This week Guyana observes fifty-three years of independence or political freedom from colonial rule. As is the case with most recent post-colonial societies, the debate over whether we are truly independent is as fresh as it was five decades ago.
It is an inevitable debate, given the fact that independence ended almost four centuries of institutionalized bondage by the other—the colonizer who reduced his subjects to mere chattel. That is a fact that should never be lost in our debate over the condition of our independence.
You do not undo four centuries of bondage in five decades; the formal end of a system does not translate into a cessation of the practice of that system. As Brother Bob Marley, our musical prophet, reminds us: “No chains around my feet/But I am not free.”
Guyana and the Anglophone Caribbean became independent amidst great challenges. As the Caribbean approached independence after the Second World War, we were entering a world that was not created for us. When the big countries at the end of the Second World War got together at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, they constructed a world order for themselves. Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, Guyana and the Caribbean were not on their minds.
But we were coming into that world with some things that would become important for us in the Caribbean and important for the world. First, we brought a history of bondage – never forget that. Most of the history of the Caribbean has been a history of bondage. We cannot define who we are outside of that; to do so is suicidal and nonsensical. And out of that history, we were able to carve an identity and a praxis that would help us to see oppression when others failed to do so.
We also brought a history of overcoming. We often talk about slavery and colonialism, but do not often talk enough about how we overcame slavery and colonialism and we are here today. Four hundred years, and we are still here. The history of overcoming and the link between bondage and overcoming is the history of resistance. We in the Caribbean wrote the primer for resistance – always resisting and overcoming.
And if you are in bondage as I said, you are constantly thinking about freedom. So, we brought to the world a freedom instinct – an instinct for freedom. Professor Rex Nettleford reminded us that we have not built towers and pyramids and skyscrapers, but that we brought to the world what he describes as our” creative intellect” and our “creative imagination.”
When you look around the world and you see Caribbean people doing things and building the world and informing the world and teaching the world and sensitizing the world, it is no accident. It is the fertile Caribbean mind at work. It is why a Bob Marley, a little boy from rural Jamaica could speak to the world, all over the world, to all kinds of people in the world and get them to listen – in the middle of the dancehall amid their celebration, getting them to think about humanity. That was our gift to the world.
And if we are thinking about freedom, we are also thinking about democracy. Often, we think about democracy as the invention of the Greeks—that the Greeks gave us democracy. And we teach that to our students all the time. If people say that you are unequal and treat you as unequal, you are constantly struggling for equality; and if you are nurtured in an unjust space, you are constantly thinking about justice.
If you are beat down, then in order to stand up, you have got to link hands and link minds. We gave the world democracy. And we must own democracy. For our democracy comes out of our yearning for freedom and for equality and for justice. When our foreparents were planning to escape from the plantation, they sat around the fire, sat wherever they could find space and they planned. They were engaging in democracy. Let us not surrender these things to other people. We too are democrats.
We brought to independence a sense of integration; they enslaved us and colonized us — not just as Barbadians and Grenadians and Guyanese. It was a plantation system in these Caribbean waters. Slavery and colonialism were the epitome of what they now call globalization. We in the Caribbean understand what globalization is and was. We have always been globalized. Again, I borrow from Nettleford, who reminded us that what they now call globalization is “a new designation for an old obscenity.”
So, if you are suppressed and oppressed by a global framework, you resist that suppression and that oppression with a global resistance — a resistance of integration. Integration did not start with the Federation in 1958 — integration started on the plantations. As they were planning to break out of the plantation, they made sure that they did not plan to escape from one plantation. They sent the message to other plantations. They were integrating, always seeking to be plural.
We brought to independence a radical instinct — getting to the roots. Not the top, not the surface, because to beat the system you had to uproot the system. Slavery was not about half slave and quarter people, or half slave and half people — you were a full slave in the eyes of the slave master; you were not a human being. And so, to beat slavery you had to get to the root. And so, we brought radicalism, a radical instinct to our independence.
