West Indians are ashamed of the past
Date: Thursday, January 20 @ 20:13:13 UTC
"West Indians are ignorant, frightened and ashamed of the past" Comparing how such fear, shame and ignorance are confronted in the work of three authors
Frantz Fanon, in his work, The Wretched of the Earth, stated that, "Colonization is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native's brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of oppressed people and distorts, disfigures and destroys it". The effects of slavery, indentureship, colonialism and neocolonialism have created a situation where to a large extent, what has characterized the consciousness of the people who suffered under their yokes is not simply its history, but more specifically, the absence of an understanding of history.
The result- a people for whom history is like an invisible force that batters the collective consciousness, shaping the politics, religious affiliations and social structures, yet is like a gale force wind that is invisible, all powerful and against which you close your eyes, shut your doors and hide away, hoping it will never reach you. Many West Indians labour under their collectively unaddressed layers of the colonial past as well as the falsification, and demonization of ancestral, indigenous African history. It is this history of falsification, of economic and political exploitation, racism and European ethnocentrism that has created the downward spiral of ignorance, shame and fear, each leading to the other, that has become an integral part of West Indian psyche.
Given this scenario it is then no surprise that the Caribbean dilemma has always been the construction of identities. The plural is necessary, not primarily because of the presence of different races/ ethnicities that can govern identity, but because of the prismatic lens' that colonialism has invented- severe 'classism', borne out of colourism and deeply embedded racism, economic and political dependency syndromes and an outward orientation where the Euro-American metropole was the standard and the subject, and the colonized lands, the object. Modern West Indian history created a shattered consciousness where anything positive was the making of the oppressor and all that was negative could only be attributed to the collective 'we', who grew fat on its own self-hatred. It is out of this complex scenario that writers, Barbadian - Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Trinidadian - V.S Naipaul and St. Lucian -Derek Walcott, have emerged. These three writers can be viewed along a continuum of historical reckoning and self-identification, from complete self-negation and self-hatred, to a more holistic historical reckoning and ancestral identification. Their work gives voice to the nature of historical amnesia and the ways it is manifested from contrasting Caribbean perspectives.
Edward Chamberlain in his work, Come Back to Me My Language, echoed sentiments expressed by Edward Kamau Brathwaite:
"A truly West Indian literature must present the central heritage of slavery shared by black West Indians, not because everyone who matters in the West Indies is black, but because blackness as an image of slavery defined the dispossession and exploitation which to anyone looking around the West Indies was clearly not over" Brathwaite's work clearly illustrates his belief that in order for all people, not just West Indians, to be truly whole, they must revisit, internalize and find themselves through an understanding of African history and culture. His work "The Arrivants" can be said to be a poetic chronicle of his own psychological and physical return to Africa and journey back to Barbados, a psychological Middle Passage in reverse. The Arrivants becomes then a cathartic, healing for the entire region. "Rights of Passage, the first book of The Arrivants, deals with the reality Africans faced upon being brought to the West Indies. For Brathwaite it is critical to remember and deal with the painful experience of slavery and colonialism that was the crux, the real beginning of the attempted erasure of a whole African consciousness:
"Drum skin whip
lash, master sun's
cutting edge of
surface of things
The form and poetic structure are not merely means to manifest poetic theme, but are a part of the ideas expressed. The lines in "Prelude", the opening poem in "Rights of Passage", are short and sharp; Images crumble inwards on each other, not finely layered but violently fragmented – this is the nature of the African experience in the "New World". From the ancestral drum call of creation that echoes the rhythm of the universe to the whip of enslavement and cruelty that threatens to cut off all remembrance and validity of the drum call. In fact this represents the fragmentation of a collective essence, a severing of ancestral ties. For Brathwaite, this period is a defining historical moment in West Indian consciousness, an unnatural alteration of historical memory. "Gun-power, whiplash, law, bible, bribe, violence, brain wash: these did not allow the process of creolization to run its 'natural' course…The result was a Creole, a West Indian who was still not himself, but the creature and creation of another"
Brathwaite goes on to explore the consciousness created by the trauma induced amnesia, fraudulent history and psychological genocide:
"Helpless like this
less like this,
