THE CARIBBEAN’S CREATIVE DIVERSITY : THE DEFINING POINT OF THE REGION’S HISTORY LECTURE DELIVERED BY PROF. REX NETTLEFORD, VICE CHANCELLOR, UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES, 21 MARCH 2003, UNIVERSITY OF GUYANA, GUYANA.
 


SECOND LECTURE IN THE DISTINGUISHED LECTURE SERIES COMMEMORATING THE THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CARIBBEAN COMMUNITY

An appreciation of the history of this region is critical to a fuller understanding of contemporary realities and future challenges. For the Caribbean shares in the great drama of the Americas of which it is an integral part, whereby new societies are shaped, new and delicately tuned sensibilities are honed, and appropriate designs for social living are crafted through the cross-fertilisation of disparate elements. The process has resulted in a distinguishable and distinctive entity called “Caribbean”. The process is intensely cultural.

The encounter of Africa and Europe on foreign soil and these in turn with the indigenous Native Americans on their long-tenanted estates and all in turn with latter-day arrivants from Asia and the Middle East, has resulted in a culture of texture and diversity held together by a dynamic creativity severally described as creative chaos, stable disequilibrium or cultural pluralism. An apt description of the typical Caribbean person is that he or she is part-African, part-European, part-Asian, part-Native American but totally Caribbean. To perceive this is to understand creative diversity and many of us do understand the phenomenon. I regard as an aberration all evidence of a lack of understanding by those of us who tenant these lands of the Caribbean Community.

This understanding comes through in the interesting orientations one finds in the region among those who are not yet existing in the Independence mode. French Caribbean, from St. Martin to Guyane, which constitutionally is metropolitan France overseas (despite the cultural differences between Paris and Point-a-Pitre), the Netherlands Antilles, the British dependencies of Anguilla, Montserrat, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos all recently ‘elevated’ to Overseas Territories, the American dependencies of American Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (despite the latter’s “Commonwealth” status) and Bermuda (a very special case) are none of them willing to risk the agony of choice in becoming Independent at this time. None wishes to be “oil-poor or debt-rich”, as some would deem post-Independent Trinidad and Jamaica respectively to be. But what they all seem to have in common is a full grasp of the power of cultural action in affording a sense of place and of purpose to the inhabitants of their territories. They therefore tend to identify with the Independent Caribbean in this area, despite the differences in political systems.

The ‘differences in political systems’ are in fact part of the overall dilemma of difference which is a manifestation of the complex process of diversity demanding of all in the region the capacity to build bridges not only between classes and races of people within countries of the region, but also between zones of former imperial influences among countries and between continents of the world, themselves represented in the region through centuries of migration and continuing interaction via tourism, commercial transactions, and professional contacts.

The Caribbean, itself the expression of such diversity and of its survival and beyond, has struggled for all of five centuries with mastering the management of the complexity of such diversity. Such have been the phenomenon and challenges, that today it is possible to say with a fair degree of certainty that we have by and large learnt to live together rather than simply side by side. It has been the easy solution of peoples of different origins (ethnic or religious) who find themselves in close encounters to live side by side rather than together. But the communications technology revolution and the tremendous improvement in travel facilities have dictated the urgent need for people to learn to live together, to deal with the dilemma of difference in ways that will serve the enhancement of the quality of life for human beings and to ensure positive human development well into the third millennium.

The Europeans have come around to what the Caribbean has long understood to be a sine qua non of civil society. “The world is our village”, says Jacques DeLors the French intellectual. “If one house catches fire, the roofs over all heads are immediately at risk. If anyone of us tries to start rebuilding, his efforts will be purely symbolic. Solidarity has to be the order of the day: each of us must bear his own share of the general responsibility”. We are our brothers’ keepers, and our sisters’ too!

My claim on behalf of the Caribbean may seem strange against the background of a failed attempt on the part of the Anglo-phone segment to federate some three decades ago and the on-going difficulties we have been trying to achieve effective modalities of closer co-operation between people who have shared a common history of slavery and indentureship, the plantation and colonialism.

The important thing is that the fight has not been given up; no more than it was in Europe after centuries of similar failures or continuing tension as the war on Iraq is even now engendering. The region at a subliminal level understands and trades on the unity which underly the differences. That unity is “submarine” according to West Indian poet Kamau Brathwaite; and in a region of largely limestone and volcanic rocks separated by divisive sea-water one can understand the metaphor and grasp the difficulties in transforming the creative diversity of floating island spaces, colonial historical experiences and language differences into an integrated whole expressed in a common humanity. Both continental Guyana and Belize are themselves separated from their fellow West Indians by such divisive sea-water also.

