Cultural Policy and National Development

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: March 16, 2019

A lecture delivered at the Public Library of Trinidad and Tobago, Adult Education Program, January 11, 1983. This lecture can be located at the Trinidad Public Library, Port of Spain, under the call number Ref. W.I. 308, Cudjoe (Trinidad Collection, January 1983). Slight editorial changes have been made to the original document for this publication.


Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeBecause slavery and colonialism meant the economic, political, and cultural enslavement of our people, the transition from colonial to genuine independence must, of necessity, concern itself with the economic, political, and cultural transformation of our peoples. In fact, it seems to me, that we cannot speak of any meaningful transition, any authentic expression of the national soul/spirit unless we give some serious consideration to these aspects of our national development: none of which, I’m afraid, has been given any serious consideration by our present government in Trinidad and Tobago. This evening, I will concern myself with what I have termed cultural policy and the manner in which it conduces to national development in Trinidad and Tobago.

Each country in the world, as the United Nations Organization on Educational, Scientific, and Cultural affairs (UNESCO) reminds us, has the right, nay the obligation, to determine its own cultural policy according to its own conception of culture and in a way that aids its socioeconomic development. The absence of any well-defined and articulated political ideology in Trinidad and Tobago makes it very difficult for its people to determine its cultural policy and how we are supposed to achieve those objectives.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will define cultural policy as an expression of the systematic concern of the State for the organization of national cultural life of our people. Moreover, I will define the national cultural life of our people as it is expressed in our traditions, the moral and ethical concerns, its psychological attitudes, and the level of its intellectual development. It follows necessarily that in order for there to be any systematic policy on national cultural life there ought to be national goals by which and through which these cultural expressions can be framed.


In a former colonial society such as Trinidad and Tobago there exist, almost invariably, two aspects or dimensions of its cultural forms: the official culture of the dominant group (in this case bourgeois-colonial) which the colonizer brought to the society and which he attempted to impose upon the populace to ensure his rule. Invariably, such cultural forms are meant to buttress the greater exploitation of surplus values (economic) while the political apparatus that was established (Westminster parliamentary democracy) was designed to facilitate the easier exploitation of the people. The imposition of cultural forms, then, was not fortuitous. They were meant to ensure the continuing exploitation of the people through the imposition of values and practices that made such exploitation possible.

It is no wonder, then, that up to the very recent past (and even at the present time) to be “cultured” in Trinidad and Tobago (and many former colonial territories for that matter) referred to the acceptance of European cultural forms. To the degree that one cultivated and accepted all the accoutrements of the official European cultural forms (such as the possession of theaters, a knowledge of classical music, and the establishment of art galleries), it was to that degree one was judged as having attained to those cultured heights.

It followed naturally and necessarily, that, to the degree that one was acquainted with Shakespeare and Brahms, glorified the paintings of Da Vinci, and accepted the logical presumptions of the Western world, it is to that degree that one was considered “cultured” and thereby earned his/her way into the charmed circle of the official culture of the dominant group which was foreign, autocratic, imperial, and designed to achieve the objectives of the colonizer. The degree, to which it benefited colonial peoples, was merely an accidental aspect of its intent.

Contrasted with the official culture of the colonizer was the unofficial culture of the masses. This culture was democratic and people-driven, practiced by the workers and peasants of the society or the little people. It reflected their genuine aspirations, helped them to survive and make life more meaningful when the physical power of the colonizer was superior, and when trying to make it in a new land presented certain insurmountable problems. Cultural practices such as shango, carnival festivities, and hosea distinguished the masses from the dominant culture.

The unofficial culture, then, was edifying, instructive, life-giving. Most of all, it was a means whereby the people maintained their sanity during the evil day. Its inherent tendency was democratic (the popular expression of the people), educative (resulting from its confrontation with a new world), creative (having to come up with new and distinctive ways of doing things), and liberating (it spoke to the noblest sentiments of a people’s being and constituted a province of social/emotional space that could not be troubled by the dominant culture).

