February is African History Month originally designated to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas on February 12 and 14 respectively. It is noted and marked in Guyana.
The African people of Guyana have contributed the most, not only to making Guyana the habitable place that it is, but also to the historical narrative of revolutionary resistance to oppression that is now our common heritage. This heritage bequeathed by our ancestors from Africa has inspired Guyana’s quest for freedom and justice. While it is important to bring the story of Guyanese of African origin to public notice, as I have done in the case of Jack Gladstone and the pivotal role he played in the 1823 rebellion, there are many others from other countries who filled my teenage and early adult years and inspired me.
The drive for ethnic dominance is an unavoidable consequence of our social history. It manifests itself in numerous ways and appears in discourses relating to social and economic policy. More importantly and fundamentally, it appears in political competition. Ideas of ethnic dominance have always shaped our society, and politics could not have escaped it even if it had tried. Our main political parties understand this reality but have each constructed an historical narrative that tells an alternative story. The narratives have subsisted together with and have had a parallel trajectory with the drive for ethnic dominance.
Even the youthful leaders who formed the early political movement, the Political Affairs Committee of 1947 and the Peoples Progressive Party in 1950, did so with the understanding that ethnic unity was a vital pre-requisite. The split of the PPP in 1955, although overtly between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists,’ were led by an African Guyanese, Burnham, the ‘moderate’ and the walkout was against the Indian Guyanese, Cheddi Jagan, the ‘extremist,’ resulting from a demand made by Burnham for ‘leader or nothing.’ But within a short time the split inevitably developed into ethnic dimensions. The ethnic violence of the 1960s and two decades of authoritarian rule have together ensured its rigidity and sharpened its significance as a factor in Guyana’s politics unlike, say, Trinidad and Tobago, and have brought home the need to create political and constitutional structures that would undermine its political potency.
Membership of our two main political parties does not necessarily imply that one is a racist or subscribes to an ethnic approach to politics. The leaderships of both parties seriously strive, largely unsuccessfully, to broaden the leadership and membership of their parties. That they have not been successful has not modified their efforts. In the past when there was a clearer ideological distinction between the parties, it was even easier to justify the assertion that motivations for political activism were not ethnic, at least overtly. But supporters are recalcitrant.
While no leader would tolerate ethnic slurs made by their supporters, they are always conscious of the fact that unacceptable language or characterizations in referring to another ethnic group is a common feature of Guyanese life and their supporters might falter. Strong measures should always be taken against such behavior. When Bill Maher, the white US TV host/comedian, liberal and strongly anti-racist, who donated US$1 million to Obama’s election campaign, recently said light-heartedly while interviewing someone that he should not be considered a ‘house n***’, there was a national outcry. He barely kept his job and had to apologise and publicly atone. One of his guests in his next show, the African American actor and rapper, Ice Cube, said that when that word is used in any context, except by African Americans who are now the owners of the word, and presumably are permitted to use it, ‘it’s like a knife.’ Words of racist abuse feel the same way to every race and they do reflect a ‘personal philosophy.’
Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) was a leading Bolshevik and the earliest champion of women’s rights under the new Soviet government. From an aristocratic background, she was attracted to left wing ideas as a student and in 1899 joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, under which name the communists were first organized. Kollontai devoted her energies, in exile and in Russia, to develop strategies for the organization and education of women and their involvement in the struggle against tsarism and capitalism, in unity with and as an equal partner of men. She also sought to liberate women’s sexuality as part of the liberation of women in general and promoted ideas that may appear to be quite acceptable now but which were somewhat advanced for the immediate post-feudal era in Russia (‘sexuality is a human instinct as natural as hunger or thirst’). Although Kollontai encountered much resistance by her male comrades, she nevertheless persisted and earned the support by Lenin. While she was eventually banished to a diplomatic post because of her factional struggle against bureaucracy as a member of ‘The Workers Opposition,’ her ideas heavily influenced the Soviet agenda on women and family issues. It is believed that one of the reasons that she survived the Stalin purges was because of her popularity.
In an article, ‘Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism’ in the New York Times of August 12, by Kirsten R. Ghodsee, a Professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, recognition was given to the role of Alexandra Kollontai. The writer said: “After the Bolshevik takeover Vladimir Lenin and Alexandra Kollontai enabled a sexual revolution in the early years of the Soviet Union with Kollontai arguing that love should be freed from economic considerations.” The ideological foundation for women’s equality had been laid by earlier writers such as August Bebel and Frederic Engels. Thus, suffrage was extended to women in 1917, immediately after the revolution and three years before the US. This was followed by the liberalization of divorce laws and freedom being given to women over reproductive rights. Unwanted pregnancies were reduced by extensive sex education.
Petronella Trotman is the name adopted by Ronnell Trotman, who is a transgender person. Born a male, she identifies as a female. Two famous transgenders, born as males and now identifying as women, are Caitlin Jenner, an Olympian and television personality, and Chelsea Manning, a soldier who was imprisoned for leaking information to Wikileaks, both of them of the United States. Bruce Jenner struggled for many decades and Bradley Manning, who is much younger, for many years with gender identity issues before formally and publicly adopting the female gender with which they have identified.
A transgender person suffers from a gender dysfunction. He or she identifies with the gender opposite to that assigned to him or her at birth. It has nothing to do with sex. Their sexual preferences do not necessarily change. And it is not the same as homosexuality and lesbianism, which has to do with sexual, not gender, preferences. Homosexuals and lesbians are not transgenders.