Africans in the West Indies are lost unsure, vulnerable, disconnected from ancestral history, the drum call muted, creation stilled. Brathwaite, who coined the term 'Nation Language' to describe a unique tone, syntax and rhythm of Caribbean language that adequately conveys the depth of experience felt, shifts his language subtly throughout 'Rights of Passage"to capture the different landscapes, tones and experiences of Africans in the new world. There is deep-seated melancholy and tone of acceptance in
"we have learned to love with sun
and the harsher,
"just give us
what we earn
in bright bold
"Folkways"echoes with the rolling, lilt of the American Jazz era, an identity solidified but anchored to naught but pain and self hatred,
"I am a f*ck-
in my head
amidst the echoes of movement, exile, rootlessness symbolized by the Chattanooga train,
"the long rails: choo-
the long way to town"
Right of Passage chronicles the bitterness of exile from ones own self and the anguish as a result of the ignorance of ones most visceral memories. The paths of history, it fears,
"we shall never remember again"
Brathwaite has been described as a public poet, one who seeks to work through, and draw a poetic road map of the social issues facing the community. Derek Walcott, however, presents a far more isolated figure with echoes of the European modernist exiled artist, who observes, always on the fringes of the society. He appears to pay passing attention to social and historical issues and has been said to be a 'poet's poet', the kind of luxury we can ill afford, and who remains Euroccentric". This sense of exile and isolation however, is much more than the predilection of the artist to remain an anomaly, isolated in his own society, but as a result of Walcott's own psychological schism that mirrors critical issues faced by many West Indians as a whole. Walcott's work manifests the split psyche of the "mulatto"torn between African and Europe, attempting to navigate the treacherous nature of this 'inbetweenness'
In his essay, "The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?" Walcott states that it is the process of discarding and remembering, the piecing together of a history in the wake of historical fragmentation, that has been the dominant force of cultural development in the Caribbean. This piecing together has created a Creole sensibility, a combination of diverse experiences – the re-imagining and recreation of a middle ground that is neither African nor European, neither subject nor object. Walcott sees himself as a
"divided child – a black with a white grandfather; a colonial schoolboy who sang the verse for 'Rule Britannia' that goes 'Britons never, never shall be slaves; part of the educated middle class in a backwater of poverty, and raised as a Methodist in a Catholic country. In sum, the self conscious outsider in his tiny paradise" Indeed in the poem, "A Far Cry from Africa", we see the central issue of this historical schism and a key element of the driving force behind the notion of creolization:
"I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray the both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from African and live?"
While for Walcott, there is a sense of being tortured by this divided self, the central question for many West Indians has been, on the surface, far less tortured. Given the prevailing colonial attitudes the question is almost rhetorical, 'How can I choose this degraded, demonized barbaric Africa over European education and culture, which has been held up as the apex of civilization?' The colonial process inculcated European values and attempted to remove all traces of positive African history from the collective West Indian consciousness. While many aspects of African culture were retained in the Diaspora, many West Indians were not conscious of these elements and very unaware of what existed in Africa to evaluate the presence or significance of much survivalism. Walcott's artistic sensibility may have allowed him to glimpse elements of this African past. However, colonial attitudes, education and a middle class background that revered all things European, created a crippling schism – a fear of an African past that has been routinely demonized, a desire for European recognition yet an instinctive awareness of the necessity of reconciling with the past in order to achieve any real completeness and belonging.
While Nobel Laureate Walcott has been described as the voice of Caribbean literature, when we revisit Brathwaite's statements that the language of the Caribbean should express the reality of those who most felt the burden of dispossession that is the cornerstone of the Caribbean experience we must note his use of language, and his tone of expression. It must be noted that Walcott's poetry remains a decided victim of colonial history and is firmly rooted in European literary traditions. While he makes heavy use of the Caribbean landscape, with sea, water, fishing imagery being most prevalent, along with the enduring artist as Robinson Crusoe image, the way these are used and the nature of the language and tone is often European in sensibility. It was his stated intention in many of his pieces to mould the European literary aesthetic with the Caribbean landscape, thereby attempting to combine through art both sides of his ancestry. In "Ruins of a Great House", the tensions are evident. While the poem speaks of the death of empire, embodied by the image of a crumbling plantation house, his language and tone is distinctly European,
"Farewell, green fields
Farewell, ye happy groves!
