Points of departure: The politics of shaping a cultural identity pt. 1
A few weeks ago, before Mercury went retrograde and threw the entire world off its axis (at least mine anyway), I was moved to pay a visit to the archives here at the Guyana Chronicle. To say that I went there with a master plan to implement the groundwork for uncovering some remarkable story buried deep within their collection of aged papers, would be giving myself undue credit. The truth is, in the weeks leading up to our Independence month I simply recognized the need to reflect on and contemplate the “progress” we’ve made thus far regarding our cultural identity. And hoped that perhaps somewhere in the process of reflecting we could possibly find the answers to questions long forgotten.
For quite some time I’ve had my own ideas about the cultural shift that occurred “back then” and of course, these could easily be dismissed as uninformed or completely inaccurate. But it’s hard for me to imagine a more clouded vision of cultural identity than the one Guyanese are currently burdened by. It’s disheartening to think of our dependence on validation from “outside” as this perfect cultural model that we’ve trained ourselves to take cues from. We’ve been subject to a special kind of slow torture, one that simultaneously casts a confusion spell every time we get too close to figuring things out.
But despite my own cynicism about our current situation, it was important for me to shelve those opinions and seek out accounts closer to historical facts of the time. I wanted a better understanding of the concerns and proposed solutions of our creative minds during the pre-independence period. I wanted to at least try my luck at making sense of this vacuous space we’ve found ourselves in 50 years later. And maybe, somewhere along the way, an explanation could be offered up as to why after all this time and with all the modern conveniences we could ever dream of, we still can’t seem to get it right.
It was (and in many ways still is) quite a challenge, as a millennial, to truly understand the general mood among creative practitioners 50 years ago. Our country was on the cusp of removing the shackles of colonialism and, for the first time, shaping an identity independent of British influence. Wiping the slate clean became top priority and those individuals were at the forefront, leading the charge with calls for an entirely new cultural identity. But how did they tackle the issue of shaping a cultural identity for a space filled with such diverse cultures, and what were the repercussions of that undertaking?
One of the buzzwords at the time seemed to be “integration.” Papers were being written and lectures were delivered emphasizing the importance of integration at the delicate stage of our rebirth as an independent nation. In an April 5, 1966 column in the Guiana Graphic titled Revolution inside the Caribbean, the columnist Lucian wrote: “These papers and lectures deal with economic integration in the region, political ideology, the strategies of economic development, social stratification and cultural pluralism.”
The papers and lectures Lucian referred to in his column were a part of the weeklong Third Conference of Caribbean Scholars hosted at Queen’s College and the University of Guyana (the first of which was launched at the University of Puerto Rico in 1961 followed three years later by the second conference at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica). The objective of this discourse was to propose, and later implement, ideas for sustainable frameworks in which meaningful works could be accomplished in their respective fields.
As with most discourses of this nature, the challenge is always getting the wider public to understand the value of having these conversations. In order for this to happen, it is important that those discussions are properly launched beyond university walls and away from environments that threaten to have them shelved in dusty, under-utilized libraries.
There is a very real danger of great ideas being birthed and buried in the confines of those spaces simply because they are only discussed among academics in universities, effectively shutting out John Public. This culture of exclusion is at the root of the public’s inability and unwillingness to actively participate in deliberations that will ultimately shape their experiences as citizens. This was one such concern that Lucian expressed in his writings, fearing the collapse of this structure that promised to provide sustainability across the board.
In next week’s article I’d like to venture a bit further into his idea of “cultural pluralism,” or the concept that minority groups can exist on their own terms within a larger society without compromising their own cultural identities. Questions of whether or not this concept of cultural pluralism is still applicable to us will be addressed, as well as its connection to/distinction from the late Stuart Hall’s concept of multiculturalism.
(Points of Departure is a four part series inspired by the pre-independence writings of several columnists of the then Guiana Graphic. The series is intended to reflect on key areas of cultural development and planning that were in discussions leading up the country’s departure from its British colonizer. As the name suggests, those discussions will be used as indicators to track the initial course of ideas proposed by thinkers of the time to present day realities.)
This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on May 8, 2016. Click on the link to be redirected to their website: