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As Guyana navigates yet another ethno-political standoff, I have decided to reach into the not so distant past for one of the most profound political declarations of our country’s modern political history—Guyana: No Guilty Race. It was the title of a small book published by Eusi Kwayana in 1999 in the wake of the political impasse following the 1997 general elections. Not for the first time Kwayana brought to bear his vast knowledge of Guyanese politics and his singular willingness to openly confront our ethnic problem. The book was a response to the documentation by some Indian Guyanese activists of the events of January 1998 that took on an ugly ethnic dimension. Today, for obvious reasons, I share with the public my review of the book.
Eusi Kwayana’s “ Guyana: No Guilty Race” is one of the most profound statements on ethnicity and politics in contemporary Guyana. The title itself delivers a message that needs no interpretation. This book is timely as it comes at a juncture when ethnic defensiveness and tension in Guyana are at fever pitch. Given Kwayana’s undoubted moral standing, Guyana: No Guilty Race could well serve as a check on this development, at least at the intellectual level. Why do I specify the intellectual level? Precisely because the book is essentially a response, warning, and challenge to what Kwayana correctly perceives as an intellectual campaign to portray African Guyanese as the guilty race in Guyana’s historical racial standoff. The danger of this campaign is its potential on the one hand for easy translation by the “victims” from the intellectual to the practical, and on the other hand, for similar reaction from the other side.
Kwayana also observes that since Guyana’s experience does not support the “guilty race” conclusion, the campaign can only be based on a bending of history in the most warped manner. He makes his point in what I consider to be the most telling statement in a book of telling statements:
My challenge to writers of history, or of the story of the peoples is this. An African writer or Indian writer should not try to pretend that his or her race is always right and the others always wrong. This cry–“My race (Indian or African) is always right, my race suffered the most, my race is the most wronged in the country, all the violence done in history was against my race”–is a false alarm. This kind of history, so far as Guyana is concerned, can be seen as war propaganda. It has no basis in the facts of our experience and will condemn later generations to endless conflict. We can arrive at a conclusion of a guilty race, only by twisting facts, missing facts, and treating readers or listeners with disrespect. This does not mean that in every department of wrong the scores are equal. It means that there has been to date no ground at all for the idea of a guilty race of Guyanese (p.2).
The first part of the book is a reaction to the Guyana Indian Foundation Trust (GIFT) report on the violent attacks on Indians in Georgetown on 12 January 1998. Kwayana welcomes the report for he himself is extraordinarily strong on documenting instances of political violence in Guyana. But he draws attention to the fact that it does not adequately capture the role of Africans in rescuing and protecting Indians on Jan 12, 1998. He provides some examples of his own and concludes, “I am proud of those Africans and others whose deeds are not known” (p.5). He condemned those who committed offences against Indian Guyanese. According to him they “could not be people who care about their own race, as they would like the public to believe. Whoever they are they care only about themselves”(p.5)
After recounting an incident where an Indian fishermen saved the life of an African woman, he concluded “The Africans who beat up Indians, including Indian women, on 12 January 1998, just on the anniversary of this wonderful good works of the Indian fishermen, are not Africans I am proud of”(pp 5-6) The telling point being made here is that there are guilty Africans and caring Africans; a caring that extends to other ethnic groups. Does this amount to a guilty race? Kwayana thinks not.
The issue of rape is also given some attention by the author. He observes that the GIFT report does not support the charge of rape initially leveled by Indian rights activist Ravi Dev. He notes that the report lists instances of “sexual assaults” resulting from men pushing “their hands into women’s bosoms in search of money” (p.9) but does not list instances of rape. Kwayana lauds the women for not lying and says there is a “vast moral difference between the motive of robbery and the motive of rape.” He then zeroes in on the motive of those who charged rape, accusing them of playing to the stereotype by turning “rough and violent political thugs and robbers into lustful, mindless savages seeking to rape selected women”(p9). This section is important because it goes to the heart of the matter at hand. Kwayana not only refutes the premise of the GIFT/Ravi Dev case, but he also exposes the gaping holes in the evidence. The larger lesson here is that analysis of ethno-racial animosity must take into consideration the total picture.
The next section of the book is devoted to a putting ethnic conflict in Guyana within its proper historical and political perspective. This is done through a thorough discussion of ethnic conflict from 1961 to the present in which Kwayana makes some interesting statements and observations. In the process he takes both Ravi Dev and Dr. Cheddi Jagan to task for attempting to rewrite Guyana’s political history. He makes the case that the disturbance of the 1960s started in 1961 and not 1964 as many writers often claim. Drawing on evidence first documented in his 1962 publication, Next Witness, Kwayana observes that the 1961 election as the occasion for the initial conflict. He concludes that while Africans were the aggressors in 1962 and 1963, Indians were the aggressors in 1961 and 1964.
The section is full of information that both scholars and non-scholars would find more than useful. Most of it would derail popularly held views. For example, the active role of Portuguese, or what the author calls “teams of motor-cycled young men who were far from disabled” (p.36) in the urban riots of 1962-1963 or the fact that there were Indian strike breakers during the 1977 GAWU 135 day strike or that it was not only Indians who “undercut” Africans in the immediate post-emancipation era, or that the PPP’s draft constitution for Independence “provided for one-party rule, with the opposition as a mere onlooker.” (p. 26)
Guyana: No Guilty Race is peppered by accounts of the author’s role in the ethnic politics of Guyana. He makes no apology for challenging the PPP race agenda in the 1960s, but “regrets the way I handled the race problems. For one thing when I lost confidence in the Indian leadership, I blamed the supporters for supporting injustice. on racial grounds” (p.26) Kwayana also makes a couple of startling revelations in the book; Mrs. Janet Jagan bursting into tears at Leonora in 1980, telling the audience to ask Kwayana what he did at Wismar in 1964, and an anonymous letter over the signature “coolie” ridiculing him as an example of “the perfect image of the black man’s backwardness”
This is a serious work that utilizes sociology, history, and politics to make a profoundly important statement. It is a combination of political history lessons, insights into the behavior of ethnic groups in conflict, defense of the multi-racial nature of the WPA, and some of Kwayana’s thoughts and reflections on his own political actions. Kwayana cannot be detached from the issue of ethnicity and race. As he himself observes, this is an area of Guyanese politics that he has long been concerned with. But the fact that he does not speak to the issue with a forked tongue makes his voice most compelling. In recommending this book as a monumental addition to the growing body of serious thought on race and politics in Guyana, I make bold to say that it represents the genesis of a framework for racial understanding and healing. It defends African Guyanese dignity without glorifying African-Guyanese indignity. And most importantly, it upholds African-Guyanese self-worth without diminishing or assassinating Indian Guyanese dignity.
I end this review with Kwayana’s warning:
“I know also that the present public image of violence is an African one. Few people regret more than I do the degeneration of sections of Africans in Guyana but, to say that it is natural or that it was always so, or that all are downhill must be due to ignorance or mischief. My present mission includes waging jihad against the doctrine, not the person, of anyone who claims that there is a guilty race in Guyana (p.37)”