Rude citizen! think you I do not know
that love is stammered, hate is shouted out
in every human city in this world?
Men murder men, as men must murder men,
to build their shining governments of the damned.
From the poem “After One Year” by Martin Carter (1927-1997)
I entered this world during a period of upheaval: the decline of the British Empire and the rise of the United States as a world power. As the British and American governments jostled to protect their interests, they fractured my small world. The British sought to secure their economic gains. The Americans feared having another communist nation in their backyard.
The British exploited the weakness within our first political party that had united the two major ethnic groups, totaling 81.6 percent of the population: East Indians (50.8 percent) and blacks (30.8 percent), based on 1966 estimates. After eleven-plus years of racial violence, the British granted Guyana its independence on May 26, 1966.
When the black socialist government came to power, our nation was racially divided at its core. Well practiced in the art of divide and rule, the British had won the battle for the soul of our nation. After forty-seven years of our triumphal rise to self-rule, we remain a fractured nation. Our ethnocentric politics mimic the British strategy of divide and rule. We replaced the white ruling class with a black ruling class (1966-1992), and later with an East Indian ruling class (1992 to present).
Being a person of mixed ethnicity came with its own drawbacks. Apart from my father’s three brothers, I knew only one uncle from the Chinese side of my father’s relatives. For reasons unknown to me, our Chinese relatives had ostracized my paternal grandmother and her four sons. Was it a question of racial differences, social standing or some other cause? I don’t know.
The Portuguese side of my mother’s family was no different. Her parents had immigrated to the United States when she was a teenager, leaving her and two younger sisters with an aunt and her husband. Her aunt, whom we regarded as our grandmother, died when I was three. Except for two male cousins, we never met any of my mother’s other Portuguese relatives. I grew up with the belief that they had shunned my maternal black Barbadian grandfather on racial grounds. Was I misguided?
Under British rule, our race/ethnicity had not only defined who we were as individuals, but also our place in society. Below the ruling white class, the minority population of Portuguese and Chinese occupied the top rungs of the social ladder. Our independence toppled the status quo.
These are different times. Over the period 1966 to 2002, the percent of the population of mixed ethnicity grew from an estimated 12 percent to 16.7 percent. The indigenous Amerindian population doubled to 9.2 percent. The combined population of white, Portuguese, and Chinese dwindled from 1.7 percent to 0.5 percent. While the percentage of blacks showed little decline with 30.2 percent, the East Indian population shrunk to 43.5 percent. Change is inevitable.
Meanwhile, the capital reflects our national moral decay. The former Garden City of the Caribbean and its environs stink from the corroding sewerage system and accumulation of waste in its streets, alleyways and canals.