By Selwyn Cudjoe
March 22, 2022
We fondly called each other “The Other Selwyn”, in terms of friendship and endearment. Although I never knew Selwyn Ryan, the other Selwyn, as well as others did, over time we grew to admire and respect each other’s work, and genuinely liked each other a lot. Sadly, he died a week ago.
I suspect our mutual admiration came from the fact that we both received our doctorates from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. When I arrived at Cornell in 1972, I could not get over the fact that another Trinidadian had attended Cornell and wrote his dissertation on nationhood in Trinidad and Tobago.
We bonded further over the fact that we admired Eric Williams and were tutored through his public-political education discourses. In his major work, Eric Williams: The Myth and the Man, Ryan says: “My interest in, and fascination with, Eric Williams began in 1955 when as a post-secondary school student, I listened attentively to his famous address ‘My Relations with the Caribbean Commission’. That speech sharpened my motivation to further my education.”
After that, Ryan attended every other lecture that Williams delivered in San Fernando. I can relate to the exhilaration Ryan felt and the inspiration he derived from listening to Williams’s wisdom and learning from his scholarship. Like Ryan, I attended several of Williams’s early lectures and was inspired by them. Intellectually, they shaped who I am today.
Another indefinable thing that drew me to the other Selwyn was his teaching appointments in Ghana and at Makerere University in Uganda, where Reginald Dumas met him in 1970. I don’t know why Ryan went to teach at Makerere, but I am fairly certain that he was drawn there because of the nationalist fervour among Africans, particularly those from West Africa, who were fighting to gain their independence at the time.
After all, Ryan’s first major book, Race and Nationalism in Trinidad and Tobago, the bulk of which was written in 1967, deals with the challenges of race and nationalism in T&T in the early years of our political development. It evokes a vivid picture of the time, the personalities and the issues involved. He wrote that he wanted to offer a political history of the nation since few scholars had told the story fully and convincingly. While sympathetic to the cries of the intellectual left and their need to transform the society radically, he countered that “revolutionary violence in the Caribbean context is neither a meaningful nor a desirable alternative”.
Looking at the political scene in 1971, Ryan believed the People’s National Movement (PNM) “had turned in a credible performance, one that compares favourably with performances in other newly independent nations” in Africa, Latin America and Asia. T&T, he says, “may well seem to be a model nation”, a redeployment of The Mighty Sparrow’s description of the island when it began its Independence journey in 1962.
In Eric Williams: The Myth and the Man, Ryan contrasted the “public as opposed to the private Williams”. He says he couldn’t avoid dealing with the personality issues and that Williams may have been “psychiatrically challenged, and that his presumed illness is the key to understanding much of his contradictory and strange political behaviour”.
Like Plutarch, Ryan tried to focus on “the good, the bad, and the very bad”. In following that advice, he found that Williams “was not always the hero that the constructed myths made him out to be”. I have often wondered why Ryan felt he could diagnose Williams’s psychological condition from afar even though he was not a psychiatrist.
Eric Williams, Ryan’s magnum opus, was the culmination of an intellectual journey that started with his love of Williams’s work. I don’t think Ryan fully considered that myth is as substantial as the actual facts of a person’s life. Part of a nebulous process, it cannot be separated from one’s persona. It’s integral to what and whom a person becomes. It’s a part of that creative process. Whatever its shortcomings theoretically, Eric Williams: The Myth and the Man might be the book for which “he might best be remembered”, as Reginald Dumas says.
No one can deny the quality and depth of Ryan’s scholarship. I have dealt with his two more important works because they best exemplify his oeuvre. He was a scholar’s scholar, in that he tried to cover every aspect of his work with meticulous care. But that too has its shortcomings, in that one can miss the forest for the trees.
Trinidad and Tobago has had a long tradition of scholarship that goes back to the early 19th century with scholars such as JJ Thomas, LB Tronchin and LAA de Verteuil. In this tradition one can discern two tendencies—an empirical-pragmatic strand that is manifested in the works of Williams, and a theoretical-dialectic strain that CLR James represents. Williams, for example, would never write Notes on Dialectics as James did, nor, for that matter, would James write a major work such as Capitalism and Slavery, even though Williams drew his central thesis from James’s Black Jacobins.
Ryan, it seems to me, was more of an empirical scholar than a theoretical scholar. He was a true inheritor of Williams’s empirical approach to scholarship, which I tried to describe in “Eric E Williams: His Intellectual-Political Legacies” in Movement of the People.
Karl Marx argued that if appearances were reality, there would be no need for science. Ryan tried to cut through the appearances of our social and political condition to discover the essence of our political realities, and for that he deserves the praise and honour of his fellow Trinbagonians.
May we always remember his contributions to our society.