Lamming’s warning on race RICKEY SINGH COLUMN
Guyana Chronicle
March 17, 2002

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-Memorial lecture for Dr Jagan on `Language and Politics of Ethnicity’

THE celebrated Caribbean novelist and political commentator, George Lamming, is challenging political parties and social interest groups of the Caribbean Community to make the region's ethnic/cultural diversity a cause for celebration and to exorcise "the virus of ethnic nationalism" that afflicts some of our societies.

An icon of his native Barbados and the Caribbean, Lamming was at the time dealing with issues of identity and conflict, plantation culture and the creolisation process while addressing the topic of `Language and the Politics of Ethnicity’.

His forum was the Institute of Caribbean and Latin American Studies, York University in Toronto. The occasion, attended by hundreds, among them citizens of the Caribbean diaspora, was the fourth in the series of annual memorial lecture by the university to commemorate the life and times of Dr. Cheddi Jagan, late President of Guyana, who died on March 6, 1997, following a heart attack.

At a time when ethnic divisions remain a very challenging problem in the region, particularly for societies like Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname, but also with increasing tension even in Barbados, Lamming, made a diagnostic course of plantation society in this region to dismiss any reliable claim to any form of "ancestral purity".

His conclusion, one that may be uncomfortable for some of European, African and Indian ancestry, is that "creole” is the name of their anatomy.

Time and the political economy of the landscape in the form of the Plantation, he contends, allowed "no one to be exempt from the inexorable process of creolisation...There are those who claim European ancestry, but who were made, shaped and seeded by the cultural forces of the archipelago, and whose interaction with others have made them a distinct breed from the stock from whom they have descended".

Amid the ongoing cacophony of race-based politics that continue to be troubling for nation-building in multi-ethnic societies, Lamming was telling his audience:

"The sons and daughters of Indian indentured labour arriving in the third decade of the 19th century, may argue a stronger case for ancestral heritage than their African predecessors, but this proximity in time to the ancestral homeland does not erase or obscure their sense of belonging to the creolised world of Trinidad or Guyana..."

He feels that the Indian "discomfort" with the term, 'Creole' - a word, he concedes, that does arouse a certain antagonism - "cannot be a denial of the process of creolisation, although it may be a correct rejection of the cultural dominance which power conferred on a particular ethnic group".

Distorting Reality
Warning of a Eurocentric triumph in definition of geo-political terms and concepts, Lamming said it may also be helpful to remind ourselves that "we distort reality if we encourage thinking about Africans and Indians in uniform and monolithic terms".

He suggests that controversy about self-definition prevails not only between different groups, but also between different layers of the same group", offering some specific examples including the experience shared by Dr Jagan of his early years in his autobiographical work. `The West on Trial’.

"If African labour and the cultural dimensions of that labour constitute the first floor on which this Caribbean house was built, then the second floor and central pillar on which its creative survival depends is the total democratic participation of the Indo-Caribbean presence", Lamming told his audience.

Known for his controversial public discourses, Lamming set the tone for his address, in which he made a scathing attack on "ethnic nationalism" as a "parasitic virus" in Caribbean politics, by reading three poems:

`I came to India’ by Mahadai Das of Guyana; `Far Cry from Africa’ by Derek Walcott and an untitled poem by Lawrence Scott, a French creole from Trinidad and Tobago.

Language, he noted, was a major instrument in the creation of Empire, and there is "remarkable evidence" from 19th century diaries that Empire has also been a metaphor of "racial diversity and cultural miscegenation which challenges the imagination to discover its true location".

"Journeys of conquest, initiated by an imperial thirst for expansion, order and settlement", said the author of `In the Castle of my Skin’, "give way to involuntary migration and the conflicting claims of different groups to equal partnership in new homelands...

"There is not only an African diaspora; there is also an Indian and wider Asian diaspora; and this confluence generates a tense, creative challenge in the demands for democratic claims to landscape..." he said, as he warned against "racial demagoguery" to secure advantages that objectively are not about "race" but "power":

Lamming, often hailed as perhaps the most "political" of novelist of the English-speaking Caribbean, one who dwells among the region's people and frequently journeys to countries of the region to be involved in discourses on post-colonial reconstruction, remarked:

"Caribbean literature will provide us with the most vivid description of the 'school' as an institution whose most critical function (or dysfunction) was to initiate and make permanent the existing layers of social stratification. Deschooling the mind from this early catastrophe is an ongoing task".

Recalling the "indignities" of caste and class that Dr Jagan himself had to escape in his days as a student in Georgetown, Lamming argued that the phenomenon of class is common to all categories and is a decisive influence in the process of cultural formation.

"A large Indian agricultural proletariat in Trinidad or Guyana" he feels, "would not be unaware of the difference in the material interests which distance them from the modernising consumerist life style of their own professional and entrepreneurial elites.

"Nor is the African Creole working-class any less aware of this divide among Afro-Trinidadians. But individuals, responding to the imagined threat of group pressure, are very vulnerable to the most vulgar and opportunistic appeals which warn them about probable destruction by the 'other'.

This strategy, he reminded, of ensuring "allegiance" by dramatising the menace of "the other" was most effectively used by the old colonial power; and it has been called into service by both African and Indian political leadership in the new independent countries.

"It has been the major obstacle to the realisation of an authentic civic nationalism that would embrace and re-creolise all ethnic types in Caribbean society..."

This is indeed a timely reminder/warning from a Caribbean man whose works have consistently revealed his commitment to the unity of the peoples of this region, to their re-education from colonial schooling and who has always set his face against the "parasitic virus" of racism.

Saying he has never been able to "separate the creative imagination from the political culture in which it functions", Lamming chose to conclude his address at the event held in Dr. Jagan's honour with a quote from a comment published by the region's media on the day after the death of the Guyana President:

"There is no Caribbean leader who has been so frequently cheated of office; none who has been so grossly misrepresented; and no one who, in spite of such adversity, was his equal in certainty of purpose and the capacity to go on and on until his time had come to take leave of us..."