National heroes

Stabroek News
January 29, 2000

The opening of the year 2000 seems to have resuscitated the debate on national heroes, the most recent contribution on this topic coming from Mr Rickey Singh writing in the Sunday Chronicle of January 16. He appears to be in favour of a "National Heroes project," whereby a committee would be set up "to identify those who in the popular consciousness of the Guyanese masses are already National Heroes." Thereafter, he suggests, the name(s) could be sent to Parliament for the conferring of some legal status on those selected.

But what exactly are national heroes? According to Mr Singh they are not to be confused with "personalities of national stature, outstanding leaders in various fields of endeavour, politics, culture or else." In order to qualify, he says, "the individual's outstanding contributions must at least have some measure of national acceptance without any attempt to falsify history or expediently ignore serious wrongs committed against the society." In conclusion, he comes up with three names who qualify, namely, Dr Cheddi Jagan, Mr Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and Mr Martin Carter.

Whether it is possible to get national consensus on any individual in the political arena is perhaps a moot point, but one has to ask the question as to whether a nation in any case really needs national heroes sanctioned by the politicians. Inevitably, the discussion on who should qualify centres around those who walked this earth in relatively recent times, and who still live on in the memories of the current generation. Should we really be seeking heroes among those so recently departed, more especially when we already confer national awards. (It might be noted in passing that none were given last year for some reason.)

There is the added complication that in a fractured society like this one, selecting some recent politicians in particular, and by-passing others, is bound to cause friction. We have not yet advanced to the point where we perceive the history of one group as being an element in the history of the whole, and constituting, therefore, a part of everyone's social identity.

In addition, the obsession with more recent history distorts the nation's historical perspective. Few people have a sense of the world of Guyana generations ago, and even fewer are aware of whether there is anyone from the more distant past who would qualify for so-called 'hero' status. Do the politicians know how many names of unsung 'heroes' lurk in the pages of mouldering records waiting to be discovered?

But why can't we just acknowledge the contribution of particular individuals in their own spheres without giving them some nebulous official status as 'national heroes,' whatever that might mean? There are innumerable ways of doing this. Sportsmen can have 'halls of fame' in their own discipline, plaques can be put on the homes of special people saying 'so-and-so lived here,' there can be publications about important historical personages and republications of the works of literary men and women, etc., etc. The reputation of Shakespeare, for example, derives from the fact that his genius has been accessible to countless generations through the constant republication of his work; had he been accorded 'national hero' status by the English Parliament but his works had been lost to posterity, then he would have been forgotten long ago. And so it is with Martin Carter too.

There is in addition the problem of deciding the criteria to be applied to a 'national hero.' Human beings are inevitably flawed, and some very great personalities who have made outstanding contributions in a given area, have been unlikeable characters, or perhaps even disreputable, and have marred their copybook in one way or another.

We need to remember those who have gone before and give recognition to significant personalities. We need to assess the contribution they might have made in their various fields of endeavour in a mature and balanced way without, however, idolising them. We need to research our history. We need to make that history accessible to a popular audience. We need to publish and republish. Perhaps in a few cases - the late Dr Cheddi Jagan might possibly be an example - we need to erect monuments or statues. But do we need Parliament to create some official national heroes? Probably not.