Thirty-three years ago, as general editor of Johns Hopkins Studies in Atlantic History and Culture, I was proud to publish Gordon Lewis’ Main Currents in Caribbean Thought, a sweeping study of the Caribbean in its ideological aspects, from 1492 to 1900. In his preface to that book, Gordon wrote:
When I first began to teach at the University of Puerto Rico in the 1950s I realized that, as a European, I had entered into an experience entirely different in character from anything I had encountered earlier, either as a student in Britain or as a teacher in various universities of the United States. I undertook my apprenticeship in Caribbean studies by writing, variously, on Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands. and the British West Indies. But I saw, from the start, that no one could really claim to be a full practitioner in Caribbean studies until he came to write, ultimately, on the Caribbean as a whole. [which was what Main Currents was intended to do]
Elsewhere, Gordon deplored what he saw as the insularity of “Caribbean Studies” at UPR (where Puerto Rican Studies dominated), at the University of the West Indies (where the Anglophone Caribbean held sway), and elsewhere in the region, but he held out hope for the future. “Pessimism,” he wrote,
is, perhaps, not altogether justified. Although a healthy antidote to much of the romantic nonsense that is uttered about Caribbean unity, it is necessary to point out that insularity is an accident of history. It is not necessarily a permanent law of Caribbean society. Just as history, in the past, made it, so history, in the future can unmake it.
And that history, he insisted, is a common one throughout the region—a history shaped by colonialism (and domination), slavery (and racism), and oppressive and ongoing capitalist economic exploitation.
I share with Gordon this vision of the Caribbean, enunciated three centuries ago by Père Labat, who wrote:
I have traveled everywhere in your sea of the Caribbean…from Haiti to Barbados, to Martinique and Guadeloupe, and I know what I am speaking about…. You are all together, in the same boat, sailing on the same uncertain sea…citizenship and race unimportant, feeble little labels compared to the message that my spirit brings to me: that of the position and predicament which History has imposed upon you.
And I think it interesting that in Main Currents, Gordon quoted this very passage not directly from Labat’s Nouveaux voyages, but from a 1957 radio script written by George Lamming, which he found, according to his footnote in the book, in the Public Library Archives of Georgetown, British Guiana. And after citing Labat’s venerable words, Gordon commented that “the prophetic vision of that passage has never been far from the conscious surface of the Caribbean imagination”—the idea that History has imposed a common stamp upon all the territories in the region.
In addition to focusing my own research on the Caribbean for fifty‑odd years, I have, with Sally, for several decades now made the Caribbean our home, living in a rural Martiniquan community we first knew through undergraduate fieldwork in the early 1960s. In whatever we write, we share with Gordon the commitment to broadening our vision, to recognizing the Caribbean region as an interconnected whole—something that I learned not only from Gordon, but also from Harry Hoetink, and especially from Sid Mintz.
The Caribbean, as Gordon, Harry, and Sid all emphasized, was also central to early globalized capitalism. The commodities involved have changed from sugar to, for example, pop music, but the patterns of exploitation continue. Rihanna—Barbados’ “World Gurl”, —has more than 52 million Twitter followers and one of her songs has been downloaded a billion times. Modern sugar.
Gordon’s magisterial book was not without its critics. In a 1998 article in the journal Small Axe, Antiguan-born Paget Henry, extensively criticized Main Currents from the perspective of what he calls “Africana philosophy.” He accused Gordon of systematically under-representing the intellectual and cultural contributions of the Afro- and Indo-Caribbean masses, of paying mere lip-service to carnivals, calypsos, and Vodou without intellectually engaging them, of overemphasizing European perspectives. [pause] Whatever we may think of this particular critique, it seems fair to say that Gordon was, in his writings, more musical about socioeconomic and class matters than about popular culture—perhaps, as a proud Welshman, he knew something special about the workings of colonialism. And myself being a Caribbeanist who has written more about cultural matters than about, say, class (Sid Mintz, on seeing the table of contents of my dissertation which was later published by the Institute of Caribbean Studies here at UPR, asked almost with alarm “Where’s the chapter on economics?”), I would like today to complement Gordon’s erudite writings on Caribbean thought with some thoughts gathered by an anthropologist from a Caribbean sage who could neither read nor write—my late Saamaka friend Tooy, who I believe helps answer Paget Henry’s criticisms and rounds out the picture of Caribbean thought that Gordon began painting.
