R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
May 8, 2020

‘POWER’ was the slogan, ‘BLACK POWER’ – Part 2

Following the publication of the first part of this article two weeks ago, I was confronted by a couple readers who couldn’t understand why, in the midst of COVID 19, I decided to write about Black Power and what is its relevance to the issues of today.

Perhaps there may have been a subconscious reaction on my part in delaying the second part of the Black Power series, though I felt the need to make some comments on the COVID situation and considered that, having begun the engagement, I could divert temporarily. My apologies for any inconvenience caused, and so let’s resume where I left off.

Repression, Army Revolt and Revolution

It was in February 1970 that the Black Power protests hit the streets of Port of Spain in Trinidad. In spite of eights years of independence under a leader considered to be “one of the brightest men” on the planet, (don’t know where that came from) and oil wealth, the situation of black people in the twin island republic was still deplorable.

The rampant racism, poverty and lack of opportunities were especially manifest among black youth. It was no wonder that they were quick to respond to the ideas of black consciousness and revolution. As the protests grew, the local ruling class and the foreigners who dominated the economy began to panic. On April 6, 1970, police clashed with demonstrators in Port of Spain, shooting a young man, Basil Davis, fatally. His funeral three days later brought such an outpouring that it is still considered by many as the largest funeral seen in Trinidad.

The mass mobilisation caused internal pressures in the government and on April 13, Deputy Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson resigned. Five days later, Indian sugar workers joined the militant oilfield workers on strike, and a march to unite Afro-and Indo- Trinidadians was planned.

The response came in the declaration by P.M. Dr. Eric Williams of a State of Emergency and the launch of a wave of repression. Leaders of the Black Power movement and trade union leaders were arrested and incarcerated and rumours abounded that the government was to bring in the Defence Force to impose military rule.

However, in the Defence Force there was a number of young, highly trained officers who sympathised with the popular movement. They also had issues of their own concerning their role and vowed not to be used “to shoot down civilians”.

On the same day that the Emergency was declared, April 21, these officers staged a mutiny and took over their barracks, mobilising soldiers to head to the capital. Only the timely destruction of a bridge on the route prevented the intrusion of these troops and avoided a dangerous situation. In the aftermath the mutiny was put down, the officers arrested and charged with treason.

It was now not just Trinidad, but many other parts of the Caribbean now warming to ideas of “revolution”, no matter how vague or far-fetched. I remember every week as the schooners which took produce to Port of Spain returned here, trying to secure the TRINIDAD EXPRESS newspaper to follow the events in that country.

Black literature was lapped up by eager minds and “on the blocks” ideas from Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Nkrumah, Walter Rodney and the Black Panthers of the USA were the discussion topics. Black organisations sprang up in Grenada, SVG, Antigua, Dominica, St. Lucia, even in conservative Barbados where the radical lawyer Bobby Clarke provided leadership.

Black Power spread like wildfire, not just in political terms, but in practical cultural manifestations – arts and craft, poetry, drumming, street theatre in which, in the case of SVG, the New Artists Movement led by ‘Blazer’ Williams blazed the way. The terms “brother” and “Sister” became common ways of showing love and respect and there was a thirst for African names.

Those who try to denigrate Black Power today can never understand what it meant to storm the cultural citadels of supposed white superiority and oppression. Black Power gave us a new sense of self respect, demanding in turn to be respected. Those who had graded employment by skin colour and class were all too eager to employ and promote deserving blacks who had been shunned for years.

That was the legacy of the Black Power uprising in T&T in 1970 and its repercussions in the rest of the region. I hope to return to this topic sometime in the future, but will conclude with the words of a little-remembered calypsonian in Trinidad of that time, Lord Fluke. I bet most have never heard of him, but he gave momentum to the movement with these words:

“Wid dey right hand in de air like a tower, everybody shouting Power, Power, Power!”

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.