Admittedly the eloquence of the differences is powerful. We continue to speak of this region of some 30 million people as Hispanic Caribbean, the Anglophone Caribbean, the Francophone Caribbean, the Dutch-speaking Caribbean and so on. Such hyphenated fragmentation emphasises the legacy of a heritage of separation and shattered identities. Yet none of this deprived us in our separate dispensations of that awesome process of becoming. Our people were able to survive the traumas of separation from ancestral hearths as part of the transatlantic slave trade and the indignity of dehumanisation in slavery for the vast majority by the exercise of their creative imagination. What results from this has been the germ of a culture which shares more in common than many like to believe. The products may differ one from another but the region shares a similar process of becoming.

Culture, as a point of power, and the recognition of this by these Caribbean dependencies catapult them into the 21st century precisely because they are in possession of that new sensibility forged over 500 years of encounters making them fully au fait with relationships, with texture, with contradictions, with unity in diversity. The old Spanish empire hankered after this as did the Romans before them with their “e pluribus unum” motto. But you can still declare the motto and not realise the “unum” out of the “pluribus”. Some would even now insist that Jamaica’s “Out of Many One People” and Guyana’s“One People, One Nation, One Destiny,” like Trinidad’s national anthem which claims a place where “every race shall have an equal place,” are all still challenging aspirations rather than established achievements.

Today there are parts of the world, and especially of this hemisphere, that celebrate their new-found perception in something called “multi-culturalism”. But this piece of jargon can be very misleading. The “multi” could well speak to a pluralism which secures for each ingredient in the mix an unassailable corner of exclusivity. So, you stay in your small corner and I in mine. This is no way of building bridges between differences either within or between societies. Instead, it is one of the surest ways of maintaining a status-quo of gaping gulfs of difference between people whose forebears might have come from a variety of places.

It is the insightful grasp of this phenomenon which no doubt drove Edouard Glissant, the Martinican writer, to the view that the Caribbean has no myth of origin, it has only a myth of relation.

Such is the reality of the 21st century which is already with us. As was the experience of all of the Americas, of which the Caribbean is an integral and iconic part, the world's inhabitants, certainly in the Western world to begin with, must stand on sea shores or on mountaintops, look across oceans and sing “Goodbye Motherland” knowing that where one is, one must call home. Demographic spaces must now co-exist along with nations or countries, despite the sanctity of flags, anthems and other national symbols. Unity and diversity are not mutually exclusive. In fact the idea of “nation” entails diversity. Derek Walcott’s full grasp of this is expressed by his Shabine-mulatto character, as the new Trinidadian President (himself a hybrid of a Caribbean man reminded us recently;
    “I’m just a red nigger who loves the sea
    I had a sound colonial education
    I have Dutch, nigger and English in me
    And either I’m nobody, or I’m [a] nation”
This is the sort of challenge to the exaggerated claims made by this or that civilisation or culture with respect to the greatness of their creative achievements over all others, especially over the formerly colonised and enslaved, but also over those who used to be regarded as the “lesser races”, until the performance of such persons in the hallowed field of science and technology proves otherwise. The case of the Japanese here comes to mind. But Western Europe has also had to abandon notions of having a hotline to God in the form of Judaism and the Christian religion, leaving all others as heathens. Ecumenism has virtually won the day with Hinduism, Budhism, Islam being rated as major religious expressions embracing the sympathy, faith and formal allegiance of hundreds of millions of people on Planet Earth who are not likely to burn in hell for being pagans or for not being Jehovah’s Chosen people.

Outside of religion, exaggerated claims continue to be made in the realm of aesthetic discourse. What is “classical” is, for many, clearly European in this narrow view while all else is “popular” or “ethnic”. The Caribbean and the Americas, in general, by their sheer output of artistic innovation have long challenged this.

And as in the case of physical migration of peoples from the developing to the developed world, there is, as Jamaican folklorist Louise Bennett puts it, ‘colonization in reverse’ in all of Western Europe in a deeply cultural sense. France and the Netherlands are hooked on zouk (they are unfortunately hooked as well on other things which shall be nameless). British and German youths cannot do without reggae and dance-hall and the calypso of the Southern Caribbean has long taken root in the North Atlantic. American pop music coming out of multi-racial, multi-cultural USA belongs to the world; and the cinema, this great 20th C artform, serves to link continents.

