A region for itself

By F.S.J. Ledgister

Sovereignty of the Imagination: Conversations III,
by George Lamming
(House of Nehesi Publishers, ISBN 978-0-913441-46-6, 82 pp)

George Lamming is one of the last of the pioneers, one of the last remaining figures of the naissance of modern West Indian literature. He has, for the past few decades, played a major role not only as a novelist but as a social and intellectual critic of modern anglophone Caribbean society and the direction it has taken since the 1950s. What he has to say is worth listening to and reading. Especially when, as in Sovereignty of the Imagination, he is speaking to his people about his hopes for them.

The book — third in a series collecting short pieces by Lamming, published by House of Nehesi — is subtitled “Conversations”, but is really a monologue. It is Lamming’s distillation of his observations of change in the Caribbean over his lifetime. It is fascinating to see the idea of the Creole given value in the form of a liberating civic nationalism that brings together all Caribbean people in common, democratic purpose. This slim volume contains the text of two lectures — on overlapping topics, and with the second repeating some of the content of the first — given in Jamaica and Trinidad in 2003 and 2004. The first, “Sovereignty of the Imagination”, was Lamming’s contribution to the Centre for Caribbean Thought’s symposium on his work held at the University of the West Indies, Mona, in June 2003 — and was, I can report, a riveting presentation. The second, “Language and the Politics of Ethnicity”, was given at UWI’s St Augustine campus in January 2004.

George LammingGeorge Lamming

In his brief introduction, Anthony Bogues sets Lamming’s first lecture in the context of a postcolonial Caribbean whose post-independence national projects are floundering. In that context, for Bogues, Lamming recalls us to the potential of freedom in building Caribbean society. “Sovereignty of the Imagination” takes us on a tour through modern Caribbean history. It does so in order to trace the twin concepts of freedom and sovereignty in Caribbean intellectual, political, and cultural life. Lamming points out that he grew up in a Barbados where “church and school were agents of an intellectual and moral deception” which supported “racism, economic exploitation, and a profound contempt for all that was black.” The colonial experience for his generation was not one of physical violence, but, rather, a “terror of the mind” under which black people fought each other and mutilated themselves “in a battle for self-improvement.”

The condition of the West Indies, for Lamming, is one of engagement in a struggle:

This region has been staggering slowly and painfully to resolve the contradiction of being at once independent and neocolonial; struggling through new definitions of itself to abandon the protection of being a frontier created by nature, a logistical basin serving some imperial necessity; and struggling to move away from being a regional platform for alien enterprise to the status of being a region for itself, with the sovereign right to define its own reality and order its own priorities.

He cites Barbadian prime minister Owen Arthur’s 1999 statement that the Caribbean needed to change its form of governance, appealing to the authority of Norman Manley to emphasise that, in spite of “the emergence of new class formations and the elevation of black people to high office and more elaborate styles of material comfort,” there continues to be a huge gap between leaders and led in the region. The victories of the 1930s have been made less secure as a result of a series of compromises with the established and emergent upper classes. “Independence has not yet won the right to sovereignty.”

While a novelist explores personal relationships, those are social facts, embedded in human relationships such as class and power. Such relationships, Lamming notes, do not emerge from nowhere, but are conditioned by existing relations of people and power. So in Barbados, for example, hegemonic power created a discourse on race that was, effectively, not to discuss it.

Lamming also looks at Eric Williams’s intervention in the discussions on the establishment of the University of the West Indies, following that with a consideration of Sir Arthur Lewis’s thoughts on how men of the calibre of Williams, Manley, and Grantley Adams could have made the errors that led to the demise of the Federation of the West Indies. That is followed by a brief disquisition on the “utopian realism” of George Beckford, which broadens into a discussion of the role of knowledge and critical theory in and as context.

This is, at last, followed by a discussion of freedom drawn from Lamming’s own work. Freedom, as he makes clear in Season of Adventure, is not something that can be bestowed. On the other hand, the Caribbean exists in a world given us by European perceptions and by European ideology. This is a structure that must be resisted:

A system which for two centuries or more has left the majority of human kind in a state of illiteracy, poverty, and disease cannot be accepted as a model for the free, creative realisation of the human spirit; nor the private property — and which can be interpreted as the freedom of corporate capitalism to encircle and consume the globe.

It has given us racism and the division of black from East Indian. Walter Rodney’s commitment, Lamming contends, was to place East Indian and black struggle in the same context, and his doing that was what made him dangerous.

Quoting Derek Walcott’s Nobel Prize lecture, on the reconstruction of the shards of Antillean history with love, Lamming concludes by seeing the periphery as a place of resistance and assertion of the sovereign imagination.

The second lecture opens with quotations from two very different poets, the Guyanese Mahadai Das and the Cuban Nicolás Guillén, about origins, ancestry, and identity. Language, Lamming reminds us, is political, since control of language is control of power.

Lamming begins with an exploration of the process of creolisation and the relationship of Creole and East Indian in Trinidad and Guyana. He moves from that into the fact that class is a common factor in all ethnic formations. However:

. . . individuals responding to the imagined threat of group pressure are very vulnerable to the most vulgar and opportunistic appeals which warn them about probable destruction by the Other. And when the political goal is not just about securing minority civil rights, but actually acquiring the instruments of power for the regulation of the total society, racial and ethnic demagogy on either side makes sure of its advantages, even when the fundamental issue is not objectively about Race but Power.

The strategy of dramatising the threat of the ethnic other has been used since the colonial era, and been utilised by both black and Indian political leaders since independence. Lamming sees it as an obstacle to the creation of “an authentic civic nationalism” that will “recreolise” all ethnicities in the region.

For Lamming, the multiracial politics of the first PPP government in British Guiana in 1953 created an environment full of creative possibilities. Had Cheddi Jagan then gone into opposition, rather than coming into power, perhaps the multiracial moment could have been preserved by sustaining the identity of the PPP as a multiracial party over time. Instead, once the PPP was deposed after its ten months of office, it split into two ethnic blocs, and the moment was over.

Categories of race and ethnicity in the West Indies have the power to overcome what Lamming sees as a necessary “liberating civic nationalism” that ought to unite West Indians of all races and ethnicities in a common enterprise. Again, he cites Derek Walcott’s metaphor, from his 1992 Nobel Prize lecture, of the fractured vase, reconstructed with love.

But Lamming goes on to make a statement of great importance:

If African labour and the cultural dimensions of that labour constitute the first floor on which this Caribbean house was built, then the second floor and central pillar on which its creative survival depends is the total democratic participation of the Indo-Caribbean presence.

He concludes by declaring that it has been the privilege of his adult life to teach the love and nurturing of all living things. Surely an understatement.


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2010

F.S.J. Ledgister is a British-born Jamaican. He teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, and has published work on Caribbean political development and political thought.