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Literature and Its Liberation [1]

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 07, 2008

Each man in his climate, artist, sage,
Adorns his time with act and thought;
The day is still appropriate;
The stage is set, the audience waits;
Time never lets the curtain down.

Eric Roach, "New Year Poem Cecil Herbert"
"When one works, one must always be against. Never for."

Pablo Picasso, quoted in Aime Cesaire, Lost Body
When Rawle Gibbons asked me to do this lecture, I was excited but also afraid: excited by the honor that he had bestowed upon me; afraid that whatever I said would not be well received. More daunting: I didn't know exactly what I wanted to say to you. Sometimes I feel that my essays write themselves. Once I put pen to paper (or more literally, once I begin to pound on the keyboard of my computer), I am carried away by the logic of the text and the organizational demands of my ideas. In this context I liken myself unto Pablo Picasso who claimed "that painting was stronger than he was and made him do what it wanted." From time to time, he would laugh at the numerous versions of the 'painter painting' he put on canvas and joke, "And he thinks he's got it all worked out, the poor guy!" [2] Since I do not quite know where I am liable to end up, I will allow my muse to direct me where she wishes confident in the conviction that literature has many things to say to our society. If we listen, it may have a lot to say about how we rise up out of the morass in which we find ourselves as a nation. It follows therefore that our artists and writers have a responsibility to tell it like it is or as some say "speak truth to power" in the conviction that "when one works, one must always be against. Never for." I recognize that such a formula may seem nihilistic. I trust that by the end of my talk I will demonstrate why the artist must always be against rather than for, to use that metaphor, and why she must embrace her special calling.

Professor Gibbons has informed me that this Book Fair wishes to celebrate the intellectual and literary heritage of Tobago and the Caribbean; encourage the development of reading and creative writing among the population of Tobago; expand the range of interests and activities at the Tobago Heritage Festival; and establish the Book Fair as a premier book fair in the region. These are noble, if not necessary, objectives since they go to the heart of defining who we are and what we wish to become as a people. Necessarily, I cannot deal with all these objectives in one address. Hopefully, I can speak to some of them even as we seek to understand what our historic responsibilities are.

As a scholar I am concerned about the intellectual and literary dimension of these endeavors because a scholar, in this case, a public intellectual, has a major part to play in uplifting the social and cultural standards of his people and in creating an atmosphere that conduces to our becoming a better, more sophisticated people rather than automatons who are willing only to sing the praises of our leaders and tell the world what a paradise our societies are. In fact, I do not even believe that we can do such a thing again. The truth is that the scholar-intellectual, sometimes rolled up into artist and shaman simultaneously, has always been the "edge man" playing a vital part in our social and cultural development. He resides at the unconscious level of the culture, asking questions that need to be asked and prodding the society to understand its better self.

It is not coincidental that it was Maxwell Philip, the author of Emmanuel Appadocca: Or Blighted Life: A Tale of the Boucaneers, the first known novelist and novel of Trinidad and Tobago respectively, who piloted the bill that annexed Tobago to Trinidad in 1889 when he acted as the solicitor -general of Trinidad. Although he acted in that post about seven times, he was never made chief justice, the logical promotion to follow from that position. L. B. Tronchin, one of the leading intellectuals of nineteenth-century Trinidad, observed that "his raciality [sic] as a Creole and his being a descendant from the African blood were formidable obstacles in the way of his promotion." [3]

Philip was a formidable freedom-fighter of nineteenth-century Trinidad. When he died, a poem in Public Opinion, one of the leading newspapers, captured the breath of his public and artistic interests:
Let native worth the pen today engage,
And Philip's name adorn the snowy page
Pride of his country; let his praises ring,
And on the various wings afar take sway.
'Twas Philip pointed to a clear way:
When grinding tyranny crushed the land,
Philip opposed it with unflinching hand.
His voice within the Courts of Law upraised
Drove sophistry and falsehood back amazed.
To serve his country in her Councils named,
New laws and useful by his skill framed;
And he opposes, firm as tempered steel,
All projects baneful to the common weal.
The evening of his life draws on apace,
Yet still the vet'ran proudly holds his place,
Determined to the last with heart and brain
To serve his country, and her thanks to gain. [4]
The accent here ought to be on the last line of the poem-"to serve his country," which, you may have noted is mentioned in an earlier line of the poem. The truth is an activist, an intellectual, an artist, or a scholar cannot help but be of service to his country since much of the country's direction is determined by how well he sees; how much he hears; how deeply he feels, and his desire, many times independent of his own will, to act as the conscience of the nation since he stands in a liminal space where he is able to detect the hidden currents of the nation. Such a pronouncement has nothing to do with dogmatism or egotism. It has to do with a certain ambiguity, openness, and at times indeterminacy that his positioning within the society allows him.

