Posts Tagged ‘Eurocentrism


Independence, Nationalism, Indigeneity: Pride in Patrimony or Prostrate before Princes?

A few “random” thoughts for today, August 31, 2008, Independence Day in Trinidad and Tobago, some of which revolve around the symbolized, emblematic figure of the Amerindian in the development of a national sense of identity (something that I wrote a lot about in Ruins of Absence, Presence of Caribs. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005). I can start by saying that at least Trinidad has an “independence” day, a potentially subversive thought from where I sit here in the neo-colony/neo-colonizer that is Canada, that still celebrates “Victoria Day” and still conquers indigenous land.

Memory as a Medal

For at least the past several years there has been public debate in Trinidad around the coloniality of the “Trinity Cross” as the national medal awarded to distinguished citizens. Many felt that it symbolized Christianity, and thus stood as an act of discrimination against Trinidad’s other major faiths, notably Hindus and Muslims. Some defenders suggested that the Trinity in this case referred to Trinidad — they mean the same thing, the first in English, the second in Spanish. Perhaps this is another case where different values are attached to the same word in different languages: “Black” is better than “Negro,” even if Black is the translation of Negro. In comes the new order: the Order of the Republic of the Society of Distinguished Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago and Other Distinguished Persons, or, just simply the Order of Trinidad and Tobago. This is now almost official and there is little reason to doubt that it will be finalized.

Previously, two separate discussions that appear on this blog touched on some of the themes involved in creating this new order, so to speak. One concerned Trinidadian debates about Eurocentrism and indigeneity, and the bifocal nature of the official meanings of “indigenous” in Trinidad: one side referring to descendants of pre-colonial first nations, the other referring to anything “born” in Trinidad. Amerindians are indigenous people, and steelpan, on the other hand, is the indigenous instrument. The second relevant post asked the question of whether the state of Trinidad and Tobago really recognizes indigenous people in the country. My argument is that through subtle, circuitous means, no the state does not. So while the state “recognizes” a tiny fragment of possibility, the small, formally organized Santa Rosa Carib Community in Arima, it has so far refused all other nationals the opportunity to formally self-identify as indigenous, by excluding the category from the national census, even when pressed to do otherwise by the United Nations.

What the state does do is engage in a shadow play of symbolic veils, creating a sense of nation and locality when so many of its citizens have fled, and so many non-citizens have rushed in to buy up valuable natural resources, creating a sense of place just as the place is gutted and tossed into the non-place of capitalist globalization. As a result, one ends up with the conscious cultivation of tokens, to placate in the absence of lived reality — remember the past, because the present looks pretty grim. And one ends up with the following decoration:

Serving as a crown at the top of the medal is a feathered headdress:

The crest is represented by a familiar aboriginal symbol, the feathered headdress of an Amerindian chief….(i) The First Peoples: The design seeks to acknowledge the contribution of the autochthonous (or first) inhabitants of our land embodied in the crest surmounting the medallion.

And yet the medal is made of gold, more than just symbolic of the conquest, expropriation, and exploitation of the same indigenous people. I have no solution to the medal created by committee with all of its differing elements juxtaposed, and I am not one who normally thinks in terms of preferred nationalist symbols. What I think is a problem is the shallowness of recognition of indigeneity in the name of an inwardly squeezed, outwardly opened nationalism.

Show Some Pride, a Prince is Looking!

The other ambivalent display of indigeneity, this one directly involving members of the Santa Rosa Carib Community at one point, came when the “Prince of Wales, Charles Philip Arthur George and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, paid a visit to the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus, on Wednesday 5th March, 2008, as part of their tour of Trinidad and Tobago to promote environmentalism and to reinforce British ties with former colonies” (see: “Royal Visit to UWI Highlights Lingering Colonialism“). One can see images of the visit starting here. lays bare the ghastly display of subservience to which Charles and Camilla were treated:

The scene was reminiscent of when the Queen of England had visited the country in February 1966, four years after the country’s Independence from Britain. Speaking with a gentleman who as a child witnessed the event, recalled that children lined the streets with flags in hand in the hot sun singing, “God save the Queen!” He reminded me that homage was being paid to former slave masters by a newly “Independent” nation with citizens calling on God to bless and save the royals. Today, the atmosphere was not much different with children and adults scrambling to get a touch of the royals’ hands. “I will never wash my hand again,” was what one female intimated.

The spectacle reflected the wider societal historical neglect, with the University of the West Indies at the helm of the education system sustaining the colonial mindset. Of course, true thinking individuals would know that the university is still an agent of imperialism and colonial conformity with their statues of European figures lining the third floor university library and places such as the JFK Quadrangle and auditorium named after an American president. There is no prominent symbolism that I am aware of in the University to cause appreciation of our African and Indian past.

