Naming and power

The furore that has erupted over the Guyana Police Force’s (GPF’s) usage of the term “Negro” reminds us that questions of identity are still unsettled in our country. And since our politics is dominated by the same question, it explains the intensity of the reaction and the need to address the concerns raised.
A name is much more than just a label; it’s a significant part of our identity, and plays a crucial role in our lives. And this is even more pertinent since our names were given to us by Europeans, to signal their categorization of us as lesser humans who could be exploited first as slaves, then as indentured labour.
The word “negro” is from the Portuguese word for “black” – itself derived from the Latin “niger”. And it was the Portuguese who first introduced Africans into Europe as slaves, with the colour of their skin being their most pronounced physical feature. The notion of race – where behavioural patterns were mapped onto physical characteristics – soon followed.
Even though it was widely used up to the middle of the 20th century by those so tagged – eg, the Negro Progress Convention in Guyana; the United Negro Improvement Association of Garvey – it has to be acknowledged that the term negro still evokes its historical baggage of chattel slavery and its sub-human justification. As such, it should have long been expunged from official designations, as it was in the US, for example, since it was the same official institution that had created the invidious classification, to begin with.
As to what the term “negro” should be replaced with, that should be chosen by the persons affected – Prospero cannot still name Caliban. In the US, there has been a shift to the term “Black” and “African American”, and this is being mirrored in Guyana.
I was exposed to the 1988 debate in the US when Jesse Jackson argued forcefully after his impressive run for the American presidency: “Black does not describe our situation: We are of African-American heritage…Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base and some historical cultural base. There are Armenian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Arab-Americans and Italian-Americans. (They have a) “degree of accepted and reasonable pride”, and had succeeded in connecting “their heritage to their mother country” and also to “where they are now” in America.” It caught on, but there is still a substantial preference for the word “Black”.
When I returned to Guyana the following year, I proposed that race-based tags like “negro” and “Black” be jettisoned and replaced by our cultural place of origin (ethnicity) hyphenated with “Guyanese” — which describes our citizenship of the country in which we live, and which guarantees us all equal rights. In our land of “six peoples”, we were (in order of arrival) Indigenous Guyanese; African Guyanese; Portuguese Guyanese; Indian Guyanese; Chinese Guyanese and Mixed Guyanese. It was interesting that one of the first to object to this nomenclature in the press was Mr Desmond Hoyte, who insisted we were all simply “Guyanese”. But as a man given to introspection, he soon changed his mind.
As for the other groups, the Indians who were brought as Indentured labourers (“Girmitiyas”) were labelled “Coolies” by the British in most of their communications – coolies; coolie ships; coolie housing; coolie food, etc. Interestingly, it was also used for the Chinese they shipped around the world as indentured labourers, but in Guiana, the label only stuck to those from India. The term “kuli” was from an Indian language, it means labourer or porter, and is still so used widely in India. However, in the colonies, it was a term laden with negativity, and suggested “uncivilized”, “dirty”, “pagan”, “heathen”, and certainly lesser in all ways to Whites and other groups.
It would appear that the “coolie” usage did not make it into the official designations as “negro” did, but was substituted by “East Indian” to distinguish it from “West Indian”. This raises two related questions arising from Columbus misnaming the islands in the Caribbean archipelago “West Indies” after discovering he was nowhere near the “Indies” and India he was seeking.
Are our Indigenous Peoples comfortable with being labelled “Amer-indian”? In my own writings I prefer “Indigenous Guyanese”, but ultimately, it is a question that they should answer.
And should we stop using “West Indies” in favour of “Caribbean”? Oh, what a tangled web was woven when the Europeans tried to label us.

Previous articleStepping…
Next articleState and nation