Marble like Greece, like Faulkner's South in stone,
Deciduous beauty prospered and is gone,"
In another "Old New England", Mc Clatchy notes the strong influence of Robert Lowell to the point of being derivative,
"Black clippers, tarred with whales blood fold their sails
entering New Bedford, New London, New Haven.
A White church spire whistles into space
Like a swordfish, a rocket pierces heaven…"
This is in direct contrast to the few times he does attempt to infuse Caribbean dialect, tone and rhythm into his work as in "Pocomania"and "Parang". The result is stilted and contrived, like someone attempting to speak outside of his native language.
The sensibility of Walcott's poetry is full of the tensions and contradictions that plague most West Indians. The creation of a "Creole"sensibility becomes both a synthesis of the varied Caribbean experiences as well as a product of colonial miseducation and a loss of awareness of the past. We see the increasing complexity of the issues created by the history- a loss of awareness of the past, leading to invention, re-imagining and synthesis of varying experiences on one hand, and on the other we see the poor attitudes that tend toward limited, distorted African history and culture. This makes for the adoption and retention of European ideas as an escape from a distorted view of the African past.
V.S Naipaul is easily one of the most controversial authors to emerge out of modern West Indian fiction. His work has been chiefly concerned with the exile of the West Indian in and out of his native Caribbean space, the hopelessness of the colonized world to create anything of substance, and the futility of any political agenda for those countries that call for breaking of ties with European nations. He is of the firm belief that nothing of any note was created in the West Indies, and that anything that may have been created, was as a result of mimicry and European influence. Of the three authors, Naipual is a unique case; not only being of East Indian descent, but as a member of an ethnic and cultural group that is not part of the dominant Caribbean culture. This dynamic adds to the complexity of his own relationship with the past, complexities, which his characters and narratives also display. In addition Naipaul's own experiences have been informed by a feeling of Indian powerlessness in the face of an African majority, growing up in an extended, wealthy Brahmin family and an orientation toward education and exclusion from the 'common classes' of society as a means of social advancement. Even deeper than this we see a constant undercurrent of rage, against Africans whom Hindu tradition sees as inherently inferior to Indians as well as against Europeans for not fully accepting him in its cannon or social circles. Naipaul also indicates that his Indian heritage left him with a willingness to
"…see the possibility, the certainly of ruin, even at the moment of creation… possibly, too, this mode of feeling went deeper an was an ancestral inheritance, something that came with the history that made me: not only India, with its ideas of a world outside men's control, but also the colonial plantations or estates of Trinidad, to which my impoverished Indian ancestors had been transported in the last century"
The colonial education system that prevailed in the time of Naipaul's youth in Trinidad, firmly established Europe as a source of fantasy as well as well as the apex of all reality. What lay in Trinidad for Naipaul was everything that would reinforce the idea of the paucity of his colonial reality when compared with the illusion of 'elsewhere'- both India and Europe. The Mimic Men, he says, "…was about colonial shame and fantasy, a book in fact about how the powerless lie about themselves, since it is their only resource… It was about colonial men mimicking the conditions of manhood, men who had grown to distrust everything about themselves" For the protagonist, Ralph Singh, the lens through which the past is viewed is two-fold - the ancestral past of India passed on to him by his father, as well as his Caribbean past that he left behind when he migrated to London. Burdened with the secret shame of his Indo- Caribbean origins, of the fragility of his family's respectability and the backwardness of his Caribbean upbringing, Ralph Singh is a creation of fear, his aloofness, a studied mask that hides psychological torment.