Yesterday we witnessed children being encouraged by their teachers to touch the royals, seemingly without knowledge of Britain’s historical legacy, or even with their complicity in the mass-murder of millions in recent history. Certainly, this is an indictment against the teachers (among others) who refuse to challenge bogus history and continue to feed young minds with a self-debasing concept of history.

UWI’s Centre for Creative and Festival Arts did a skit about climate change. Unaware of the significance of symbolic actions, their continuous prostrating in front of the royals looked like a reconfirmation of colonialist attitudes and the idea of White power and supremacy over Black subordinates.

Without explaining the history of the Steelpan and reminding all that the Steelpan was developed in resistance to colonialism, the royals were allowed to play the Steelpan like children with toys. This came over as a mockery of the instrument. The royals should have been reminded that the Steelpan was born in resistance to their drive to suppress African forms of expression.

Marvin George, artistic director of “Arts in Action” posted a critique of this criticism on Facebook, on March 23, 2008, arguing that its “Offering Earth” ceremony, commissioned by the British High Commission, was meant to display pride in Trinidad’s indigenous heritage. The fact that the performers stayed low to the ground, worshiping the earth, could only be mistaken as lying prostrate in front of “the Royals.” Instead, it was meant as an “Amerindian allegory” — and Arts in Action consulted available scholarly texts on indigenous peoples in Trinidad (all except mine of course, which would have been difficult to read and apply for producing a show for elites).

It would seem that Arts in Action really bungled things, producing the opposite reaction from that intended. While disclaiming that this was a minstrel show, the fact is that they went to pay their respects to “the Royals” at the “invitation” of the British High Commission. That they readily agreed, even more than the troubled aesthetics, is what I find troubling. Why was indifference not an option? Why the greed for attention?

“Independence” remains a promise, if one chooses to take the time to reflect on what it could mean.

Happy Independence Day…from Kobo Town


forty years ago today
independence came our way
welcomed by our struggling songs
it came but would not stay
and we, wanting to believe,
let ourselves be deceived
by the well-groomed speech of ambitious men
who time proved to be thieves
but the years went by and nothing came
new flag, new name, same old game
where the lucky laugh and the poor endure
having lost the will to fight again

I remember when we were young
and hope was strong
and we had waited long
to hear the midnight bell
that would dispel
the age that kept us down
I recall when we would bleed
’cause we believed
freedom was in reach
of those who seized the day
but freedom came and faded like a dream

children of a passing age
remnants of a dying rage
whose anthems swept across this land
proclaiming a new day
and we waited patiently
for the elusive decree
that would rub away the scars we bore
and set our voices free
but the years wore on and nothing came
tyrants just bore different names
while the official line promised brighter times
we knew all things remained the same

independence, what an elusive dream
things are never ever what they seem
marchin’ hand in hand awaitin’ the command
of the liberator, soon to be the henchman
people’s vanguard, propaganda ministry
freedom fighters fillin’ the ranks of the secret police
while the tale on the times told in obituary lines
we offer our resistance with these humble rhymes

sing out, shout out, the dream never dies….

Speeches: Jawarhalal Nehru, August 15th, 1947, On India’s Independence; Milton Obote, October 9th, 1962, On the Independence of Uganda; Winston Churchill, June 18th, 1940, Address to House of Commons.


“The Mongoose” from a Trinidadian, Indian, Greek Point of View

My comrade Guanaguanare has published a different take on “The Mongoose.” Naipaul has been a deeply problematic figure in Trinidadian cultural politics, loved and reviled, admired and scorned. I had the pleasure of seeing him speak in Port of Spain, in 1991 I believe, in the company of friends from the University of the West Indies. The “who’s who” of Trinidadian intelligentsia showed up for this rare event, at which Naipaul declared that the novel was dead and he could write no more.

Given his position within Trinidadian debates, Guanaguanare, who like myself deeply appreciated Walcott’s poem, brings a Trinidadian perspective to bear. In that essay, Guanaguanare brings into play kalinda (stick fighting) call and response music, calypso (with a video of The Mighty Chalkdust‘s “From Naipaul to Shame” — nice to see a professor as a prominent calypsonian), and references to Hindu myths.

Guanaguanare stresses that this satire, biting comedy, is well crafted for the purposes for which it was intended. (I was almost expecting to see something about not throwing one’s pearls before swine.) To those who sneer and refer to the classics as somehow more elevated, Guanaguanare brings in Aristophanes and Euripides, the dueling Walcott-Naipaul of their time.

It’s a great piece.


