– The politics of shaping a cultural identity (Pt. 3)
By Dominique Hunter
“The writers and artists of Guyana exist in an uneasy equipoise above historical, political, cultural cross-streams evoking “the smell of their earth and the dreams of their people.” They have become image-makers for a people who had never seen images of themselves. The country out of which the art and writing comes is a cradle of archetypal symbols – forests, rivers, mountains, savannahs burgeoning into colours, shapes, forms, words, and a polyglot peoples searching for an identity.”
Published almost 50-year-ago to the day, that excerpt from Jan Carew’s May 23rd 1966 column titled Guyanese literature and art, could well be used to describe our position today, balancing precariously with the knowledge that there is no safety net should there be any missteps.
The challenge of shaping a cultural identity was laid squarely at the feet of our creatives and given the political and social climate at the time it was no easy task.
A few days after the publication of that column Carew was quoted in a May 31st article titled Artists’ freedom day speaking on our journey towards shaping a new collective image: “We still have slavery as a concept in our society in the Caribbean….Unless we are able to discover ourselves and find new images, we will not be able to exorcise the ghost of racism which lurks in the background.”
It’s hardly a secret that ours is a history tarnished by racially divisive politics. This “ghost” of racism didn’t just threaten the moral fiber of our nation by lurking in the background as Carew suggested. Instead, it marched boldly out of the shadows, materializing into something as real and tangible as the people it affected, pulled up a chair at the dinner table and demanded to be fixed a plate as the rest of the nation watched in disbelief. And yet, in spite of the resulting tension, we forged ahead tirelessly chanting “One People, One Nation, One Destiny.”
In the grand scheme of things, colonization, for the most part, has been synonymous with violent conquest, and most cultures would’ve been “unified” through the suppression of their cultural differences. As I mentioned in last week’s article, this suppression of minority cultures and traditions would’ve been employed as a means of ensuring cultural hegemony. And so a natural deduction would be that cultural identity is shaped more so by (cultural) power than it is by allegiance or national symbolism.
At the root of the formation of that power or even its transferal from one dominant group to the next would’ve no doubt been conflict. And on that subject Martinique-born psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon posited that the suppression of the cultures of colonial peoples forced them to “mask” themselves in the culture of the colonizer. Further, Fanon believed that in order to remove that “mask” violence needed to be an essential part of the decolonization process. He described it as the solution for “curing” persons who have accepted the “illness” of political oppression.
While I don’t necessarily agree that it “cures” anything or that colonized peoples simply “accept” political oppression, I do agree that violence, sadly, seems to be an unavoidable result in the process of decolonization. We have experienced the kind of violence that took the lives of our fellow countrymen and women, just as we have and continue to experience the kind of violence that works its way into our psyche, threatening our humanity. We’ve already paid that price so where does it leave us fifty years later?
How effective is the theory of cultural pluralism if after coming together once or twice a year to sing national songs we then retreat to our separate enclaves? How do we move past separatist ideologies in a way that is not superficial so that the feeling of community is sustained year round without compromising our individual cultures and traditions? We have already established that despite differences in race, gender, class and religion, a national cultural identity attempts to sterilize past wounds and unify each group into a single cultural identity representative of nationhood. But does this singular identity cancel out or subsume our cultural differences?
Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall proposes that we should think of national culture as “constituting a discursive device” where cultural differences are represented as the collective identity. Those differences, therefore, are brought together through the employment of various forms of (cultural) power. So then we are not “born” with a national cultural identity, but rather that identity is formed and continuously transformed as it relates to representation.
In his text titled Cultural Identity and Diaspora, Hall describes cultural identity as, “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.”
Next week’s conclusion of this series will examine some of the transformations Guyana has undergone subsequent to its independence, as well as the “dream” for the Guyanese cultural identity of the then Prime Minister LFS Burnham.
(Points of Departure is a four part series inspired by the pre-independence writings of several columnists of the then Guiana Graphic. The series is intended to reflect on key areas of cultural development and planning that were in discussions leading up the country’s departure from its British colonizer. As the name suggests, those discussions will be used as indicators to track the initial course of ideas proposed by thinkers of the time to present day realities.)