But before yielding the floor, so to speak, to Tooy, I’d like to invite you to think with me about the ways that Saamaka Maroons, nearly 100,000 descendants of self-liberated African slaves who today live mainly in Suriname and French Guiana, are and are not a quintessential Caribbean people. (For heuristic purposes, I’m going to take the 1960s and 70s—the years of Sally’s and my initial encounters with Saamakas—as the moment of comparison.) This exercise of trying to explicitly situate Saamakas within the Caribbean is one I’ve never before attempted, so please bear with me for a few minutes of Gordon Lewis-inspired speculation.
First, what are the ways in which Saamaka Maroons were different, not to say unique, in the Caribbean by the 1960s, when we first encountered them?
In all three aspects of the way Orlando Patterson, has defined freedom—“personal freedom,” “sovereignal freedom,” and “civic freedom”—Saamakas had a degree of freedom far greater than any other Caribbean people. And they placed paramount value on this freedom, opposing it to the plantation slavery against which their ancestors had rebelled. (In this sense, Saamakas pioneered the political philosophy argument made by Neil Roberts in his recent book, Freedom as Marronage, though, surprisingly, Roberts makes no reference at all to the thought or ideas of Maroons themselves.). This explicit valuation of freedom, in contrast to slavery, made Saamakas fundamentally different ideologically from the great majority of Caribbean populations who either denied that their ancestors had ever been slaves or who were deeply ashamed of that fact. (Only, perhaps Jamaica Maroons and some Haitians might have shared a weak form of this pride in having wrested freedom from servitude, but in those cases it would have been difficult to talk about their having very much continuing freedom, in Patterson’s sense, in the mid-twentieth century.)
A second way that Saamakas stood out among Caribbean peoples was in their deep historical consciousness, their collective project of preserving detailed knowledge of their past as a people. In Saamaka, there were none of the twentieth-century anxieties of Caribbean intellectuals, the vitriolic queries of V. S. Naipaul:
How can the history of this West Indian futility be written? What tone shall the historian adopt?
or the pointed asides of Édouard Glissant, about:
the loss of collective memory, the careful erasure of the past, … the obscurity of this impossible memory …
or the stark assertions of Derek Walcott, that:
In time, the slave surrendered to amnesia [and] that amnesia is the true history of the New World …
or Orlando Patterson’s, conclusion that:
The most critical feature of the West Indian consciousness is what Derek Walcott calls “an absence of ruins.” The most important legacy of slavery is the total break, not with the past so much as with a consciousness of the past. To be a West Indian is to live in a state of utter pastlessness.
In contrast, Saamakas reveled in the heroic acts of their eighteenth century ancestors, their great warriors, the women who founded their clans. As Saamaka men liked to remind each other, “If we forget the deeds of our ancestors, how can we hope to avoid being returned to whitefolks’ slavery?” Or “This is the greatest fear of all Maroons: that those times [slavery and the struggle for freedom] shall come again.” And Saamakas not only lived on a daily basis with their heroic First-Time history. They also shared a strong sense of linear history more generally, fully able to trace the history of each of their arts (from men’s woodcarving and women’s textile arts to drum rhythms and dances) but also their religious history (when each new cult was “discovered” or revealed) and they preserved deep genealogies (some going back to the original arrivants from Africa).
