THE ARTS FORUM is a platform that accommodates multiple voices exploring themes and issues of concern to the peoples of Guyana, the Caribbean, and the Diaspora. As such, the views expressed by guest columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Directors of THE ARTS FORUM Inc.
Recently, there has been a spate of letters to the local Press on the subject of ethnicity, multiculturalism and identity. Editorials and columnists are also expressing views concerning the nature and dynamics of our society. We are a people who derive from various ancestral groups with equally diverse cultural sensitivities. But what and who are we in the New World? We are Indian, African, Portuguese, Chinese, Mixed races, Amerindian, in addition to being Guyanese. Are we also an indistinguishable Creole mass? Are we living in discrete cultural blocks, peacefully, side-by-side? Are we a multicultural society? Are we a plural society? And most important, do we have a national policy that recognises our cultural diversity and pays equal respect to all our cultural groups?
These questions remain relevant if only because they hinge on questions of identity. The quest for identity remains fundamental.
This thoughtful article by ABU BAKR offers another perspective to consider the society we inhabit and contribute to. It adds significantly to the current discourse and is well worth pondering on.
The Arts Journal welcomes responses to its Columns.
DEFINITIONS OF WEST INDIAN SELFHOOD
by ABU BAKR
A lot of the success we have enjoyed in the Caribbean – a dynamic and creative culture
that has, in its artistic forms, become exportable and universally respected, a tradition of achievement and scholarship in the political as well as the academic realms, a sifting and re-working of the age-old cultures from which we were brought into dynamic new forms, the self-confidence, the resilience…may be said to have been possible only because we are in this crucible in this point in history.
A lot of the stress – political, racial, religious, existential and mental – may be said to be due to precisely the same factors – time and place and our adaptation to it.
There is an unending conversation we have with our selves, both internal and other-directed, that has focussed on the comprehension and delineation of just this factor. The earlier generation of trained Caribbean people who discussed these matters is dying out. Their successors are now in middle age, and the books already passed to another generation. One notable thinker on these matters merits remembrance if only for his re-conceptualisation of the discourse.
Edouard Glissant, who was short-listed for the Nobel Prize in 1992, when Walcott won it, died last year. He is best known to an English-speaking public for his work on Caribbean “identity.”
The Martinican writer and philosopher was an important contributor to the discussion on the question of who we were, are, and, in essence, wish to be. Of how we see ourselves and wish to be seen. And, importantly, of who, objectively, we were in relation to others. In the French Caribbean as elsewhere, the writer’s death in February of 2011 was treated as a loss of significance.
Glissant had notably been considered one of the thinkers who, adopting the thesis of René Menil, had moved the definition of the West Indian from the dominion of a culture fixed in a “negritude,” or in any other label that emerges from a primordial and essential racial category. He is therefore best remembered as an advocate of Menil’s “Antillanité” (Caribbeaness), proposed as an elaboration of the idea that the historical process had spun us out of the gravitational zone of a single and simple race-based identity.
We had been caught instead, in a universal and permanent process that tended to a mixing of both racial and cultural elements and the creation of a new personhood. A mixture-metissage – what he and other francophone contributors call a “Créolité”. A sort of “creolitude” in which the Caribbean man, viewed in all his racial diversity, is defined not as his “roots,” but more, as Dennis Williams once wrote, as a sort of “rhizome” branching off and out from a mother tree that flourished in India or Africa or elsewhere. Glissant has universal relevance for the fact of his concordance with and assertion of the idea that all human societies live the same process.
Understandably, he had been principally writing in and of a region where the biological and existential aspects of “race” were refashioned by attitudes formed in the colonial era. Where the mentalities of opposing extremes, and a certain stress were evident. It was evident in the frank denial of the African element in the Dominican Republic (a new racial classification, the Taino “Indio”, was legally invented to efface and replace the Africanity of the mullato). In the fact that, in contrast to the Dominican anti-African decree, many Spanish-speaking nations lived in negation of their Amerindian heritage and presence.
The contrasting attitudes to race and identity surged forth in the power of Garveyism and other movements that inserted the freed slaves and their descendants in a triumphalist back-to-Africa narrative that rejected the region as a new home. It revealed its underlying pathologies in a certain obsession with the absurd precision of twenty or sixty descriptive terms for each combination of black and white blood, for each nuance of colour and its crown of hair. Members of the black race were living an existential malaise in need of urgent resolution. The other races, beneficiary or not of the system, were equally deformed by the prejudices generated in the system.
Glissant, whose “Le Discours Antillais” is considered a major treatise on the question of West Indian identity, is in a historical time-line post-Césaire, and almost contemporary with Fanon. And if the matter of identity immediately evokes the works of three francophone writers, a poet, a psychoanalyst, and a litterateur like Glissant whose production included poetry, novels and essays, it is because the French colonies have suffered the irritant and scourge of a demeaning racism in ways that we, as former British West Indians would find exaggerated, unimaginable.
The late Professor Rex Nettleford, one of the most important Anglophone Caribbean writers on the question of identity, may be thought of as a sort of proponent of antillanité who recognises the objective fact that the dominant element cohabiting with the European culture was African, at least for descendants of Africa in the region.