As we examine Tobago and the role of the artist-intellectual in the society, my mind also turns to A. R. Webber, a Tobagonian, who went to Guyana when he was nineteen years of age. He turned out to be one of the most remarkable men of our society whom we have managed to forget. Since our task is to celebrate the intellectual and literary heritage of our people, it would not hurt if I introduced him to this audience keeping in mind Alice Walker's admonition: "A people does not throw their geniuses away. If they do, it is our duty as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children. If necessary, bone by bone."

Webber was a leading Caribbean intellectual and freedom-fighter of his day as well as a litterateur as he called himself fondly. At nineteen he immigrated to Guyana to join his uncles in Bartica which alerts us to the early migratory patterns of our writers and thinkers. In 1917 he wrote Those That Be in Bondage: A Tale of Indian Indentures and Sunlit Western Waters, the first novel by a Caribbean person that examined the plight of East Indian indentures in the Caribbean. This novel predated Seepersad Naipaul's Guredeva and Other Tales (1946) by about thirty years and led Wilson Harris, on the republication of Those That Be in Bondage in 1988, to say: "When one reflects on the distinguished body of writing that has come from Trinidadian-born authors [needless to say he includes Tobagoniaians in this construct] who includes C. L. R. James, Alfred Mendes, Ralph de Bossiere, V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon, Earl Lovelace, and others, one looks at the 'first' in such a faculty of design for seeds of impulse both ominous and instructive within the medium of the twentieth century that spans areas of colonialism and post-colonialism, empires and revolutions." [5]

Webber was also the author of Glints from an Anvil (1919), a book of poems; An Innocent's Pilgrimage: Being Pen Pictures of a Tenderfoot who Visited London for the First Time (1927); From an Editorial View-Point (1928); New York Versus London (1929), all being travelogues; and Centenary History and Handbook of British Guiana (1931). He was also the editor of the Daily Chronicle (1921-26) and the New Daily Chronicle (1926-31). He was a member of the Guyana Legislature (1921-32); called together the first conference of West Indian journalists in Barbados in 1928; was an ardent champion of a West Indian Federation and a personal friend of Captain Arthur Cipriani of Trinidad and T. A. Marryshow of Grenada. In 1932 when he died suddenly on a boat that was taking him to Bartica, the first place he settled when he went to Guyana, Marryshow lamented: "Webber dead? Then the cause of West Indian freedom has lost a finished fighter." [6] He was truly a West Indian man.

What, one may ask, were "the seeds of impulse, both ominous and instructive" of which Harris speaks and which presumably he located in Webber's work? For one thing, Webber was one of our early travelogue writers. In my work I compare Innocent's Pilgrimage to Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. Twain, as you know, was the first American novelist to authenticate what can be called an American sensibility. Walt Whitman may have been the poet of democracy; Mark Twain was the first artist to capture the American problematic and to capture the temper of the American experience. In my work I also make the claim that Webber in his scintillating article "Why I Am an Economic Heretic" anticipated John Maynard Keynes's theory about the need of government to increase spending to boost their economies. Needless to say, he was writing at a time when the depression was crippling England and United States and when our people in the Caribbean were feeling its effects.

I have also made a case that his Centenary History set the standard for a people-oriented history that tells our story from our people's point of view and which preceded James's Black Jacobins and Williams' Capitalism and Slavery by seven and twelve years respectively. These are large claims. You will have to wait a few months longer to see the evidence I use to support my case in my forthcoming Caribbean Visionary: A. R. F. Webber and the Making of the Guyanese Nation that will be published by the University Press of Mississippi at the end of the year. I am also in the process of doing a documentary on the life of Webber which I should be able to complete sometime next year.

