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 identity. I want to explore the term ‘myth’ itself—the English are not good at myth, always opposing it on the one hand to reality, on the other hand to truth, as if you have to choose between them. I specifically do not want to choose between myth and reality, but to talk about the very real contemporary and historical effects of myths of identity. And I want to do so with one other purpose which I hope will come through more clearly at the end. The issue of cultural identity as a political quest now constitutes one of the most serious global problems as we go into the twenty-first century. The re-emergence of questions of ethnicity, of nationalism—the obduracy, the dangers and the pleasures of the rediscovery of identity in the modern world, inside and outside of Europe—places the question of cultural identity at the very centre of the contemporary political agenda. What I want to suggest is that despite the dilemmas and vicissitudes of identity through which Caribbean people have passed and continue to pass, we have a tiny but important message for the world about how to negotiate identity.

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, until it is possible to state who the subjects of independence movements are likely to be, and in whose name cultural decolonization is being conducted, it is not possible to complete the process. And that process involves the question of defining who the people are. In Black Skin White Masks, Fanon speaks of what he calls ‘a passionate research directed to the secret hope of discovering beyond the misery of today, beyond self-contempt, resignation and abjuration, some beautiful and splendid area whose existence rehabilitates us both in regard to ourselves and others’. And as I’ve said, that passionate research by Caribbean writers, artists and political leaders, that quest for identity, has been the very form in which much of our artistic endeavour in all the Caribbean languages has been conducted in this century.

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.

Maurice Cargill, a famous commentator on Jamaican affairs in The Gleaner, responded to the prime minister, ‘What about a design containing entwined marijuana plants? Against a background of us dollar bills with tourists rampant and ladies couchant?’ Silencing as well as remembering, identity is always a question of producing in the future an account of the past, that is to say it is always about narrative, the stories which cultures tell themselves about who they are and where they came from. The one way in which it is impossible to resolve the problem of identity in the Caribbean is to try looking at it, as if a good look will tell you who the people are. During the period in which I was preparing my bbc series on the Caribbean, I had the occasion in a relatively short space of time to visit a large number of Caribbean islands, several of which I had not seen before. I was absolutely staggered by the ethnic and cultural diversity I encountered. Not a single Caribbean island looks like any other in terms of its ethnic composition, including the different genetic and physical features and characteristics of the people. And that is before you start to touch the question of different languages, different cultural traditions, which reflect the different colonizing cultures.

It may be a surprise to some people in this room that there are several Caribbean islands, large ones, in which blacks are nowhere near a majority of the population. There are now two important ex-British Caribbean societies where Indians are in a majority. In Cuba, what you are struck by first of all is the long persistence of white Hispanic settlement and then of the mestizo population, only later of the black population. Haiti, which is in some ways the symbolic island of black culture, where one feels closer to the African inheritance than anywhere else, has a history in which the mulattos have played an abolutely vital and key historical role. Martinique is a bewildering place, it is in my experience more French than Paris, just slightly darker. The Dominican Republic is a place where it is possible to feel closer to Spain and to the Spanish tradition of Latin America than anywhere else I have been in the Caribbean. The melting-pot of the British islands produced everywhere you look a different combination of genetic features and factors, and in each island elements of other ethnic cultures—Chinese, Syrian, Lebanese, Portuguese, Jewish—are present. I know because I have a small proportion of practically all of them in my own inheritance. My background is African, also I’m told Scottish—of pretty low descent, probably convict—East Indian, Portuguese Jew. I can’t summon up any more but if I searched hard I expect I could find them.