Q&A with Gordon Rohlehr
By Kim Johnson
Sunday and Monday Express
June 28 & 29, 1998
Gordon Rohlehr, a professor of literature at UWI, is well known for his encyclopaedic writings on calypso, as well as his many writings on other themes including West Indian literature and culture in general. Recently he has published a serialized essay in the T&T Review on Eric Williams and cultural policy. Here the Sunday Express’ Kim Johnson invites Prof. Rohlehr to expand on some of the issues he raised in the Review.
Q: Let’s discuss what we refer to as the contestation of cultural space. Could you expand on this?
A: The paper was one I was asked to do for the Eric Williams conference a year and a half ago and the title of my panel was “The Culture of Williams, context, Performance and Legacy” On the culture of Williams, I wanted to talk a little bit about what he came out of, what kind of society produced him
One asks the questions: what did Williams try to do? What kind of society did he see himself as coming back to shape? What were his notions of shaping the society?
I found that his statements around 1956 when he was dealing with the Guardian and what that represents, the interests he thought it represented. Then he was dealing with Butler and the fact that the media were saying that he was just another demagogue after the style of Butler and the enormous resentment this evoked in Williams who thought: how they can compare me to a man like that!
Butler is an agitator, the world has changed. He was relevant for that particular moment, but is no longer relevant. The type of leader that is emerging all around the world now is the intellectual. He talked about the British Labour Party, he talked about leaders from mahatma Gandhi, Gaitskell in England; Nehru. Then he looked at the Caribbean and said: We talking about men like Manley, men like Grantley Adams. You cannot talk about Butler.
I thought that was very important. It was tied up to his notion that education of a particular kind, an education in which the society would recognize the impact of colonialism, the shaping impact on the entire scenario, this education was necessary. It was his way out of multi-ethnicity, race, that sort of thing. And he felt that the PNM under him represented a genuine attempt to awaken in the society, a consciousness of our colonial status and the debilitating legacy of colonialism, among which he saw racial divisiveness. He saw that as the product of colonialism.
Q: In other words, you’re suggesting Williams saw formal academic education as a way of transcending the legacy of colonialism, which included racial divisiveness as well the individualism of society which he attacked very bitterly.
A: Oh yes! He used that word all the time. By individualism too, he tended to link it with corruption. The corruption was largely a result of each individual deciding that this was up for grabs. The population was unable to generate a set of transcendent values that went beyond individual gain.
Q: Do you think he was influenced by his reading of Naipaul?
A: Well, he brought Naipaul down to do an assessment of the Caribbean just before Independence in 1960-61. The Middle Passage was a product of that and he quotes The Middle Passage in the History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago.
Q: Conversations I’ve had with senior PNM members at the time also suggest Williams expected Naipaul to do a hatchet job against the Indians on the evidence of The Suffrage of Elvira and Mystic Masseur.
A: I don’t know. I thought that the hatchet job he wanted Naipaul to do was against the 19th century British historians, Froude, Trollope, Kingsley, that group, because Naipaul himself mentions that Williams made available to him the books of these guys.
Q: And Naipaul quoted them favourably.
A: Precisely. I’m pretty sure, although Williams did not register it openly in any way, that he thought that was just the opposite of what he intended. I think that his writing British Historians and the West Indies was in fact a reaction to the fact that Naipaul did not do the job that he thought Naipaul might have done.
Coming to another thing, the whole recalcitrant minority speech that is taken as a racist attack on the Indo-Trinidadian. If one looks at the speech itself, he’s reacting to their stance, at least of a fairly vocal group of them during the Federation debate and elections.
His rejection of them is really no different from his rejection of Butler. He’s saying that these people represent obscurantism. He says, to reject where I stand or where the PNM, to reject the position that we are bringing is to reject Nehru. He uses things like Sushit Trace, to see Sushit Trace as having more to say on this or being more relevant than such-and-such a place. He picked out rural Indian areas that for him represented ignorance, the lack of an academic grasp of the issue, to what he represented.
It seemed to be an extension of the same mentality that said that, although Butler was relevant as an agitator, he had nothing else to offer and the only reason he emerged at all, was because the middle class intelligentsia did not take up their responsibility to fight what colonialism represented.
The question is what did Williams project for the society? I think he said quite clearly that the worlds of the anthem were just a skeleton. These words really meant nothing unless the people through their communal efforts could place flesh on the skeleton, place some meaning to discipline, tolerance, together we aspire, together we achieve, flag, anthem. These were just the external symbols and they were empty. He saw a potential for shaping the society, but a potential that could not be fulfilled without the efforts of the people themselves.
But then he also felt that there was a lack of worth in what the people had to offer. The people had to be led by the intellectual class. He saw the cultural shaping and transformation of the society as being a part of he duty of that intelligentsia. Which was why when he was hit by 1970, which I think was a serious traumatic shock which questioned the notion that: I built so many more schools, I placed a lot of opportunities in your hands, why you talking about young power? Why you talking about Black Power? I brought Black Power to this place.
