A few years ago, I wrote about an animated discussion my son initiated about the poet Olive Senior, whose “Gardening in the Tropics” was an assigned school text. The Jamaican, a person of mixed heritage, had used the activity of gardening as an extended trope to analyse the brutal colonisation of the Caribbean by the Europeans, and their influence in the formation of our identities.
I was reminded of this point on Emancipation Day, since colonisation had led to the importation of indentured labourers, which had further complicated the identity question.
Gardening, Senior points out, does involve “rooting out”, discarding”, “cultivating”, “nurturing”, “grafting”, “hybridity”, and so many activities that are also at work in cultures and relationships in the construction of identities.
We have all been, and continue to be, “cultivated”, whether we like it or not: the point is, to cultivate agency. Even when we were uprooted from homelands in Asia, Africa and Europe, we were all already “hybrids” that had been variously constituted.
The North Indians of the Bhojpuri belt, for instance, were the detritus of continuous invasion for thousands of years, of which the Moghul invasion and its Islamic world view was only the most extensive. The music and the religions of the people were dramatically “cross fertilised”. The British presence in the century before the end of Indentureship had already begun to have its impact, if for nothing else than the famines that made millions hungry and homeless, and willing to seek their fortunes across the “Kala Pani”.
In the Caribbean, Indian, Portuguese and Chinese indentureds would encounter the Africans, who had been subjected to hundreds of years of European imposition of culture and religion, forcibly and not so forcibly. While, against all odds, the Africans had retained elements of their West African cultures, as Brackette Williams points out, the European “transformist” hegemony permitted only innocuous retentions that were derided as “low class”.
The Africans were expected to inculcate “English culture”, even though their humanity was denied, and by definition they could never be “English”. This was interesting, since most of the overseers they interacted with were lower class Irish and Scottish persons.
The indentured servants inevitably imbibed elements of Creole culture from the African creoles, who preceded them in the plantation, and who were expected to “season” them into the new dispensation. Note the “patwa” (patois), for instance, of the rural Indian.
Out of this experience, we were told at Independence that we were “One people; One Nation; One Destiny”. However, in Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean, the ruling parties with practitioners of “Creole Culture” sought to counter the European transformist hegemonic cultural imposition with ideologies that privileged the formerly “low class” African culture as the “root” of the tree of “national culture”. The “one nation” was to be a “Creole Nation” with pan and calypso emblematic in TT and imitated in Guyana.
The transformist hegemonic project was now applied by the Afro-Creoles to Indians in TT, Guyana and Surname, and was intensified with later radical pushing of “Black Power”, “Negritude” and “Pan Africanism”.
But reviewing the broad sweep of Caribbean history, Senior sought to make the point that there is no “pure” origin, and no “one root” that we can discover on which to construct our Caribbean identity. She borrowed the metaphor of the “rhizome” – with its multiplicity of roots, that privilege no one root — for Caribbean identity from the Martiniquean Edouard Glissant. With this expansive hegemonic vision, he was consciously reacting against the constructs of “negritute” and “hybridity” that been proposed to describe French Antillean identity. The first excluded all others, such as people of Indian origin and the French, and the latter still privileged the “African root”.
Rhizomatic identities incorporate all identities equally, and allow all groups in the society to express their specific interests, resolve contradictions, and fully develop the society.
A text like “Gardening in the Tropics” should help our young people move away from the binary of “African” and “Indian”, which enviably creates divisions, and towards a more fluid, permeable conception of self, in which “Guyanese” can be a mosaic rather than an hierarchical strata of dominator and dominated.