Q : Archbishop J, is T&T a real place?
One of our great characteristics as Trinbagonians is to make fun of everything. By jest and humour, the ‘Trickidadian’ pokes fun at the individual or group, and thus can defuse the most challenging situation. This is part of our national psyche that we take wherever we go.
In the #trinidadisnotarealplace campaign, there is much humour, with people making light of what could be potentially explosive situations. One meme showed people liming, sitting on beach chairs around a pothole. The point: this terrible situation cannot be tolerated. We make fun of many terrible situations to cause a reaction, to make a point.
The hashtag takes the place of violent confrontation. It asks: are we for real? It calls citizens to question why they put up with intolerable situations. This is one way to disarm, to highlight the absurd and do so in a real Trini way. This approach has saved us from many an explosion and from great discomfort. From this perspective, I understand the Trini way, and the energy of the hashtag #trinidadisnotarealplace. But this is not the only consequence of the campaign.
A colonial debate
Words are important. They convey meaning and sometimes have multiple consequences. Some ideas can undermine us in ways we cannot imagine. I believe that #trinidadisnotarealplace resonates with a colonial wound that could, if we are not careful, undermine the necessary healing.
This I believe can be destructive and lead to further paralysis. What we need most at this stage of our journey is to analyse, to evaluate, to create—the higher end of the cognitive capacity.
These islands were not set up for the development of their peoples. We were not intended to make a real contribution to the world, i.e., except for the wealth that was extracted, making Spain extremely rich under the reign of Phillip II, or the sugar plantation colonies that caused Britain to become the next world superpower, launching the Industrial Revolution.
It was clear to all who lived in the British West Indies that the really real was not here. It was elsewhere. It resided in the metropole—London. The decisions were made in England, and so the policies and laws, the fashion, and customs, etc. When VS Naipaul wrote Mimic Men, he was saying: we are not a real place because all we can do is mimic the really real—Europe, England, USA.
In The Middle Passage, Naipaul questioned: “How can the futility of this West Indian history be written? What tone shall the historical adopt? …History is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies” (Naipaul 1975, 28-9).
This very negative tone of Naipaul dismisses our history as a history of futility—with no achievements, no creation. This has been one of the great challenges of earlier generations, a challenge that haunts us at every turn.
We have produced world-class citizens who have excelled in every field of endeavour—internationally and locally. Yet, here at home, we lack the confidence to build upon the great legacy of these men and women. And we fail to find inspiration for the monumental challenges we face today.
The Oxford professor
Just over 130 years ago, Oxford history professor James Anthony Froude sailed through the West Indies. In his book The English in the West Indies, Froude says: “There are no people there in the true sense of the word”. In other words, we are not a real place and we do not have real people. This ticked off a debate that is still raging today.
Black nationalist and schoolteacher, Trinidad-born JJ Thomas replied in defence of Caribbean people and culture in his book Froudacity: West Indian fables by J. A. Froude explained by J. J. Thomas. (Froudacity is the audacity of Froude).
Thomas argues that the West Indies is a real place, and we have real people living here. He chastens the Oxford professor with his logic humbling him with a riveting rebuttal.
In a reprint of Froudacity, nearly 100 years later, CLR James writes in his Introduction:
Froudacity is a reply to an imperialist attack, an attack ignorant and myopic as usual, but this time malign and motivated. The attack was a sitting duck for a counter-blow. The reply to imperialist grime unfortunately is not often, even to this day, as clear, as firm and as precise as was the reply in this West Indian to this attack upon his people. This book is a masterpiece, this is to say worth reading and study—close study—today, nearly a century after it was written” (Froudacity 23).
Derek Walcott and VS Naipaul also responded to Froude’s attack, in their respective reception speeches for the Nobel Prize. Both authors were at pains to demonstrate that we are real people, with a real culture and real architecture—hybridised, as it may be.
Many cultures have turned a colonial insult on its head. Black Americans have done this with the “N” word.
Our challenge is that as we play with the reality question, we are raising another generation of Caribbean children who may not see themselves as real people and this place as a real place.
Listen to the challenge from George Lamming in his Coming, Coming Home:
I do not think there has been anything in human history quite like the meeting of Africa, Asia and Europe in this American archipelago we call the Caribbean. But it is so recent since we assumed responsibility for our own destiny, that the antagonistic weight of the past is felt as an inhibiting menace. And that is the most urgent task and the greatest intellectual challenge: how to control the burden of this history and incorporate it into our collective sense of the future (Lamming, 1995, 25).
This is all I am pleading for: Let us control the burden of our history and incorporate it into our collective sense of the future. Our hypercriticism blinds us to what we have achieved in this small twin-island Republic.
It also paralyses us from real action to transform us from within. Our most urgent task is to arrive at the collective sense of the future, a future beyond tribe, religion, and race where we can all accept there is only one mother—Mother Trinidad and Tobago. And a mother cannot discriminate among her children.
Words have meaning beyond what is intended. Our long colonial history never saw us as a real place or real people. This debate continues today. So, you answer. Is this a real place?
Dream about the future of our beloved Trinidad and Tobago. What would you want for your great grandchildren, 50 years from now?