It is a tragedy that we live in a world where we must celebrate Black History Month, not simply because of our African heritage and pride, but, because of a tainted past thick with marginalization, oppression and vitriol. A past at its core not manufactured by the ills black people have incited or committed; but, rather, reflective of engaging in one cardinal sin - wearing our own skin.
It is indeed a tragedy that we live in a world where people are taught that blackness equals wildness, anger, aggression and cause to fear.
It is a tragedy that we live in a world where 'blackness' and 'excellence' must, with deliberate intent, be penned in close proximity, in order for young black women and men to fathom, to learn, to imagine, to comprehend, to believe, that despite the troubled past of their community, and their current strife, these two constructs [blackness and excellence] do coincide, can coexist and can indeed be synonymous!
So, tell me, what do you think about when you hear Blackness Par Excellence? Do you think of Music, Poetry, the Civil Rights Movement? What else?
And, who do you think about? MLK, Obama, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks? Who else?
Well world. There are a lot more names for you to inscribe on the scroll of Blackness Par Excellence. And, for the rest of the month, we'll help you refine your definition, by showing you statesmen and women, changemakers, trailblazers, leaders in their own right, who often go unnoticed or underrated, not because they are inadequate, but because the history books haven't been caught up as yet.
We start with an excellent example of Caribbean Blackness par excellence, Errol Walton Barrow!
Barrow: Fruit of the vine
Meet the 3rd Premier (pre-independence) and first Prime Minister of the island of Barbados, The Right Honorable Errol Walton Barrow.
Affectionately known as 'De Skipper' (an endearing term to match his visionary leadership), Barrow donned many hats in his lifetime. He was an aviator, lawyer, author, politician, a revered leader and a true son of the soil. His politics may in modern times translate to democratic socialism, evidenced by his agitation for the rights of the working class, and access to welfare and free, desegregated education. And while there exists much debate today surrounding the feasibility of democratic socialism, this was an ideal for the advancement of a newly independent, small island developing state in the post-plantation era. But, who would have expected anything less from the son of a black Reverend who was labelled an 'anarchist' and 'undesirable' by the White Planter Class, for advocating for the upliftment of poor black workers; and, who would have expected different from the nephew of the founder of the Democratic League and Workingmen's Association - socialist organizations in Barbados. The apple indeed did not fall far from the tree!
Barrow: Up to the Task
Young Errol completed his secondary education at the Combermere School and Harrison College, two 'highly regarded' boys schools on the island. Barrow dared to follow in his father's footsteps to attend Codrington College; and, while he did win a Scholarship in 1940, he opted instead to enlist in the Second Barbadian Contingent of the Royal Air Force that same year. The young aircraftman would undergo a series of training exercises and missions, eventually being dubbed an RAF Navigator and Bomber, joining the 88th Squadron in September of 1944. Barrow would fly some 53 missions as a light bomber on the iconic Douglass Boston DB-7 aircraft, before being selected as the personal navigator to the Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in Germany. He would subsequently be promoted to the rank of Flying Officer (equivalent to the rank of Lieutenant in the British Army). Having survived the War, Barrow served in the RAF until 1947, the year in which he commenced his pursuit of two degrees in economics and law from the London School of Economics and the Inns of Court at the University of London. It was in the period of 1947-1950 that Barrow would 'rub shoulders' with future world leaders like Michael Manley (Jamaica), Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore) and Pierre Trudeau (Canada). It was no surprise then, that he too would return to his home country and be called to the House of Parliament in the year 1951.