I remember him saying that in late ’69 in the Nation: I brought Black Power to this place through education, through widening opportunities, look you getting jobs which are being done by locals which used to be done by the British civil service. It didn’t make any sense.
There was a gap between what he intended and what he actually enacted or put in place to bring it about; and there was a gap between what he put in place and where the society was going of its own accord. I’m not blaming him for this.
Q: The first gap between what Eric Williams intended to achieve with culture and the instruments he sought to bring it about with – where do you see that gap?
A: He wants a society that has been made conscious of its colonial heritage and energized to join a fight against colonialism. That was a fight for all kinds of things. First it was a fight for the vote, then for self-government, then for Federation. At the time Federation meant the chance of independence because they genuinely believed that these separate mini-states in Caribbean would never be given independence.
That is why he was so bitter about Bustamante, about too, the Indo-Guyanese under Jagan who reacted to groups like the Guyanese Maha Sabha, the Guyanese pundits who said, we don’t really want to get involved in anything like Federation because this would mean a swamping of a majority that we already have in Guyana – take that and you become a minority right away. So Williams saw all of that as detrimental to the struggle for independence, the struggle against colonialism.
What he did to make people conscious of their colonial heritage would have been the lectures at Woodford Square. Basically that. In the end what you are left with would be Williams’s Woodford Square lectures, and I don’t think they were sufficient to convince the society that it should view itself not as a collection of different ethnic groups, but as a people who shared a common colonial heritage and a common task to fight against that heritage and build a nation out of that struggle. I don’t think he went beyond those lectures.
In terms of actual measures that were implemented under the umbrella of what was called culture, the Ministry of Culture, the first move was the creation of the CDC, which takes the administration of Carnival out of the hands of the Guardian, out of the hands of St. Claire. The Guardian committee from 1919 was a product of a St. Claire group of people. It was not downtown, it was not Belmont, and it certainly wasn’t East Dry River.
So you have the CDC, you have the steelband movement, what else do you have? Running alongside you have what I call the Woodbrook Initiative – what Beryl McBurnie was doing, what Edric Connor represented, a black-coloured middle-class attempt to relate back fairly honestly to the folk roots within that black middle-class, which was only a generation away from being working class.
It’s an attempt to get back to something that was genuine within you. In terms of the dance, you take the various folk dances, you choreograph them, and you take folk songs. Edric Connor almost redefined for the Caribbean how their folk songs were supposed to be presented. He did two or three LPs with folk music from Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti, maybe Guyana, whatever were the representative folksongs. He might have actually travelled around collecting and listening to these things and he was a very authoritative voice. He was our version of Paul Robeson, a beautiful voice. He was also an actor.
At this point you’re getting the little histories of Trinidad being written: familiarize yourself with what it means to be Trinidadian. Collections of proverbs, this kind of thing. Most of the real progress is being made by individual groups: the steelband movement is really growing of its own accord, not because of any real input coming from the state. The calypsonians are taking their own lives into their hands, they are marketing their own music, and they are moving as they have been doing from long before. But Sparrow is aligned to the PNM so it begins to look as if he is a product of the PNM rather than of his own individual endeavour.
Q: In all of this the cultural concept Williams was working with was exclusively Afro-Trinidadian.
A: Even so what was happening then was that there a huge space left open for groups that were in no way linked to the government to do what they wanted with their own thing. I didn’t see the government promoting the visual arts or dance. There’s no national dance company. Even history and research: there are no libraries and archives, very little research other than the little bit that Williams himself could do in between his political and administrative activities. There was a kind of laissez faire approach.
If you want to promote your thing, if you want to develop Indiana dance go ahead and do it, just as if McBurnie wants to develop bele, go ahead. If you want to develop an Indian drama or literature, anything – I don’t think there was any movement against anybody who wanted to promote their own ethnic culture. I think there was more a general laissez faire approach, apart from the Carnival which was a big thing which had its own political rewards and a sense of the immediacy of the rewards you could get from showing an interest in steelbands, an interest in keeping some calypsonians close to you.
I certainly didn’t see any great move to promote Indo-Trinidadian culture, but there was a general feeling that was the business of Indo-Trinidadian people. Divali, Hosay, these things were not in any way prohibited. In fact they were generally encouraged, but as something you, St. James, would do for yourself. Take parang: you got a parang association. You didn’t get any State funding for parang. You got enthusiasts who said, we can resuscitate this thing. What was done for Tobago culture until you got the House of Assembly and the Heritage Festival?
Q: At the time there was a celebration of the creole idea of Trinidad, land of calypso, land of Carnival, land of steelband.
A: Yes, because these were the forms which, feeding on their own energy and their own initiative, projected and affirmed themselves not only in the Trinidadian state but also in the outer world. People knew about Trinidad as the land of Carnival, that was a catch phrase from the 20s or even earlier. They knew about steelband, steelband had projected itself out. It wasn’t a government initiative that sent the Taspo fellas out.