In this lecture I will address questions of Caribbean culture and identity. I want to suggest that such questions are not in any sense separate or removed from the problems of political mobilization, of cultural development, of economic development and so on. The more we know and see of the struggles of the societies of the periphery to make something of the slender resources available to them, the more important we understand the questions and problems of cultural identity to be in that process. I want to examine some of the themes of a topic which has been richly explored by Caribbean writers and artists—cultural identity presenting itself always as a problem to Caribbean people.footnote1
Why it should be a problem is not a mystery, but I want to probe this question of identity and why Caribbean writers, politicians, civic leaders, artists and others have been unable to leave worrying away at it. And in doing so, I want to problematize to some extent the way we think about
There is a very clear and powerful discourse about cultural identity, especially in the West. Indeed most of us have lived through, and are still living through an exercise in the definition and defence of a particular kind of British cultural identity. I was puzzled when Norman Tebbit asked which cricket team you would support, in order to discover whether you were ‘one of us’, ‘one of them’ or maybe neither. My own response to that was, if you can tell me how many of the four hundred members of the British athletics team are properly British, I’d be ready to answer the question about the cricket team; otherwise not. But the discourse of identity suggests that the culture of a people is at root—and the question of roots is very much at issue—a question of its essence, a question of the fundamentals of a culture. Histories come and go, peoples come and go, situations change, but somewhere down there is throbbing the culture to which we all belong. It provides a kind of ground for our identities, something to which we can return, something solid, something fixed, something stabilized, around which we can organize our identities and our sense of belongingness. And there is a sense that modern nations and peoples cannot survive for long and succeed without the capacity to touch ground, as it were, in the name of their cultural identities.
Now the question of what a Caribbean cultural identity might be has been of extraordinary importance, before but especially in the twentieth century. Partly because of the dislocations of conquest, of colonization and slavery, partly because of the colonial relationship itself and the distortions of living in a world culturally dependent and dominated from some centre outside the place where the majority of people lived. But it has also been important for counter-identities, providing sources on which the important movements of decolonization, of independence, of nationalist consciousness in the region have been founded. In a sense,
Why, then, is the identity of the Caribbean so problematic? It is a very large question, but let me suggest some of the reasons. First of all, if the search for identity always involves a search for origins, it is impossible to locate in the Caribbean an origin for its peoples. The indigenous peoples of the area very largely no longer exist, and they ceased to exist very soon after the European encounter. This is indeed the first trauma of identity in the Caribbean. I don’t know how many of you know what the coat of arms of Jamaica is. It has two Arawak Indian figures supporting a shield in the middle, which is crossed by pineapples surmounted by an alligator. Peter Hulme reports that in 1983 the then prime minister of Jamaica, Edward Seaga, wanted to change the coat of arms on the ground that he could not find represented in it a single recognizable Jamaican identity. ‘Can the crushed and extinct Arawaks,’ he asked, ‘represent the dauntless inhabitants of Jamaica? Does the low-slung near-extinct crocodile, a cold-blooded reptile, symbolize the warm soaring spirits of Jamaicans? Where does the pineapple, which was exported to Hawaii, appear prominently either in our history or in our folklore?’ I read that quote simply to remind you that questions of identity are always questions about representation. They are always questions about the invention, not simply the discovery of tradition. They are always exercises in selective memory and they almost always involve the silencing of something in order to allow something else to speak.