The problem of a national identity Editorial
Stabroek News
August 11, 2001

A national identity does not imply that we are all alike or that we are culturally the same. It does imply that we subscribe to certain core values. It may also require some common understanding of our historical heritage, inculcated through the educational system. An Englishman realises his spiritual essence through the legendary King Arthur, hero of the Round Table, Raleigh, Drake, Shakespeare, the general romaticisation of his history and some of the leading figures in that history. This is what his culture tells him he is, however unrelated to his actual circumstances today. The `Englishman' is a composite of his history, real and mythical, which includes his imperial history and his modern history - the Fabians, the welfare state, Churchill. That `persona' therefore changes to some extent, it is ambulatory.

We have an identity, first as West Indians but also even more particularly as Guyanese. Let us start with what we are not. We are not Amerindian, we are not African, we are not Indian, we are not Portuguese, Chinese or English. We partake of all those things but we are not them. We are different. With the limited exception of the Amerindians, very few of us speak a language other than English. Very few of us would feel at home in the countries from which our forefathers were brought, indeed we would feel quite estranged. We think differently, speak differently and live differently. We have been conditioned by this land in which we have lived, for all practical purposes from time immemorial, and it has made us what we are.

What do we have in common? The plantation, language, climate, education, living together or near to each other, working together, the experience of colonialism followed by independence. Does that provide a basis for a common mythology, for a nationalism, for a nation building that leaves multiculturalism intact but recognises a common core of values? The common core of values would of course include the secular, constitutional state we all subscribe to which recognises and respects religious freedom and the rule of law and a variety of human rights.

The plantation experience is hardly a basis for a heroic mythology and indeed one of the problems we face is that there is a deep inherent resentment of the past which entailed subjection and degradation. Hence, there is often a rejection of that past and even a psychological rejection of our being here (Martin Carter used to say we are all in internal exile, no one is really living here) and a corresponding, compensating linkage with the original `homeland', however attenuated that may have become.

There were rebellions on the plantation, none ultimately successful. Perhaps this provides a basis for constructing a history of struggle. There were other achievements chronicled by our historians, in recent times there have been Critchlow, Jagan, Burnham, and d'Aguiar. As time passes, we have a clearer view of the roles they played, of their strengths and weaknesses. But historic figures aside, what are we today? There is a syncretic mix of many cultures and influences, including the once dominant English culture. This has led in the case of someone like C.L.R. James to a cosmopolitan and internationalist outlook on the world. But the problem of identity in this multicultural state can also lead to a great deal of insecurity. Though a national identity may be essential to our survival it does not or should not threaten cultural diversity.

There is material to work on for our scholars and writers. Their work must, however, start from an unblinking assessment of who we are and what we have become, difficult as that is, especially given the negative profiling of each other that we inherited as part of the colonial dispensation. What would certainly help is an authoritative history of Guyana. What would also be valuable is a much better awareness of our cultural heritage than now exists, our writers, our artists.