Coping with otherness

by Jeff Cumberbatch
Barbados Nation
June 1, 1999

In his book First Time Up, a recount of the distinguished legal career of Norman Manley, the author, Jackie Ranston, writes of a dispute between two Jamaican neighbours – one of Chinese extraction, the other of African stock – over the erection of a fence: One part of their “discussion” goes thusly:

“You can’t put a fence on my land.”

“This isn’t your land. Your land’s in China.”

“This isn’t your land either. Your land’s in Africa.”

The laughable nature of these mutual assertions which would leave Jamaica as some terra nullius, a land belonging to no one, puts into high relief the nature of the Anglophone Caribbean societal existence – the attempt by people of diverse origins, ethnic, racial, religious, for a few, to cohabit a region to which they have all come or been brought by circumstance.

In my view, the opting out of this arrangement on the basis that the Lord’s song cannot be sung in a strange land seems escapist (no pun), a dereliction of the duty that has been entrusted to us all to create the new society.

It is easy to understand the need to bond with one’s ancestors and an integral aspect of this must be the return to the land of their birth. Further, it must be painful to exist in a society that is uneasy with difference, one that discriminates in significant ways on the basis of something as ephemeral as appearance. We are, I consider, much the lesser for it.

Nevertheless, last week’s call by the Rastafarians for repatriation to Africa, if successful, would be, in my opinion, clear evidence of our failure to get it right, our inability to accommodate alternative views in what is, by definition, an alternative society. There is no gainsaying the immense contribution that Ratafarianism has made, culturally, nutritionally, intellectually and ideologically to Caribbean society. We would be a poorer nation with their going, even though there would be many who, superficially, would consider it a boon.

However, for those of us who choose to remain, or must remain, one important aspect of society that must be dealt with is what I call “the relationship of differents”, whether in terms of religion, race, political views, social origin or gender. While our Constitutions affirm forcefully that different treatment on the basis of any of these is forbidden, this provision is intended for statal or para-statal authorities and, absent other statutory enactment, does not intrude into the private sphere.

Yet, it is clear that a failure to treat with these matters redounds to the disbenefit of societies such as ours, given the attendant consequences of suspicion, hostility, exclusion and violence. Usually, one does not have to seek far for instances of our failings, even though, undeniably, there have been some success stories as well. Take race relations, for instance; in Barbados, for a specific example.

Recently, during his charge to Synod, the Anglican Bishop of Barbados called for a debate on race in this country. With the greatest respect, your Lordship, I agree with you, but we are having it now. Maybe not in the structured, reasoned and polite form of normal intellectual discourse but we are having it in the destruction of the Yacht Club Wall, in the changed physiognomy of some sports clubs, in the ascendance of sports such as game fishing, draughts, polo, warri. We are having it in the debate, improperly so-called, about the removal of Nelson.

Of course, there would need to be a certain acuity of thought in order to pick up the contending stands of the argument, but for those who listen “between the lines” in a manner of speaking, the race debate is on at full tilt. My perception is that while there is, on the part of the proponents, a grudging recognition that Nelson is very much a minor sub-plot of the scenario, it is a convenient reference point for the discussion since, thereby, both sides can eschew any idea that race is playing a part in their respective positions.

Hence, there is the view that the removal of Nelson is necessary if we are to chart our destiny, a view which conveniently forgets that the historicity of the call for removal is essentially based on the fact that Nelson was white and that, this time around, a significant purport of the argument is that Nelson, as did a majority of his compatriots until it became uneconomical, supported the slave trade.

In return came the rejoinder that removing Nelson would be akin to removing a part of our heritage, a patently spurious assertion which overequates the physical with the psychological; as if heritage mandates the unqualified preservation of every trace of the past. Clearly, no one told this to the new rulers at the time of British Guiana, British Honduras, or German South West Africa, even.

Still, it was an understandable, even if intellectually weak, reaction to the arrogant, insipid rhetoric of some of the more vocal supporters of the move, which had, in turn, led to an assumption that modern Barbados would be refashioned into a society that reflected only the African aspect of its origins.

The statue, or rather its disposition, thus became the symbol of a battle for the assertion of the cultural dominance of the majority and the claim to respect for the predial artefacts of the minority.

There are some elements of this form of debate, and the nature of it, that do not give cause for surprise.

That it is being conducted in this cryptic fashion is to be expected from a society where freedom of speech is still regarded as something of an epiphany and where, a few weeks ago, it was sought to rationalise vandalism on a new found assertiveness. That there is still, in these chiliastic days, a need to reaffirm the cultural dominance of the blackish majority or for the whitish minority to feel itself under siege smacks of our failure, so far, to create the brave, new society. We are marking time.

• Jeff Cumberbatch is a lecturer in law at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples