Of all the offensive – and unintelligent – statements made in the politics of the post-independence Caribbean, an assertion, that Dr Keith Rowley, the leader of the Opposition in Trinidad and Tobago, is “too black” to be Prime Minister, has to rate as the worst. Coming, as it does, in ‘Black History Month’ in Canada and the United States it highlights the continuing insecurities in persons and groups in the Caribbean.
It is a telling indictment of the person through whose mind the thought passed without perishing and from whose mouth the stupidity was uttered. Fitzgerald Hinds, a former Senator of Mr Rowley’s political party, the Peoples National Movement (PNM), is the person reported to have made the statement to a party political meeting. He is also reported to have said that “a group of businessmen and former PNM ministers have agreed that Dr Rowley is “too dark in complexion to become prime minister.”
In the past, this asinine attitude has been expressed in other Caribbean countries. For instance, in Jamaica, there was the claim that Norman and Michael Manley were not black, nor were Alexander Bustamante and Donald Sangster. When P J Patterson became Prime Minister in 1992, some circles in Jamaica actually said he was the country’s “first black Prime Minister”. Before he was elected, it was doubted that the Jamaican people were “ready for a black Prime Minister”. As it turned out, PJ Patterson was not only a successful Prime Minister elected to serve at his country’s helm for 14 years; he was also highly regarded in the international community.
In the Eastern Caribbean, the same nonsense was whispered – not always quietly – in many places including St Lucia, St Vincent and Dominica. The notion that blackness is a taint was used as a political weapon with the underlying inference that being of “too dark complexion” rendered any such person as unelectable even to other black people who constituted the majority in countries such as Jamaica, St Lucia, St Vincent and Dominica.
Of course, none of the leaders of these countries – not Jamaica’s Michael Manley, Trinidad and Tobago’s Eric Williams, Dominica’s Eugenia Charles, and St Lucia’s John Compton – would have counted themselves as anything but black. And the Caribbean and the world would be hard-pressed to find more outstanding champions of black causes world-wide than Michael Manley and Eric Williams.
Also, there is nothing in the Caribbean’s political history that discredits its leaders of “dark complexion”. Barbados’ Erskine Sandiford; The Bahamas’ Lynden Pindling and Hubert Ingraham; St Kitts-Nevis’ Robert Bradshaw, Lee Moore and Kennedy Simmonds are all testament to leaders whose dark complexion mattered not a jot to their representation of their people.
Mr Hinds’ statement about Dr Rowley rightly caused a stir in Trinidad and Tobago. Regrettably, it also attracted the attention of international news broadcasters, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), that not reported on what must have been to its reporters a very curious phenomenon. To the international listener, Trinidad and Tobago must seem a very odd place – one which is concerned with gradations of blackness as a qualification for its leaders in a world where the majority of leaders are of the very dark complexion about which Mr Hinds (and apparently others) hold reservations.
That in 2014, almost two centuries after slavery was abolished in the English-speaking Caribbean with all the shades of colour that made slaves more valuable only according to the whims of slave owners, complexion still preoccupies the minds of persons who hold (or held) offices of state, is a tragic commentary on those persons.
It ignores the reality of dark-complexioned people leading in fields such as the judiciary, medicine, education, science and technology, and sport. It is worse that the perceived stigma of “dark complexion” alarms members of the PNM for that political party has always been seen as representing predominantly black people.
Had the statement about Dr Rowley been made by members of the ruling United National Congress (UNC) Party whose support base is mostly East Indian, the charge of racism would immediately have been lodged. The repercussions might have been grave in a society which has not yet fully overcome the challenges of its racial diversity.
Of course, there are also Indians of “dark complexion” and it leads to speculation that the doubts expressed about Dr Rowley’s electability might also apply to an equally dark-complexioned Indian. Is the issue then more one of colour than of race?
Those who peddle the nonsense of complexion should be reminded of the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr that people “should not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. They would also do well to recall Bob Marley’s admonition: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our mind”. They should also be careful that in expressing their own prejudices, they are not wrongfully assuming that the electorate of Trinidad and Tobago is as bigoted and small-minded as they are.
Dr Rowley is being challenged for the leadership of the PNM in a few months (May 18) by Ms Penelope Beckles-Robinson. There was a time when politicians and others in Trinidad and Tobago would have said that a woman could never become leader of a political party or the country’s Prime Minister.
The present UNC leader and Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, has debunked that assertion. The contest between Dr Rowley and Ms Beckles-Robinson should be on their intellectual capacity, competence and qualities to lead their party and possibly become the next Prime Minister.
It is leadership, vision, proficiency and commitment that all political parties everywhere need. That has nothing to do with the shameful and absurd argument about complexion which certainly has no place in today’s Caribbean.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Research Fellow at London University and former Caribbean Diplomat