It is instructive that one of the major features of the historical trajectory that I sketched identifies these intellectuals as artists and as freedom fighters who were also linked inextricably to the ongoing life of their society. It should not surprise anyone that C. L. R. James, our most celebrated intellectual, wrote Minty Alley, before he wrote Black Jacobins, Notes on the Dialectics and Beyond a Boundary. The same is true of Aime Cesaire, the Martiniquian poet who wrote Return to My Native Land (1936), an extensive poem of self-discovery before he went on to write the equally influential work, Discourse on Colonialism. Like James and Cesaire, Webber was an active politician who was also a litterateur.

The point I want to make is that any serious edge man possesses a creative impulse since the writing of history or politics involves a creative dimension as Hayden White explained in Tropics of Discourse. It might be that their genius consists in their "surrender to the heterogeneous, the complex, the contradictory [that may] not suit every temperament [in that] it requires an askesis of sorts, the grace of passivity" [7] a necessary condition in the formation of any artist.

Now the acquisition of askesis, a Greek term that implies a kind of severe self-discipline, self-formation, or even a form of asceticism is confined not only to the written aspects of our tradition. It also inheres in the oral modes of our literature. For the past three years or so I have been teaching a course entitled "Rap Music and the African-American Oral Tradition" in which I have tried to demonstrate that much of hip-hop, rap music, rapso, and other such spoken forms (in America they call it "spoken word poetry") can be interpreted as an emanation of the oral prose and poetry of West Africa. In fact, when one compares the rhetorical strategies of Brother Malcom X, as seen for example in the documentary "El Hajj Malik," and Barack Obama's "Father's Day Speech" to which Brother Jesse Jackson took such violent exception, one cannot help but observe that each of these brothers came out of the same oratorical tradition, engaged in a similar search for roots or self-formation (such as in The Autobiography of Malcolm X along with Obama's Dreams from My Father), and possessed the magical capacity to use or manipulate language with as much dexterity as of those who practice spoken word poetry.

My point is simple. Much of the literary forms that we take for granted in the Caribbean have their roots in the continent of West Africa from which we come. I do not want to argue for a moment that all of our literary birthright comes only from West Africa. I only want to assert that when we speak of creative literature in the Caribbean and in our own Trinidad and Tobago we tend to forget its source; denigrate the origins of our blessings; and cozy up too closely with a European inheritance at the expense of what we brought and adapted to this land. [8]

In this context, two examples, both of which can be found in my book, Beyond Boundaries, will suffice. In the first instance I have argued that our literary inheritance by way of theater has much more to do with the open air theater of Asia and Africa than it has to do with the theater in Europe. Our popular dramas such as Carnival, Hosay, and the Ramleelas emphasize song and spectacle; music, and dance takes precedence over plot, character, thought, and diction. Aristotle argues in his Poetics that song and spectacle are mere embellishments and emotional attractions and thus are of secondary importance in theatrical productions. We in Asia and Africa see things quite differently.

The proverb, the riddles, and folk tales are three different aspects of African oral prose literature. Our elders have internalized proverbs; any child can tell you a riddle; and the folk tales of Brer Anancy were our rite of passage. Our ancestors brought these literary forms from West Africa. In 1966, about two years after I arrived in the United States to study, one of my neighbors contracted syphilis. In those days your parents were not and perhaps could not be explicit. A few days after my mother heard about this incident, she wrote me as follows: "Dear Son. I hope that you are doing well in your new country. Yesterday I heard that Janet (not her real name) had contracted syphilis. So ah' only writing because when yo' have cocoa in the sun, yo' ha to look for rain." She could not be more explicit. I knew exactly what she meant.

Elaine Warren-Jacobs is an Antiguan woman who grew up in St. Thomas. She remembers being inundated with proverbs from her elders when she was growing up. She has argued that the meanings of these proverbs are as relevant today as they were in the past. She notes: "For many of us who are descendants of these women, proverbs, old-sayings as we call them, are cornerstones of our shared heritage. Often they become the exact set of words expertly strung together to deliver that specific message at an opportune time." [9]

Like most West Indian countries, Tobago has a long history of this poetic form and has collections of same. In 1881 Hermann Ferdinand Uh, a native of Switzerland, went to Tobago to serve as a Moravian missionary and collected some of this material. A linguist of sorts, he was particularly concerned with the so-called "Negro English" that existed in the society and noted that Tobagonians "were on guard when they talk with us. It is only when they become excited or get into an argument that one can still catch traces of old forms of speech." [10] Debra Moore-Miggins' recent work, The Proverbs that Raised Us, suggests the continuity of this tradition even in present-day Tobago. It tells us how much these proverbs continue to influence our lives.