More important, the historical tendencies of these two cultures (the official and the unofficial) as they developed in this new land, always confronted each other as the former attempted to gain control over the latter. While the official culture attempted to control and manipulate, the unofficial culture sought to liberate and create. While the latter (the unofficial) always sought to learn something from the former, the former always tried to abrogate and to manipulate the progressive content of the latter. The unofficial culture of our people has always represented the progressive, life-giving dimension of the cultural life of the peoples of Trinidad and Tobago.

The Historical Tendency

We can read the historical development of our people’s cultural activity against the background of the two-culture phenomenon that I have outlined. To describe this historical tendency does not in itself constitute a cultural policy; that is, the systematic and coherent explication of these forms as they are organized to express the social and economic goals of our society. For example, we can ask ourselves: How does this aspect of our cultural development contribute toward the achievement of a sense of national identity? Or, How does it create a sense of national consciousness? And, the more specific question: What is the government’s policy toward these vital questions?

If we consider the two major groups in our society (that is, the East Indians and the Africans), we will find that even within the context of our peoples’ cultural development they represented different ways of apprehending the world. If we look at the African population, we will see that most of them came to the island between 1783 and 1833 even though many others came from other Caribbean territories during the second half of the 19th century. For example, J. J. Thomas notes that there were sixteen different African groups who came to the island during this first influx of Africans, each with their own ways of seeing the world.

From 1845 to 1917 our Indian brothers and sisters came to Trinidad. They also brought with them other cultural attributes and other ways of seeing the world. Africans presumed one way of looking at the world, one that was rational and mathematical, whereas the Indians brought a different way of looking that was more metaphysical and, to a degree, other-worldly.

Such diversity undoubtedly presumed quite different ways of approaching social reality, except for this specific exception. Africans came during a period of slavery, the East Indians came during a period of colonization. This had one significant consequence: the slave order demanded that all social distinctions and cultural practices be obliterated in order to facilitate greater efficiency in labor, whereas colonialism did not demand such drastic measures.

Such different contexts had tremendous consequences for the social development of each group. East Indian groups were able to maintain many aspects of their original culture as they entered into the world of independence while many of the social practices that the Africans brought with them were lost. In only a few areas certain aspects of the culture have remained authentic; for example, the Spiritual Baptists of Toco as they were described by Melville Herskovits in Trinidad Village.

There have been other consequences. The African was ever mindful of his enslaved condition and so tended to spend and “spree,” the East Indian coming to the New World to find a better way tended to be more frugal and conscious of every cent. While the African was willing to challenge the colonial master wherever the slightest threat was made against his freedom, the East Indian, never having lost his freedom, tended to be more docile and accommodating.

There were practical consequences for such behavior. Since the East Indians had saved and accumulated a lot of financial resources, they were able to extract greater benefits from the society once political independence occurred. To the colonial master the Africans seemed arrogant and trenchant and perhaps a greater threat to the social order, so more concessions were made toward the East Indian than toward the African.

Having outlined such differences one must guard against ascribing too much weight to any aspect of these manifestations of social development. One set of behavioral patterns is not necessarily better or worse than the other; they are merely different. Understanding these differences can have important ramifications for national development.

Within this historical trajectory another question arises that has to do with the formation of a sense of national consciousness or national identity, the factors that conduce toward its making and those that mitigate against it. If it is true, as I have argued, that the East Indians came to this country merely to work for a while and then to return to their original home, then Trinidad could never really be perceived as home. The same, of course is true for the African when he arrived in the island. In fact, the story is told of Daaga, our gallant freedom fighter, that when he was put to death by the colonial authorities for attempting to liberate his people, he merely smiled at his tormentors as they roasted him to death, confident that he would return to Africa, his home, in liberty.

Yet the Africans who came a little earlier and were imprisoned in a slave mode of production were able to shed those attitudes of homelessness (or displacement, if you will) at an earlier stage in their social development and perhaps at a quicker pace.

What are the implications of such a position? It means that because most of us did not think of Trinidad as our home, the process of forming a sense of national consciousness was slow to emerge. However, the development of national a consciousness does not come by guess. It demands, among other things, a careful examination of our historical evolution and an understanding of the various forces that made us who we are.

