By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 02, 2011
Any society that aspires to be a cohesive national entity must be willing to accept all of its history; not just parts of it. And herein lies a problem that no multiculturalism in Trindiad and Tobago can fix: that is, a proper estimation and acceptance of Dr. Eric Williams’ role in our national development. It is precisely the inability of most of our Indian population to accept the totality of our history and the heterogeneous nature of our origins that prevent them from acknowledging Dr. Williams’ status as the father of our nation.
Dr. Williams is considered the father of our nation because he was the leader of the nation when it was founded. We may question aspects of his stewardship. We cannot contest the incontestable fact that he was there at the beginning and led us during the first thirty years of our existence: from colonial status, to independence, to republicanism. It was so for George Washington as it was for Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. They are the fathers of their respective nations not because they are white or Indian but because they were there at the crucial moment when their societies were born and were responsible for nurturing their society at the fist formative moments of their birth.
In seeking to put in place multiculturalism as a national cultural policy we must also learn our history anew and accept that all aspects of the society belong to all of us, her children. In doing so we must take a serious look at how our society was made, the contributions that each group made toward its construction; and what constitutes the essence of our nation. We would then know what is distinctive about our nation; which would help us know what we need to cherish and what we need to discard. Such a course of action depends on serious scholars who see their scholarly and national task to tell our history as it is.
The prime minister has intimated that she wishes to have comparative religions taught in schools and that is a good move. But before we talk comparison, would it not be better to teach the three or four religions that we know-to all of our students-and acquaint all of our citizens with the cultural vocabularies of our various peoples. In this context I suggest that all students should be conversant with Islam; Hinduism; Christianity; and traditional African religion. These religions should be taught in all our schools, be they Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, or Hindu schools. I do not think a Trinidadian or a Tobagonian can call herself educated (as opposed to being skilled) if she does not know what the ramleelas; hosea; gyap; shango; orisas; and some of the major celebrations are. No Trinbagonian should be unacquainted with the cultural practices of all the major cultural groups.
We should also stop the bad habit of thinking that all the initiatives of a former government are bad. For the past seven years or so, I was a member of the prime minister’s cabinet-appointed Committee on Race matters. We met monthly to discuss innumerable conflicts that affect racial relations in this community, and while meeting the committee members had the opportunity of getting to know the religions and cultures represented there. During those meetings I interacted with Sat Maraj, Deoienarinanan Sharma and Yacoub Ali. I came out of those meetings embracing all the members of the committee, but I established a particularly warm relationship with Sat whom I am now proud to call a friend. Sat still has his concerns and I still have mine. However, we are able to come together in a way that allows us to disagree vehemently with one another and yet remain friends. Such discussion allows citizens to see that persons with strongly differing ideas can still love and respect each other.
The Committee erred in not making its deliberations public.
Any cultural policy must speak about the expansion of our civilization and our humanity as a people. We cannot think about culture unless we talk about how we empower people in our communities. In moving from colonialism to independence we did not empower our communities and build on the social and cultural capital they had accumulated over the centuries. It is true that Dr. Williams started the Better Village Programme to mobilize the various talents in the community and to preserve elements of our Trinidad and Tobago culture. To a large extent it was successful. However, any cultural program that’s worth its salt must emphasize the three ls: the development of local libraries; the development of local culture; and the writing of local histories (that is, the history of our villages and of the people who made them what they are). The communities must be the vortex around which all our cultural aspirations revolve.
In a recent article in the London Independent (January 23, 2011), Tim Lott wrote that libraries remain “a beacon of civilization, a mark of what we [the British] stand for.” We may have moved from reading the hard copies of books to the reading of books on our Kindles and iPads. However, if we are to lift our cultural standards, create a mutually tolerant and accepting society that appreciates the gift our multi-cultures and religions bring to the storehouse of our nation; if we are to survive as a nation, then we must arm our nation and our communities with information and knowledge that allows them to understand the power within themselves and the equally powerful truth that we have been made in the bowels of Trinidad and Tobago rather than somewhere else.
The problem of promulgating multiculturalism as a national cultural policy is that it seeks to impose a model of behavior that we, as a society, have worked through over a century and a half ago and sends us back to scripts we discarded many moons ago. What Canada and Australia do is inapplicable in that we have already worked out a modus operandi for existing in our small country. The trend and experience have been to live and work together in spite of our differences.
The multiculturalism as proposed by the present government takes us back to a point that we have passed. It is a policy that emphasizes our differences rather than our commonalities. It does not tell us how to consolidate our nationness, concretize our national identity; and make us proud to be Trinidadians and Tobagonians. Nowhere in their policy-and there is not much policy one can talk about-does it say who provides for the soul of the nation; how we consolidate our cultural and social achievements; and how to construct a more perfect union and a truly integrated Trinidad and Tobago.
It is for all of these reasons that I reject multiculturalism as the national cultural policy of Trinidad and Tobago.