“The Mongoose,” by Derek Walcott, has a bigger bite than one might think

“It’s going to be nasty,” Derek Walcott said, prefacing his war on V. S. Naipaul with a warning. “The Mongoose” was the last of Walcott’s new poems at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica last weekend [May 2008]. He’d wondered whether he ought to read it, Walcott said, “and then I figured if I don’t do it, I’ll say: what the hell, you should have done it… I think you’ll recognize Mr. Naipaul.” (source)

Two literary greats of the Caribbean, going into the ninth round, reaching for hammers. Paint brushes are not an option: this is not the moment for whitewashing, or for painting oneself in camouflage, or in the distracting phosphorescence of reflected glory, or the cool gesso of objectivity, in preparation for just-in-time application of mind-screwing heat-shimmers.

“Gladiatorial excess” is what some of the more conservative accounts called this. The dense prudes who caution prudence, who would narrow a debate by setting the terms for acceptable style, were aghast that ferocious antagonism, however beautifully crafted, should erupt to spoil their placid and insipid evenings of poetry. When they assumed that they could safely sit on yet another training session, where they would be trained to sustain their roles as good, cultured, law abiding, cosmopolitan citizens, what did they instead get? Derek Walcott Unplugged, and what a breathtaking poem is The Mongoose, narrowly understood and chastised by the grown up versions of the classroom prefect. “This just is not done, I mean, it’s not professional, it’s not poetry, it’s…it’s…it’s not polite,” as some hens might cluck.

Both Derek Walcott (born in St. Lucia, grown in Trinidad), and Sir Vidiadhar Surujprasad Naipaul (born in Trinidad, fled to England), are recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature. On this blog, Derek Walcott stands as the hero, so there is no point in my feigning a pretentious objectivity. You can see Walcott videos in the vodpod on the sidebar, and you can see references to this poetic clash incorporated in my own little attempt at poetry on this site, the so-called “spectroscopic survey” I posted this week. I don’t want to say more about the personal conflict between these two word warriors, mostly because so much has been written on it already (see the links that follow), and I want to focus instead on some of the broader themes that come out of this latest round. (And don’t cry for Naipaul — he always “settles accounts” as he himself says.) Before doing anything else, let’s listen to The Mongoose:

I want to draw attention to the anti-colonial, and anti-Eurocentric theme in the poem that casts grave doubt on “cosmopolitanism” as presently fashioned by Western intellectual elites. Do note the current geopolitical context in which cosmopolitanism is rising to the top of journals’ agendas and ask if this is not an intellectual counterinsurgency against all those monstrous “fundamentalists”, much as when anthropologists imported and perverted a Marxist anti-state critique of “invented traditions” and reshaped it into anti-indigenism, at the same time — coincidentally? — that the movement toward the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was gaining ground and when American Indians would assert sovereignty over the remains of their ancestors housed in ghoulish temples of Western “science,” the university and the museum. So that’s at least twice in the last twenty years that a “theoretical” trend in anthropology has moved critical attention away from the powerful and instead trained its sights on the powerless. No wonder then, that anthropology remains the whitest of the disciplines. But let’s get back to Walcott….

The anti-colonial, anti-Euro-cosmopolitan themes in Walcott’s poem come out in lines such as these–note also that Walcott undermines Naipaul’s European footing by relocating him to the ranks of Indian indentured labourers in the cane fields of central Trinidad, reminding him of his origins, just as Naipaul wishes to proclaim very different origins and orientations:

Cursed its [the mongoose, Napiaul's] first breath for being Trinidadian,
Then wrote the same piece for the English Guardian….
Imported from India and trained to ferret snakes and elude Africans,
The Mongoose takes its orders from the Raj….
…climbed to club- and gate-house with good manners,
The squirearchy from the canefields of Chaguanas….
For five years he [Naipaul] waited.
India and England were in his citation
Of gratitude, but not the Negroid nation
That nursed his gift….

Speaking to the moderator before he read his poem, still in front of the Jamaican audience gathered for the festival, Walcott had this to say about American empire and Caribbean arts:

There’s a very dangerous thing that is happening in the Caribbean, and that is: we are dictated to, still, by what used to be the empire. The new American empire is the world empire, and whatever the tastes of the empire are, they’re inflicted on the colonies of that empire. So we are the intellectual colonies of America; so is a lot of the world. So if people say in America now – which they do – that painting is finished, and now what you have is installation or some other thing, then the young Caribbean artist feels that he’s out of it if he or she doesn’t do what the empire thinks if fashionable. And what fashionable, or unfashionable, is that you don’t tell stories, you don’t mold character, you don’t have a beginning, a middle, an end. That’s old fashioned. Well, it’s a great thing that the Caribbean art is old-fashioned, because you still tell stories, which is what the human heart craves. And you still have a culture that speaks directly to its people in terms of songs, and the lyrics of songs. There aren’t that many cultures that still do that. How many people in Germany sing a German folk song?

