Last month, I wrote about how close ties between Canada and the Commonwealth Caribbean shaped Black activism in Canada in the 1960s. These ties also shaped Black radicalism in the West Indies. Here, I review 70:Remembering a Revolution, a 2010 documentary about the 1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, a key moment in the history of Black Power as an international phenomenon. The film demonstrates how West Indian protests against Canadian racism played into criticisms of, and helped inspire political action against, racism and neoimperialism in the Anglophone Caribbean.
In April 1968, West Indian students at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University filed charges of racism against a biology professor. Frustrated with the university’s mishandling of the charges, in January 1969 they and their allies seized the university’s computer center. The occupation ended two weeks later when police moved in. Violence ensued, culminating in a fire that destroyed two million dollars’ worth of property. Several Trinidadians and other West Indians, as well as local Black and white activists, were arrested and charged with serious crimes.
A year after the “Sir George Williams Affair,” students in Port-of-Spain took to the streets in support of Trinidadians facing trial in Montreal, picketing the Canadian High Commission and the Royal Bank of Canada’s local office before occupying a cathedral. Trinidad’s Black Power revolution had begun. It would end two months later in a failed military coup against Eric Williams’s government.
In 70: Remembering a Revolution, Alex de Verteuil and Elizabeth Topp tell the story of Trinidad’s revolution through the voices of the men and women who led, participated in, and opposed it. The film covers events from the first protests in support of the people arrested at Sir George, when students at the University of the West Indies (UWI) St. Augustine campus picketed a visit by Canada’s governor-general soon after the occupation, through the uprising’s transformation from student protest to popular mobilization to an armed movement against the state. The film is an important contribution to the scholarship on the post-colonial Caribbean, documenting a key moment in Caribbean radical history and bringing to light questions that face historians who write about the Black Power movements that emerged in the West Indies.
The first of these questions regards the issues that West Indian Black Power addressed, issues rooted in the region’s colonial history and the nature of the transition to independence. Khafra Kambon (then Dave Darbeau) was one of the leaders of the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), the student-led political group that was at the forefront of the Black Power Revolution. He sees the end of the 1960s as a time when “it was clear to everyone … that [Trinidadian] society was boiling over and something would break out.” 70 focuses on how Trinidadians’ engagement with Black Power arose from the profound frustration felt by the first generation of Trinidadians to come of age in the era of political independence. As Senator Jennifer Jones-Kernahan puts it, “1970 had its antecedents in the dashed hopes of what independence would mean: a better quality of life, better opportunities for employment.” These “dashed hopes” manifested in a number of ways, but the film focuses on two, one closely tied to economic concerns and the other closely tied to a key part of Trinidadian cultural identity.
Young Trinidadians saw Black Power as a challenge to the fact that political independence had not changed an economic system in which skin color still dictated a person’s employment opportunities. In the film, journalist Raoul Pantin, who extensively covered the revolution, tells us how the “commanding heights of the economy” in post-independence Trinidad were controlled by “local whites or foreign whites.” The gaps between young Trinidadians’ employment hopes and the reality they faced is illustrated by hiring practices at banks where, coming up to a decade after independence, the only Black people clients were likely to encounter would be serving tea.
70 also uses banking to illustrate how independence had not only failed to create a national economy that provided the people with better opportunities, but had also failed to give Trinidad control of its national economy. As businessman Leslie Scotland recalls, walking through Independence Square “was like [being] in Canada” because of all the Canadian banks.
Besides documenting the role that racism and neoimperialism played in limiting Trinidad’s economic sovereignty and Trinidadians’ access to good jobs, the film reveals how Carnival, a major touchstone of Trinidadian culture, was plagued by racism during the first decade of independence. Specifically, the beauty contest that selected the Carnival Queen still favored fair-skinned women. As activist Clive Nunez recalls, Trinidadians “were not seeing [themselves] represented” by a figure who was meant to represent the nation.
Young Trinidadians reacted to these conditions by embracing a racial consciousness that was both a product of national dynamics and part of a global reaction to imperialism and racism that manifested in phenomena like resistance to the Vietnam war and apartheid, and which drew inspiration from revolutionary figures including Che Guevara, Angela Davis, and Stokely Carmichael. In Trinidad in the late 1960s, this emerging consciousness could be seen in cultural and intellectual spheres. As advertising executive Gary Besson recalls, a local ad campaign directed at young Black men called “Man the Movement,” which portrayed its subjects as urban guerrillas, was directly inspired by Black Power rhetoric from the United States. Intellectually, this radical spirit was reflected not only in the growing radicalism of campus politics at UWI, but in the political self-education of the masses. Kambon, Nunez, and the historian Brinsley Samaroo recall how, in a situation reminiscent of Walter Rodney’s groundings with young working-class people in Jamaica, students at St. Augustine would come down to the blocks in the Laventille neighborhood to bridge the gap between the urban poor and the campus, while young people in the neighborhoods would spend their evenings under the streetlights reading the same radical literature that was being consumed on campus.
Historians of Black Power in the Caribbean also have to consider what “Black Power” meant in the context of a society with a government run and elected by Black people. In the case of Trinidad, part of this question involves wrestling with the complicated intellectual and political legacies of Eric Williams, the country’s first prime minister and the ultimate target of Black Power’s critiques, but who was himself an important part of the intellectual history of the anti-racist and anti-imperialist ideas that drove the movement. As Pantin tells us, as Trinidad’s first Black PM, “Williams in his own way represented Black Power.” Yet, even as Williams’s historical analyses of the effects of racism, imperialism, and slavery remained touchstones for Black Power—and were often reprinted in the movement’s print culture—as scholar Selwyn Ryan puts it, the generation who had learned so much from him ended up throwing his words back in his face.
Another question that arose in 1970 that historians have to consider is what “Black Power” meant in societies like Trinidad where an Indo-Caribbean population struggled against many of the same issues that drove Black Power but did not readily identify with Blackness as a political category, even as groups like NJAC applied the term to all peoples targeted by racism. NJAC leader Makandal Daaga (formerly Geddes Granger) blames the press for framing the uprising as a “Black Power” movement and argues that the revolution is best understood not as a racial movement but as a national liberation movement.
While the centrality of Black Power-inspired rhetoric to the movement from its earliest days complicates the argument that the Black Power label was imposed by the press, by calling 1970 a national liberation movement, Daaga provides us with a useful way to think about the stakes of Black Power-inspired politics in a multi-racial and post-colonial situation such as Trinidad’s. As Daaga argues, the best explanation for the alienation that inspired the uprising may be found in the fact that the West Indian nations were granted independence following negotiations between Britain and a new political elite. The West Indian people, in Daaga’s words, “didn’t fight for independence” and were excluded from taking part in defining what independence would mean. Understanding Black Power in a West Indian context means engaging with the complex and enduring legacies of European imperialism and the historically specific dynamics of its decline and end.
70: Remembering a Revolution paints a vivid and complex picture of a key moment in both the international history of Black Power and in the history of the modern Anglophone Caribbean. It is essential viewing for anyone interested in (or teaching a class on) transnational Black radicalism or the history of the modern West Indies.
Paul Hébert is an independent scholar who received his PhD from the University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book manuscript based on his dissertation, “A Microcosm of the General Struggle: Black Thought and Activism in Montreal, 1960–1969.”permission.