A third way that Saamakas differed from other Caribbean populations was their historical endogamy. Except for the occasional Amerindian woman captured by very early Saamakas as a bride, there was no biological mixing with non-Maroons, unlike every other society in the Americas. And, because of their control of a fixed and substantial territory, later immigrants from Asia or elsewhere never cohabited in their sovereign space. Genetically, then, Saamakas are the most purely “African” of all peoples in the Americas.
These central aspects of their lives—their relative sovereignty as a people and their consciousness and pride in their heroic history—set them apart from other mid-twentieth-century Caribbean (or one could say more broadly African American) peoples. Saamakas remained more of a cultural isolate, relative to other Caribbean populations, than any people in the region.
Now, let us consider the other side of the coin, the ways that Saamakas can be firmly situated within the Caribbean. This will allow me to argue that, in a sense, mid-twentieth-century Saamaka represented the Caribbean on Steroids. That old anthropological catch-all “culture” holds most of the story.
Lamming has written of the redemptive potential of what he calls Caribbean folk wisdom, noting that calypsonian Lord Kitchener, commenting on the Soviet triumph in space signaled by the launch of the sputnik, sang “Columbus didn’t need no dog”—at once, Lamming hints, wryly acknowledging the hegemony of Western History (the definition of Columbus as a Great Man) and effectively subverting it (along with its triumphalist narrative of Western progress) through carnivalesque ridicule. Similarly, Wilson Harris has criticized the intellectual West Indian perspective that stresses an absence of ruins or a sense of pastlessness in the folk thought of the Caribbean, calling on historians to seek out “an inner time,” to break out of the traditional “high‑level psychological censorship of the creative imagination” that he believes has hamstrung critical Caribbean scholarship: “I believe,” he writes, that “a philosophy of history may well lie buried in the arts of the imagination.”
We could begin almost anywhere in that pepperpot we call Caribbean culture, but let’s start with funerals. Funerals are famously important throughout the Caribbean. Death announcements still fill the island radio waves every morning. Burial is routinely delayed for days so that relatives may return from North America or Europe. And burial societies (funeral insurance mutuals) are omnipresent.
Historian Vincent Brown, writing of pre-Emancipation Jamaica (but it could have been almost anywhere in the Caribbean), tells us that,
Everywhere in Jamaica, one could hear the sounds of black funerals. Because of the rate at which the slaves expired and the depth of their ubiquitous experience with sickness and death, funerary rites were an urgent priority and were perhaps their most extensive basis of social communion. “Their principal festivals are their burials,” noticed the resident planter William Beckford, “upon which occasions they call forth all their magnificence and display all their taste.” They gathered in groups that could number into the hundreds, to weep, feast, joke, tell stories, and sing.” (2008:63)
And he adds, “For the most part, black people organized and managed funerals on the plantations without white intervention” (Ibid.). Today, of course, the relative autonomy that the enslaved once had regarding plantation funerals is largely gone in the Caribbean. Churches of one kind or another now mediate these important rituals almost everywhere.
But for Saamakas, funerals remain the largest of social events and they are all-Saamaka affairs, without outside intervention. A mere listing of the main events dwarfs the practices anywhere else in the Caribbean while at the same time dipping into the immense shared cultural pool of the region as a whole. A Saamaka death is made public by the ritual announcement of a specialized “town-crier”; specialists wash and lay out the corpse in a panoply of ritual; men gather for the highly ritualized coffin-making using home-hewn planks to shape a gigantic trapezoidal box after which they purify the tools in a sacred fire; the coffin is eventually covered with myriad decorated, colorful textiles, representing the deceased’s past social engagements; there is extensive divination by carrying the coffin on the heads of two bearers to determine the cause of death; the ritualized gravedigging goes on over a period of many days, with the practitioners ruling the river during the period; there are daily and nightly rituals, drumming, dances, singing, the firing of gunshot salutes, complex feasts for the ancestors including use of the apintii talking drum to speak with the ancestors; animal (especially cock) sacrifices; folktale telling; an all-night-long ceremony before burial, including specialists in esoteric ritual drum and song; burial takes place weeks (or for an older person up to three months) after the demise; there is a year-long mourning period with a plethora of restrictions and taboos; then a “second funeral” that is usually larger than the first (though many hundreds of celebrants may be present at each), which includes varied rituals, an all-night drum-song-dance “play” and, in the morning, a ritual chasing of the ghost of the deceased from the village by masked dancers who are guided by special drum rhythms. In other words, Caribbean culture on steroids.
