The Caribbean is the ‘home of hybridity’ but this legacy does not necessarily underpin our regional culture and identity. Much Caribbean culture, particularly our youth culture, is now largely derivative of American culture, not, it should be noted, the nitty-gritty complexity and variety of American daily life but the airbrushed sanitised model portrayed on our TV screens. Five years ago, a Caricom Commission on Youth Development noted that many young people in the Caribbean identified more readily with North American culture than their own and indicated no wish to remain in the Caribbean or to identify with things Caribbean.
The recently concluded Caribbean Festival of Arts (Carifesta) offered glimpses of a few tantalising prospects as to what the peculiarly Caribbean brew of ethnicities might produce in terms of a regional identity and culture. At home, a year in which we have commemorated the arrival of indentured Indians and the emancipation of African slaves has also thrown up questions about some fundamental aspects of our national identity: Who are we? How should we live together? What can we become?
These questions hover somewhat precariously over us as much of our creative energy is sapped by the demands of daily life, of negotiating an antiquated and over-burdened infrastructure. They echo in the increasing visibility and volubility of local groups that accentuate their African or Indian heritage. Questions of national identity are however but a faint squeak amidst the roar of our physical and spiritual stampede to North America. The ‘Americanisation’ of Guyanese life is manifest in myriad ways from our preferred destinations for travel or migration to the gadgets we acquire.
Two or three generations ago, Guyanese framed their identity largely in terms of British cultural references. Old family photos often show our forebears improbably dressed in suits and bowler hats. Bright youngsters of that era focused their energies on a mastery of ‘the classics’ in imitation of their colonial masters and shunned occupations such as trade and engineering in favour of the more ‘respectable’ professions in medicine, the law and education. Our theatre, our dancehalls, our education, our social values and attitudes were all, in some measure, derivative of British culture. The tentacles of colonialism can be found even in our love of cricket.
Many British colonies emerged from the ‘shackles’ of the colonial era to discover that it was equally hard to resist the lure of American cultural products. In 1959, for example, the ten most popular programmes on Australian TV were all American. They included Perry Mason, The Flintstones and I Love Lucy, shows that will strike a chord with early devotees of TV stations here in the 1980s. The wartime posting of American soldiers to the colonies, with their strong consumer ethic and enhanced buying power, simply fuelled the fantasies spread by American cinema and music (and later TV). At the time, Sparrow mocked his fellow West Indians for being in thrall to ‘the Yankee dollar,’
Faced with this deluge of American culture, some countries (in the 1960s) would impose a local content quota and take clearly defined steps to protect their nascent cultural industries (film, TV, publishing, even the manufacture of local food and clothing) from being swamped by American products. In this new ‘soft war’, cultural influences seeped across the airwaves rather than the seas. Nor has this phenomenon abated. A few years ago, Wikileaks released a confidential US government cable suggesting that American television shows broadcast across the Middle East are highly effective “agents of influence,” As one news outlet reported: “ABC’s ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘World News with Diane Sawyer’… and NBC’s sitcom ‘Friends,’ all carry more sway with [Muslim] viewers than a US taxpayer-funded Middle East broadcast network, an unnamed Saudi source told US embassy officials.”
The relatively late arrival of American TV shows on Guyanese TV screens is particularly significant in the ‘culture wars,’ First, some of our current preoccupations (with an American-style car culture, American-style fast food and an American-style ‘gangsta’ culture) suggest strongly that we are stuck in a time warp framed by certain staple American cultural products. Ironically, some cultural exports, particularly the dominance of a car culture, are actually in abeyance in large parts of America now. In other words, we are still subject to American cultural trends that are rapidly losing traction in America!
Second, the dominance of American content on local television stations has meant that representations of an (often idealised) American way of life have become much more familiar to us and have greater currency in our culture than representations of local characters and communities. Not surprisingly, our identity and social aspirations have taken on a decidedly American tinge. At about the time that American TV shows began to mesmerise local audiences in the 1980s, The Tradewinds teased us that if you “put a West Indian in New York City, overnight he become Yankee.”