Such a formulation of the question brings us to another question: What policy or policies have been enacted by our national government to foster a sense of national consciousness amongst its citizens?

However, we must go a little farther before we can begin to even delineate a national policy. Should we promulgate a policy that fosters the maintenance of a multicultural society or should we strive toward the creation of a homogeneous Trinidad and Tobago culture?

There are consequences for both choices. If we determine that, at the present time, we are a plural society, but that in the future we hope to create a more homogeneous Trinidad culture out of this heterogeneous mix, it then presumes certain strategies. Do we begin by teaching all our children in all our schools the Hindu language, do we make the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita mandatory reading in all schools, and do we make Joseph Mbiti’s African Religion and Philosophy and Janheinz Jhan’s Muntu mandatory reading for all our children? It is only by possessing a full knowledge of each other’s cultures that we can aspire toward a truly homogeneous Trinidad and Tobago culture. The same of course would be true for the inclusion of the culture of the Chinese and other groups.

If, on the other hand, we opt for the preservation of separate and distinct cultures, then such a course would presume different strategies and different results. We condemn ourselves to the maintenance of our immigrant society with each different group making separate demands upon the body politic and the body social and the continued demand for proportional representation. We presume a perpetually fragmented society.

Or, maybe, there is a middle ground. We have to decide on a course. It’s only within this context that cultural activities can be made to be more meaningful.

Bourgeois Culture and Artistic Value.

Having presumed the historical legacy of this two-dimensional nature of our culture; having accepted the fact that the unofficial dimension of the culture represented the people’s culture; and granting the fact that we need to define our position toward our culture more carefully (that is, whether it is toward the preservation of the plurality of our culture or the merger of its many strands) the question then arises: Can the people’s culture flourish within the context of capitalist relations? Or, to put it another way, How do we talk about the creative and liberating effect of a people’s culture when the official ideology of the state presumes the privileged status for a particular group of its citizens?

We can take the example of carnival and use one of our novelists to demonstrate the point. Our ancestors had to fight furiously to maintain the practice of carnival during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Prior to, they had to face the fact that theirs was an “uncivilizing culture.” As I have argued, however, cultural resistance played a preeminent part in the maintenance of our sense of ethnic identity during this early period. To a large degree, this struggle was advanced by the evolution of the steelband movement during the war years and was one of the major manifestations through which and by which the oppressed of the society realized themselves. Many of my generation remembered the serious threats that would ensue from our parents if we were bold enough to go to the steelband yard when we were very young. It is a tribute to Dr. Eric Williams that he elevated the status of the steelbandsmen and the calypsonians to a higher level of acceptance during the early years of his rule.

The support that Dr. Williams gave to the steelband and carnival movements during the early years cannot be divorced from the nationalistic content of the early colonial movement. These cultural forms represented the drive of the working people for their liberation. Correspondingly, when the reactionary elements of the Party of Political Progressive Groups (POPPG) began to infiltrate the PNM in the sixties, much of this historic impulse toward the liberation of the working people was blunted.

The same tendency can be seen at the level of culture. It would seem that as soon as these petty bourgeois elements began to infiltrate the party, many with their own private agendas, all the revolutionary content of carnival was taken out of it and many pale imitators and imitations began to arise. I rely on Earl Lovelace’s description of this phenomenon which he describes so well in his novel The Dragon Can’t Dance:

These bands were the white bands: well off, light-skinned boys from prosperous families and good schools, fellars who in all the years of violence and struggle had had nothing to do with them, now in the lull of this peace that had spread throughout the bands, were beginning to come out in their own steelbands whose very names-Merry Boys, Dixie Land, Star Land, Happy Boys, held no salute nor acknowledgment of the fire, the blood, the heat of the early days of the movement; they were coming now, Fisheye felt as if they had a right to this peace, this easy passage. And yes they had this easy passage in everything else, in schools, in jobs, in positions; but this was his territory. This was slum, street corner territory; and it burned him to see them entering so casually.

This point is given much more brutal emphasis when the steelbands began to accept sponsorship from the leading capitalist firms of the island which in fact did much to break up the rebellious-revolutionary tradition of the society.