On a closely related note, we all know that the dead play various roles in contemporary Caribbean life. “LISTEN. Dead people never stop talking,” begins Jamaican Marlon James’s Man Booker prize-winning novel of last fall, A Brief History of Seven Killings. And zombies, duppies, jumbies, and so forth are frequently among us. But there’s nothing in the rest of the Caribbean to rival Saamaka relations with their dead.
As I’ve written elsewhere,
In a sacred grove beside the village of Dangogo, shaded by equatorial trees, stands a weathered shrine to the Old-Time People (Awonenge), those ancestors who “heard the guns of war.” Whenever there is a collective crisis in the region—should the rains refuse to come on time or an epidemic sweep the river—it is to this shrine that Saamakas repair. As libations of sugar-cane beer moisten the earth beneath newly raised flags, the Old-Time People are one by one invoked—their names spoken (or played on the apintii drum), their deeds recounted, their foibles recalled, and the drums/dances/songs that they once loved performed to give them special pleasure.
Many of those Old-Time Saamakas are as familiar to today’s Saamakas as are their own neighbors or their brothers and sisters. As an extended example, let me turn the floor over to my late friend Tooy, reminiscing about the man whose drum rhythms he was proud to play, a man named Gadien, two and a half centuries after this ancestor’s death. I quote, in translation, from a recording of Tooy pouring libations at an ancestor shrine one morning. In the middle of invoking various other ancestors by name, he prayed:
…. Father Gadien, we give you rum. [And then he turned to me, explaining] (Gadien would say he was Opéte nyán opéte, he was Akótokoí djaíni búa. Káu tjánkontíma béye, a bête djáni kó a bêliwa. Gadien would say all that. The man called Gadien, he was a short little fellow!—that’s what we’ve heard. Whenever he walked around, it was always with his sword hanging from his waist!) [And then, continuing his libations:] Father, we give you rum. Father we call on you. [To me:] (He called Tatá Antamá “mother’s brother”—Antamá’s sister bore him.) Father Gadien, we give you rum! We pour rum on the ground for you, our elders. (They say that when you said your praise-name, you’d say Opéte nyán opéte, opéte nyán opéte. And they’d answer that they’d heard you. You’d say again, Opéte nyán opéte, opéte nyán opéte. And then you’d say you were akotókoí djaíni búa. You’d say Káu djankotíba béye, a bete djaki kó a béliwa. In other words, “the death that killed the jumping animal won’t find it to kill again!” [This proverb means, “the person who did you harm this time won’t be the one who does it next time.” Tooy continued..] Gadien! He called Gisí “mother’s brother.” Gadien! He called Bási Antamá “mother’s brother!”) …. [and then Tooy continued praying to other ancestors]
When I later pressed Tooy on his fondness for this eighteenth-century ancestor, Gadien, he filled me in on some of the reasons. He said, “When Antamá [who is one is one of Tooy’s favorite eighteenth-century ancestors about whom he knows myriad stories], When Antama was old,” he told me, “he worked closely with Gadien, and when he died he left him all the knowledge he had.” Another time, Tooy told me, “the apintii drum rhythms I play here all belong to Gadien—he learned them from Antama.” And in another context I got some spontaneous confirmation, as Gadien’s drum rhythms became the authority for a tale that Tooy’s ancestors have told at least since the 18th century. Tooy was in a teaching mood that day, talking to several younger kinsmen as well as to me. He told us:
The Great God once sent down his messengers to announce that young people must kill their mothers and their fathers so that the youngsters could run the world. The message [in drum language] is odú kwatakí bi de a bímba tála. (This was the Great God’s way of testing them.) So, the youngsters all did it and then they burned their parents’ bodies. Except for one kid who snuck out and dug a deep hole in the forest, built a house in it, and set up his mother and father there, where he brought them food every day. (That’s what the drum is saying.) Then the Great God sent his messenger again and told the young people that they should braid a rope out of sand for him. So they went to the river and gathered sand but they didn’t have any idea of how to braid it into a rope. The one kid snuck out to his parents and asked them how to do it. He told them, “I didn’t save your lives for nothing, now it’s payback time!…” The husband told the wife to tell him. She said, “No way, he’s yours too. I didn’t cheat on you to make him, he’s really yours! You tell him what to do.” So finally the father said, “When the messenger comes again, tell him to braid you one meter’s length of the rope at exactly the thickness he wants yours to be and say that you’ll add on to it and make it as long as he wants.” So, the kid said OK. The messenger came and reported back to the Great God. The Great God said, “That kid didn’t kill his parents!” He sent back the messenger. The kid arrived at his parents in tears. He told them he’d hidden them so that they could live but now this was going to be their last day alive. The father said to the mother, “Don’t cry. The Great God exists.” The Great God himself then came down and asked his messenger to call the kid. Then he asked him to bring his parents. He did it. Then the Great God said “You and your parents come and stand over here, on the east side. All those who killed their parents, go over there, to the west.” He waved his arm and all those people vanished. But the place where the kid and his parents were standing, that’s right where we are today, it’s our village. That’s what the apintii drum says! It says odú kwa táki bi de a bímba tála… It means “Young ones must live amongst older ones. Older ones must live amongst younger ones.”
And then Tooy adds, “an old man once told me that when you drum asú muná fulú ben konú fulú that means “Young ones must live amongst older ones. Older ones must live amongst younger ones.” But as far as I’m concerned, asú muná fulú ben konú fulú doesn’t mean that at all! In fact, it means, “Your old folks really used to know things, but now only youngsters are left and they have it all mixed up.” It’s a completely different drum proverb. If you want to say “Young ones must live amongst older ones. Older ones must live amongst younger ones,” you play odú kwa táki bi de a bímba tála. That’s precisely what Father Gadien’s drum used to say! And that’s what I’ll take any day!”
So, the authority of a particular named ancestor, Gadien, a short fellow who liked to walk around with a sword tied to his waist and who died more than two hundred years ago, gave Tooy the confidence to play those wonderful drum rhythms right up until his death last year.
I don’t think I have to continue outlining the ways that Saamaka culture is Caribbean culture on steroids—their fantastic folktales, their rich ancestor cult, their myriad cults of spirit possession (possession by snakegods [which they call “Vodu”], by forest spirits, by fierce warrior gods, by seagods, by river gods, and by a host of other deities), their plethora of genres of drumming, songs, and dances, as well as what Melville Herskovits called cultural imponderables—greetings, postures, gestures, ways of using the voice, all quintessentially Caribbean (or African American). One could, given the time, make a very strong case that in all of these cultural domains, Saamaka is not only very much a part of the Afro-Caribbean world but arguably the most highly developed, richest, independent culture in Afro-America.
I would like now to insist that Tooy, was a Caribbean thinker, a true vernacular historian. He taught me much about his view of what I would call the process of creolization. He also taught me about what I would call African retentions and their significant, if relatively minor, role, in the Saamaka world. But most of all, he gave me a pretty full picture of the ways that his Saamaka ancestors fashioned a new culture and society soon after rejecting enslavement and choosing freedom, and the ways they continued to develop it down through the centuries right up to the present.
One day in 2005, Tooy told me spontaneously that “When the Old Ones came out from Africa, they couldn’t bring their óbia pots and stools—but they knew how to summon their gods and have them make new ones on this side. They no longer had the original pots or stools but they carried the knowledge in their hearts.”