You see, there’s an urgency in America to make it new, to get famous. And you can get very famous in America, and make a lot of money. When Rent came out, I thought: Rent! Who wants to see a thing called Rent? Many years later the author is dead, and the composer is dead, but he’s a multi-millionaire. Now the danger here is to think in terms of being a multi-millionaire in any of the forms, including painting, because there are some terrible painters who make millions of dollars in the States because they’re so terrible… So we have a very very different life here in terms of a balance that is not too affected, not too provincial, not too rootsy or something. The individual has to choose where it’s going. And I think it’s a very healthy condition we’re in now.

Walcott has some comments on style and character, very interesting, almost counterintuitive since for a poet style matters tremendously:

I’m very irritated about style – style in painting, style in music. Style is a way of attracting attention to the creator of the thing, right? What we want is to be anonymous, and transparent, ultimately, I think. Now there can be a very high transparency, Dante’s transparency. You don’t look at Dante’s writing. You just have the poetry, and it’s like looking through glass. You look through the poem like stained glass, into the source of the poem. You don’t look at Dante’s psychology. That would be the last thing he’d want. But this is an age in which everything is based on character, so the more interesting you make your own character, the more interesting you can become. Nobody strives for anonymity. That’s almost a contradition, but that’s what art strives for. I would like to evaporate in front of the poem…

And then he read his poems, one of which was the Mongoose that you heard above.


After writing this post, I remembered the time I saw Derek Walcott speak at York University, some time in the late 1980s. At the end of the presentation, Walcott invited questions, and was met with silence. He said, if I recall correctly, “Don’t worry, I don’t bite,” and then he added, “but I may bite back.” How true, as Naipaul should know, having been nominated for the Nobel by Walcott among others, and then publish acidic remarks about Walcott having been strangulated by his colonial environment, and racializing his message to make his audience cope better with its misery.

For further reading, please see:

Calabash ’08: First, the Fire Works (May 28, 2008)

Daniel Trilling, “Being Nasty to Naipaul,” New Statesman, May 29, 2008.

Nicholas Laughlin, “The Distraction of Walcott vs Naipaul,” The Guardian Blogs, June 5, 2008.

Nicholas Laughlin, “DW vs VSN: addendum,” Antilles: The Weblog of the Caribbean Review of Books, June 6, 2008.

Paul Theroux, “Paul Theroux claims new biography reveals the true monster in V S Naipaul,” The Sunday Times, April 6, 2008.


Italy to pay “billions” in compensation for colonizing Libya; Sanctions augmented against Zimbabwe

According to Euronews, citing an unspecified currency, Italy has apparently promised to pay Libya compensation for the time that Italy was its colonial ruler (see the video below). This sets an interesting, different tone in current international relations, especially since the current government of Italy is the most right wing since Mussolini set foot on Libya, and one wonders if it is due to Italy’s oil and gas dependency on Libya.

In contrast, new sanctions are being announced today by both the U.S. and the European Union against Zimbabwe’s current administration, in a further display of gross international inequalities in power and the double-faced morality that accompanies it. No sanctions have ever been imposed on the powerful who violate international law, and conduct dubious elections of their own, and none have been called before war crimes tribunals for their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Note that the sanctions against Zimbabwe are taking place even as the government holds formal talks with the opposition on forming a government of national unity, suggesting that sanctions are not part of a process to force a lessening of Zimbabwe’s political violence but are instead oriented toward “regime change.” In the process they end up eroding the credibility of the opposition as well.


Not your exotic, not your erotic

A poem by Suheir Hammad:

don’t wanna be your exotic
some delicate fragile colorful bird
imprisoned caged
in a land foreign to the stretch of her wings
don’t wanna be your exotic
women everywhere are just like me
some taller darker nicer than me
but like me but just the same
women everywhere carry my nose on their faces
my name on their spirits
don’t wanna
don’t seduce yourself with
my otherness my hair
wasn’t put on top of my head to entice
you into some mysterious black voodoo
the beat of my lashes against each other
ain’t some dark desert beat
it’s just a blink
get over it
don’t wanna be your exotic
your lovin of my beauty ain’t more than
funky fornication plain pink perversion
in fact nasty necrophilia
cause my beauty is dead to you
I am dead to you
not your
harem girl geisha doll banana picker
pom pom girl pum pum shorts coffee maker
town whore belly dancer private dancer
la malinche venus hottentot laundry girl
your immaculate vessel emasculating princess
don’t wanna be
your erotic
not your exotic



feed de devil





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de ark-hive






allyuh can borrow but yuh cyar steal or sell de t’ing

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trinidad street graffiti images courtesy of; all other photos courtesy of caribbeanfreephoto, under Creative Commons licenses.


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