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The creole conundrum
The run-up to this Emancipation Day has seen a rare, visible alignment of three disparate stars in the Creole constellation. I refer, of course, to Dr Terrence Farrell’s “termitic” article, ad-dressing the appointment of Jwala Rambaran as Central Bank Governor, over candidates from John John, Tobago and Laventille; Express columnist Michael Harris’s endorsing Dr Farrell’s sentiment and adding for effect the old they-have-no-sense-of-tradition-and-history gambit; and Khafra Kambon’s slapping down the “they bias against Africans” card to secure the Emancipation Support Committee’s $4 million funding.
The alignment manifests in that the statements say the same thing in different argots (of the validating elite, the clerisy, the grassroots) and originate from the same place: Creole society’s superego. The message is, roughly, “Africans under attack by the State,” a major emergent theme in the national discourse now that the PP’s in the saddle.
But rather than look at this issue through the overused prism of “race,” another (equally un-pleasant) interpretation suggests itself. From the media articles, a careful reader might realise that the race interpretation would be inadequate here. Dr Farrell is a respected technocrat. Mr Harris is a sober and perceptive commentator. And while Mr Kambon is for “his people,” he’s not violently against anyone. (Not that there isn’t more than a whiff of Interahamwe craziness in his camp—cf “Dey tiefing Carnival from African!”).
So whither the common ethnic atavism? Lloyd Best might have called it a symptom of the “epistemic crisis” of Creole society. When every issue is reduced to racial paranoia, and ordinarily sober commentators zero in on race-based conclusions (explicitly, obliquely, or clumsily coded) no matter what the issue is, it signals the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the construct of Creole society, which has defined post-independence Trinidad, and from where all the commentators speak.
Some background. The term “Creole” doesn’t have a fixed meaning. It originally meant (in the 19th century) any person or institution created in the West Indies. Kamau Brathwaite proposed a formal theory of Creolisation in the 1970s, which be-came the Caribbean paradigm. Over time it’s become indistinguishable from populist Afrocentrism, and went from being an interesting theory to UWI dog-ma. (Verene Shepherd and Glen Richards’ fine collection, Questioning Creole, examines this transition.)
In Trinidad, Creole nationalism was created as a binary opposition to Indo-Trinidadians’ political and social ambitions from 1956. The PNM cultural architects who designed post-independence national culture centered it on things pointedly not Indian: Carnival, slavery, the steelband and so on, and created a halo of native authenticity around it. The cultural logic was that anything not conforming was alien.
The programme persists till today, and Trini Creole society’s imagery and imaginary are populated by mainly Afro-Trinidadian (and Afro-American) bodies, sounds, history and cultural logic. (Many scholars have noticed this —Ivar Oxaal, Peter Van Koningsbruggen, Gordon Rohlehr. And many ordinary people who are not deluded.)
This erasure of the Indo material culture, bodies, and history from embryonic national consciousness required tremendous epistemic violence, and generated severe consequences. If you ne-gate half your population, you’ve lost their energy, talent, and in-put into building a society. You’ve also denied the remaining half the ideas, and other qualities of the erased half.
You’ve also included a fatal deficiency in your social DNA, or foundation, which affects your population in unpredictable ways. Nothing can be built on such a foundation, and it’s why many talented, am-bitious people departed post-in-dependence, and continue to go.
Among those who remained, this Creole society mythology (slavery and Carnival) was institutionalised at the UWI, especially in the humanities post-1970, and indeed, it became its raison d’etre. Other academic areas, like economic modeling, social psychology, and philosophy, were discarded.
Kari Levitt (in Reclaiming Development) recalls her work permit was cancelled, and hers wasn’t the only one. Best called UWI a morgue. He was being kind. Some of UWI’s academics today would have to pass exams to be as smart as a corpse.
Outside academe, as the society was falling apart post-1970 (Rohlehr’s essay, Apocalypso in The Shape of that Hurt provides a good summation) more and more resources had to be invested in animating the Carnival, the centrepiece of the Creole construct, at the expense of other cultural and civil institutions.
More and more, people had to be indoctrinated, since what was being taught was out of sync with what existed. A powerful energy source was needed to energise the belief system. The source was racial animus, and with it, nationalism, Carnival, ethnicity, and politics were fused into a single nostrum.
What this programme did was corrupt and hollow out the intellectual capacity of Creole society. With no academic or empirical examination of society, polity and the cultural regime, and no production of knowledge, the political, social, and cultural capital and technology to make sense of what we’re experiencing now do not exist. All we know is slavery and Carnival, hence we can’t innovate, be entrepreneurs, or even have efficient institutions.
Decades of this have embedded the “Creole society” construct in the public imagination and memory with the force or religious dogma. In the absence of the knowledge to inform sober public discussion, populist paranoia from calypso and talk radio has filled the void. And now, instead of populism being orchestrated by the clerisy, the clerisy’s consciousness is shaped by talk radio.
Hence, even when there’s no ethnic intention, those who should be above the racial reductionism of Creole society reproduce it almost instinctively. And this, unfortunately, includes the Government, which is as much invested in the Creole society construct as anyone else—hence its fudging policies directly from the PNM playbook with disastrous effects. If anything needs to be emancipated today, there it is.
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