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Honouring Lloyd Best on Father's Day

June 17, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

IN THE 1950s, when I attended Tacarigua EC School (it was called the Cocoa House then), a roster of names on a wooden tablet stood atop a cabinet in which our school supplies were stored. It contained the names of 11 students who had passed the College Exhibition Examinations.

Through their achievements, they earned the right to be part of a revered circle of intellects. In those days, only a precious few were lucky enough to enter the sacred sanctuary of Queen's Royal College, St Mary's College and Bishop Anstey High School. Those who did not make it, were left to catch as catch can. They were like so many flowers left to bloom outside the matrix of officialdom and its attendant legitimacy.

Lloyd Best, one the most gifted sons of the Tacarigua-Tunapuna area, was one of the names on that roster. After leaving the Cocoa House, Best went on to QRC and Cambridge University where he obtained Second Honours. Thereafter, he went to Oxford to do graduate work before being plucked, at the age of 23, to teach at the University of the West Indies (Mona). Years later, his study on plantation economies became a classic work in Caribbean economic thought.

After working in Jamaica and Canada (at Mc Gill), Best returned to Trinidad brimful of ideas, faith in the possibilities of those he left behind and determined to put his ideas in practice. One of Lloyd's best friends (no pun intended) in Tacarigua was Cecil Roberts, better known as Churan, Best's classmate at the Cocoa House. Churan never went on to High School.

Instead, he went on to Trinidad Sugar Estates at Orange Grove and became a pan boiler, where they produced some of the best "yellow crystals" the world has known. When crop season ended in Trinidad, Churan went to Martinique, where he learned French, and Ecuador "to boil sugar".

Added to his ability to speak Hindi (his mother was Hindu), Churan became fluent in four languages: English, French, Hindi and Obscene. Most of the villagers were enamored with his use of Obscene and gleefully ruminated: "Churan could put the sweetest cuss on you." All conceded that Churan spoke Obscene with an enviable panache and fluency.

Churan and Best remained the best of friends. Each admired the other; each having achieved in his own way. When Best formed Tapia, Churan was the first to join his movement. Just as he sold PNM Weekly faithfully, he promoted Best just as lustily. Later in life he would cuss them all.

Yet, Best's relationship with Churan symbolised his complexity and essential simplicity. It might also have symbolised the ambivalence he displays in his political behaviour.

Best always tried to stay true to his roots even as he sought to make his Oxbridge education relevant to his pedestrian calling. Many times, he seemed blissfully trapped within the two genres. When he made his foray into popular education (as in the New World group) and partisan politics (as in Tapia), he sought to adapt the contents of his British training to the demands of his picaroon society (Naipaul's phrase) that always wished "to boil yo' down like bahagee".

His not being as versed in the language and sensibility of the latter as he night have been, led to uncomfortable moments with his society. It is almost as though his corrugated truthfulness, excessive idealism and sincere belief in the possibilities of his people rendered him ineffective. The medicine he proposed was too strong for his people. And then he came at the wrong moment: Eric Williams was in power.

From the start, Best was in trouble with his society. He sought to remain true to his origins and therefrom to theorise a philosophical understanding of his being-in-the-world. Gradually, Wilson Harris and CLR James became important theorists in his intellectual project. Necessarily, part of his difficulty lay in his trying to collapse the profundity of their insights into an enterprise that had been shaped, in the main, by a pragmatism that echoed John Dewey and William James.

As Harris and James attested, Heidegger seemed a more appropriate touchstone for understanding our existentialist predicament. But then neither James nor Harris ever gave much thought to the importance of Shango, the Ramleelas, hosay and Carnival to the construction of our being-in-this- world even though Harris attested to what he called our limbo sensibility.

Therefore, when compatriots claim that Best is too difficult to understand (as I presume the same is true for James's Notes on the Dialectics or Harris's History, Fable and Myth), they reveal the shortcoming of an education that rewards the brilliance of surfaces rather than the incertitude of depths.

As James noted: "Strict philosophy is as difficult and technical a business as marine engineering, or medicine." Even today, few persons in T&T could write "Democrats, dictators, or what?" (Express, June 11) at a moment's notice. An article of penetration, depth and sympathetic understanding, it remains required reading from those who wish to understand our present situation with the ease of a 20-minute dissertation.

And herein lies Best's greatness. Neither money, fame, nor position has lured him away from his original project: the attempt to understand our society better and his insistence that our condition does not result from inherent human wickedness but is the product of our historical experience. Sometimes Best places too much emphasis on objective conditions and leaves little or no room for the subjective—cultural, religious and/or sheer badmindedness—disposition of the players in our daily drama. Surely, one's Hindu, Christian, or Islam belief shapes one's conception of the world. This may be one area where Best's idealism and glorification of objective circumstances (read historical conditions) trends to skew his interpretation of events.

Although he says "the honour is in the work", Best remains one of the most auspicious members of the tribe. He is someone to whom we can never give 'nuff respect. On this Father's Day, let us thank our ancestors for having sent him among us and may he have a long life.

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