingh ultimately defines this seminal movement as biracial and interdenominational.
In many ways, he argues that “Civil Rights” and “Black Power” taught many Whites that they too were oppressed.”
Teelucksingh deftly traverses cultural landscapes and reexamines the 1970 revolutionary movement in Trinidad. Black Power rejected extremist, puritanical elements and sought common cause with the Indian community whose historical experiences mirrored that of the Afro-Trinidad community.
He quotes one member of SPIC (Society for the Promotion of Indian Culture) who believed that Black Power was “a manifestation of a wider, revolutionary spirit sweeping the world” [and that] “the demonstrations and platform speeches reflected a desire for unity between East Indians and Africans.”
Teelucksingh acknowledges the internationalization of the civil rights movements as he, if only briefly, examines the black conscious movements in Canada and the UK.
“During the early 1950s,” he pens, “the struggle for racial equality was no longer confined to the US but spread its wings abroad.”
The involvement of the United Nations with the release of the document: ‘We Charge Genocide: The Historical Petition to the United Nations,’ reflected the growing international clamour to resolve the racial divide worldwide.
No doubt, Teelucksingh is deliberate and methodical, chronicling the watershed moments in America, in particular, the US Supreme Court decisions in ‘Brown vs. Topeka Kansas Board of Education’ in which racial barriers were overturned and Blacks were admitted to public schools.
He also makes mention of the 1890s when Henry Sylvester galvanized blacks to reclaim their heritage and pride. This Afrocentric thrust led to the first Pan African Conference in London in 1900, and it is there that the stand against a racially inveterate system was born. This Trinidad-born activist had done the unthinkable, foraying into uncharted territory where racial animus against colonized people was rife.
Reconstructing black history through a new educational prism proved paramount during this period. This had long been the goal of Marcus Garvey whose words are cited by Teelucksingh.
“For many years white propagandists have been printing tons of literature to impress scattered Ethiopia, especially that portion within their civilization, with the idea that Africa is a despised place inhabited by savages and cannibals, where no civilized human being should go.”
The emergence of Black Studies at universities as a veritable academic discipline attracted many students and corrected skewed presentations and interpretations of the African experience.
“In 1967,” Teelucksingh writes, “the African Studies Association of the West Indies (ASAWI) was formed [with the objective] to promote an academic interest in African Studies in the Caribbean.” Similar undertakings were introduced at American universities.
The seeds of revolutionary reform and black empowerment crossed geographic boundaries with abandon. Arguably, resistance movement mushroomed organically with little influence from outside forces. That said, oppressive governments bore similar traits that created conditions for political responses that were eerily identical.
Teelucksingh writes, “During the 1970s, in Trinidad and Tobago, there existed a guerilla group that was similar to the BPP (Black Panther Party). The National United Freedom Fighters (NUFF) was a subversive group that began suiting the late 1971/and early 1972…NUFF was a loose political group hoping to create a new society…”
The ‘New Society’ is again cemented in the Panther’s Ten-Point Program outlined in 1996 where perennial demands: decent housing, education, full employment, end to police brutality and naked capitalism remain preeminent.
Today, there are 19 organizations at the forefront of the resistance against the present US administration. And we are moved to beg the questions: Will social transformation toward justice and equality be ever realized? Will a new underclass emerge when others have crawled higher on the totem pole? Will legitimate resistance be hijacked by counterculture movements as it was in the late 1960s? What really is the fate of society? We can only surmise.
What is certain, though, is that the malicious ghosts of the past have never been truly exorcised.
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