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By Aubrey W. Bonnett, PhD; July 2003

During the month of August, West Indians in the Caribbean Diaspora and those in the “homelands” will be celebrating culture to its fullest, culminating in events ranging from the Guyfolk (Guyana) festival, and West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn, New York, to the CARIFESTA V111 in Surinam, London’s Notting Hill carnival and Caribana in Toronto, Canada. Some social scientists and commentators have described culture as a vehicle for both uniting and fragmenting peoples. It is, however, to the former that I would like to focus, if only in broad strokes.

The theme of CARIFESTA V111 is indicative of the centripetal, transformative and uplifting force of culture. Its slogan, “Many Cultures - The Essence of Togetherness - the Spirit of the Caribbean”, speaks to the valiant efforts of these new nation states, historically impacted by the ravages of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, exploitation and division, to weave a new tapestry of unity. Started in 1972 by the late Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, the first [Executive] President of Guyana, it was envisioned “as a celebration of the ethnic and racial diversity which separately and collectively created cultural expressions that are wonderfully unique to the Caribbean.” At that time, it was reported to have attracted artistes from over thirty Caribbean nations and Latin American countries. It was an optimistic and, some would contend, a utopian goal, but one to which, however haltingly, Caribbean leaders are still committed.

Speaking of the integrative force of this lofty ideal, Caricom’s Secretary General Edwin Carrington, lauds its significance to the contribution of the quality of life of its citizens and its ability “to foster the kinds of interconnections between our artistes and the community, and the bonding of regional sensitivity and sensibilities about the values of our entire creative talents. ”But these talents are also reflective of our culture that I see as a canvass of “shared values” and “shared meanings”, and it is to this view that Carrington must have been referring when he stated that culture lies at the very heart of our existence and underscores who we (West Indians) truly are. It, he argues, “determines the basis of our relations with others…. how we overcome the barriers of race, class and differences in religion and ideology. It underscores our propensity to achieve social cohesion as well as conflict…. it is all encompassing.”

But what is this West Indian or Caribbean culture to which Carrington and I refer? Well, it depends on who one asks. The late Nobel Laureate, Sir Arthur Lewis, argued in a 1971 address to UWI graduates at Cave Hill, and I concur, that if we “close our minds in a box of pure West Indianness, we shall achieve nothing worthwhile.” Rather, except in the realm of the arts, we should try to mould ourselves to what is the best of our multifaceted legacy. Sonny Ramphal, David Dabydeen, Kamau Braithwaite, Edna Manley, Aime Cesaire, Nicholas Guillen and other notable Caribbean stalwarts have echoed resoundingly, and positively demonstrated, such sentiments and accomplishments. And that is why these efforts, this year particularly, are encouraging-especially in the context of ethnic divisions and conflicts, in varying degrees, in nation-states such as Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Surinam, for example. Divisions, I may add, not as heavily reflected in the Diaspora.

The more we learn about one another, our unique but interweaving heritages, born and forged by conflict, adaptation, survival and renewal, we create that “Essence of Togetherness - the Spirit of the Caribbean”. As Secretary General Carrington reminded us “our writers – Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott of Saint Lucia and Vidia Naipaul of Trinidad and Tobago - have demonstrated the heights that our Arts from the Caribbean can achieve.” And who can gainsay the worldwide recognition of calypso and reggae and, of course, the only [acoustic] musical instrument to be invented in the twentieth century - Steel Pan. These examples make Sir Arthur Lewis seem prescient. And so, we go forward.

But as we lavish and adulate in this harmonizing view of culture let me add two cautionary notes. One, we must seek, always and urgently, to be truly integrative of all our multivariegated parts, especially its smaller cultural components - Amerindian, Chinese, Mixed, European for example - and not focus extensively or exclusively on the African/East Indian axis. When we harmonize in cricket (sports), music, for example, we see the best of such an integrative impulse. When we do not, we return to the tribal, caste divisions, recriminations, and hostilities that drain us and leave us weaker.

And finally we must not, especially in the context of a new nuanced, but deadly dominative, and unilateral imperialism, forget the crucible of struggle that led our forbears - Cheddi Jagan, Eric Williams, Albert Marryshow, Alexander Bustamante, Albert Gomes, Marcus Garvey, Claude Mackay, Errol Barrow, Vere Bird, Touissant L’Overture and Simboonath Capildeo - to wage successful battles on our behalf, the sum total of which, has brought us some measure of independence, now again threatened.

So, as our culture rises in August, here in the Diaspora and at Home, let us not lose sight of our new vision and challenge - the struggle for equal justice under the law, continued social justice for immigrants in the Diaspora, and for continued relevance and economic survival in the “Homelands”. A struggle, ultimately, for a New World Order that truly liberates, while respecting and paying homage to our varied mosaic.


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