Who are our heroes?
Some weeks ago, at a ceremony to mark the 27th anniversary of the death of President Forbes Burnham, Mr Granger, newly elected leader of the PNCR, paid homage to Burnham’s “visionary leadership, his astute statesmanship and his watchful guardianship of our young nation for over two decades from 1964 to 1985.” He gave fulsome praise as well to Burnham’s “exemplary record” and “his campaign to create a good life for all Guyanese.” These tributes will have resonated with some. Others will be of the opinion that Burnham’s record as a leader, though significant, was anything but exemplary.
The context of Granger’s curious paean is important: the ceremony was held at the Mausoleum, Place of Heroes, Seven Ponds, Botanical Gardens. President Burnham shares this resting place with his successor, President Hoyte, our national poet, Martin Carter and our first native born Governor of Guyana, Sir David Rose. A few months ago, after the death of Philip Moore, our foremost local sculptor, there were calls for him to be interred there.
Who, then, are our heroes ? From time to time, in our letter columns, in an obituary and in general discourse the question bubbles to the surface: was this man (and it invariably seems to be a man) a hero? Were his achievements of an order to merit special stature in our community and, ultimately, our history? The person in question has usually held public office of some description or spent a fair portion of his working life in the public eye. On current form, our heroes would appear to be male public servants or professionals of a certain age who have led the country, or distinguished local artists whose work embodied a rather different vision of Guyana, whose immense contribution was to foster a community of ideas that helped to shape the consciousness of our infant nation. Not for us, then, a streamlined Pantheon. Not for us, either, a line-up that every Guyanese would endorse.
How do we determine who these heroes are? What are our criteria? The selection of the Place of Heroes as a final resting place is clearly seething with political implications, but there are other philosophical considerations. The columnist Roger Cohen offers a simple but fairly exacting formula: “Heroes stand apart. They move against the tide. They possess an inner compass.” How many contenders would, on close examination, fulfil all three of these criteria? Precious few, one suspects. A writer in our letter columns suggested recently that “greatness should be considered in the context of one’s contribution to building a unified Guyanese nation.” That is certainly a start. Nation-building comes in many forms though, some of which are more visible (though not necessarily more valuable) than others. Political leaders offer and enact a certain vision of Guyana. However Guyana has signally failed to produce a political leader who offered or attempted to enact a transcendent vision of Guyana, a vision that appeals to and might enlist the support of all, or nearly all, Guyanese. Half a century of rhetoric and policy since Independence has yielded few tangible results in terms of unity and nation-building.
Perhaps though we need to adopt a different timeframe when assessing our metamorphosis. Though few in number, we are a culturally complex nation with deep divisions, six peoples thrown together by historical currents over which we had no control. It is surely not accidental that Wilson Harris, Aubrey Williams and AJ Seymour chose to focus significant creative energy on our Amerindian heritage, neutral, fecund and in many senses, ‘distant’ territory. If we take this ancient culture as our measure, our nation is still very much in its infancy. Not surprising, then, that Mr Granger, a gentleman with some credentials as an historian, is not quite ready to offer a more balanced assessment of someone who governed a mere generation ago.
Older nations seem to move beyond a need to create one-dimensional “heroes.” Some interpret this as a disenchantment with heroes, a feeling that no one is sufficiently informed, unblemished or uncompromised to qualify for such an exalted title. Others contend that, in a mature nation, heroes can be embraced in all their complexity.
Increasingly too, there is a sense that heroes don’t have to be household names. They don’t have to figure prominently in our newspapers and public life. Arguably it is those who toil far from the public eye who are most worthy of our respect. We can all identify them. They come from all walks of life, all parts of the country and represent the diversity of our culture. They are the ones who, in the midst of the daily life struggle, stand tall, remain undefeated and chart their own course, often against the tide.
Among those who might be included for consideration are the Afro-Guyanese dentist (now deceased) and the Indo-Guyanese doctor who, at considerable risk to livelihood and life, repeatedly documented and publicised electoral abuses in the Burnham era, the nun who devoted her life to caring for girls in one of our city orphanages, the several businessmen and women who, in the wake of personal loss, have built institutions to offer care for the terminally ill and to reintroduce music to our children or waged a tireless campaign for road safety. We don’t need to name them. We don’t need to honour them with special awards, burial sites or plaques. That is not what they seek. But we should not take them for granted and we should not forget them. They have also contributed to our sense of what it is to be Guyanese, they have also helped to foster a sense of civic pride and community, they have also made a significant and enduring contribution to a young nation.
Time and again, since the birth of our nation, we have shown ourselves to be susceptible to hero worship, to the cult of personality. We have an adolescent’s urge to revere (or revile) our political leaders where a healthy dose of scepticism and an appropriate measure of deference would serve us rather better. It is time to outgrow these teenage-style crushes. Ours is a complex country in need of complex characters to illuminate a path for us to tread. We could do worse than heed the words spoken by Warren Harding, nearly a century ago, about his homeland: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.”