While addressing his party’s recent rally to protest what the prime minister had already said would not happen—the demolition of the controversial incomplete reconstruction of St Jude Hospital—opposition senator Guibion Ferdinand said: “Come and discuss the findings of the audit in parliament where we can represent you and we can ask them questions and they will answer the questions. But instead, we just hear about the audit and we hear a coolie man, an Indian saying . . . ‘I know what is in there,’ as if he is some engineer and some expert on demolishing and building.”
Obviously, the senator’s grasp of the English language is as flawed as his sense of
decorum. Obviously, he had never listened to ‘I Have A Dream’. Or that he had heard it but not understood Dr. King’s promissory note to black America, in particular the part that reveals his dream of a day when “my four little children will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” In any case, it was no surprise when the target of Ferdinand’s vituperation reacted during the government’s weekly pre-cabinet meeting the day following the earlier mentioned Vieux Fort rally.
“When you’re going to use names that send a derogatory message about a certain set of people in this country . . . it’s as if because I am of Indian heritage I should not have a say in anything that happens in Saint Lucia. You’re talking about a former principal of a school. Somebody from whom you would expect better, a senator in the parliament of Saint Lucia. But that is what . . . that is the message that they project . . .”
His own grammar and enunciation aside, the validity of his point is inescapable. ‘Coolie’ is a pejorative, a contemptible word used in our region to reference Indo-Caribbean people, in particular descendants of the original jahaji indentured workers brought to the Caribbean by European colonists. As the head of the local Indian Heritage Association, Keith Compton, put it, “Coolie is akin to referring to a black person as a ‘nigger’ or a person of Hispanic descent as a ‘spic.’”
As if seeking to justify his lack of tact or worse, Ferdinand later said: “The first time I actually met this minister [Guy Joseph], I was attending a function I was invited to in a community in Vieux Fort North known as Coolie Town. And it was a function known as Dîner Coolie.” He said the minister did not at the time seem the least bit concerned about the name of the community, neither about the day’s function. Ferdinand said he knew two fruits named ‘coco coolie’ and ‘chatine coolie’. He suggested that those who felt offended by the word ‘coolie’ should petition the government to rename the fruits in question.
For those who might suggest there is no need for Ferdinand to apologize for
his outrageously racist remarks, I say: an apology is not only an admission of guilt but it is also an acknowledgement of how one’s actions may negatively have impacted others, even inadvertently. Surely in preparation for his rebuttal, the schooled senator did some research into the etymology of the word. Even the most cursory investigation should have revealed its abominable connotation and left him ashamed of himself.
This is not the first instance of racially charged language being thrown around local political platforms with malice aforethought. Sadly, more than one of our leaders used racial epithets to describe people of Asian descent. Kenny Anthony and Allen Chastanet have both had their suitability to lead this country questioned based on the colour of their skin and been forced to endure the insidious label of “massa” with almost no public outrage. We like to think of ourselves as enlightened but the regrettable truth is that bigotry and xenophobia are as commonplace here as rum-shop picong.
This most recent demonstration of insensitivity wasn’t immediately admonished by me because I believed the senator deserved an opportunity to apologize. In addition, I lacked a true appreciation for the gravity of what was said on account of ignorance of the debasingly sordid connotation to the word; a curious oversight considering my ethnic background. I’d heard whispers of its impropriety and was even witness to a cousin flying into a violent rage when the word was used to describe us both during a game of basketball in the Gardens (George V Park) years ago. I had my cousin’s back of course; however, was nonetheless miffed at his anger. Now I know better. The use of that word should be condemned in the strongest terms.
Additionally, we should all consider whether anything in our country should bear a racially charged name.
As for Senator Guibion, I suggest he keep in mind the words of Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. People know themselves much better than you do. That’s why it’s important to stop expecting them to be something other than who they are.”