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A night in memory of Norman Girvan
The gentle rocking sound of Black Stalin’s Caribbean Man faded gradually out to silence and the room assumed a respectful hush.
It was Norman Girvan’s favourite calypso, a song about a philosophy he spent years pushing for—the Caribbean as a unified region of communities instead of the detached entities that have existed since the breakdown of the West Indies Federation half a century ago.
Social, economic and political integration was something he realised should be not merely achievable but essential to maximise the potential of the millions of people living in the islands and countries bathed by the same ocean.
This vision appeared for Girvan, according to Gregory McGuire, an economic strategist, at a conference several decades ago where he told a colleague he had entered the meeting as a Jamaican nationalist and left as a Caribbean regionalist.
The Lloyd Best Institute, aka Tapia House, was filled with great thinkers last week for an evening dedicated to the memory of Girvan.
His thinking and his words will be deeply missed by his peers, friends and family.
Just last December, Girvan had been amongst the great thinkers who had flocked to the institute to attend the posthumous launch of Lloyd Best’s book Transforming the Plantation Economy.
Some weeks later, doing what he loved, exploring the islands of the Caribbean—on this occasion, Dominica—Girvan fell whilst hiking and in a few short months he had passed away in Cuba, a place close to his heart.
That he went suddenly, without fanfare, and that his passing was marked with decorum and private introspection from the family he leaves behind—wife, Jasmine, son Alexander and daughter Alatashe—was perhaps symbolic of a man who lacked any sense of pomposity or self-importance and was completely unpreoccupied with status.
The work he did was to support others—individuals, communities and nations: Haiti, Grenada, Cuba, Venezuela to name but a few.
Modest, and hopeful for future
He hated being overly praised. When he was introduced at the 2011 CLR James Memorial Lecture as “the last great thinker in the Caribbean,” he was more than bashful, he was upset. If he was the last, he wondered, then what was left of the Caribbean? An instinctive supporter and encourager of youthful intellectual minds, Girvan refused to accept the notion he was the last.
His son and daughter themselves are an environmental economist and law student, respectively.
They are young Caribbean thinkers.
There were other young minds at Tapia House, remembering Norman. Nikki Johnson of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union recalled seeing Girvan at a concert, his “white head (of hair) rocking back and forth to the music,” amongst the front row of other dignitaries who sat stiff, rigid and unmoving.
Johnson read out a letter from the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development, thanking Girvan for his continuous support for Haiti, particularly after the devastating earthquake in 2010.
Girvan held up Haiti as crucial as the forerunner of postcolonial Caribbean political expression, even naming his blog 1804 Carib Voices after the Haitian Revolution, which ended that year with the slaves having overthrown French colonisation and slavery and established the country as an independent republic state.
On a night of tears as well as happy memories, the assembled well-wishers and mourners were welcomed by McGuire and Sunity Maharaj, the hosts, to come up to the microphone to share their memories, which they did in various ways and, having done so, all embraced Girvan’s wife, sitting dignified in the front row next to her daughter.
Muhammed Muwakil, the young radical poet, read a poem which listed Girvan as one of “so many giants to thank.”
Gillian Moor sang a song with the words “Fly me to heaven, fly me home, it’s time to go.” Introducing the song, she said she had “never had a chance to tell him I esteemed him very highly. If you esteem someone, tell them.”
Ingrid White-Wilson of the Cropper Foundation fought back tears speaking about a (political) “belief that did not die,” thanks to people like Girvan.
Addressing his daughter, whom she sat beside all evening, White-Wilson told her that Girvan’s was “not a life that passed, but a life lived,” and spoke of the adoration and admiration he had for his family.
Nicola Cross, daughter of the late Ulric Cross, said it was an honour to have known him and that as the daughter of another great man she had only later in life learned about the great “non-daddy roles” played by fathers of the stature of the two men.
She said Girvan’s life work was “a point on a continuum,” not an endpoint, and it was essential that younger people in the Caribbean continued the fight to establish a community.
Economist Terrence Farrell spoke of Girvan’s lucidity and clarity, describing him as the “consummate lecturer” and recalling with fondness and thanks Girvan’s assessment of Farrell’s manuscript for his 2011 book.
“I asked Norman to read it, but of course, Norman being Norman, he didn’t just read it as normal people do. He studied it, dissected it and unfolded it.”
There were joyful contributions amongst the sadness.
Venezuelan ambassador Coromoto Godoy spoke effusively with a beaming smile on her face about Girvan being “the greatest thing to happen to her in T&T.”
Having recently arrived, unconfident about her English speaking, Girvan had seen her at an event and they had spoken.
At the end they hugged, she said, “and that hug stayed with me the whole year.”
Girvan was the first to visit her house and the last to leave when President Hugo Chavez died.
Amongst much praise, she thanked Girvan for being instrumental in bringing together Venezuela and Guyana.
Burton Sankeralli, unionist and activist, spoke of Girvan’s socialist credentials and unwavering support for Cuba and Venezuela before he began to sing, mournfully and quite exquisitely, a song by Venezuelan singer Ali Primera called Los Que Muere Por La Vida.
The words, translated into English are, those who die for life, you cannot say that they are dead.
The last speaker was David Abdulah of the Movemenet for Social Justice, who spojkeof the region's economists "huntingin pairs like West Indies fast bowlers." And rthe night was begun by two intellectuals of the same ilk: Ivan Laughlin and Brinsley Samaroo.Laughlin, a former Tapia man in the 1970s, spoke about the New World Group, initiated by Best, which met every Wednesday, “searching to find expression out of the minds of Caribbean men and women.”
He recalled two of Girvan’s expressions, “It takes two to tango but only one to reggae,” and his strong belief that “community viability is prerequisite sustainable development.”
Historian Prof Brinsley Samaroo, visibly moved while listening to Laughlin, was remarkably stoic when he stood to speak.
He said he had known Girvan since the 1960s in London where the two of them, as well as Best and other “disciples of CLR James,” met every Saturday afternoon at James’ home in Stroud Green, north London and would stay talking all day and late into the night, often finishing past 1 am.
“Norman was wedded to the idea of a Caribbean community, but not as we have it now, dominated by Christian Western culture,” said Samaroo, “but rather a ‘Caribbean of communities’ encouraging each to promote itself, the First Peoples, Hindus, Muslims, Shango, Orisha, Baptists and so forth. Not on the periphery but recognised and empowered.”
He spoke of Girvan’s frustration with politicians and economists’ inability to bring the region together and instead encouraged artists, such as tassa and hosay musicians, to move around the islands to attempt to unify the people, culturally.
Looking pained, though half-smiling, eyes cast down, Samaroo told the room, “Let us not mope and be sad this evening. Let us celebrate this glorious life.”
And that is exactly what happened.