Removing Post-emancipation systemic barriers

A few years back, Dr David Hinds proposed and defended the thesis that African Guyanese were suffering from the effects of “marginalisation”. In the face of widespread opposition, this writer agreed with Dr Hinds and wrote several articles explaining his position.

One reason why the charges of “marginalisation” were contested was by and large its articulation had been disjunctured from its roots of racism and African slavery. What was being ignored was, as articulated by Cornell West, “the lingering effects of slavery and past discrimination in the continued attack on black humanity and racist stereotypes which are designed to destroy black self-image,” and in the process keep Africans on the “margins” of society.

In Guyana, the promise of emancipation was also subverted. In economic terms, of course, most famously was the undercutting of the bargaining power of the freed slaves to sell their labour when the sugar planters were authorised and facilitated by the state to import cheap labour from, in order, Madeira, West Indies/Africa, India and China.

As to whether the ex-slaves could have actually extracted greater wages in an environment of plummeting sugar prices is another issue but the fact remains that the agency of the freed Africans to struggle directly against their oppressive conditions was weakened. They were marginalised.

Laws were enacted to compel individuals who wanted to purchase land to do so in plots of at least one hundred acres. This was clearly intended to discourage Africans from purchasing land since it demanded a substantial capital investment that could only be met by persons pooling their resources together. In those instances where the challenge was met – and in several instances where even whole plantations were purchased – the viability of the endeavour was frequently challenged by the refusal of the authorities to integrate the drainage and irrigation system to that of the nascent village movement. Today, we all appreciate the imperative of a functioning D&I system for our survival. Steered into the resultant growing urban centre of Georgetown, the efforts of enterprising Africans and Coloureds to break into petty retailing by supplying vegetables and ground provisions to the urban population, was nipped in the bud when the authorities favoured the newly arrived Portuguese, who quickly decamped the plantations for the retail trade.

Africans who had “gone into the bush” to try their hand in gold mining remained as petty “pork knockers” since the onerous land rights question were not lifted until the 1890s when the Portuguese were in a position to take advantage of the newly discovered goldfields in the Essequibo.

In all urban centres of the 19th century, an underclass developed with its distinctly picaresque orientation – this was true of Dickens’s London as with Rodway’s Georgetown.

In Georgetown the lumpen element just happened to be African. In the countryside, refusing to be driven back to the sugar plantations (excepting for the well-paid artisans who never left), the Africans were driven into subsistence agriculture.

The economic marginalisation of Africans that was the hallmark of slavery was therefore transferred into the “emancipation” era. As I have tried to explain so often, once a pattern of activity is transferred into habit by the workings of the institutions (both formal and informal) the individual becomes socialised into accepting it as ‘the way the world is’ and it becomes extremely difficult to alter – especially if the habits have been transferred across generations as it has been in Guyana. Witness Indians and the Police Force.

Most Indians and other individuals including many Africans – and that’s another story – look at the present situation of Africans and assert, “Hey! My foreparents came here with nothing on their backs and worked hard, saved as did my parents and so we’re doing better. Why can’t “marginalised” Africans do the same?” They ignore the possible “lingering effects” of the economic system and its echo in the psyches of individuals which may affect their ability to compete within the present system.

As it necessarily addresses this marginalisation of African Guyanese, the government must be careful it does not marginalise other groups such as Indian-Guyanese, as was charged by the Opposition Leader.