The 1970 Black Power Movement (BPM) is usually presented as a protest at odds with the Church. Of course it was at odds with the Church at the time, dominated as it were by the white establishment of the day, but at the helm of the black consciousness in the Church at the time was a white man, the former Fr Boyd Reid who spoke that language of marginalisation and inequality. He is still to be recognised by the Church for his contribution to black liberation.
It needs to be said that the BPM protest was a blessing to the Church. It initiated some important developments in the Church that many may not know about and which I wish to enunciate as we marked the 50th anniversary of the BPM and anticipate the 58th anniversary of our nation’s independence.
The BPM was a protest movement with symbolic actions. In the Old Testament the prophets carried out symbolic actions at God’s instruction as a prophecy of what was to happen to the people of Judah who had repeatedly broken covenanted principles. For instance, Isaiah was instructed to walk naked (Is 20) to indicate the Lord’s plan to strip Judah naked of its power and privilege; Jeremiah was instructed to break the potter’s jar to indicate Judah would soon be broken and scattered (Jer 19).
The shrouding of the statues in black cloth (no painting in black of statues took place) at the Roman Catholic cathedral was a kind of prophetic symbolism. It was inspired as much by God as by Marx. For this the Church should be indebted. The BPM saw the birth of Caribbean Theology. Just as the BPM brought groups together, especially Africans and Indians, so too the birth of Caribbean Theology was due to an ecumenical effort. It resulted in seminal publications Out of the Depths and Troubling of the Waters, Caribbean theological reflections edited by the late Presbyterian minister Dr Idris Hamid.
The BPM also occasioned the birth of inculturation ie the planting of the gospel in the cultures of Caribbean peoples. It was lost on us for many centuries that Christ was always an inculturated Christ—clothed in the culture of Palestinian peoples. It saw the birth of musical inculturation—the inclusion of steelpan, guitar, chac chac, drums, clapping, some measure of dancing. Art also flourished as in the works of Dunstan St Omer, a St Lucian artist, and many others. The African or Rasta Christ was quite common.
Even though Indians participated in the BPM the specific Indo-input was lost to the Church and still trembles to rear its head. It remained basically Afro-inculturation, with some Hispanic and Creole as well. Indians were seen as too tied to Hinduism and by extension paganism. There remains in the Catholic Church an Indo-Catholic disconnect that is ignored like an Alzheimic screaming grandfather locked up in the attic to whom no one pays attention. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.
The birth of the Regional Seminary was another fruit of the BPM. The seminary was originally “diocesan” ie for the local church of Port of Spain, but now it was to become a regional institution in the service of regional development like Caricom. In fact, a noted trade unionist remarked at its closure for a number of years, “One of the last bastions of Caribbean integration has gone.” The Bishops of the Caribbean missed that one. Sometimes “out of the mouths of babes come words of wisdom.”
The BPM also affected the seminary syllabus as professors moved out Latin and Greek which most priests hardly used as not many went on to graduate studies and replaced them with courses on Caribbean history, sociology, literature and spirituality. One of the prophetic courses was crafted by the late Fr Dr Henry Charles—“Caribbean Literature, Theology and Ethics.” His PhD thesis on the disclosure of possibility for the post-colonial Caribbean remains a milestone in Caribbean theological thought.
One of the wonderful achievements of the 1990s was a restoration of Caribbean Catholic theology in 1994 under the impetus of the then Fr Joseph Harris, Fr Patrick Anthony (St Lucia), Fr Michel de Verteuil and Dr Gerald Boodoo. It remains largely Catholic but is becoming more ecumenical—Conference on Theology in the Caribbean Today. It hosted a webinar recently on Black Lives Matter —Caribbean Theological Perspectives that had significant participation and rich discourse.
The events of 1970 have been somewhat lost in the 30th anniversary of the 1990 coup, a most harrowing and tragic event. There is much work to be done as Church in 2020 and beyond. We have stagnated on many issues—race, class, poverty, education as well as new issues like gender, violence, the environment etc. We have capitulated to the elitism of the past and there is need for new “speak truth to power” movements. The way forward is for us to claim.