Brave ‘New World’
Almost fifty years ago, the editors of the New World Fortnightly published a feature on “The Intellectual Tradition and Social Change in the Caribbean.” The piece is a rousing example of what the West Indian intelligentsia used to contribute to the public sphere. Filled with schemes for our escape from the cultural and political aftermath of colonialism, the text is charmingly blunt: “In the context of a society in which the majority of the population start with the most absurd and unnatural presuppositions about themselves — for example, most people think that their hair is not ‘good hair’ — [our] radicalism borders on the revolutionary …”
The great hope of the promised revolution was simple enough: “to eradicate the underpinnings of the plantation society”, specifically the intellectual stagnation of a culture that lacked “its own points of reference.” While the Caribbean was in thrall to ‘a ruling class which was initially intransit and which was later to continue to act as if it was’, paralysis was understandable. “It was natural to see the world through outside eyes and never did it become urgently necessary to organise a fund of knowledge about the home environment or even about the wider world.” But independence offered a fresh start, a chance to reach new conclusions, set different goals, and to abandon “the ‘Afro-Saxon culture which puts its highest premium on the achievement by mimicry.”
The New World intellectuals had few illusions that this would be easy. They stress that harsh words about ‘the utter incapacity of West Indians to perceive the realities around them’ are not meant to imply their group’s ‘moral superiority over everybody else — or for that matter, over anybody else.’ But hard truths are necessary if you want ‘to find out about the circumstances in which we live, to discover who we are and what is our history, to ascertain what are our hopes and aspirations, what our complexities and disabilities, and to form some judgment about what possibilities there are for us, as a people, to make something of our natural endowments and our historical inheritance.”
Much of the remaining text considers the most desirable relationship between the New World group and established institutions like universities – should it function as an offshoot of their research departments, or as something independent? – and political groups. The editors refer to a spat with Mrs Jagan in which she accused them of ‘not being impartial’ because they had “quite unashamedly supported Moses Bhagwan in the political controversies which were then current.” They carefully point out that if their response to Mrs Jagan suggested that “the journal was of the same opinion as Bhagwan, their formulation of their position was unfortunate. For [if this were true] their opinion must then have been governed (and certainly seemed to have been governed) not by “honesty, reason and the law” – whatever that righteous phrase may convey – but by the requirements of Bhagwan’s political support.”
Today, long after the dreams of Independence and West Indian Federation have foundered, it is hard to read these words without wondering how differently it all might have turned out.
The disinterested and intensely engaged tone of the New World prose has all but vanished in our day. Our sense of ourselves, both locally and regionally, is a shameful fraction of what it should be, our political culture is cartoonishly backward, and while our literary and artistic output has certainly moved beyond mimicry, it still remains vulnerable to the whims of foreign audiences and markets.
In the 1980s, West Indies cricketers showed that we could dominate a competitive global sport. They proved that we could establish our own points of reference and set new standards of excellence in a venerable tradition. Since then several outliers — notably Jamaica’s sprinters — have shown that our capacity for excellence remains high to this day. We have fostered talent and, occasionally, genius in many other fields, and done so far more often than a population this size might reasonably expect to. Yet it is hard to look at the Caribbean and conclude that we have moved on, culturally and intellectually, from the helter-skelter, improvisational world the New World group hoped to eradicate.
Our hopes seem so much smaller today. How many of us seriously believe the region has lived up to our pre-independence aspirations, or that our divisive often internecine politics, the wholesale disappearance of large swathes of the middle-class, the slow erosion of public institutions will be corrected in our lifetimes? It is sobering to realize that the New World group, in less auspicious times, sincerely believed we could compete culturally, intellectually, athletically on a world stage.
Perhaps our leaders should be more mindful of the intellectual legacy we have squandered during the last few decades before they make too many bold promises and predictions about the future.