And finally, we brought to our independence a knowledge of the world. Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, led the largest black mass movement, a global movement in the early part of the 20th century. Many of the leading Pan Africanists from Henry Sylvester Williams, George Padmore, Garvey himself, Frantz Fanon coming right through to Walter Rodney, thought locally and globally. They had a sense of the world. When the trade unionists came back in the early part of the century from a conference in Europe, they were not talking about Barbadian independence and Trinidadian independence. They were talking about Caribbean independence.
But even as we celebrate our independence and our contribution to the world, we are still grappling with the legacy of colonialism. Another of our musical icons, David Rudder, tells us a bitter truth—that we live in a world “that don’t need islands no more.” Our islands once made Europe rich—the root of their wealth lies in our little islands or as Walter Rodney would say, their development is a function of our underdevelopment.
So, as we celebrate, we must also reflect on our condition, in all its manifestations. We Caribbean people like to party—for good reason—but we have at all times a duty to engage in a “conscious party.” In other words, we must dance to the rhythm of freedom, for if you are/were bound in captivity, your dance can only be a dance of freedom.
The question before us this independence is whether we have done enough to translate our independence into a deliberate quest for freedom. Have we expanded the freedom-space since 1966? Are our people — especially the least among us — freer today than they were in 1966? If socio-economic poverty was the most damning consequence of colonization, what have we done to decrease its grip on our society? What have we done to turn the plantation model into its opposite?
Any fair observer must answer those questions more in the negative that the positive. After fifty-three years of independence, our country still resembles a plantation society. Our former colonial masters still control the drift of our collective motion. But we know enough now to know that that outcome was inevitable.
The question is whether we have mustered the collective will to negotiate that inevitability. Again, the answer has to be more a no than a yes. Note, I am not saying that we have not attempted to deal with those inherent maladies, but in the end, we have to conclude that we have not been as persistent and consistent as we should have been.
Yes, our people in Guyana and the wider Caribbean have survived the last six decades —they have, in their native ways, tried to give character and dignity to our independence. They turned plantations into villages and areas of darkness into points of light. Many of us can today lift our gazes to the mountain top, not because of the freedom given to us by some political party or government, but because the people turned themselves into ladders for us to climb.
But amid those noble moves, our elites have let us down badly, especially the political elites. We hear the supporters of the various political leaders sing their praises. From Burnham and Jagan to Jagdeo and Granger, we construct these political deities and, in the process, diminish ourselves as an independent people. Not that these men and their governments do not have virtues, but they also have political vices—sometimes these vices are more the rule than the exception.
I have long dismissed the Jagan-Jagdeo and Burnham-Hoyte regimes as less than transformational. Their attempts at transformation were outweighed by a propensity for plantation-like dictatorship. I acknowledge all the admirable attempts they made, but in the end our independence is poorer—the price we paid for those positives is too high for a post-plantation society to pay. They all—all of them—ended up loving power more than using power to free our society from what the Kwayanas call “the scars of bondage.”
I know that I am offending my Jaganite and Burnhamite friends, but the other narrative must be told. As Brother Bob Marley again reminds us: “Half the story has never been told.”
I come to our latest government. When it came to power in 2015, I said it was best poised to correct the wrongs of the past—to write that other half of the story. Our society has thrown up social formations at different junctures in our history, but as CLR James would argue, those formations have to be conscious of what they represent and must have the capacity to absorb the positive energies that are responsible for their evolution.
On the cricket field, we saw that with Frank Worrell, Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards, but not with Brian Lara and Chris Gayle. The latter two did not have the capacity to absorb the energies that made them possible. Hence, while they shone individually, the West Indian light rapidly faded.
I am afraid that if the Granger government does not come to an appreciation of its historical calling, we may end up like the West Indies cricket team. Vision matters. A sense of your government’s place in the historical trajectory of the society matters.
I observe the elected leaderships and I see little sign of a willingness to engage history; to engage the present as the past and the future. President Granger is a historian who must know what I am driving at. Should the Coalition return to power, he has to inspire his troops more.
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