In Tooy’s version of history, some of what he identifies as African powers and practices, such as the apintii rhythms his African-born ancestor Wii taught his sister’s son Antama (who in turn taught his classificatory sister’s son Gadien, who taught others who eventually taught Tooy)—those rhythms crossed the waters in the “hearts” of captives. Other African powers and practices arrived later, such as the four warrior gods whom Tooy’s ancestors summoned with a trumpet to come over from Africa near the end of the war in the mid-18th century, or Dungulali-Obia, the great power for which Tooy himself was head priest that an African ghost-spirit (in possession) first taught one of Tooy’s relatives only in the early 20th century. For Tooy, Africa and its remembered placenames—Komanti, Asanti, Luangu, Mayombe, Daome, and others—give each of the powers associated with them, whenever they made the Atlantic crossing, a special cachet of authenticity and strength.
But those powers that Tooy claims originated in the New World are no less important to him or other Saramakas. From the whole cult of snakegods (or Vodu) to that of forest spirits and sea-gods, many of the most esoteric, powerful, and dangerous aspects of Saramaka ritual are believed to have been “discovered” by their ancestors only well after they established themselves in the rainforest. Tooy has shared with me scores of stories of the discovery of particular deities and powers in the forest, from the eighteenth-century to the twentieth, and they make up as essential a part of Saamaka religion as any particular power considered to have survived the Middle Passage.
In Tooy’s vision, immense quantities of knowledge, information, and belief were transported in the hearts and minds of the captive Africans. Through divination, people who came from many different ethnic and linguistic groups and were therefore rarely in a position to carry on specific cultural traditions from their home societies, were able to create new institutions. Tooy helped make me aware of the extent to which the African arrivants shared a religious model that we might call additive or composite or agglomerative (in contrast to exclusivistic) and how that model, stressing esoteric languages and unique histories, provided a framework for the development of the religious world that he inhabited and celebrated.
And Tooy’s view of what I call creolization is right in line with the latest conclusions of linguistics. As Bettina Migge writes in a forthcoming review of Pieter Muysken & Norval Smith’s Surviving the Middle Passage, in the New West Indian Guide, [and I cite]
The concluding chapter argues, in line with current understandings of creole genesis, that while African influences are undeniably present in the creoles of Suriname, creoles are nevertheless [and she cites from the book] “rather distinct, in structural terms, from their African roots, as they are from the European lexifiers.” (p. 408). [She continues:] European and African sources essentially provided the semantic and structural models out of which enslaved Africans drew when forging a new means of communication.
Tooy’s view, like my own and those of the linguists who have investigated early creolization most closely, emphasizes New World creativity on the part of enslaved Africans and their Maroon counterparts. Drawing on Old World, as well as European and Amerindian resources—whether memories, unconscious grammatical principles, or direct retentions—they forged what was very much a new, Caribbean culture.
My point, I suppose, is simple—and anthropologically inflected. If we consider as thinkers, historians, and intellectuals Caribbean people supposedly “without history,” those who haven’t learned to use libraries that house paper and ink but instead rely on speech, song, and drum rhythms, then new vistas open to us. This is an argument I’ve been making since First-Time, published in 1983, which referred to the Saamakas who taught me about their people’s past specifically as “historians” (which raised quite a few eyebrows among my colleagues in the Johns Hopkins Department of History). If I’m right that Tooy, as a Saamaka sage, was a Caribbean thinker, as well as a historian and religious leader, then perhaps I’ve succeeded in adding my small complement to Gordon Lewis’s work on Caribbean thought, which focuses on the Western-educated.