Third, we continue to consume much of what comes from America uncritically while deriding much of what is produced locally (for example, local ‘man-in-the-street’ interviews on TV). All of these, theirs and ours, are cultural products. The American shows are sophisticated cultural products underpinned by well-oiled and well-funded production, marketing and distribution networks (the full force of American capitalism). Ours conspicuously lack these advantages but have, perhaps, greater cultural integrity and should be nurtured and refined so that they can compete meaningfully with the imports.
In the last thirty years, mass migration from Guyana to the new Meccas (Miami and New York) has occurred in tandem with the introduction of (largely pirated) American TV to Guyana. One day social scientists will record and assess the dual impact of these influences on Guyanese identity. Certainly it requires no great insight (a short walk along the streets of Georgetown would suffice) to see the effect of several decades’ exposure to American popular culture. It is apparent in the ways we spend our money, the ways we entertain ourselves, the ways we dress and the ways we socialise. We measure our treats now in pizzas and burgers and hanker after a new pair of jeans (preferably worn ‘sagging’ at half-mast) or the latest sneakers. We are brand aware. But the brands are not our own. In fact, most of the cultural markers are not our own. We have imported them, wholesale, from the North.
A handful of academics have constructed theories and tools to analyse these phenomena and in some cases, to pursue a specific agenda. Edward W Saïd revolutionised the field of post-colonial studies with his critique of ‘Orientalism,’ a practice where the cultural assumptions of the West are used to construct “caricatures” of Muslims and Arabs in the media who “are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists.” Benedict Anderson developed the concept of nations as “imagined communities,” a collective imagining made possible in the early stages by “print capitalism” and latterly by the proliferation of newspapers, films, TV shows so that “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.” Other writers have fused or inverted these theories to create “imagined geographies,” instances where regions or countries are depicted in a certain way for specific ends. In one instance of this, a decade ago, a Harvard historian, Samuel Huntington published a book called Who are We? in which he attempted, somewhat controversially, to reposition America as an “English colony” and not the product of “a nation of immigrants.” Huntington argued that American identity derived largely from the Protestant settlers who arrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: “the American Creed is the unique creation of a dissenting Protestant culture.” Huntington identified Mexican immigration and the ‘Hispanization’ of chunks of the country as the greatest ‘challenge’ to America and raised concerns that this could lead to a ‘bifurcated’ America.
Writing about the Caribbean region a few years ago, David Granger noted that the “most visible characteristic” is the diversity of ethnicity and that “most Caribbean people today are of mixed blood,” Given this, we should be wary of framing our heritage entirely in terms of African and Indian influences and the experiences of our African and Indian forebears. What of the influence of the indigenous Amerindian cultures and the Portuguese, Chinese and other settlers? What of the recent influx of thousands of Brazilians and the influence of their food, music, language and consumption patterns? Edward Saïd issued a clarion call to embrace and depict our “human density” and not subscribe to stereotypes. Stuart Hall, a Jamaican cultural analyst, wrote that meanings are shaped and structured by “those who wish to govern and regulate the conduct and ideas of others,” Our frames of reference are important. The ways we depict our culture should emerge from and take full cognisance of the peculiar complexities of our situation rather than simply importing frames of reference devised for other cultures and other agendas.
For many younger Guyanese ‘of mixed blood,’ our African and Indian heritage are points of interest, not points of identity. This does not make them less Guyanese. It makes them, perhaps, more complex. We should avoid the temptation to perpetually Balkanise our history and our heritage. This is not to deny or detract from the value of the work, art, music and scholarship that has emerged from a close examination, appreciation and conceptualisation of the experiences of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers in the history of our nation. These two dominant influences should not be allowed to overwhelm our identity or diminish its complexity.