Creole, an embrace of diversity?
Re: Senator Dr. Stephen King’s Budget Presentation (June 2012)
by Nkrumah Lucien
The word “Creole” or Kwéyòl” has at least two uses here in St. Lucia and various shades to it. It is widely used to talk about the language spoken here which is formed from a largely French vocabulary(words) and various structural aspects(grammar, pronunciation, intonation etc) largely from West African languages. This is accepted across the board. There are disagreements however about whether it should be understood as largely the creation of African peoples in the efforts to negotiate an environment hostile to their expression and survival or as some would have it, a language which all have equal stake in and relationship to. These two distinct relationships to the word and what it describes also recurs when it comes to the its other use.
When it comes to the use of the word to describe a people and a culture there are two very different ways in which it is used. Among some academics and those who feed too uncritically from this source, all people of the Caribbean form this broad notion of Creole given their mixed origins. It is said we are a Creole people and for some this obliterates previous connections to our various heritages and their life with(in) us now. (This of course ignores the fact that this mixing, interacting and sharing has happened and continues to happen on almost all continent, some under hostile circumstances and others not). So the critical issue here is not so much the interacting of various cultures but the circumstances under which it happened and the effects which it has for us collectively and individually. Specifically we are talking about a context in which the notion of some pure white race was invented and privilege accorded or not based on proximity to this notion. This was structured into the institutions of the society and the minds of people with much effort.
Like Jessica Alarcon points out, creolization was a process and not a product. Furthermore it was a process that has been around for quite sometimes around the world which has never really stopped. For that reason, some years ago after a presentation by Dr. Kentry JnPierre in which he privileged the rather loose definition for Creole, one member of the audience pointed out to him that based on his definition everyone was Creole, the influence of supposed foreign culture was merely a continuation of that and therefore there was nothing really to preserve. Many people still use the term creole to refer to African as distinguished from other groups for instance one time in Vieux Fort, I listened while one woman in the course of conversation told another: “Endyen paka mayé Kwéyòl-on” (Indians don’t marry Africans uh)
. (The inter-race attitudes and the common stereotypes attached one to the other is something itself that has to be dealt with but for now I will focus on the use of the term Kwéyòl). The fact is that since persons did not know themselves as African, they have used various terms circulating at the time to describe a difference, which they were still aware of, in terms of their experience based on particular physical and cultural traits associated with Africa. The more common term was “nèg”(negro) which due to the colonial legacy was a less neutral term made even more negative with expressions such as “nèg mawon”(runaway), “vyé nèg” etc and “nèg” attached to all sorts of stereotypes from colonialism. So when the term creole or Kwéyòl came into circulation persons moved to it. For some academics and other persons here and in other parts of the Caribbean there is a tacit hope that in one sweep they could wipe out or silence the various identities within St. Lucia and direct persons to understand themselves and their experience in some sense that does not recognize that they have a long history, come from varied cultures, which had their own social, political and spiritual systems etc. This kind of wishful thinking leaves a lot of questions unanswered and leaves intact many of the problems that persist as a result of our colonial legacy.
A recent budget presentation by Senator Dr. Stephen King shows very well how some narrow colonial stereotypes can persist even when we would like to appear to be embracing diversity under “our creoleness“
etc. Here is Dr. King,
What advantage does being Creole do for us? It means that as we build our society we can draw on the understanding of nature, pride and the ancient wisdom of our Carib DNA, we can draw on the resilience and strength of our African DNA, we can draw on the toughness of our European DNA and we can draw on the entrepreneurship of our Indian DNA. We can learn that as creoles we are tolerant and inclusive because we embrace diversity; as it is our nature. We are flexible and adaptive because that is the hallmark of resilience and strength, we are by nature a people that have always worked together as a community, we are deeply rooted in Mother Nature and love our land, this diamond, Saint Lucia “Helen of the West”.
Apart from the obvious stereotypes that Dr. King appeals to, there is also some illusion, wishful thinking or outright dishonesty as he speaks St. Lucia as a society that “embraces diversity” etc. Illusions such as these can’t go far to address our fundamental issues as a society or individuals because they ignore the entrenched prejudices and institutionalized biases on which St. Lucia operates. The so called embrace of diversity is only in effect when it does not challenge the established cultural dominance of Europe throughout our society and normalizes an unhealthy attitude toward non-European cultural heritage among the population. However these are comfortable illusions that too many in St. Lucia embrace which further perpetuate some of the root problems within our society and leave ones largely clueless in terms of the deeper causes for our many dilemmas.
The idea that “(w)e are Creole because our DNA incorporates diversity”
says nothing really since this mixing has happened many times and places before and it was not until the invention of whiteness that the amnesia toward our common origins bite us so hard. Furthermore this genetic diversity too is hardly the point either. It is not our mixing which is the true basis for our unity but rather the fact that we come from common origins despite having evolved differences physically, culturally and otherwise….although many forget that.Origin of the Word CreoleJessica Alarcon
in her essay ”Creole Seasoning:The roasting of Identities and the Creation of the African Diaspora”
traces the word Creole from the Spanish word Criollo
which may have been derived from crio
which meant child and/or criar
meaning to raise or grow something. In many Spanish or Portuguese speaking countries it is associated with hybridity or something “impure”. Europeans used it to refer to other Europeans who were born away from Europe and were therefore considered somehow inferior to the “pure” undiluted European culture. So when the word was used to refer to a European it was meant as a way of debasing them in relation to those born in Europe. When the word was used to refer to Africans it was different. The Creole in the case of Africans were the ones born in the Caribbean and tailored to fit the white dominated society and was in that society considered superior to those born in Africa and who had not yet been ‘seasoned’. This Creolization for the African was put into effect by force and violence, by the maligning, suppressing and outlawing of their culture and identity and by rewarding conformance to this situation by offering acceptance, power, prestige etc. Again these remain in effect and also tell us in part why the understanding of the term is so different among persons and why certain persons find the term so appealing.
