In Guyana, if nothing else, we should at least have the grace to avoid belittling the poor because of the circumstances of their lives. After all, we all came, in the words of Martin Carter, “from the Nigger Yards” – whether we were of African, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese or even Amerindian origin. The last were also not spared the scorn of not being white.
But yet, from each group, there were many who clawed their way out of their degradation through sheer determination and grit, to assert their humanity. We saw this in the great movement of freed Africans to initiate the Village Movement, and in the peoples who followed them to expand “Guyana” beyond the sugar plantations. This capacity was sustained by a willingness, in modern economic language, to defer their gratification.
Today, this willingness to imbibe self-control, plan for the future, and defer gratification to ensure that the plan gets accomplished in the face of humble circumstances is fast disappearing. We are now generally living and consuming for the moment, but still want to see our lives improve over time. We want to “suck cane and blow whistle at the same time.” It can’t be done, so we end up frustrated; sink into despair, or demand handouts. Some, of course, use force and take what they want.
From whence have we imbibed this new ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude? For one, in any group, there will be some that go against the grain. But generally, it’s as a result of outside pressures and influences – cultural and otherwise. In the Caribbean, there are aspects of the dominant Creole culture that present some of these pressures and influences, and they were encouraged by those with power. And this has been part of my rejection of the assimilationist imperatives in the present dominant mode of ‘integration’. As Malcolm X said in an analogous context, “Why integrate into a burning house?”
Back in 1984, there was an International Roundtable in Guyana to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Then Prime Minister Desmond Hoyte delivered an address: “Towards 2034: A Deeper View of the Horizon”, in which he made some pertinent remarks on the refusal to live for the future. Because my assertion about Creole culture can be (and have been) egregiously misinterpreted, I quote rather liberally from Mr Hoyte’s address.
“…(O)ne of the most pernicious consequences of slavery was that it bereft the slave of a vested interest in the future by imposing upon him the need to be constantly preoccupied with the exigencies of the moment. Indeed…the African slave on a WI plantation found himself in a world without horizons. His condition circumscribed within very narrow limits not only his physical, but also his spiritual being. It deprived of the cohering and creative influences of his social organisation and his culture.
“Uprooted from his natural milieu, no longer able to fulfil his civic and religious duties, he was robbed of his spiritual points of reference. His personality disintegrated, and, in a word, he suffered “social death”. It is not to be wondered at, then, that his outlook was little informed by any curiosity beyond the immediate, by any speculation about the distant future.
“And so, lacking a social motive, he developed no interest in, or aptitude for, making long-term arrangements. Moreover, the colonial polity which succeeded the era of slavery did not provide the former slave and his descendants with significantly greater incentive or opportunity for cultivating these pursuits. Thus there persists in our society, even to this day, a reluctance to focus too intently on the future.
“It is critically important, I believe, that we should analyse and understand this phenomenon of our lack of interest in the future, and our failure generally to plan in a serious, methodical way with respect to it.”
While Mr Hoyte’s address focused on the need for planning at the country and international levels, it is important to note that he grounded the fundamental lacuna at the individual level. And it is here I believe that, in the present, thirty-four years after his warning, we must begin. The question is, “Can we teach our selves how to live for the future, to create the ‘good life’ for all?”
The evidence of the forty-eight thousand descendants – more than half of the freed slave population who quit the plantations within one decade after the Apprenticeship Scheme to found the Village Movement mentioned above — shows that if the opportunities are there, our people will seize them. They turned the “straw” of abandoned plantations to “gold”.