If You Don’t Know Who You Are, Then You’re Nobody!
During a recent episode of his TV show with Buffalo Odlum as his guest, Rick Wayne recalled something he had read by Derek Walcott. (I want to say it could’ve been Naipaul, but hesitate . . .): ‘We have a blackness imitative of an African.’ “Because of that,” Wayne went on, “we like to tell ourselves we are African. Really?” He noted that the Europeans were here before their African slaves. And doubtless cohabited with the natives. They renamed our country, sold us their religions. Our idiosyncrasies are closer related to several cultures other than African.
The TV host alone knew for certain whether he was teasing with intent or underscoring an inconvenient message guaranteed to be controversial. Addressing his guest, he asked: “So what is all that ‘I is a African’ thing all about? We are as much French, British, Arab, Portuguese as we are African. And let us remember, cultures differ, depending on which part of Africa we’re referring to. The Pigmy and the Yorubas couldn’t be more different.”
Typically, he threw some heavy spice into the already hot soup. “Do we have any families in Saint Lucia with African names? Do our restaurants serve African cuisine? Do we suck blood from live cows?”
He said he anticipated “retaliatory blows from the culture vultures” among his audience. So did I. But the show ended without a challenge, at least, not in relation to the host’s views about our “imagined relationship” with Africa. Before that, however, Buffalo seemed to blame our more obvious shortcomings on slavery. Which led Wayne to ask: “Are you saying our apparent inability to work together for a common cause; our low self-esteem and so on, are to be blamed on the enslavement of our predecessors more than 400 years ago?”
If, like several black writers, not including Walcott, Buffalo was convinced the listed shortcomings were in our DNA, he kept that to himself. When I approached him a week or so later to inquire about his lack of defence of the Saint LucianAfrican identity, he said Wayne was only underscoring the fact that Saint Lucians, despite our contrary claims, know very little about our African ancestry. If I know my publisher well, I think Buffalo was on target: without the opportunity to debate controversial subjects, Rick Wayne would starve to death. On the other hand, I agree with the writers, with Derek Walcott especially, who see our embracing of things African as “just another fad.” Many who wear their hair in locs are little more than Gucci Rastas; fakes. How much do we know about the origins of Rastafarianism? Is the subject taught in our schools? As for our roots, how do we prove more African blood traverses our veins than, say, Portuguese or East Indian? How much do we know about the several African tribes and their peculiar cultures? But then, one might also ask what we know about black writers such as Derek Walcott, James Baldwin, Garth St. Omer, McDonald Dixon and Adrian Augier. In short, and I hate to admit Mr. Wayne is correct on this, the main trouble with Saint Lucians is we know not who we are—and don’t give a hoot!
I came across this line by Lionel Hurst—former Antigua and Barbuda ambassador to the UN: “Though in appearance the transplanted person looks every inch an African, these modern persons have been reengineered to behave more like the people who enslaved them.” Then there is this by a former minister in the Kenny Anthony administration, one of the few people Mr. Wayne considers “a good friend with a mind that actually works”—Mr. Calixte George. It was his contribution to the earlier cited discussion, featuring Buffalo Odlum: “It is no different from animal breeding. The Europeans and the Africans have got together and have penetrated, in both physical and psychological ways, to produce a new race of persons—the West Indian. We are completely different, we are a different animal, we are a different breed.
“There is a word in biological science, and it is heterocyst. In the crossing between the Africans and the Europeans, you have had what is known as hybrid vigour. Vigour of the new person that is better in characteristics than either the white man or the black man. So we are a different type of person.”
Wayne’s reaction: “Is that your way of acknowledging we have no idea who we are?” George laughed, knowingly. I went to sleep on the evening in question wondering: “Why can’t we see ourselves for what we are, with our mixed bloods? We are West Indians. Caribbean people.
We will return to that!
Buffalo Odlum on a few weeks ago, sharing his views on West Indian culture.