What Glissant was to do was to integrate the Indo-Caribbean, Amerindian and other “minority” populations, into a conceptual cultural architecture that displaces the African element from the foreground, and grants pre-eminence to an evolutionary process in which all the races are seen as cultures in constant mutation, propelled forward by the stimuli of the larger environment as well as the internal changes that come with their adaptation to the new circumstances. The accent shifted from “race” to “process.”
This interaction of the various cultural elements in the Caribbean may yield, it is to be remarked, interesting results. For when one looks at Rastafarianism, perhaps the principal identity product now associated with African sojourn in the West Indies, one finds diminished the roles that Indo-Jamaicans played in developing both doctrine and practice. (Leonard Howell, founder of Rastafarianism, lived with an Indian community in his hill retreat of the Pinnacle, and it is believed by some that ganja use by Rastas, perhaps even dreadlocks, vegetarianism, and a certain asceticism associated with Rastas may have had their origin with Howell – the Gurgaon guru and his Indo-Jamaican community.)
The above example demonstrates the dangers of a totalising discourse such as “negritude.” A totalising discourse consumes and obscures the diverse racial and cultural elements that pour into the foundation of a modern identity in any given locality. It is as “universal” in its own hegemonic sense as is Naipaul’s conception of a universal culture outside of which one finds only “margin” and a peripheralised role and existence for the Others. Glissant argued that reality in the Caribbean demonstrates the limits of any conception of culture as uniform, static or monolithic and any submission to the idea of a hegemonic “universal culture.”
Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphael Confiant, and Jean Bernabé are other writer-proponents of antillanite-créolité. Many others continue to contribute views on the question. And there must be reasons why the question remains relevant.
One of the reasons, one must be sure, is that the Caribbean exists in an intellectual and quotidian ambiance in which the governing European powers had themselves given an extraordinary weight to the question of race and by extension, culture. Defining oneself as “the master race” imposes a certain self-interrogation on others in your company who do not share the same genotype and are culturally different.
The African, a Hausa or Yoruba in an earlier definition, emerges in the Caribbean from the particularised tribal identity to enter a “lumpen” sub-group labelled “African”. The Indian-Ahir or Dube or Brahmin in the land of his origins, is slowly transformed into a massified “Indian” by the mutational process we stated as being both externally and internally driven. And, in a society concerned with hierarchies, the new men from old continents recommence the process of ranking based on the new categories learnt and acquired plus some of the old values they brought with them and chose to retain.
The notable thing with Glissant and the other French Antillians is that the discourse is really entrapped in a dialogue with and about the European world and its philosophies. The discourse, unfortunately, often occults the ideological battle in which some of our societies are now engaged. The battle is for the end to an afro-european hegemony that extends from the laws and behavioural codes to the dominance of language in all its meanings, and the political ramifications therefrom. The fact is that we are now working with a system formed in other circumstances and with the dominance of codes and values long since elaborated. We have been creolised.
And hence “The Creole” however he may wish to racially define himself, is, essentially, product and heir of a “total” system in which the official underlying values are neither Yoruba nor Ibo or Fon, or Hindu, Muslim and Chinese, but European and Christian. And this in spite of what family life practices or the variety of religious beliefs would showcase.
The institutions, and the ideological scaffolding, with which the nations are constructed are invariably Euro-American in their origin. The Indo-Guyanese, or Indo- Trinidadian, or Guadeloupean, etc., figures incontestably as mere witness and a sort of movie extra in this, for us, the essential process. His contribution is rarely sought and seldom given equal weight. As such “multi-cultural” forms are confined in a rigorously delimited “freedom of religion” modality which exerts the narrowest of influence on the laws and codes of the new communities. Divorce or inheritance procedures, as all aspects of personal law, commercial law and practice etc. define the creole as a provincial in a larger scheme having its locus of generation elsewhere.
The fact is that having been thrust into the cultural universe of the European West, there is no escaping. The change is ontological, epistemic. One literally becomes a new creature – an Afro-European or Indo-European or Amerindian-European, and so on. And the fact of our detachment, in the case of immigrants, from the continents of origin, renders the metissage all the more complete on the surface and profoundly embedded. And it is in this sense that the “creolistes” are right.
The template we inherit will remain in place. A disengagement from the national creolo-centric project becomes impossible. Indian parties (the significant minority in three Caribbean territories) once in power, merely change names and hair type while maintaining many of the cultural biases of the system they inherit. The experience in multi-confessional or pluri-cultural societies has not proven that different peoples can, without great stress and often violence, retain all of their differences while sharing the same territorial space and achieving real equality. Nor has it been shown that creolisation, to which all are subject, can be reversed. Anywhere.
ABU BAKR is a Guyanese born analyst, educated in Guyana and France and now lives in Europe. He is currently preparing a book of essays on “the politics of race, place and gender” with reference primarily to continental Europe, Africa, India and the Caribbean. The main idea behind this work is that each of these elements of identity is and has historically been radically modified by changes in the social order such as colonialism, or by migration etc. The ancestors of the dominant groups also re-defined themselves and were re-defined by their new circumstances.
The editor, Ameena Gafoor, may be reached on Telephone: 592 227 6825 or E-mail: [email protected]
VOLUME 7 NUMBERS 1 & 2 of THE ARTS JOURNAL will shortly be on the bookshelves of all leading bookstores in Guyana, or from the editor, or from [email protected]
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