It is often the case, if you have your eyes open, that you’re engaged in an encounter on one level and you suddenly find an awareness on a completely different level that is so strong and so vivid that it makes you draw a sudden breath, as from a fright.
This past week I spent a very enjoyable hour performing at the Umana Yana for a group of Presiding Officers and Clerks from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) who had been meeting in Guyana. This particular group contained representatives from the Caribbean, the Americas and the Atlantic region, joined here by their Guyanese counterparts and by several of our prominent political leaders. As I said in my opening chat, “What an august body.”
Given the composition of the group, I had tailored my contribution, both the spoken comments and the sung ones, on the subject of “the Caribbean man”, as in mankind, and indeed the first song I did was my composition Caribbean Man which talks about our accomplishments. Looking out on the assembly there I recalled the comment of the late Rex Nettleford, a truly singular son of Jamaica, that “we are a powerful people.” It had that impact on me. The setting was Guyana, but it was a truly Caribbean evening. St. Vincent’s PM Ralph Gonsalves would have loved it.
Several hours after the event, however, almost like a candle sputtering to light, came the kind of completely different thought I was referring to earlier, and it came first as a question: “Whatever happened to this vision of this one place, with one people, on one mission? Why do we seem farther from it than ever?” Almost immediately came the more salient thought that the notion of Caribbean Man, the he and she of it, both politically and culturally, remains a promise largely unfulfilled.
Harking back to the 1960s, there was a mood among Caribbean people when the independence movements started to bubble where many of us had this feeling that our time was at hand or, at least, on the horizon. It perhaps was not declared so manifestly, but one could sense it in the people with aspirations, whether living in the region or outside it.
A few people waved flags about it (there was an entertainment place in Toronto called the WIF Club, as in West Indies Federation) but back then, for most of us, it was a muted but understood anticipation and certainly one of hope. Individual writers engaged the subject frontally – Selvon and Lamming come to mind – or wrote about it in more allegorical fashion, as Vidia Naipaul or Ismith Khan did.
The musical voices chimed in with Sparrow and the Mighty Duke creating popular calypsoes on that regional theme; with some countries already independent in 1970 I had composed Where Are Your Heroes, Caribbea and would sing it to a full house at the Cultural Centre. In a phrase, we were alive with expectation. Today, the situation is reversed: there are frequent and public exhortations for the idea of the Caribbean Man, as a political entity, but there seems to be much less hope for it, or embrace for it, among the populace.
We have not been able to realize the concept of a Caribbean union, and the tragedy there, as the pundits frequently tell us, is that this approach is essential if the inhabitants of the region are to make their way in an ever more difficult global economy. Even as I write this, the Prime Minister of St. Lucia, Kenny Anthony, is yet another voice calling for it. As meritorious as that view may be, the diversity of our natures, and perhaps our separation by the sea, leave us far short of the union that could be our salvation.
Some 40 years after the WIF Club in Toronto, and once the current applause from the rhetoric fades, Caribbean Man remains largely a promise. All the institutions we struck up along the way in that quest are teetering or have failed. When you look for the Caribbean man you can’t find him, and that is perfectly natural because there is no Caribbean nation, no pervasive joining exists. Usain Bolt personifies Jamaica; Machel Montano is a symbol of Trinidad; Rihanna means Barbados; Shivnarine Chanderpaul projects Guyana; Derek Walcott is St. Lucia, and so on. When India plays the West Indies at cricket, the two flags on the pavilion are the Indian flag and the flag of the West Indies Cricket Board. There is no national Caribbean flag to fly, no anthem to sing.
When discussions were going on for Tradewinds to play in Australia during a West Indies tour in the 1970s, broadcaster Reds Perreira telephoned me: “Dave, you need to write a rah rah song for the West Indies. When the Australian team comes out the public address system plays Come on Aussie; when the West Indies team comes out, we have nothing.” That was the genesis of We Are The Champions.
Perhaps the notion of unity comes with too much baggage, with several pieces being identified by our leading writers. The Jamaican writer Dennis Scott argues: “We went economically further out, or were pushed out, by a combination of circumstances, so we have had to look inwards more and more as a people, each island, and the whole Caribbean.” The Trinidadian Samuel Selvon bemoans our failure to produce the Caribbean man free of ethnic division. “This is a great, great, a bitter disappointment to me, you know. It is something that I regret very much.” The V. S. Naipaul litany is trenchant.
An abiding barrier to union is the very variety of the vibrant cultures we possess. The Jamaican writer Vic Reid, author of New Day, declares: “Listening to the countryside…people’s voices…and I hear the talking, and I pick them up, and I must keep them because the whole rhythm of the country is part of me, and the rhythm of the talk is part of me.” The reality beneath his remarks is that there are all these different Caribbean rhythms, each one special to its holder, and not wholly transferrable or even acceptable. Of course, the example of the European Union, with its collection of diverse cultures and languages is put before us, but (a) that is essentially a political union, (b) look how long it took those developed societies to achieve it, and (c) it remains a solitary example.
Despite all the exhortation, we have clearly not matured enough to be able to accommodate such a sophisticated arrangement, but the dream of the Caribbean Man, the he and the she of it, lives on. Standing there on that Umana Yana stage this week, looking out at those luminaries assembled in the benab, one could almost see the possibilities for the union that Kenny Anthony was urging this week in Barbados.
For me, having discovered the Caribbean by leaving it, this notion of the Caribbean Man is imbedded, sometimes covertly, in many of the songs I have written over the years. Those songs, and my setting foot in every corner of the region, have left me very much aware of the promise. It’s a promise that still awaits us, unrealized, yes, but never fully going away.