Embedded in the nation's subconscious are levels of linguistic activities that the society itself has not had an opportunity to explore and to appreciate. Our culture as you know is carried on in our language. In an interesting aside, Uh made an observation of language formation in Tobago when he said:
A few hundred people from Africa still live here-they were freed from Spanish and Portuguese slave ships and put ashore here. The local creoles consider themselves a notch higher than these 'Africans.' Among themselves, the Africans speak a language which no one else understands, nor does anyone even try to learn it. They have all learned English and one can understand them with some difficulty. Their language is dying out in the first generation because their children learn English only. [11]
Most of these Africans were Coromantees and probably spoke Twi, one of the early languages of Jamaica, which would account for the close similarities between Tobago's language and Jamaica's language. In fact, the Creole spoken by Tobagonians is closer to that of Jamaicans than it is to the Creole spoken by Trinidadians.

Tobago possesses a deep stream of oral as well as written literature that is an integral part of its philosophical culture. It follows therefore that when a Tobagonian attempts to understand himself or his identity, of necessity, he begins to do so through the lens of his literary history, part of its collective unconscious as it were. In A History of Civilization, Fernand Braudel makes the following argument:
In every period, a certain view of the world, a collective mentality, dominates the whole mass of society. Dictating a society's attitudes, guiding its choices, confirming its prejudices and directing its actions, this is very much a fact of civilization. Far more than from the accidents or the historical and social circumstances of a period, it derives from the distant past, from ancient beliefs, fears and anxieties which are almost unconscious-an immense contamination whose germs are lost to memory but transmitted from generation to generation. A society's reactions to the events of the day, to the pressures upon it, to the decisions it must face, are less a matter of logic or even self-interest than the response to an unexpressed and often inexpressible compulsion arising from the collective unconscious. [12]
A society cannot understand itself simply by wishing that it were a particular way. It must develop or cultivate the tools to do so. Jacques Lacan has told us that writing is the script of the unconscious and, which suggests that we can only know the unconscious through the gaps and lacunae of conscious discourse. And if literature which works though language is a signification or reflection of our emotional lives it certainly provides one way through which we can access the unconscious dimension of our subjects' lives indicating that it is to our literature we should turn if we wish to understand who we are as a people. If this is so, then literature and cultivation of the literary can be a powerful tool of liberation or what James called our own self-realization.

This is not as fanciful a notion as it seems at first glance. Stanley Aronowitz has made a powerful case for the use of literature in our social development. He argues that at the secondary and postsecondary levels of our school, "The role of the humanities is to articulate, in the public sphere as much as the classroom, the essential elements of national culture. If the student is to situate himself in society, it is by means of imbibing those knowledges that mark him as a national subject." [13] Then he makes this important point: "Some recent writing on higher education insists that the process of social and cultural formation is effected, in the main, through literature rather than through history or philosophy." [14]

It is literature, not history, through which social and cultural formation is effected. Most students of literature would have read Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy in which he defined culture as being "a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world" and using this knowledge to challenge most of our received ideas. Arnold, a Victorian educator, understood the importance of education in shaping citizens' lives and values. In his day, novels and poems came to typify what was best said and thought at the time.

Thus it was that when the strands of nationalism first began to appear in the nineteenth century that educators turned to literature to imbue nationalism in their citizens. As the quest for national identity arose, no longer could philosophy carry forward the project of nationalism in that it was much too broad and encompassing to teach students about the specific attributes of their nation. Since "every literary work has its roots in a particular social and emotional milieu and in unique personal experience," [15] literature was well placed to imbue a sense of place, articulate the specificity of the national personality, and tell you what it meant to be an American, French, or a German person. Interestingly enough, in books such as Pidgin and Creole Languages, Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar, and Emmanuel Appadocca one sees the beginnings of a national language and the rise of a distinctive culture that we call Trinidad and Tobago, both in its singular and plural senses.

Braudel has argued that "history is a vital element in national self-awareness. And without self-awareness there can be no original culture, no genuine civilization, in France or anywhere else." [16] We cannot move forward as a society if we cannot read ourselves back into our history. Nor can we understand who we are if we are not ready to say no to the murder of our culture (of which our literature is a part) that has been taking place for a long time. We talk a lot about the physical crimes that have been taking place in our society, yet few of us raise our hands to protest the spiritual crimes that take place when we deny our literary heritage. No society can live if it neglects its culture, which is one reason why I began by saying that our motto must be to say that "when one works, one must never be for, one must always be against." Literature has been shamefully neglected in our society. Few of our instructors have been able to impress upon their students and the larger society why literature is such an important vehicle through which we can come to know ourselves.