American Jazz is easily the classical music of the 20th century as the Europeans would aver, and Europe is wisely revitalising its own great musical traditions by reaching out to the musics of Asia, the pygmies and South Africa to produce what they now call “world music”. This is, indeed, an example of the bridge between cultures being built and traversed.

The entire world is gone “creole” - in the Caribbean sense of forging from the disparate elements of a ‘village-world’ new expressions challenging us all to a new ontology, a new cosmology and, by extension, a new epistemology.

The Unesco-sponsored Commission on Culture and Development recognised this in its declaration that with our futures being increasingly shaped by the “interdependence of the world’s peoples it is essential to promote cultural conviviality”. The truth is the futures of people like us in the Caribbean were always shaped by the interdependence of those who found themselves in encounters of differing kinds. The slave-master was highly dependent on the slave and vice versa. In fact the emancipation of the slaves was the liberation of both masters and slaves since to quote myself, “the jailers and the jailed are after all both in jail”. That interdependence gave rise to the awesome process of ‘creolisation’ with differing elements now coalescing, now separating, now being assimilated, now resisting, now counter-resisting in a dynamic contradictory relationship that produced agony but also new life.

Derek Walcott, the 1993 West Indian Nobel Laureate for Literature put it beautifully and graphically.

“The tribe in bondage learned to fortify itself by the cunning assimilation of the religion of the Old World. What seemed to be surrender was redemption. What seemed the loss of tradition was its renewal. What seemed the death of faith was its rebirth.”

Such paradoxes of “being” the world of the 21st century must understand as we in the Caribbean throughout the past half a millennium have been forced to do. Any attempt to produce a new cultural hierarchy that will keep out hordes of humanity from the state of ‘being’ human is likely to fail. We are already getting signals which should be heeded. The so-called ‘globalisation’ in economic terms has its counterparts in the cultural field. But here is where it is likely to fail as that earlier globalisation, otherwise known as imperialism, did. For the natural antidote to the poison of homogenisation, which is what cultural globalisation threatens, is the retreat to areas of specificity where people feel secure because they control the processes that make them viable. I refer to such areas as religion, the arts and private philosophies about self and society. Caribbean society retreated to these areas with rich results in religious expressions and the creative arts (visual and performing) as well as home-spun philosophy to be found in their oral literature which houses the collective wisdom of the ordinary people. They are not likely to abandon such ancestral cradles of independence. Nor have the people in Bosnia and old Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Zaire or in Eastern Europe where the homogenising power of an all embracing political ideology and the coercive energy of the omnipotent State could not stifle the attachment to religion and the urgings of the creative spirit. In God's house there are many mansions indeed! And a world which ignores the fact of plurality, of texture in the human makeup, of the multi-faceted nature of all living beings and the systems and structures they create for their survival, is not a world that is fit for human habitation. It is Alpha Oumar Konare, President of Mali who reminded the world in 1993 that “as long as any civilization applies political, intellectual and moral coercion on others on the basis of the endowments nature and history have bequeathed to it, there can be no hope of peace for humanity: the negation of the cultural specificities of any people is tantamount to the negation of its dignity”. This strikes a responsive chord in the ears of many Caribbean people whose cultural specificities turn on the result of the meeting of Africa and other cultures which preceded and followed it on American soil, and have been denigrated for that reason. That this is unacceptable for human development is beyond debate.

A basic understanding of this is a primary ingredient in the bridges that have to be built between peoples tenanting different continents and who are expected to manage the complex process of diversity.

In the academy linear approaches to learning, whether in teaching or research, will have to give place to the multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approach to the investigation, discovery, delivery and diffusion of knowledge to cope with the intertextuality of the phenomena being observed and analysed. In everyday living mutual respect and a commitment to the idea of the rights of one entailing the rights of all will have to be taken on board in the normal way of going about one’s business from day to day. In dealing with the wider social environment (local and global) one must be prepared to code-switch at a moment’s notice so as to be able to deal with the different modes of relating that confronts one within a matter of minutes, if not seconds. How can a child relate to the multiple images that will assault his consciousness on the television screen if he/she is to make sense of what he/she is viewing and of the world?

Educating the young for survival in the 21st century is to be able to cross that bridge, not so much the one spanning centuries as the one spanning sensibilities which are forced to engage each other in new and now accessible landscapes. The microcosmic Caribbean has some centuries of practice in much of this. But bridges built can collapse and the stresses and strains on the structure could scare away even those ones of us accustomed to traversing the structure as a matter of course.

Racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, apocalyptic rationalism parading as science, neo-liberal bottomline economics which marginalise the very people who are the true producers of wealth, the commitment to a culture of violent conflict rather than of peaceful engagement - all these obscenities continue to afflict humankind and threaten to thwart all attempts to span differences - real or imagined.

It was such danger signals which led UNESCO to the setting up of a World Commission on Culture and Development. By moving culture to centre stage in the development process Unesco genuinely felt that it could help in finding one of the “exceptional solutions” needed at this time to the world's exceptional problems. For “the world as we [indeed] know it, all the relationships we took as given, are undergoing profound rethinking and reconstruction. Imagination, innovation, vision and creativity are required”, concluded Javier Perez de Cuellar, Chairman of the Commission.

The Report which flowed from extensive deliberations for some two or so years dealt with key areas of cultural practice in the building of bridges across continents given to emphasise differences rather than to promote similarities. Issues of pluralism, empowerment, media influence, gender rights, youth, cultural heritage, the environment, education and research are all addressed in terms of cultural diversity and the creative management of such diversity. The aim of a new international cultural order is here implied - an order predicated on cultural diversity and the creative response to the challenge of difference, the long-held dream of many people including the late Leopold Senghor of Senegal.

The discourse continues with the Report as a point of departure. A framework for a series of bridges to span the river that flows between the cultural divide that separates segments of humanity one from another has been presented. Other material to reinforce the framework or even to build more bridges suggest themselves. And the Educational system may wish to place on its own agenda a challenge to itself to help build some of these.

I refer first to Popular Culture, beginning with urban mass culture which through radio, television recordings and the mass concerts in the performing arts have brought young people of different continents together in mutual understanding. But allied to this are the traditional indigenous cultural expressions through the Festival arts which have seen a resurgence since the Nineteen Seventies throughout the world. And closely allied to both is Sports (which I see as a branch of the performing arts) gaining international exposure and attention through the media, as in the case of World Cup Football, Basketball throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, Cricket throughout the Commonwealth, and Track and Field and other sports through the Olympics. They reflect part of both the globalising phenomenon of present and future life as well as the countervailing retreat into the specificity of individual and group experience and existential reality. We may well wish to discuss this further so as to speak to the concerns of millions of young people and of the developing world which is still led to believe that it is relegated to the base of a rigid cultural hierarchy.

We also need to address the question of multiculturalism at the core of the discourse on the contentious issue of perception of civil society tenanted by persons from different cultures, whether as a result of ancient migration (the Americas e.g.) or the more recent movements of peoples especially in Western Europe (countries that were once colonial Powers) and multiracial communities in the South East Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Multiculturalism as a policy option in countries like Canada and the United States is losing/has lost ground. “Nation-building” as an antidote to the poison of ethnic exclusivity within discrete geographical boundaries does not in practice always serve as an effective cure for the poison.

Then there is the matter of Culture and Education. Culture in its broadest sense undergirds the educational system; but as expression of creative intellect and creative imagination, it needs greater focused attention in educational development.

Conscious relating to the DeLors findings in another Unesco report is here recommended. For learning to live together, learning to be, learning to know (creative artistic activity is a valid route to cognition) and learning throughout life are all highly dependent on a cultural sense, making the arts a vital variable in the education equation.

Heritage Tourism is of special interest in this region but not only here. Hopefully, we will have by now moved from the sort of cultural tourism thrust of the early Nineteen Seventies to something that will not deteriorate into “touristic culture”. Distinctions need to be made, re-definitions crafted, and the commitment to respect for a people's heritage reinforced.

Our job, then, is cut out for us well into the next century; and I make bold to assume that CARICOM and all constituent Member States are on board the journey that must speak to the Two Thirds World as well as to the dominant One Third and address all the major forces that are even now helping to shape consciousness and perceptions. The shifting paradigms, the textured sense and sensibility of end-of-century youth bombarded with myriad images of self and society via the media or through personal contact with persons of different backgrounds, races and cultural origin, are all challenges to humankind’s creative diversity which must be managed with sensitivity and daring. For the underlying regulative principles that make us all members of the same human family, despite the diversity, must also be acknowledged and recognised.

Such are the contradictions in the architectural designs and construction work that attend both the building of bridges across continents in the interest of human development, and the imperative of creative management of the complexities resulting. The investment in the human resource demands no less! And to this the next thirty years of CARICOM must be committed.
 
© 2011 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat. All Rights Reserved. P.O. Box 10827, Georgetown, GUYANA.
Tel: (592) 222 0001-75 Fax: (592) 222 0171 | E-mail your comments and suggestions to: registry@caricom.org | SiteMap