Given the fractured and dislocated conditions of our history in this region, Caribbean people have had a hard climb up the ladder of self-worth. Overlords and circumstances have combined to minimize us a people, and while the situation is manifestly better now, many of us previously grew up in this region stained with insecurity and doubt.
Along the way, as it is for most countries grappling with that uncertain horizon, our artistic people, and to some degree our athletes, have served as the outstretched hand helping us to get out of that mental crouch we were in. The work of those individuals, sometimes operating in groups, functioned exactly like lights in the darkness showing us, without actually saying the words, that we are indeed, as the late Rex Nettleford put it, “a powerful and exalted people.” Their exertions may have been inherently personal, but in their deliverances these people transformed us.
The late Louise Bennett – the Jamaican dialect poet fittingly eulogized by Ian McDonald in this paper recently (March 20) – was one such light. Louise’s work, although not widely known to young people now, gave instant currency to our creole languages as she burst upon us in this dialect shout that highlighted both the comedic and insightful sides of her culture.
This was a West Indian, writing and performing proudly as a West Indian, using our own idioms, and pronunciations, and, particularly, our mores. For me, as for many other Caribbean artists, her work was a striking imprimatur on the question of Caribbean identity and value.
But the impact was beyond that. By drawing almost exclusively on the vibrant Jamaican culture, those deliverances, legitimized on the printed page and the concert stage, ultimately served to show Jamaicans their value as a people. It propelled their self-worth.
And further still, the genius of the work is that it created in the extended body of Caribbean people, not totally familiar with Jamaican dialect, that same elevation of self. Louise’s medicine, aimed at the Jamaicans, was elixir for Caribbean people wherever they lived. We got the message. We straightened up.
Virtually on her own, through her writing and performances, Louise Bennett blew away the prejudice against dialect expression as not being ‘proper’ and sanctified it as a genuine language expression with connections for its people as they have with no other way of speaking. Across the Caribbean, there were clearly many artists in the starting blocks, so to speak, but generally uncertain about how to proceed; Louise gave them the confidence to run.
She may not have known about it, but she was behind the emergence of the novel ‘All O We’ dialect performers (Ken Corsbie, Marc Matthews, Henry Muttoo) whom I first saw in Guyana many years ago when I was on my own artistic searchings.
Louise Bennett broke down barriers for performers such as the story-teller Paul Keens-Douglas who was to follow her years later with his searching comedic rants in Trinidadian parlance. She turned the Caribbean microphone from the outside discourse back onto itself. She gave courage to artists to speak in their own tongue, and brought the public around to recognizing the value of their own.
Other such lights have come on for us: the West Indies cricket team is one. Apart from the music successes of recent times (reggae, soca, dancehall, chutney) nothing has generated more strut in Caribbean cultures than the successes of that team as world champions in years past. Spilling out of those cricket stadiums, or celebrating over a shortwave radio, Caribbean people were learning, again without being told, that we are indeed substantial as the deeds of our heroes reflected onto us.
As the line in my song ‘All O We’ says: And when Clive Lloyd come to captain West Indians, fiery bowling, brilliant centurions, it wasn’t just them who became the champions, it was we, all o’ we, all o’ we. Indeed, although the team is now on hard times, the belief in self it generated remains with us still as we look for another rise.
The 400-metre gold of Jamaican Arthur Wint in 1948 was before my time, but I remember the euphoria that followed Hasely Crawford’s 100-metre win at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
The Trinidadian’s feat galvanized Caribbean people. In the diaspora at that time, the effect that piece of news had on us was dynamic. We latched onto it, with joyous re-telling, revelling in that achievement of our own. In the Guyanese construction, “It was abee dis.”
Obviously the accomplishments of many famous West Indians with international reputations – Derek Walcott, Vidia Naipaul, George Lamming, Sonny Ramphal, etc – have been a factor in the gradual development of our self-esteem, but it has been the ones operating in the grasp of our masses, speaking to us in our own idioms, mirroring us, who have had the most success in getting us to stand up straighter as a people. Today, as we grapple with our place in the fast-moving frenzy of modern life, we find that same phenomenon of the artists and performers – Bob Marley, Machel Montano, Peter Minshall, Mighty Gabby, Alison Hinds, Brian Lara, Shiv – who end up bolstering our view of ourselves.
I will never forget being in the Kingston airport, en route to Guyana, on the day Usain Bolt won Olympic gold. In the five minutes or so before the starting gun, the departure counters at the airport came to a complete halt.
All eyes were on the elevated television screens in the area. Security guards, baggage handlers, passengers, vendors, all stood motionless. I was among them, fixed on the monitor, disregarding check-in.
When Bolt appeared, with his trademark extended-arm-aimed-skyward pose, an instant wave of jubilation washed over the crowd. With the win, a huge roar of exultation erupted. People were running in delight, helter-skelter all over the area. Complete strangers were hugging one another. A woman near me, of roast yam girth, was somehow jumping two feet off the floor. No one from the region was crouched over that day; we were all standing tall on Bolt’s shoulders, or jumping.
Our artists and athletes, the likes of Louise and Sparrow and Hasely and Viv, have done far more than entertain us – they have helped us get out of our crouch.