There’s an addendum to my Saamaka story. In the 1980s, working and living in Martinique, my anthropological vocation again led me to seek out historical consciousness among what Paget Henry called “the masses,” in this case our functionally illiterate fishermen neighbors. As I described in a book that was published in Puerto Rico as El presidiario y el coronel, I thought I’d found a handle on a different (more Saamaka-like) kind of Caribbean history, a subterranean vein that deserved mining, an alternative vision of the past from that in the French schoolbooks that every child on the island was given to read. I envisioned uncovering, beneath the colonial veneer of French History (from Joan of Arc to De Gaulle and after), hidden layers of history, called by other names and inscribed not in books but in language, in proverbs, in metaphors, and perhaps in the land (and sea) itself. From my experience in Saramaka, I was ready to find traces of the past in unexpected places, playing ever-changing roles in ongoing social and political life, and being preserved, transformed, or obliterated according to the location of particular individuals and collectivities in relationship to particular events and actors, past and present.
By the mid-1980s, I felt I had found a set of traces, a series of remembered fragments about the past, that might be an ideal allegory for my more general contention that, pace some of the more pessimistic assessments of Naipaul, Patterson, or Glissant, Martiniquan peasants and fishermen did preserve a heroic, anti-colonial vision of the past, and that collective amnesia might just be more an invention of bourgeois intellectuals than a rural reality.
But by the time I got around to writing that book, in the mid-1990s, I felt I could no longer sustain that claim. Few people below the age of fifty remembered much of anything about the history of resistance by early-twentieth century Martiniquans (to say nothing of the large-scale nineteenth-century rebellions). It was as if the massive steamroller of French (post)colonialism, with its destructive bending of consciousness and identity, had finally made a sweep through even the most rural, least modern areas of the island, turning anti-colonial struggle into official folklore for people who were increasingly (if still only partially and not necessarily irredeemably) learning to use French models of how to think and act. I ended up writing about “the folklorization of colonialism,” “the postcarding of the past,” and “colonial nostalgia.” Twenty years later, my views on this haven’t really changed. I share with the Derek Walcott of White Egrets, which vibrates with regrets, the question of whether there might not have been a better way forward than the U.S. owned all-inclusives and other hotel chains that have replaced canefield and banana work with chambermaid, cook, and sex-work in his beloved St. Lucia.
The discouraging fact is that even in today’s Saamaka, which I have deliberately avoided mentioning in this talk, the interest in history and the pride in sovereignty is fast fading before the onslaught of neoliberal values and the spread of capitalistic greed and consumerism. If the Suriname government is managing to continue to exploit the resources that, according to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as well as the treaties signed by the sovereign Maroon nations and colonial governments in the eighteenth century in fact belong to Saamakas and their Maroon and Amerindian brethren, it is with the complicity of many Maroons, who like Martiniquans, find the lure of lucre to outweigh the joys of continued freedom and sovereignty. But who am I to judge? As Walcott wrote,
… that other life going in its “change for the best,”
its peace paralyzed on a postcard, a concrete
future ahead of it all, in the cinder-blocks
of hotel development…..
I watched the afternoon sea. Didn’t I want the poor
to stay in the same light so that I could transfix
them in amber, the afterglow of an empire,
preferring a shed of palm-thatch with tilted sticks
to that blue bus-stop? …
Art is History’s nostalgia, it prefers a thatched
roof to a concrete factory….
Hadn’t I made their poverty my paradise?
Nostalgia or not, I can’t help adding a few further reflections on the unkind general trajectory of the Caribbean as a whole since I first encountered it in the early 1960s, as well as some brighter thoughts about Caribbean Studies.
In the early sixties, when I first engaged the region, there was a strong spirit of hopefulness and promise in many parts of the archipelago. Cuba had just had its revolution. Trujillo had just been assassinated in the Dominican Republic. Independence was in the air in the Anglophone and Dutch Colonies. The dream of a West Indian Federation was still alive. And against all odds, and despite heavy repression, the possibility of independence still motivated many activists in such places as Guadeloupe and Martinique and, if I dare say, Puerto Rico.
