The Ultimate Philistine

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 22, 2019

“Kojo [or Cudjoe] was the Asante name for a boy born on Monday.”

—Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeTheodore Lewis is angry that Selwyn Cudjoe has written about a racist white slave holder. He is equally as angry that Bridget Brereton, one of our most distinguished historians, who happens to be a white woman, spoke favorably of my efforts. He writes: Professor Brereton “is an unlikely defender of Cudjoe, given her scathing disavowal of him in her published essay ‘All ah we is not one’ in which she disparages what she calls the ‘African narrative’ of local discourse” (Express, January 12).

Not satisfied with this simplistic approach to scholarly discourse, he shamelessly slanders Brereton: “She rehabilitates Cudjoe because in Burnley he clearly has veered away from the African narrative to one she is moved to validate.” In Lewis’s view, criticism is a form of racial solidarity that transcends other intellectual considerations. He believes Brereton likes Cudjoe’s book because the major protagonist is a white man.

Lewis has never written a serious historical or literary study so he does not know how the process works. Had he read my book, he would not have had to turn to Prof. Verene Shepherd to discover a historian “with some sense of regional identity—one who takes our history personally.”

He says that Shepherd’s great-great-grandfather “was born into slavery in Jamaica in 1829….The details of his ancestry, and therefore of my ancestry, are not yet known, because the personal records of those who had to endure the Ma’angamizi (African Holocaust) were not kept in the pristine conditions in which colonizers’ families are kept.”

In Lewis’s reading, Shepherd offers an authentic analysis of the African condition in the Caribbean because of her family history.

If Lewis had read The Slave Master of Trinidad, my biography of William Hardin Burnley, he would have discovered that my great-grandfather, Jonathan Cudjoe, was born in Tacarigua, Trinidad, in 1833, four years after Shepherd’s great-great-grandfather. My great-grandmother, Amelia Cudjoe, was born in 1837. Unlike Shepherd who didn’t have records to validate her family history I have mine.

My grandfather, Robert James Cudjoe, son of Jonathan, was born in Tacarigua in December 1869. He married Delcina Moriah Bonas (Tan Darling) who was born in Barbados in 1875. Robert kept a personal diary in the tapia house he built on Thavenot Street, Tacarigua in the later part of the 19th century. It is now in my possession.

Tan Darling assisted Mother Gerald, the leading Orisha devotee in Tacarigua, during the Shango Festival that took place each year for a week in November. She cooked the saltless food for that festival.

My first cousin, Mislet Harry, 84 years old and senior member of my father’s line, grew up with Tan Darling. She kept the tradition alive. In October 2017, she explained to me: “Every September or October, I prepare a meal for our ancestors. It consists of one slice of saltless fish, rice, dhal, and any kind of provision. Then I place a glass of white rum beside the meal. Then I begin to pray to our ancestors, calling them by their names, saying I have brought you food and drink and ask you to guide all of us. Then I leave the food overnight for them.”

I asked Mislet who taught her this and how long she had done it.

She replied, “I saw Ma [meaning Tan Darling] doing it. When Ma died I continued to do it” (“Ancestors,” Express, October 15, 2017)

I am the recipient of those practices. I do not need Shepherd (who is yet to learn about the origin of her family) to tell me about my Yoruba cultural practices and how they functioned in my story. But the fault does not lie in Shepherd’s narrative. It lies in the failure of an interpreter of history to read a text before he responds to its contents.

Lewis calls Burnley “my hero” rather than the subject of my story. Burnley is more an anti-hero, whose amorality, callousness, and racism I condemn throughout my book. More importantly, I argue that it was a scholarly response to Burnley’s amorality and callousness that led to the emergence of a Trinidad intellectual tradition that is sketched out partially in the Trinidadian, the first black newspaper published in 1848.

Lewis is neither a historian nor a literary theorist so he does not know how one analyzes or deconstructs such texts. He condemns Brereton’s professional observation: “Burnley has long awaited a proper biography; hence Cudjoe is to be applauded. But the History Department at The UWI at St. Augustine has been around since Independence. If Burnley were so important, why did she and others never bother to resurrect him?”

History departments do not write books. A person or group of people writes a book because he/she/they are interested in a particular subject matter. Brereton or other members of UWI’s history department did not write a biography about Burnley because they were not particularly interested in his work or activities, nor were they compelled to investigate him.

A serious scholar creates new knowledge and/or discovers forgotten moments or individuals who have contributed to the making of a people. A philistine who poses as a scholar feels more comfortable in displaying his ignorance, happy to regurgitate falsehoods that confirm his intellectual shallowness.

This is the danger to which President Paula-Mae Weekes alerted us when she warned against multi-degreed people who refuse to think creatively but find much joy in parroting non-sense and promoting racist discourses rather than enlightening fellow citizens about the complicated nature of our past and its implications for our future development.

Only a philistine responds twice to a book he has not read. Intellectual honesty and a rigorous scholarly analysis demand that one read a book at least once before writing about it.

One thought on “The Ultimate Philistine”

  1. Selwyn Cudjoe has become a beleaguered intellectual fending off attacks from critics who accuse him of selling out, of suffering from Stockholm syndrome, of being an intellectual opportunist. In this article he is defending himself from Theodore Lewis, a former professor of the University of Minnesota, who it seems has called out Cudjoe on his succumbing to the establishment and transforming the voice of his narrative, from an “African narrative” to the “slave-master’s narrative”. Cudjoe replies that in his book, Burnley is an anti-hero and his racism is exposed and condemned throughout the book. Because Lewis is not a historian, Cudjoe claims he can’t analyze or deconstruct the book. But history ever since the advent of Derrida’s ideas about deconstruction has emphasized the importance of the author and the narrative, and postcolonial theory points out how history told in terms of the author and his narrative has created the colonialized subject as the “other”, who by being objectified as the other becomes diminished and dehumanized. Claiming that Burnley is an “anti-hero” and condemning his racism does not cancel out the power of the narrative in defining the world. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is an anti-hero and a racist, but he ends up being a heroic “anti-hero”, so much so that in the movie “Apocalypse Now” which was based on the Vietnam War, the insane colonel modeled on Kurtz has become the avatar of our times. He is beyond good and evil, he has no soul, no ability to empathize, he is amoral, a psychopath, the anti-hero who can save the world because he is devoid of a moral compass, devoid of a conscience. Kurtz has morphed into someone very familiar on the American political scene now, and we can join the chorus in saying “the horror, the horror”. Theodore Lewis has put forward a profound critique of Selwyn Cudjoe’s book. It attempts, in my view, to remind Cudjoe that the organic intellectual is different from the traditional, establishment intellectual. The organic intellectual is rooted in his community and finds his intellectual sustenance from that community. When he wanders away from that vocation, he becomes, St. Paul would say, as sounding brass.

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