Sunday, May 10, 2009
Reparation Is An Absurd Concept - Walcott
BY ANOTE AJELUOROU
THE Caribbean professor of Literature and Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, who was in Nigeria for the Oceanic Bank Leadership Forum, has criticised the idea of reparation for Africans by whites for the effects of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Walcott dismissed the idea as unrealistic, illogical and immature in a conversation with The Guardian at the Oriental Hotel, Lekki, Lagos.
Walcott, who was the Nobel Prize winner in Literature in 1992, wondered how such payment would be valued monetarily, saying that his position was not a contradiction of what existed but that what was often left out of the slavery narrative was the lack of implicit sharing of guilt or responsibility by Africans in the dastardly trade that lasted for over 400 years.
"What do I get?" he queried. "How do you measure what I ask for? I'm not saying that the whiteman didn't do anything. What I'm saying is that it will be mature to recognise the complexity that existed in the slave trade as part of the real experience of real history."
That complexity is what Walcott refers to as "the reality of a two-way evil", which includes the role his African ancestors played in the slave trade saga for selling off their kin for monetary gain. Though he is not aware of how the historical narratives of slave trade is playing out on the African continent, Walcott is, however, not happy with the African-American and Caribbean na�ve view of the issue, which has been exaggerated and made to look as if only the whiteman is responsible for the crime of slave trade.
"It's wrong to blame the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade entirely on the whiteman," he stressed. "That's a lie; it does not tell the complexity of what happened. The reality is the opposite. It's a two-way evil. The African-American has to get beyond that lie or exaggeration of blaming all the oppression on the white man. There were blacks, who owned slaves in America. It's a perverse nuance of human nature to blame the other man."
He cited the case of the Jews blaming the Germans for the evils of the Holocaust, whereas human nature was what actually played out in the evils meted out to the Jews in Nazi Germany.
The Nobel Laureate argued that the equivalent of the German treatment of the Jews was what was happening in the Middle East, where the Palestinians were at the receiving end of Israeli assault.
Rather than regard such oppression as being rooted in a particular race or people, Walcott blames it on human nature, which seeks to oppress those it perceives as weak or vulnerable.
He stated, "I'd thought that after the Holocaust that there'll be a recognition of evil by the Jews. But that's the reality, the Palestinian reality, that Israel is the oppressor and the tyrant. This is being recorded by Palestinian writers and poets; it's true. Who would have thought that as the victims of the Holocaust returning they would oppress the Palestinians. What has happened is human nature."
He advocated for a true narrative of the historical process of oppression and its reflection either in fiction or poetry because falsifying it would not do anybody any good. Walcott suggested that insisting on reparation would amount to seeking revenge for what happened or looking for the guilty party even as it was clear to him that both parties were guilty of the crime of slavery. Rather, the eminent playwright and poet blame the dastardly crime on the economic imperatives that existed at the time and how both sides responded to it.
"Of course, it was a job, a marketing thing," he argued. "And the conditions under which that happened were established at the time. You fight a war as a tribe, you lose a war; every tribe that wins a war captured slaves. It happened in Europe; so why can't it happen in Africa? The history of every empire is one of subjugation of smaller tribes and then making slaves of the subjugated tribes. So, what is wrong with Africa's case?"
He advised that it was the responsibility of those affected, especially those in the Caribbean, to be careful the kind of history that was being taught in schools, "that we have a mature heart that can have complete understanding; it's much more complicated; it's human nature". He, therefore, faulted Bob Marley's soulful lyrics, Redemption song, as not being accurate description of history as it blames the white man alone for the evils of slave trade.
"In Africa and the Caribbean," he said, "there's got to be a certain acknowledgement of tacit evil if you're going to be mature and not necessarily feel guilty because that is a different thing because yesterday's guilt does not apply to today's reality."
According to him, "at the beginning of any country's literary history, what you get is a lot of inaccuracies.
"The writer is constantly aware of human ambiguity. That's why writers were constantly persecuted in Stalin's Russia, who put them in prison, and all forms of dictatorial regimes including the Catholic Church, which led to the Reformation, and Castro's Cuba."
The literary icon regards the works of writers and poets as very important in the evolution of societies as they serve as its conscience, often making themselves a nuisance to the establishment. It was for this that Plato did not want writers and poets in his ideal republic, where philosopher-kings were to rule because writers and poets were spoilers, who constantly complained; they were never satisfied.
"Plato did not want writers and poets in his Ideal Republic because they criticise too much," Walcott stressed. "They find it difficult to keep quiet. It's not necessarily courage that makes poets to criticise; it's just inevitable that they have to criticise. That's what is admirable about poets and writers. Writers are not very courageous by nature; all of us are cowards. But there's a point at which the cowardice is not important. There's a point where he says 'the voice that I'm hearing in my head cannot be suppressed; so, I'll put it down in a corner of my cell or in a toilet paper or in a matchbox'. It's still cowardice; he's still afraid he'd be caught. Poets and writers are guardians of heritage; they preserve heritage but heritage is an examination of the truth."
According to him, the direction of fiction and the theatre in the Caribbean Islands was "too melodramatic, too false, too harsh and too simplistic" of the historical truth, saying that rather, it should absorb the truths inherent in the slave trade saga so as to accurately represent it in fiction and the theatre for it to serve as instruction for the people.
He lamented the distance between Africa and the Caribbean Islands, stressing that it was too great to really encourage closer cultural ties and physical relationships and exchanges that should happen for their mutual benefits.
For him there ought to be more realisation of the reality of African presence in the Caribbean. He expressed his happiness at coming to Africa for the first time but wished that he'd had more time to see the landscape and mix with the people. He, however, said everything seemed exactly the same here as his native St. Lucian homeland.
Nevertheless, Walcott would not entertain the idea of relocating to Africa, the cultural and spiritual homeland, insisting that his home was not in Africa. "My home is emphatically in the Caribbean," he asserted. "It was the same thing James Baldwin said when he visited Africa. As an American, it's not that you deny your ancestry; but first of all, you're asked to deny your ancestry; you're made to deny your ancestry. You consider that with great pain but over the years, the claim that has been made about you is that you're where your home begins. You can't have two homes."
Walcott admitted that he'd had very little contact with African literature beyond the works of his fellow Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka; and that of Prof. Chinua Achebe. "I don't know what is coming out of Africa. I haven't read a lot recently. I don't generally read a lot of fiction. I'm not aware of any powerful African poet."
He described cultural life in Caribbean as beautifully complex in its Chinese, Indian and African mix, saying though that it could be simplified by those who see it as simple. "But it's intricate and it's wonderful in terms of the mix," he said, "that it's an example to the world in terms of the different races - Chinese, Indians and Africans - living harmoniously together."
In his interactive session with writers and journalists, Walcot encouraged novelists to try their hands at writing play so as to encourage the blossoming of the theatre. On the appalling publishing industry in the country, Walcot said Nigeria had inherited the bad habits of the British Empire, where the media treated arts as amateur expressions not deserving any serious attention. He was however optimistic that it would change with education being deepened in he country.