Barrow: A Political Force
Barrow came to political office some 117 years after the Abolition of Slavery (1834) in Barbados. As a vibrant, young politician, fresh off the world stage, he was pro-independence, and scoffed at the laissez-faire approach of the reigning BLP administration (of which he was a member) towards the matter of cutting ties with Great Britain - loitering on colonial premises. Frustration about this and what was (in his view) 'marginal' progress on matters of national development, led the impassioned Barrow to form a new political party, the Democratic Labour Party in 1955, which suffered a harrowing defeat in the 1956 general election, but rose to power with Barrow as its Premier in 1961. Barrow would serve as PM for 15 years uncontested, up until the 1976 general elections, where he was replaced by Tom Adams of the BLP. Barrow assumed the role of Opposition Leader, where he offered staunch opposition to Government policies, and especially had a lot to say about the invasion of sovereign Caribbean nations by foreign forces augmented by security agencies of other Caribbean islands - such was the case of the so-dubbed "Operation Urgent Fury", which saw a coalition of US troops and forces from 6 Caribbean nations, including Barbados, invade Grenada in 1983. To this day, there is still much debate about balancing regional security and respect for sovereignty, and this mission, like others, has left a bad taste in the mouths of some Caribbean nationals (a taste worsened now, given the split views of CARICOM nations on the current situation evolving between the US and Venezuela). At age 66, Barrow would win an impressive 24-3 victory against the BLP in the 1986 election. Unfortunately, he would meet his untimely death a year into his term, plunging the country into mourning at the loss of a 'National Hero', a title he would receive posthumously, by order of the National Heroes Act in the year 1998.
Barrow: A Freedom Fighter
Barrow accepted the mandate given by the people to finalize the decolonization process - a tedious undertaking marked by much debate and pushback from British officials, and criticism from political opponents - eventually leading Barbados to Independence in November, 1966. This feat would be recorded in history as his biggest accomplishment as a politician, earning him the title 'Father of Independence'. Shown in this picture is Mr. Barrow (right), celebrating with Governor Sir John Montague Stow, on the 30th of November, 1966 after lowering the British flag, the "Union Jack", for the last time, and erecting the Barbados flag, the "Broken Trident", marking Barbados' Independence from Britain.
Barrow: A Legacy that lives on
Any human, and certainly any upstanding politician, hopes to leave behind a country better than they found it. Barrow's story is one characterized by unwavering determination, an unrelenting pursuit of justice, and an unshakable faith that investing in people - giving them dignity, support and a means of making a living - is the best way to achieve the mental component of liberation, and to advance a nation. Barrow's tenure in politics became the proverbial yardstick for all politicians looking to serve in the Upper or Lower Houses of Parliament in Barbados, and throughout the Caribbean. And today, children, from the time they can comprehend, are enlightened about the foresight and brilliant leadership of the Father of Independence, the National Hero, the man who paved the way for high literacy rates, free, desegregated education at all levels, a national insurance and social security scheme, better health services, a better Tourism industry and the formation of CARICOM, an institution that strives to bring about true regional integration. 'De Skipper' will also be remembered for his oratory skill and wit, having delivered several iconic speeches over his career. MLK had the "I've been to the Mountaintop Speech"; but, Barrow's most infamous was titled "The Mirror Image Speech". He delivered this moving presentation at a political rally, two weeks before winning the general election of 1986 (i.e. A year before his death. What's it about iconic speeches and their close association to death? ). In this address, he called on his fellow countrymen to take a look at themselves, and to learn to like themselves. He admonished them that there is more to life than barely making ends meet, that there was more meaning to their lives and citizenship than seeking hope and a better life 'scrubbing floors' in somebody else's country, and that Barbados could in fact be equal, if not better than the industrialized nations they idolized.
And perhaps, that is a good metaphor upon which I should bring this first edition of Blackness Par Excellence to a conclusion.
To you, black man or woman, what is your mirror image?
When you look in the mirror, what do you see? What is your identity? Do you like yourself? Do you like your skin? Do you like the community to which you belong?
When you look in the mirror, do you see possibility and potential to be excellent? Or, were you made to believe that blackness and excellence don't belong in the same sentence?
When you look in the mirror, do you see someone else's story, a life lived craving for acceptance from someone who refuses to see beyond the pigmentation of your skin?
Or, do you feel pride and joy, knowing that only you can craft your fate, and that against all odds you have the capacity to achieve, rise above, to challenge the norm, to be what you were created to be - unapologetically black, beautiful, bold, EXCELLENT...