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Love a Donkey: Besson's Independence Fables - Pt 1

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 03, 2017

PART 1 — PART 2PART 3

I always marvel when relatively intelligent people say silly things about Africans and our past because of their color or class position. In "Independence Legacies" Gerard Besson offers a mishmash of information, which suffers from factual, interpretive, and definitional flaws. Besson is more concerned with trotting out an ideological position rather than with offering an analytical argument to support his contentions. It's almost as though his "Creoleness" exempts him from treating his subject matter with the academic rigor it deserves.

Besson argues that "Dr. Williams's personality was in many ways formed by 19th century notions, and his academic study of African slavery shaped his world view" (Express, August 31). It would be nice if Besson told us what 19th century notions shaped Dr. Williams's "personality" (what its characteristics are) and whether this was a positive or a negative thing.

Dr. Williams defined his academic concerns in his autobiography. He says: "I persisted in relating economic concepts and their authors to the historical and economic development of society. I saw, for example, the ideas of Adam Smith and [David] Ricardo [18th and 19th century economists] as the weapons of one class against another, or one section of one class against another, which could not be taken out of the context of the American and Industrial Revolutions, the First Reform Bill, and the Repeal of the Corn Laws. I was the historian studying economics [my emphasis].

What is Besson's objection to this formulation?

Dr. Williams did not study African history at Oxford University where he did his graduate and undergraduate degrees. As an undergraduate, he studied modern history. He says: "Three years after matriculation came the Final examination, a grueling ordeal of eleven papers lasting three hours each for five and a half days-three in English political history, one on general constitutional history of England and another on special texts and cases, one on a special period of European history" (Inward Hunger).

There is nothing here about African slavery, which should be referred to more accurately as European slavery or "the European slave trade" as Walter Rodney termed it. Rodney notes, "Africans did not participate in its making, and in many instances, African people were simply the victims, for the law recognized them only as transportable merchandise" (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa).

Dr. Williams earned First Class honors for his undergraduate work. He chose "the very beginnings of modern society in the West Indies, the abolition of the British West Indian slave system" as the themes for his graduate studies. His doctoral thesis was entitled, The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the West Indian Slave Trade, which he expanded to Capitalism and Slavery.

Besson goes from academic inaccuracies to psychological speculation. He argues that Dr. Williams "appears to have had, personally, a heightened sense of victimhood." It is difficult for Besson to prove this tenuous argument since he is not a psychologist.

Not content with amateur psychoanalyzing, Besson expands his thesis to read: "All this [his heightened sense of victimhood] he turned into the politics of entitlement, which were readily accepted [by whom, he does not say]. That, coupled with his belief that guilt could be inherited, served to alienate the European segment in general and the French Creole and off-white community, to which he was connected, in particular."

As a historian studying economics, Dr. Williams saw the ideas of Smith and Ricardo as class weapons. Karl Marx drew on Ricardo's labor theory of value to explain capitalism. It became a major pillar of Marxist economics. The alienation that one saw among the Europeans, French Creoles, and off whites when Dr. Williams began to fight against colonialism had more to do with the exploitation of Africans and Indians rather than a "politics of entitlement," or a belief that "guilt could be inherited."

Colonialism is an economic system in which two major classes are always in conflict: one wanting to make as much profit as possible, the other trying to extract a reasonable wage for their labor. Dr. Williams encountered a colonial economy when he returned to T&T. His was therefore an economic rather than a racial struggle for equality and justice.

In 1954, three quarters of the world's population was waging nationalist struggles against colonialism. In the United States Martin Luther King and civil rights crusaders were fighting against American racism. In 1964 the black people in South African escalated their battle against apartheid when the South African government imprisoned Nelson Mandela. In 1990, he became an international hero when he was released from prison. That, too, was a part of the inter-nationalist struggle against colonialism.

It is erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous to argue that the nationalist struggle against colonialism, led by Dr. Williams, replaced "one form of racismů with another." This thinking poisons the national mind and sets one group—the Africans and Indians—against the privileged, exploiting group—the Europeans, the French Creoles, the off whites, and the Syrian/Lebanese community. This is even more unacceptable now that the one-percenters rule the roost.

Such posturing is not conducive to developing healthy social relations at a time when we celebrate our 55th anniversary.

I will examine other aspects of Besson's article next week.

Professor Cudjoe's email is scudjoe@wellesley.edu. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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