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Knowing Ourselves

(A lecture delivered at the launch of Beyond Boundaries March 25, 2002)

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: April 09, 2003

In an interview with B. C. Pires in the Trinidad Guardian on March 16, 2003, Austin Clarke, a Canadian writer born in Barbados, made the following observation about the relative unimportance of writing in Trinidad and Tobago: "You know, somebody asked me, how come Trinidad going give Lara a million acres of land, going give Ato Boldon this, and not going to give a writer a house and land…Did St. Lucia give Derek anything? Did Trinidad give Naipaul anything? Are you telling me, then, that 385 not out [sic] is more than Nobel? If the government of Trinidad had imagination: buy Miguel Street! And keep it the way it was." Although I am not sure what one makes of this statement, suffice it to say, that Clarke believes that our government has not accorded our writers and thinkers the respect they deserve. While figures such as Lara, Bolden, Hasley Crawford and the winners of Miss World and Miss Universe competitions have brought enormous prestige and glory to our society and have inspired thousands of young men and women, we must also consider how our literary and intellectual endeavors contribute to making our society better and to our national development. Whether we agree with Clarke or not, most of us would agree, that in this place and in this time, this is one of the most important questions that faces the nation.

1 A lecture delivered at Rhand Credit Union, 57-61, Abercromby Street, Port of Spain, Trinidad.
2 Selwyn R. Cudjoe, professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, is the author of Resistance and Caribbean Literature and V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading.

Over the last thirty years, I have devoted my intellectual energy to a study of our literature, our culture and our intellectual contributions to the world. I have done this because I believe that a society becomes conscious of itself only when it knows and understands its origins and the self-contestatory nature of its social and intellectual evolution. Like an individual, a society can only know itself and its future when it explores its antecedents. We can have little notion of where we are going if we do not consciously appropriate our past and make it a part of our living present and our future. That is why I have devoted so much time and energy to know and to understand the intellectual tradition of 19th century Trinidad and Tobago, an indispensable source to understand our nation in the twentieth century and beyond.

As simple as this book looks, it took over one million dollars to produce. It is the result of several fellowships primarily from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Wellesley College. I am also grateful to the National Lotteries Board, the Airports Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation for their assistance to this project.

Doing original research is expensive business especially when one realizes one cannot gather the information that is contained in this book by simply going to a bookshop and buying a series of books as though one were buying a pound of flour or a pound of rice. Those who have had a chance to look at my book will observe that I examined materials at various collections, the chief among which were the Commonwealth Collection that is now located at Cambridge University; Regeant's Park College at Oxford University; the British Library; the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London; the Methodist Collection at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University; the West Indiana Collection and the National Herbarium of Trinidad and Tobago at UWI; the National Achieves of Trinidad and Tobago; the Comparative Zoology and Widener Libraries at Harvard University; Boston Public Library; and Olin Library at Cornell University.

If locating these materials was difficult, imposing a theoretical framework on them was an even more demanding exercise. One was faced with the challenge of understanding the literary enterprise of the nineteenth century against a background of a much more specialized way of looking at a similar enterprise in the twentieth century. For example, readers of the nineteenth century saw no major distinction between science, agriculture and expressive genres such as poetry and tales. To them, these endeavors were all literary once they contributed to the erudition of individuals in the society. In 1846, when several prominent citizens came together to form the Trinidad Literary Association their first resolution called for "the encouragement of a Society having for its objective intellectual pursuits, and the discussion of subjects connected with Literature and Science [which] is greatly desired." I suspect this is what led Terry Eagleton, one of the most erudite of contemporary literary critics, to ask: "Under what social conditions does creativity become confined to music and poetry, while science, technology, politics, work and domesticity become drearily prosaic?" Trying to unearth the imaginative (that is, the poetical) nature of the varied texts I examined and seeing how they fitted into an intellectual tradition were a daunting task.

Then there was the challenge to reconfigure the literary and cultural practices in ways that are consistent with our own ways of seeing but which, of necessity, conflicted with the received tradition. From the inception of our presence in this society we were told that literature was what Shakespeare and Spencer did in England. Little did we understand that the ramleela recreates the Ramayana, the Hindu epic; Hosay, an Islamic passion play, commemorates the death of the Shi'ite leader Hussein in the seventh century; and carnival reflects many of the characteristics of the Gelede, one of the multidimensional arts forms of the Yoruba-speaking peoples of western Africa. In fact, all of these literary-cultural practices are early forms of open-air theatre that beg to be examined.

At quite another level, the popular dramas (Carnival/calypso, hosay, and the ramleelas), unlike Western forms, emphasize song, spectacle, music and dance rather than plot, character, thought and diction. Through these articulations, Africans and Indians constructed a way of life that evaded white surveillance. Moreover, these dramas are outward looking, participatory forms rather than "the spectatorial" nature of cultural forms we find in Britain and other parts of Europe. In our societies, drama reconfigures what Aristotle thought drama should be. In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that plot, character, thought and diction are central to the making of a play and that spectacle and sound are mere embellishments and emotional attractions of secondary importance. Anyone who has observed carnival, hosay or the ramleelas knows that spectacle and sound are of primary importance in making them what they are. In other words, in African and Asian drama, song, spectacle, music and dance take precedent over plot, character, diction and thought. Such is the important reconfiguration we must make as we reconstruct ourselves in a new landscape and understand our productions in their new world resonance. I explore some of these theoretical issues in Beyond Boundaries.

Given these realities there is much our Government can do to promote the research and writing of local materials. I would argue that the research and writing our histories are indispensable prerequisites for our becoming a developed nation by 2020, the goal our Prime Minister has set his sights on as he seeks to re-construct our society anew. As income doubles in the next two or three years and our material aspirations expand, the need to cultivate the sensibilities of our citizens becomes even more critical. One only has to remember the tremendous dissipation of our cultural and intellectual energies that took place quickly after the oil boom of the 1970s, to realize that if we do not plan our intellectual and cultural business in a systematic way, we are likely to commit similar mistakes in an exponential manner. As the old people say, a word to the wise is sufficient.