In terms of the promotion of the people’s culture, another question arises: To what degree do market forces ascribe value to works of art and culture? In other words, how does one measure or equate the value of those workers in the material sphere of production (the oil workers or the dock workers) with those who are engaged in the nonmaterial sphere of production, that is, our cultural workers, our intellectuals, our artists of various kinds. How do you measure the value of a Le Roy Clarke painting with the value produced by a dock worker or someone who works at Point Lisas for $70,000 a year? Who is more valuable to the society and how do we determine that value? How for example do we begin to cultivate another C. L. R. James or do we only begin to glorify him when he is in the dusk of his years? Or, is it that the society does not consider intellectual/cultural work of much importance and so we do not really have to be bothered with these minor irritants of life?

I will attempt to make the point a little more graphic. To my mind, Le Roy Clarke is one of our finest painters. He has enclosed himself in the heights of Aripo and concerns himself almost exclusively with his art. How do we measure the value of his artistic production? Does it have to do with the demand for his work? Is the work to be considered good if it is in demand and bad if it is not? And what about if some member of our privileged class were to purchase one of his works for $20,000 and then decide to make it a part of his private collection. Or if for that matter, Chase Manhattan were to purchase his entire collection for about $500,000 and took it back to one of its art galleries in New York. Who loses and to what degree does this action conduce to our national development?

There is another aspect to this question. If in fact Mr. Clarke did get $500,000 for his artistic endeavors, how far behind can be the concept that the sole aim of artistic production is to sell one work for about $500,000 or to the highest bidder. And if s/he achieves this goal, does it mean that the society has achieved some sort of artistic heights and cultural freedom? And how does this expression of cultural freedom contribute toward the freedom of each which is the necessary condition for the freedom of all, as Marx once intimated. More important, though, what is the government policy in this area and how does the government attempt to encourage and to preserve the cultural/artistic production of its citizens for the benefit of the entire society. What in short, is our national policy in this regard?

The Tacarigua Example

These are only some of the questions that must be addressed before we can begin to formulate any national policy toward the place of cultural policy in national development. We all know the nature of our underdevelopment in the area of cultural institutions: that is, in terms of our libraries, our national archives, our art galleries, our publishing houses, our broadcasting industries, etc. Rather, I will read from a brochure which we at the Tacarigua Welfare and Improvement Council put out last year as a part of our program for the 1982-83 year. It reads as follows (Incidentally, not one word from this document was published by the media, which also says something about our priorities and the dichotomies that exist between country and town):

Culture and cultural policy, within the context of a society, is often subject to many varying interpretations and approaches. Generally, however, it has much to do with the attempt to awaken the community as a whole to the possibilities of achieving a fuller and more rewarding life.” And in terms of Tacarigua, the cultural policy of our community can be extended to include the attempt to identify, to safeguard and to popularize the cultural heritage and identity of our community.

To speak of “achieving a fuller and more rewarding life” for the residents of our community, presumes the existence of certain basic facilities and amenities through which the above objectives can be met. Again, as is the custom in most countries of the world, certain facilities, such as the presence of parks, the existence of amateur theaters for drama and dance, the preservation of historical sites, the provision of libraries and museums, playing fields, swimming pools, an indoor sports arena, classes in pottery, paintings, etc., are all provided to ensure the achievement of the social and cultural developments of its peoples. In Tacarigua, none of these facilities exist. The cultural limits of the residents of Tacarigua can be measured by the absence of these facilities and amenities.

To be sure, part of the paradox of this situation lies in the fact that there was a public park in Tacarigua in the 19th century just in front of St. Mary’s Anglican Church where residents would sit and watch the horse drawn carriages, donkey carts, and horses as they rambled along the Eastern Main Road, to and from Port-of-Spain. During our own lifetime, the van from the public library would come to the Orange Grove Savannah and loan out books to our residents. Many of our residents would also use the broad expanse of the Savannah as they proceeded, trippingly, toward the pond, filled with the sweetly scented water lilies. Today, no park, pond, or library van exists.