There were later moments of hope and optimism as well: Michael Manley’s coming to power in Jamaica, the early days of the Grenada Revolution, Aristide’s election in the wake of Baby Doc’s undignified exit aboard a U.S. Air Force jet. The possibility of some sort of sovereignty, as opposed to U.S. imperialism, still had its moments.
But overall, the seventies, eighties, and nineties brought more horror than joy to the region. The execution of Maurice Bishop and his comrades and Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. Desi Bouterse’s murderous dictatorship in Suriname. The People’s Temple, the Assassination of Walter Rodney, and other miseries in Guyana. The decline of the Cuban economy. And almost everywhere in the Caribbean, an invasion of drugs, crime, AIDs, and the looming presence of the United States, whether its military, its hedge funds, or its general control of the world’s economic system. The millennium brought additional horrors. Rapacious capitalism and the exploitation of the region’s resources, which had been going on for centuries (from the Spanish Crown’s 16th-century gold from Hispaniola to Alcoa and Alcan’s 20th-century bauxite from Jamaica, Guyana, and Suriname)—all that suddenly exploded, with the connivance of many Caribbean governments. The place I know best, Suriname, continues to encourage multinational corporations such as Canada’s Iamgold, the United States’ Newmont Mining, and various Chinese logging companies to lay waste to the territory of its Maroon and Amerindian peoples, ripping apart the Amazon forest, despite the firm restrictions placed upon it by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. And much the same could be said in various domains for other Caribbean nations or territories. In my view, despite a rise in the overall standard of living, the last half century has not been kind to the Caribbean, particularly in terms of the hopes that many of us once held. But as Gordon advised, brushing aside pessimism, “Just as history, in the past, made it, so history, in the future can unmake it.” Let’s hope his faith in the Caribbean’s younger generations is warranted—though it seems to me that the agency of Caribbean peoples, their room for maneuver and their ability to make courageous choices, has been considerably diminished over the past half-century.
When we think about a half-century of developments in Caribbean Studies, the picture is considerably brighter. Despite the founding of UPR’s Institute of Caribbean Studies in 1958 and its journal Caribbean Studies in 1961, scholarship on the Caribbean—particularly comparative, cross-island and cross-language scholarship—was still in its infancy when I became a Caribbeanist. Most major U.S. and European anthropology departments did not have a single specialist in the region and the same could be said for departments of literature and other departments in the humanities. But today, if we take as a random example Rutgers University in New Jersey, we find 11 faculty members in its Department of Latino & Hispanic Caribbean Studies alone, an additional 10 faculty members in what it calls its Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies, and who knows how many more in other places in the university! And having served with Sally as book review editor for New West Indian Guide for several decades, I can attest that the number of scholarly books being published on the Caribbean keeps jumping every year. We now review or at least mention more than 200 new serious Caribbeanist books each year, coming to us from over 100 different publishers around the world. Of these two hundred or so books, about two thirds could be classified as History or Literature (the latter with a consistently strong Francophone component), with Anthropology weighing in at only 13% of reviews, and with politics, economics, sociology, cultural studies, music/art/dance, archaeology, and linguistics bringing up the rear.
As academic Caribbean Studies grows, sub-specialties continue to emerge and flourish. To take just one recent example, studies of Caribbean sexuality (once completely absent) now hold a significant space in Caribbean publishing and most major universities have at least one and sometimes more Caribbeanist LGBTQ specialists on their faculty. Overall, the social science studies that dominated Caribbean Studies fifty years ago have been joined by very strong contributions from the humanities. I would imagine that Gordon might be as dismayed by the current socio-economic (and existential) situation of Puerto Rico and its citizens, and that of many other places in the Caribbean, as he might be pleased by the explosion of scholarly explorations of the region, not a few of them drawing on the legacy of his own pioneering work and that of his contemporaries.
Richard Price, Further Currents in Caribbean Thought. Third Annual Gordon K. and Sybil Farrell Lewis Memorial Lecture.