A problem of identity
September 9, 2003
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A well educated West Indian of mature years once said that he felt he had the morality of a boy scout. The fact that that was not the case is of no consequence. Properly understood, what he was saying is that when he tried to examine his moral position, superficially perhaps, he felt that he had inherited many of those precepts he had learnt at school fifty years ago or in related institutions and that he was in fact a product of English culture filtered through the lens of a colonial educational system, actually at that time a system of considerable quality if one is prepared to make or accept the disjunction between the real situation in the imperial centre and the colony. The education was technically good but not fully relevant (French was taught as a first language, not Spanish, English history was taught not the history of the Caribbean) and certainly blinkered, viewing everything as it did from the point of view of the `mother country’ and leaving students with little sense of the place of themselves and their country in the real world. The British empire and its achievements were the centre of the students’ educational world. A fuller understanding came later with exposure to broader ideas (nationalism, socialism), political agitation and independence.
But the colonial experience, which in our case lasted for centuries, had a profound and lasting effect. It has left behind problems of identity and a profound self-contempt, inheriting, as we did, the colonial view of ourselves as inferior beings. Working out who and what we are has been made no easier since independence by a number of political and social crises, continual emigration and the obvious failure of the society to make meaningful progress.
We are not African, we are not Indian, we are not Portuguese, we are not Chinese. If we have been to any of those countries we know we have become different, we don’t fit in there. Though we speak English, used to know a bit about English literature and had an English-style education, with substantial modification in recent years, we are certainly not English.
Part of the problem of nation building that lies ahead is the creation of a more developed sense of identity. All the now developed nation states have done this through a process of romanticising their history and mythmaking. They created their heroes and their writers gave a positive perspective to the developments over the years. What emerged were `imagined communities’ whose citizens despite obvious continuing internal differences of class, culture, language, accent, dialect and ethnicity have an overriding sense of identity or nationhood. Most of those countries were also involved in wars at one time or another in which individuals of all classes and ethnic groups in the `nation’ fought together against outsiders to defend it, thus creating a sense of identity. There is nothing more one can do for one’s country than die for it. A war, perhaps, is the ultimate test of nationhood.
We are in the process of nation building. It has so far been difficult and painful. There is not only the internal problem of ethnic insecurity and a struggle for power, there are now major external economic developments that will put our future as an independent nation in doubt. Indeed, one of the questions that will increasingly be faced by all the Caribbean mini-states is the viability of their future as independent countries.
There are, in other words, new threats to an identity we have not yet found. Yet we twist and turn over the composition of commissions and who should sit on boards. There is no debate at all at the national political level on the road ahead and the broad options that face us, ranging from becoming a vassal of a new developing power, to being a very minor player in a hemispheric free trade area where our survival may depend on the length of the period granted for special and differential treatment, to being a member of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy, itself in danger of being overtaken by events. We are not showing the capacity of an independent nation to debate its future and there is a real danger in these circumstances that we will be overtaken by events, without being fully aware of what is happening.