Nicholas Laughlin asks the question: “Is there such a thing as a Caribbean identity?” in an article entitled “What ‘Caribbean’ can mean.” We bring you today extracts from that article, the full length of which appears in THE ARTS JOURNAL Volume 2 Number 2 (2006).
This column welcomes responses to this question and other pertinent questions posed by Laughlin, as we, too, ponder the concept of a Caribbean identity from a Guyanese perspective.
Responses that engage discussions critically and meaningfully could be published in this column.
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“What ‘Caribbean’ can mean” by Nicholas Laughlin
What does “Caribbean” mean? What a vast weight of confusion and possibility and debate those four little syllables have to bear.
Is “Caribbean” a geographical region defined by proximity to a body of water, by insularity (in the literal sense), by lines of latitude?
Is it a group of nations and proto-nations defined by a common history or culture, or by political links? Is it an aspiration, an attitude, an illusion? Is its meaning determined by presence or absence? Has it an antonym?
This is a knot of questions unlikely ever to be completely unraveled; scholars and politicians and ordinary people will be picking away for foreseeable decades. And these are questions that snag through the pattern of my professional life, not abstractions but practical worries, tightropes to cross and tripwires to vault.
I edit a magazine called Caribbean Beat. The Question of “Caribbeanness” is one I confront every day.
Is there such a thing as a Caribbean identity or spirit or culture, shared by all the territories clustered around the Caribbean Sea, regardless of language or political status?
Yes, is the answer that many of the region’s artists and thinkers and visionaries have given and continue to give.
But pinning down that identity, naming its essence or essences, and using that knowledge to guide the Caribbean’s young societies through the minefield of the modern world, these are problems we are yet to solve (and one particularly intractable problem is the very question of “we”, the practical ways in which Caribbean citizens do or do not, may or may not, act as members of a community or a culture that extends beyond the shores of individual islands).
And there are problems complicated by the fact that for great periods in our respective or collective histories, the “Caribbean” (or “West Indies” or “Antilles”) has been defined by outsiders looking in.
Even today – see the evidence for what Google, the global mind, thinks of us – the Caribbean as most of the world understands it is a tropical paradise where long ago there were pirates and more recently Bob Marley was born.
Or else by insiders – Caribbean men and women – who were trained and educated “outside”, at metropolitan universities, their systems of investigation and comprehension derived from the historical experiences of older, colder countries.
Only in the last thirty or forty years have thinkers begun to recognize the imperative for the Caribbean to understand itself in its own terms, to look through eyes unblinkered by imported theories, define itself in a language of its own invention.
Lloyd Best’s seminal essay “Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom”, first published in 1967, may [yet] be the definitive statement of the case:
Social change in the Caribbean has to and can only begin in the minds of Caribbean men. If we are to act for change, our philosophers and our theorists have first to understand how we relate to ourselves and to the wider world in which we live.
Forty years later, we are still depressingly far from achieving this apparently simple, actually titanic ideal.
‘Diaspora’ is a word long fashionable among Caribbean scholars (as ‘transnational’ is now becoming) and, of course, in this context, it refers not just to citizens of the Caribbean – descended from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and cut off by history and geography from those ancestral lands – but also to the Caribbean Diaspora in the rest of the world: Caribbean people and their descendants who for one reason or another have left the islands of their birth, taking elements of Caribbean culture into the wider world, creating new connections and fusions.
Louise Bennett invented the phrase ’colonization in reverse’ to describe the migration of the Windrush generation to Britain, and perhaps we should also think of this phenomenon as a new form of creolisation, as elements of an already hybrid Caribbean culture go forth to negotiate with other cultures to create new and unpredictable hybrids.
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I began with questions and end with a personal account.
The older I get, the better I understand myself, the more I see of the territories strung through and around this body of water, the more I realize that (and how) I am a Caribbean person; and the complicated and very real divisions of ethnicity, language, class, island, and nation (whatever ‘nation’ means) that run through these territories do not and cannot fundamentally threaten that notion of ‘Caribbeanness’ that I share with thousands – millions? – of people who I have no trouble conceiving of a compatriots.
It may be true that the average individual living in this messy little pocket of the world, eyes firmly on the basic goal of survival and happiness, thinks of himself or herself foremost as a Jamaican, Kittitian, Vincentian, and so on.
But enough of us accept and believe in a bigger, genuinely, and distinctively Caribbean identity for the word – the definition – the aspiration – to carry weight of validity and the charge of possibility.
And the path by which I have come to think, feel, and believe all this has run directly through the magazine I edit.
In the four years I have spent working on Caribbean Beat, my understanding of the place I am from, my roots and role and responsibilities here, have changed in ways sometimes subtle, sometimes radical.
I was born thirteen years after Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence, and a year before we became a republic, cutting our formal ties with the British monarchy.
I grew up thinking of myself sometimes as Trinidadian, sometimes as a citizen of the world; but Caribbean mostly (and merely) in the geographic sense.
As Beat’s editor, I have had to learn a great deal about places, phenomena, and people across the rest of the region, widened my circle of contacts to include almost every Caribbean territory.
I have noticed sometimes surprising differences, but more often even more surprising similarities between islands, cities, and ways of life separated by hundreds of miles of sea.
The breakthrough moment, perhaps, occurred on a trip to St. Lucia in February 2004. Walking Castries – a city I had never visited and where I was about to get lost – I was struck by this thought: this place is mine too.
From that moment I have thought of myself as – paraphrasing Ian McDonald – Trinidadian by birth, and Caribbean by conviction, even if I am still trying to understand quite what that means.
Nicholas Laughlin was editor of the Caribbean Beat In-Flight Magazine from 2003 – 2006. He is now editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.
THE ARTS JOURNAL is available at all leading bookstores or from the editor.
To contact the editor:
Telephone 227 6825.
E-mail: [email protected]
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