Black Power in the Caribbean

The Grounding with my Brothers

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 32

The concept of Black Power emerged within the United States as a movement for racial solidarity, cultural pride and self-determination.

Whilst some trace the origins of Black Power back to proponents of black consciousness such Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, the phrase as a political demand was popularised by Stokely Carmichael in June 1966.

Carmichael, a Trinidad-born activist, emerged as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the United States during the Civil Rights Movement.

To the SNCC, Black Power chiefly meant political control as well as ‘the coming together of black people to elect representatives and to force those representatives to speak to their needs’.

It also signalled a reclamation and growing usage of the term 'Black', hitherto generally viewed unfavourably, to self-describe and denote those of African descent.

However, Black Power was not just an American phenomenon. In the words of Carmichael, ‘the reality of black men ruling their own nations gives blacks elsewhere a sense of possibility, of power...’ This belief gave the nations of Africa and the Caribbean great significance.

Black Power in these nations often manifested as opposition to the emergence of neo-colonialism.

In the case of the Caribbean, the majority population of African descent were generally poor and disempowered, while the political and economic power was in the hands of the few white imperialists.

This power not only manifested in political and economic control but also in cultural repression.

In Jamaica, for example, Afrocentric cultural expression was championed by the Rastafarian movement who embraced Garveyism and its identification with Africa.

In response, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Alexander Bustamante, in 1963 issued a decree to ‘bring in all Rastas, dead or alive’ and oversaw the police and military force their way into working-class neighbours to arrest and forcibly cut the dreadlocks of those who were detained.

The emergence of Black Power in the Caribbean would see a call to action against racial injustices like this.

One of the most well-known proponents of Black Power in the Caribbean was Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney.

In his 1969 book The Groundings with my Brothers, Rodney discusses the ideology of Black Power and its relevance in the Caribbean.

Rodney explains that Black Power in the Caribbean has three main components:

  • The break with imperialism/racism

  • The assumption of power

  • The cultural reconstruction

(i) Anti-imperialism and anti-racism

The Caribbean has always been a part of white, imperialist society, Rodney explains. The legacy of slavery still rests heavily upon the black Caribbean population.

During slavery, the gap between the slaver and the enslaved was translated into a feeling on the part of the white slaveholder that he had an inherent superiority over the black man slaving in the fields.

This supposed superiority was then reinforced using violence, terror, pseudoscience, religion and indoctrination to create the race-based society inherent in the Caribbean and throughout the world.

Rodney explains that Black Power is a rejection of this warped viewpoint and the policy of doing nothing in the face of white oppression.

(ii) Power

The essence of white power is the exercising of control over black people across all domains - political, economic, educational, even cultural.

This power is exercised in such a way that black people are ultimately denied any say in their own destinies.

Black Power, on the other hand, is not racially intolerant. It is instead the hope for a society where each individual counts equally.

Rodney explains that Black Power is a call to black people across the world to throw off white domination and resume the handling of their own destinies.

(iii) Reconstruction

Rodney attests that the adult black person in Caribbean society is fully conditioned to think white.

Caribbean people of every colour still aspire to European standards of dress and beauty. Whether it is describing a ‘good complexion’ as a light complexion or a ‘good nose’ as a straight nose, the overriding perception is that white Europeans have a monopoly on beauty.

Through the manipulation of media and education, white society has produced black people who are so convinced of their own inferiority that they cannot help but perpetuate white values.

Rodney concludes that the road to Black Power in the Caribbean and everywhere else must begin with a revaluation of ourselves as blacks and with a redefinition of the world from our own standpoint.