R. Rose
February 3, 2006

Cultural influence of Black people



Like our Afro-Caribbean brothers and sisters in North America, it has become customary now for the more conscious people in the Caribbean to mark February as ‘Black History Month’.

In keeping with this theme several of our media commentators and newspaper columnists will no doubt over the course of the month devote some attention to the achievements of Black people the world over. It is only fitting that my first column for February therefore be in line with this.{{more}}

Thirty-four years ago, February 1972, a group of young black men met in Kingstown to form the BLACK LIBERATION ACTION COMMITTEE (BLAC). Describing itself as a “Pan-Africanist and Black Nationalist organization,” it announced itself with a statement of ten principles, committing itself to fighting “for the liberation of black people at home and abroad”, including fighting to end the then colonial status of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

BLAC was not the first Vincentian progressive, Black Nationalist nor anti colonialist organization. Before it, much of the high-power, Black Power publicity had originated with the Educational Forum of the People (EFP). Indeed BLAC’s own insistence on referring to our country’s name as “Youlou and the Begos” was a direct tribute to the work and teachings of one of the fathers of the ‘Forum”, the late Eddie Griffith. Together with Dr. Kenneth John, Parnell Campbell, Kerwyn Morris and John Cato, and with the occasional interventions of then firebrand Arnhim Eustace, Eddy had kept the anti-colonialist and Black Nationalist flames burning, influencing the thoughts of many young Vincentians.

That was to be manifested later in the birth of several, even more radical organizations – the socialist Young Socialist Groups (YSG) with Caspar London and Hugh Ragguette its best known personalities, espousing the science of Marxism-Leninism, long before most Vincentians knew a thing about socialism, Marx or Lenin; the Oscar Allen-led ARWEE Group of Diamonds raising issues of the rural folk; and the Organization for Black Cultural Awareness (OBCA), the late Jim Maloney and Robert ‘Patches’ Knights in the forefront, challenging and confronting conservative ‘status quo’ and bearing the brunt of police repression.

BLAC was another soldier in this progressive army, somewhat of an offshoot from OBCA, in that several of its founders, the late Criswell Burke, Junior ‘Spirit’ Cottle and Stafford ‘Piko’ Harry, among them had been OBCA members. Based in what was called the ‘Ghetto’, the area along the mouth of the North River close to the headquarters of the Sanitation Department in Lower Kingstown, this group was to have significant influence not only on its base community but also on the development of the progressive movement in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The community itself was a depressed one with many residents living in run down and cramped quarters, owned by a certain business family, one of whom had ventured into politics, becoming a long-serving Minister of Government. Health may have been his portfolio but it was certainly not a priority where the lives of the people of the ‘Ghetto’ were involved. BLAC made this a primary focus of its activities, actually raising funds to build some basic recreational facilities for the people of the area and organizing clean-up activities. This concern for the welfare of the people of the “Ghetto” was immortalized in the calypso classic of the same name, sung by one of our leading calypsonians, former monarch Errol ‘De Man Age’ Rose.

Age’s contribution to the world of calypso, especially social commentary, was strongly influenced by his BLAC connections. He was not alone, for in founding members Michael ‘Black Messenger’ John, and Bernard ‘Reality’ White, there were also excellent proponents of the new black nationalism in song. And the influence soon spread. Another deceased calysonian Duster and Mr. Social Commentary himself, Sulle, the best known and most successful of them all were to keep the flame burning.

The cultural connection was not confined to BLAC alone. Before it, P.R.Campbell of Forum fame, had had his own moments of calypso fame (‘Buy Your Own Cigarettes’) and Patches, another cultural icon, had pioneered many a cultural expression, opening doors for our talented youths. BLAC continued this tradition not just in song. Continuing the OBCA tradition it helped to revive the drum and chanting of our African ancestors, even making connections with the Shango and Baptist movements of Chateaubelair and North Leeward.

Another of its cultural ventures was in the world of pan. How many of us remember that BLAC had built its own steelband, based, of course, in the Ghetto and led by the aforementioned ‘Piko’ Harry, ‘Reality’ White and Chris Burke? The organization was to go even further in the organization of its own Pan-O-Rama in Victoria Park, perhaps the only such initative

to come from outside the official Carnival/Steelband circles. When the history of this country is finally documented, the extent of the influence of the progressive movement on our social life, not just in Black Power in politics, will finally be grasped.