In the book “Eloge de la Creolité”
the authors, Chamoiseau
declare that they are “ni Europeens, ni Africains, ni Asiatiques, nous nous proclamons Creoles”
(neither Europeans, nor Africans, nor Asians, we call ourselves Creoles). This attempt to erase the various identities into one has been done before under different terms and even by ignoring the whole issue as in the case of Brazil. St. Lucia’s own Arthur Lewis seemed to suffer the same dilemma in his essay “On being West Indian”
where he too felt the need to erase all the various identities in the Caribbean, obviously missing the point that saying this did not erase the reality that our societies were set up based on institutions, laws, sanctioned religion etc which affirmed European cultural norms; that we continue to be dependent on institutions who reward a continuance of this status quo; that many of those who were in formal positions of influence were so conditioned and that the various other cultures which he sought to obliterate in that stroke had already not been permitted to maintain continuity and connection here. These scholars were really doing nothing new but were really just entrenching further, in the minds of those who listen to them unquestioningly, the hegemony of Europe. The same goes for the notion that St. Lucian nationality should disqualify African, Indian or European identity although closer examination would show that it only attempts the continued subordination of the former while maintaining the latter now in camouflage. The appeal to abstract humanity follows the same escape and erasure. Chinua Achebe
writes the following:
“I know the source of our problem of course. ANXIETY. Africa has had such a fate in the world that the very adjective African can still call up hideous fears of rejection. Better then to cut all links with this homeland, this liability, and become in one giant leap the universal man. Indeed, I understand the anxiety. But running away from myself seems to me a very inadequate way of dealing with an anxiety….” –( pg 26-27 Morning Yet on Creation Day
What is the appeal for this notion of creole?
The fact that some find this type of all-embracing classification so attractive is not surprising at all and has been dealt with by so many it should be surprising that one should still have to discuss it. However, knowing the lack of balance in perspectives privileged in our education system and wider society it is not that surprising at all. There are two perspectives from which persons approach this kind of all-inclusive identity (to the exclusion of a true appreciation of diversity). Whites use the appeal to this identity to better manage dissenting views, to preempt attempts at a truly just, balanced and diverse society which threaten their unfair privilege. Over here most whites are actually quite invisible in the society and seem not to feel the need at this point to even enter such debates overtly. In earlier times, as late as the seventies this was very different though. Africans and others who are not comfortable with seeing themselves apart from the European, find comfort in these terms as it seems to accommodate some sort of African identity while preserving their treasured relationship with whiteness without making anyone uncomfortable.
W.E. B Du Bois referred to it as double consciousness. Fanon also dealt with it at length. What is missed however is that precisely because this does not address the contradiction, injustice, veiled intolerance and bias of our society it cannot serve to create a healthy basis for a more just and fair society, proper relations between groups and with persons and themselves but instead divert from it.
When one understands this one can then see the extent to which the various ambitions championed by Dr. King fall short and ignore the very diversity (minus the stereotypes) that he speaks of. Also, seeing that he was responding to what he considered to be laudable proposals by the Prime Minister it seems apparent that the PM too misses the point. For instance, if we are talking about “child friendly schools” how can we not speak of the fact that in a country of majority African and a sizable Indian population whose cultures and relation to their heritage was outlawed and suppressed, our education system and the wider society gives scant attention to these aspects of our heritage and generally to perspectives from these sources regarding law, governance, the organizing of society etc? How can it make sense to talk about violence in such a society without examining how the poor concepts of the African self and the narrow ideas of masculinity in blackface paraded on the media contributes to this violence(and our stereotypical ideas about Africans elsewhere)? How the internalized violence and intolerance contributes both to how persons relate to themselves and to others and how it serves the consciences of those who benefit from it? How can we talk about persons achieving their full potential as St. Lucians if they cannot relate in a healthy way and make use of the best of the various heritages from which St. Lucians come; If we do not address the roots of the lack of confidence and efforts at compensation (through consumerism, qualifications, physical modification), superficial ideas of success etc? How do we get past the narrow stereotypes we have of each other without a proper examination of the various histories which converge in the Caribbean and which diverge from our common origin in Africa? I wonder how Dr. King could even suggest that we embrace diversity when most St. Lucians cannot even embrace it in a healthy manner even within themselves.
The way Creole tends to be used among the more schooled ones for me reflects more of a fear of diversity than an acceptance of it. It ignores the fact that various persons have different things to work out based on the history that brought us here together and how it has shaped our society. These things have to be dealt with whether we choose to do so consciously or otherwise. Rather than an erasure of our differences or a whitewashing of these differences under the veneer of some fake universalism we need an understanding of these differences and to get a more accurate view of the past and therefore ourselves.Some Useful Sources :Creole Seasoning:The roasting of Identities and the Creation of the African Diaspora
by Jessica Alarcon (part of the collection Cahier ICF 06 “The African Diaspora and Creolization”) available onlineBlack Skin White Masks
by Franz FanonThe Souls of Black Folks
by W.E.B Du BoisUniversalism: The Syntax of Cultural Imperialism (in Yurugu:An African Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behaviour)
By Dr. Marimba Ani