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From last week: Trini multi-culti is/was proposed as a solution to a cultural problem it was politically precarious to name: metastasised black nationalism, aka Afrocentrism. As its proponents demonstrate (cf violent comments from Ms Pearl Eintou Springer to Sugar Aloes’ singing She’s so Royal to the PM; the hostility in the Dimanche Gras calypsoes; the Canboulay riots promoted as “national culture”; the PNM parliamentary speakers’ comments during the SOE debate) Afrocentrism as national culture is resistant to the “multi” in “multi-culti.”
Obviously the PP hoped the notion of mult-culti would create enclaves in Trinidad where the animus could be contained. This is a foolish hope. Because in T&T culture, political power, and ethnic entitlement are fused to constitute a political dispensation. The fusion (especially the entitlement bit) is the main reason anger seems to underlie much of Carnival/national culture and which erupts into violence so readily, which authorities always hasten to downplay and explain away.
This propensity to anger as a part of the multi-culti experience was noted by Bissoondath in describing responses to his work. Some Trini and West Indian writers based in the US, Canada and the UK apparently thrive on the opportunity to flail at establishments. Bissoondath mentions two writers, Nourbese Philip and Dionne Brand, who have dubbed him a traitor and whatnot. Metropolitan societies are unaffected by this species of animus (or ethnic minoritarian type)—catharsis and all that.
The problem is, it’s brought back in suitcases and vacation packages, and spread among the local population here, where it’s not so much cathartic as destructive.
Two issues arise: first, that corrosive anger is fine where it can do no harm. It’s a very different issue in societies where space is tight, law and order non-functioning, and rage can be readily materialised. The other issue is that the automatic ethnic solidarity Trini national culture demands (and the sense of betrayal when demands are not met), which assumes universal origins in transatlantic slavery and its aftermath, are largely inapplicable to the IndoCaribbean experience.
This (IndoCaribbean/Trini perspective) could generate a new and interesting interpretation of West Indianness, but Creole society (regionally) apparently has no patience with the respect for alterity in others that it demanded of the coloniser. And there is far less patience with a critique of Afro/Creole West Indian culture coming from someone not ethnically authorised.
Various commentators, from JJ Thomas to Eric Williams and UWI sociologist Lloyd Brathwaite, have analysed the West Indian cultural condition post-slavery and independence, making similar, disparaging observations. However, like Bisoondath, much animus has been turned to VS Naipaul for his dissections in his novels The Mimic Men, Guerrillas, and essays in The Middle Passage, The Return of Eva Peron and The Overcrowded Barracoon. (In the collection of essays Created in the West Indies, Evelyn O’Callaghan and Edward Baugh both observe this.)
Derek Walcott has taken to slashing at Naipaul, but Walcott’s critiques of Afrocentrism in his essay What the Twilight Says, and in Another Life, are much more vitriolic. He was acerbic, witnessing first hand the advent of Afrocentric cultural politics in Trinidad post-1970 vis-a-vis the PNM’s attempt to counter Black Power with the “folk.” Much of what he saw emerging is now a part of our lives.
In an interview in the Guardian in 1971, Walcott said: “The new romance (of Afrocentrism and the folk) being propagated, ambiguously enough both by the State and the radical movement is a typical fear of reality—a refusal to believe the absurdity or the truth of the West Indian identity cannot be anatomised in purely racial terms.” He also said: “If the State uses its power to enforce its concept of culture it becomes fascist.” (I strongly recommend anyone interested in Trini culture find and read this interview.)
What strikes me is how prescient Walcott was in his recognition of the State’s posture. Once it stopped fighting the radical Afrocentrism and coopted the movement, the PNM fused all forms of black culture into Carnivalism. Folk culture, ethnic history, ideology are combined, and, as demonstrated in the quotes last week from Claire Broadbridge and Annette Dopwell, the interlocutors are quite rabid in its enforcement. This was because of the ever-present political threat from the invisible half of the population.
The best statement of this ideo-cultural position was offered by Jamaican academic Prof Carolyn Cooper in a NY Times op-ed, titled “Who is Jamaica?” in 2012. She proposed that Jamaicans “reject the homogenising myth of multicultural assimilation,” since “the roots of our distinctive music, religion, politics, philosophy, science, literature and language are African.” Prof Cooper is speaking ostensibly about Jamaica, but this is UWI orthodoxy, and is materialised in Trinidad. And when this cultural establishment is pushed to defend or justify itself, its impatience with any “other” is clear.
Thus (to repeat) the present Trini multi-culturalism aspirations were clearly proposed as a solution to that latent, but always present, threat. From the 1970s, IndoTrinis were aware of what was going on in Guyana and Uganda. Many left. Those who stayed saw those threats become real in Trinidad between 1997 and 2007. I am astonished that so many people choose to forget this. That, for example an Indian village in Chaguanas (Felicity) was attacked by an “African village” on purely racial grounds; or that the sitting Attorney General published the stories of kidnap victims in this newspaper, which prominently included race as an element in the transactions.
The consequences of this suppressed anxiety on individuals and groups are generational, and destructive in ways not immediately apparent. The nature of this anxiety is embedded in three of Bissoondath’s works of fiction, Digging up the Mountains, A Casual Brutality, and The Worlds Within Her. (To be continued)