The name Ralph Singh itself is a construction of colonial attitudes and represents a denial of his own Indian ancestry. From Ranjit Kripalsingh, he dons a more anglicized sounding R.R.K Singh- Ralph Ranjit Singh in imitation of the double barrel names of his white schoolmates. Upon his migration to London, he adopts the mannerisms of an English dandy and plays the role of the cosmopolitan sophisticate. Back in Isabella, he cultivates the society of other European and American immigrants and feels a sense of comfort by the illusion of community,
"I loved to contemplate this fragmented world that we had put together again; and I did so with the feeling of my own imminent extinction… We were an intermediate race, the genes passive, capable of disappearing in two generations into any of the three races of men, with perhaps only a shape of eye or flexibility of slender wrist to speak of our intrusion" There is a sense of comfort that he feels in being at the end of his ancestral line. His marriage to a white female and his removal from traditional Indian society in favour of a 'cosmopolitan' European one shows a significant element of self-hatred and shame in ones personal and collective history.
In his 1976 poem, "At Last", published in "Sea Grapes"Walcott says of Naipaul,
"You spit on your people,
Your people applaud,
Your former oppressors laurel you
The thorns biting your forehead
Disguised as concern"
Indeed this has been at the heart of the controversy surrounding Naipaul's writing. His scathing attacks on the nature and potential of Third World people are, not surprisingly, to many European and American critics, simple artistic snobbery or an honest incisive look at the true nature of the society. For others his sentiments and the continued thread that runs throughout all his works is the racist, ideas imbibed by European colonizers. It is in his work, of the three authors examined, that we see the most acute example of West Indians being ignorant, frightened and ashamed of their past. He reduces all attempts at achievement and advancement to colonial mimicry. All Ralph's successes seem to be curtailed from the start by virtue of being bound to Isabella. The political movement led by Browne and Ralph is also marred by this sense of hopelessness; it is fated to change little. Their power is impotent; they are constructed as children playing with a toy that is far too large for them. Ralph describes the days of political power as "…an intensity made up of confusion, dishonesty, fear, delight and awe… it was wonder and puzzlement and this suddenly realized concept of the people, who responded and could be manipulated…" He describes the grassroots population as having "foolish strength" and knows that his words are only a hollow means of manipulation of this strength. The observations seem to echo sentiments that would have been expressed by a colonial governor, firm in his belief that the black population has no means to govern itself. The effect is two-fold- the narrative certainly describes a society in the throes of dealing with a tortured past. Its leaders ape their former European masters and are ignorant and fearful of the black poor whom they purport to lead. However it also reveals Naipaul's own ignorance, shame and fear of his own past. He goes to great lengths to distinguish himself from the very colonial society he despises yet remains inevitably tied to it and inevitably apart from the European society he is so desirous of claiming for his own.
Derek Walcott once stated in response to Naipaul's assertion that nothing will ever be created in the West Indies, that "Nothing will always be created in the West Indies for quite a long time, because whatever will come out of there is like nothing that one has ever seen before" In a region doubly constructed and defined through its 'colonized' and 'Third World' status, the relationship with the past has been indeed complex. Colonization brought with it all the inherent prejudices and attitudes that shaped a people to look outwards, and direct its gaze to the white, European metroples for definition. Third World status conferred upon the region the construct of racial inferiority, economic deprivation and arrested development. While many Caribbean artists have always attempted to negotiate their way through these constructs and redefine the Caribbean psyche through its own newly emerging standards, even in this attempt their work often reveals a severe disassociation with the past and a fear of addressing its many legacies. The varied, complex and traumatic 'mindscape' of the region has bequeathed to its artists a combination of an earnest desire to strike a blow of emancipation against empire, an ancestral legacy that has in many ways survived but is ignored or dismissed, and a virulent hatred for the region and reverence for the civilizations of the colonizer. The works of Brathwaite, Walcott and Naipaul give creative voice to what is a historical and psychological phenomena- the way cultivated ignorance and distortions, lead to a sense of shame- both at the loss of ones history and the nature of the distorted history, and a deeply embedded fear that arises from this instability, exile and rootlessness.
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