Mixed reactions to PM’s Roots social media post

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

In this 2018 file photo, (L-R) Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and his wife Sharon at the Emancipation Day parade in Port of Spain.

THERE were mixed reactions to a Facebook post by the Prime Minister which included a video clip from the 1977 television mini-series Roots.

The clip shows Kunta Kinte, played by US actor Levar Burton, being flogged until he was forced to give up his African name “Kunta” and accept his slave name, “Toby.”

Commenting on the post, Dr Rowley said, “Susheila, that’s how we got the name!”

At a PNM meeting in Arima on May 24, party’s lady vice chairman Camille Robinson-Regis used Persad-Bissessar’s full name, Kamla Susheila Persad-Bissessar, several times during her speech. At a UNC meeting on June 2, Persad-Bissessar countered, telling Robinson-Regis she had the name of a slave master. Persad-Bissessar declared she at least had “a name from my ancestors.”

The PNM and its supporters condemned the comment as racist, while the UNC defended it, saying it was a bitter truth, and questioned why there was no uproar when Robinson-Regis mocked Persad-Bissessar’s name.

Emancipation Support Committee executive chairman Zakiya Uzoma-Wadada had no idea why Rowley decided to post the video clip, saying different people would respond differently to the post, depending on their position in society.

Uzoma-Wadada opined that most times, people respond to situations “from a place of emotion.”

But she said, “Perhaps if I had to venture an opinion, I think maybe he was trying to show that our (Africans’) names were not…we did not choose to have European names.”

But unfortunately European names were ascribed to African slaves despite their efforts to resist it.

“That to me is what that particular image of Kunta Kinte demonstrates, his fight for his name. But in spite of that, we were given European names.”

“All of what is happening around us is just manifestations of that colonial experience and our different responses to it.”

She recalled that African people were enslaved for 400-500 years.

“Just imagine being in that particular state, of being under a particular kind of oppression for that length of period. That almost becomes your norm.”

Uzoma-Wadada said this underscores the importance of emancipation 184 years ago.

“When these situations arise and we have these emotive responses to situations and how people respond to each other, we have to take them as teaching moments.”

She reiterated, “African people did not give up our names voluntarily. We fought hard and were punished to keep their names.

“Indentureship had its own realities. Enslavement has its own realities.” Society needed to be able to respect people for their history, she said.

National Council of Indian Culture president Dr Deokinanan Sharma did not view the post as helpful to resolving the argument between Persad-Bissessar and Robinson-Regis.

“It should be resolved between them.”

Both women are adults, he said, and said this was matter of pouring oil over troubled waters rather than adding fuel to a fire.

Political analyst Shane Mohammed said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Reiterating that Persad-Bissessar committed the first wrong with her “slave master” remark towards Robinson-Regis, he observed nevertheless, ” I don’t think it was appropriate for the Prime Minister to get involved.”

All the PM did was widen the debate, he felt..

Mohammed said the matter was nothing more than Persad-Bissessar “opening a rabbithole, opening a Pandora’s box.” Rowley’s involvement, he continued, is a consequence of Persad-Bissessar’s actions.

“Kamla’s statement was absolutely irresponsible. It takes away from her ideology of being a unifier of society.”

Mohammed said Persad-Bissessar’s image as someone who embraces all of society has been destroyed.

“It was one of the most irresponsible political statements in our history.”

He also believed given her political experience, Persad-Bissessar should have rejected whoever advised her to make her “slave master” comment.

“The Prime Minister getting involved does not justify the scenario. He doesn’t add any positive value to the situation.”

All the post did was cause the country to descend further into an unnecessary racial battle.

Mohammed said, “I cannot reiterate (enough) that this entire thing rests squarely on the lap of Kamla Persad-Bissessar.” He added in reinforcing the view that Persad-Bissessar “has plateaued in her political career, she is stuck in a rut.” Mohammed said this is why Persad-Bissessar must retire from active politics. He believed she overreacted when Robinson-Regis called her by her full name.

National Transformation Alliance (NTA) interim leader Gary Griffith accused both Rowley and Persad-Bissessar of race-baiting. In a statement, Griffith said, “This is a demonstration of the leadership vacuum our country is presently facing, and if left unchecked, it will have dire consequences for every citizen in our beautiful cosmopolitan nation.”

He slammed all politicians for continuing to play the race card whenever it suited them to do so.

“Whilst we understand the historical and cultural context that has made any discussions touching on race so potent to our political landscape, it is for this very same reason that we plead for good sense to prevail, because this brand of politics only serves the few whose agenda it is to divide and conquer.”

Griffith said the NTA welcomed a proper national conversation about race because of the harm racial tensions have caused in other parts of the world.

But he believed there are more urgent national issues to be dealt with rather than “a back-and-forth of race-baiting between a former and present prime minister.”