This is why this Heritage Book Fair, not any book fair, is so important to us. We have strangled too many of our authors and denied them the possibilities of a decent existence. I don't know if any of you know about the fate of Eric Roach, one of the most important poets of Tobago. In Black Yeats, Laurence Breiner wrote that Roach was one of "the most significant poets in the English-speaking Caribbean between Claude McKay (who spent nearly all of his life abroad) and Derek Walcott. Roach would be celebrated as the leading poet of Trinidad, were he not overshadowed by Walcott." [17] Roach never really left Trinidad and Tobago. Yet when his big moment came and he had an opportunity to publish in a British anthology, he wrote of himself:
Now a newspaperman in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He was a soldier, teacher, civil servant and failed writer. Born nearly fifty years ago in the tiny, little known island of Tobago where his family are peasants, Roach hoped to become a poet, but his talent for verse did not develop beyond his native dooryard, and after a few years he abandoned writing prose. He has never left the West Indies, and is now living in Trinidad. None of his verse has been published except in small regional magazines. In the fifties he used to be a contributor to B.B.C.'s "Caribbean Voices." [18]
This notice appeared in 1965 although he had died some years earlier when the West Indian federation died. He had structured much of his raison d'etre on the success of the Federation. He did not have much confidence in his work, and his society did not support him very much so eventually he took his own life. He walked into the sea and drowned himself.

This was Roach's tragic fate. It symbolizes the uphill battle that all of us must overcome if we wish to triumph over a nihilism that says that all that matters is the acquisition of material things. His suicide, it seems to me, has echoes for those of us who love the arts and recognize their importance in our self-formation and the creation of a national identity. Breiner says that going unnoticed "haunted Roach throughout his career. He often seemed to be caught in the wrong time or the wrong place." In "Letter to George Lamming," he asked:
Why were we born under the star of rhyme
Among displaced people lost on islands...?
Here we are architects who no tradition,
Are hapless builders upon no foundation. [19]
It's a pity we could not tell Roach that there was a national foundation upon which he could have built his work and that no one is ever born out of time. We work as we must, struggling as we might, trying to do God's own work in our time and in our place. Professor Gibbons is doing his work as heroically as he might. He needs our assistance.

May we all have the grace to do our work as God allows us to see the value and virtue of such work and may the state and stakeholders recognize its intrinsic value as an important tool in building our civilization.

  1. A lecture delivered at the Heritage Book Festival, Tobago, July 15, 2008.
  2. Aime Cesaire, Lost Body with Illustrations by Pablo Picasso (New York: George Braziller, 1986), p. xxi.
  3. L. B. Tronchin, "Great West Indian Orator, Public Opinion, December 18, 1888.
  4. Public Opinion, March 2, 1888.
  5. Wilson Harris, "A Note on A. R. F. Webber's Those That Be in Bondage," in A. R. F. Webber, Those That Be in Bondage (Calaloux: Wellesley, 1988), p. 237.
  6. "Grenada Tribute to Late Hon. A. R. F. Webber, quoted in the New Daily Chronicle, July 5, 1932.
  7. Cesaire, Lost Body, p. xxi.
  8. See, for example, Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Beyond Boundaries (Wellesley, MA: Calaloux, 2003), Ch. 11.
  9. Elaine Warren-Jacobs, "A Wink from Juba Mek Betsy Understand: A Personal Look at Proverbs," Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings,
  10. Quoted in Lise Winer, Badjohns, Bhaaji, Banknote Blue (St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago: The University of the West Indies, School of Continuing Education, 2007), p. 170.
  11. Ibid. p. 170.
  12. Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations (London: Penguin, 1995), p. 22.
  13. Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), p. 4
  14. Ibid., p. 4
  15. A History of Civilization, p. 406.
  16. Ibid., p. xxxiv.
  17. Laurence A. Breiner, Black Yeats (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2008), p. 7.
  18. Ibid. p. 14.
  19. Laurence Breiner, "Life and Times: Laureate of Nowhere," Caribbean Review of Books,

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