In this regard, I would like to make two suggestions that I believe are realizable within the context of our resources and our aspirations. I also give notice that I will be delighted to work with any relevant body that is selected for such a purpose. First, I believe that the Trinidad and Tobago government should create a National Academy of Arts and Sciences in which we induct the top fifty scholars and cultural workers, etc., who have made the most notable contributions to the arts and sciences or the arts and letters of our Society. Names such as C L R James, Antoine Leotaud, Maxwell Philip, Rudranath Capildeo, Charles Assee, V. S Naipual readily come to mind. Thereafter, each year two individuals shall be inducted into our national academy. Apart from recognizing those who have made enormous contributions to our society (we can call it the politics of recognition), it would also set a standard of excellence to which all of our scholars/artists/cultural workers can aspire. Necessarily, such an exercise will consist of compiling biographical sketches, bibliographies, etc., of these persons and their work and making them available to a national and international audience. Such an exercise signals to citizens and strangers alike what we consider excellence in any chosen field. Such an academy might be housed in a room set aside for such purposes in the National Library. When it expands, it may need its own home. We could look at the US or French models as we construct our own National Academy for the Arts and Letters.

Closely aligned to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences - and perhaps this should be seen as an integral part of it - should be the creation of the post, Scholar in Residence. Such a scholar would probably work out of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. Together with a governing board of some sort, such a body would be responsible for the production of new knowledges about Trinidad and Tobago in various areas. Necessarily, such intellectual endeavors would involve all branches of research (history, politics, literature, sociology, art, etc.). Such a centre would be responsible for conducting conferences, seminars, etc., to enhance and promote the intellectual resources of the society. It should be given a budget of approximately $20 million dollars annually to conduct its business and to award grants to innovative and important projects. Such a body may want to operate in ways that are similar to those of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the USA.

I need not emphasize that a society is defined by the intellectual and cultural sophistication of its citizens, the civility of its public and private exchanges, and the quality of its civic discourses rather than the abundance of its material possessions although the latter matters in a real way. In this sense, our society might well strive for the kind of politeness that Sir Robert Walpole advocated when he became Prime Minister of Britain in 1720. Simon Schama described this politeness as not just the sense of good manners as we understand it in the modern sense "but rather a civilized self-restraint. The polite man", he says, "unlike the passionate man, wanted to strengthen the social bonds between men and women rather than sunder them; to give society an appreciation of the interdependence of its parts, rather than the inevitability of its conflicts and incompatibilities." Surely, this small step can go a long way to construct the kind of people we wish to become and create the tone of society to which we aspire. In this context, it might be profitable to add politeness to the watchwords of our nation which, for those who need to be reminded, are discipline, production and tolerance.

Many persons have contributed to this happy occasion. I would like to thank the Prime Minister for attending this function and launching my book; Louis Lee Sing, I95 FM, and the Book Sauce Crew for making this occasion possible, and all those who have participated this evening. I would also like to recognize Professor Brereton, Merle Hodge and Everton Smith for their encouragement. Also, I would be remiss, if I did not thank Eddie Narine for being a firm and steady friend, particularly in my times of need.

Two last points: one is a clarification, the other is a comment. Contrary to what you might think, I am not responsible for the title of the book. It is neither a follow-up to nor a follow- through of James' Beyond a Boundary. The idea for the title came from the director of the University of Massachusetts Press who believed it is a fitting tribute to Beyond a Boundary. Located within the intellectual terrain of what I consider the best of Caribbean/international scholarship, my book seeks to demonstrate that our intellectual tradition includes elements from beyond our geographical boundaries; hence the title, Beyond Boundaries. In this work, I also seek to do for Trinidad and Tobago intellectual thought what James's Beyond a Boundary and Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery did for Caribbean historiography. The reader will decide how successful my endeavour has been.

At another level, Homi Bhabha claims that Beyond Boundaries is "my crowning achievement." Bhabha is a brilliant, though controversial literary critic. I have known him since 1980 when Terry Eagleton introduced us. In spite of his accolades, the book will have to stand on its merits. Various institutions of the society can ensure the book reaches as many persons as possible by purchasing multiple copies for those who otherwise cannot purchase a copy. This is my gift to the Nation. I hope it is received in the spirit that it is given. Moreover,I hope that your "cha'acter and sensa values" as Ramlogan suggests in V. S. Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur, lead you to purchase a copy of this book. Unlike Lara, I may never get a million acres of land, a house like Ato, or an airplane named after me. However, I would be satisfied if our society contemplates how ideas contribute to the making of our people; the relative importance of the writerly craft in constructing the spirit and soul of the nation; and the development of a genuine respect for those of us who seek to structure our nation's discourses. Believe me, we need your benediction and your assistance.

Interpreting and constructing a tradition is not the exclusive business of the writer and the thinker. It is the sacred possession of all of us who shape ideas and thereby create community. When he reflected on the cruel displacement of Africans as they were brought to the slave forts in Ghana to begin their horrendous journey to the Caribbean, Thorkild Hansen, a Danish writer admonished: "What is lost outwardly shall be won inwardly... Turn your eyes inwards! What you lost in the world you will find in your thoughts; all you had lost, found life and existence within."

Now, more than ever, we ought to look inwards to discover the beauty of our truths. Now, more than ever, we need to turn to our writers to get a glimpse of who and what we are. Now, more than ever, I hope Beyond Boundaries can contribute towards this exercise. I hope it is given the attention it deserves.

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