More important, during the fifties and sixties, Tacarigua was known throughout the country for the strength of its dramatic productions. Today, in the age of independence, none of these aspects of the “fuller life” exist in a vigorous manner in the community. Thus, it can be argued in the age of independence, we have gone backward rather than forward.

To be sure, culture and cultural policy ought not to be seen as mere “monuments,” just there waiting to be consumed or to be observed. Cultural activity, especially among colonial peoples, has always been one of the ways through which they have liberated from enslavement and colonialism. Certainly, Shango, voodoo, and other cultural practices ought to be seen as tools of liberation and self-actualization which our people used to free themselves from a wretched existence. Thus, our cultural policy seeks not only to provide the opportunities for our people to achieve a “fuller life”; it seeks also to foster a sense of desirable social attitudes and behavioral patterns among our villagers.

Inescapably, therefore, the people of Tacarigua, as well as the people of Trinidad and Tobago, must guard against the passive, unselective use of our leisure time which television offers in that it does not allow for any degree of conscious or critical use of the creativity of the viewer. Since we receive most of our television shows from the United States, there is the danger that we may be producing “cultural illiterates,” but there is the especial greater danger is that we may impede the development of any cultural or social sense of our villages and or national identity. Sooner or later, most of us may just become totally consumed in the vulgarity, gangsterism, and commercialism of American television.

Our cultural policy, therefore, will attempt to foster a sense of village pride and national consciousness. Where possible, it would attempt to achieve what has been called a sense of “cultural democracy,” a ce which allows residents the possibilities of participating in every form of cultural activity, regardless of their social or economic background. (Cultural Policy Article, pp. 4-5)

Culture & Work

I have examined many aspects of the kinds of ingredients that must be considered in the making of our cultural policy. There are other aspects though that need to be examined. For example: How does an understanding of culture transcend the branches of art alone and begin to become identified with all types of creative manifestations in physical labor, in politics, social life, education, science, and new solutions to social problems?

We can take the example of carnival. Some scholars in Trinidad have asked already: How can we transmit the creativity of carnival into the workplace? Refining the question somewhat, I will ask: How can we take the revolutionary aspect of our people’s culture and place it within the arena of the workplace? Yet, the context ought to be kept: such a transition can only be meaningful in a society that is controlled by the working people of the society and buttressed by a working class philosophy toward the reconstruction of our society.

The same example can be made of science. How can we use our artistic/creative abilities to examine areas of science and technology? How do we construct a science and technology program with an approach that is appropriate to us? Or, to put it another way: How do we integrate our cultural patterns with other social areas such as education, health care, and the development of national consciousness?

Then there is the question of rewards and the manner in which we use rewards for the active encouragement of cultural activities. How do individual communities adopt various plans and act for the development of their own national culture? How do they protect their landmarks? How do they pay tribute to their various cultural workers and national heroes?

In the final analysis, the question becomes: How do we formulate a cultural policy that does not alienate masses of people? And most important, how can the masses of people participate in the making of cultural policy at the level of national life so that it reflects their aspirations and hope for their society? And how, in the national scheme of things, do we integrate our cultural policy within the context of our overall developmental goals and strategy for the genuine social development of all?

Writing in The New York Times last Friday [January 7, 1983] about the plight of artists, intellectuals, and opposition leaders in Poland, Zygmurt Nagonski offered: “When a nation’s cultural roots are systematically cut and its most creative members eliminated, then it faces the mortal danger of ceasing to exist as a nation.” In 1981 the Youth Division of UNESCO noted some of the dangers inherent in young people forgetting their life-styles as they adopt behavior patterns foreign to them. The report warned:

They [the young people] may grow contemptuous of their own culture or at least come to view their own societies as somehow inferior. On an individual level, mass media can have the effect of depriving the young person’s own life experience and the challenges faced by his society of any sense of importance. Youngsters run the risk of forgetting their own games, folklore and festivals when these are eclipsed by powerful media images of more “legitimate,” more “up to date’ or more “entertainment” activities appropriate to other societies.

These dangers are real. They can only be overcome by a systematic and consistent cultural policy that speaks to goals of national development and the aspirations of all of our people.