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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Teach Me To Love


Dr. Lester CN Simon

A man comes to my country and accuses me and many other Antiguans of xenophobia, on Observer Radio to boot, for the whole wide world (www that) to hear. I look up the word in the dictionary. It defines xenophobia as a fear or dislike of foreigners or of people significantly different from oneself. I now think that the man’s thoughts are fundamentally and significantly different from mine because until he called me xenophobic, I assumed we were similar. The man has just made me xenophobic.

To understand the potential battle we face with Jamaicans and Guyanese, a battle we must try our best to avoid, says Bruce Goodwin, we have to be honest and call a spade a spade by calling an Antiguan an Antiguan, a Jamaican a Jamaican and a Guyanese a Guyanese. There are many ways to define us but since we are trying to avoid a war, let us regard the very best defining qualities we can say about each other and see where the logic leads us.

Let as admit that Jamaicans are some of the most nationalistic people on this planet (and probably other planets too). Their patriotism will often override the class structure that separates many Jamaicans. Jamaican-ness is so encompassing, I was awestricken the first time I was in London and heard almost all West Indians, including myself (‘to rhatid”), but excluding Barbadians and Trinidadians, talk perfectly like Jamaicans.

When we regard the social and cultural national heroes of Jamaica, it is obvious that all of them, from Paul Bogle and George William Gordon to the female Nanny of the Maroons, Samuel Sharpe and Marcus Mosiah Garvey, are largely responsible for the strong nationalism that burns in the heart of all Jamaicans.

Jamaicans travel with their nationalism. Those who were oppressed by the class structure in Jamaica find themselves in a uniquely strange position in Antigua. With the shackle of Jamaican class structure removed, some Jamaicans in Antigua not only transfer some of their nationalism to Antigua, they are shocked (“to rhatid”) to discover that Antigua brings out more of their Jamaican-ness than Jamaica itself. “Kiss me neck”!

When we think of Guyanese, we see a people running from a very divisive country that potentially is the richest in the West Indies. Guyanese in Antigua discover the naked truth that their deep longing for a country to love, without all the divisiveness, is finally satisfied. So satisfied are they (and this refers more to nationalism than to economics), they bring most if not all of the members of their family to Antigua to discover the real Guyana in Antigua. Their migration on to the USA is just a further step in this burning quest for a country to love. Hugh Masekela says in a most memorable line in a song about colonialism, “Bring the ivory and bring geography”. Some say those days are gone. Others say colony is now colonizing colony.

In the while, Antiguans do not carry the spirit of King “Prince Klass” Court or Dame Georgiana Nellie Robinson. The former would be shocked at the social and political things we put up with and the latter would die twice if she were to discover how long we take to build a national library. Regarding our other three national heroes, the best that can be said about the politicians is that we must admit and learn from their faults as we cherish their nationalistic qualities. The remaining national hero is a work in progress.

The best we can say about Antiguans is that we welcome people with open arms. Indeed, it is difficult to define an Antiguan. Antigua was once the federal legislative capital of the Leeward Islands which included Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, The British Virgin Islands, Dominica (administratively), St. Kitts and Nevis. Our Antigua, the land of neighbours, was built by many people from many of our neighbouring islands. The longstanding cultural difficulty in defining Antiguan-ness is being experienced at a time when Jamaican-ness and Guyanese-ness are being defined as never before.

In the brilliant and original work by Bonnie Honig in her book, Democracy and the Foreigner, she takes a different look at the dilemma that underlies debates about immigration, citizenship and national identities. She does this by reversing the question and asks instead: “What problems might foreigners solve for us?”

It would be awfully, fatefully and fatally unbecoming, and un-West Indian if the long awaited fight for Antiguan-ness comes about at last because our nationalistic awakening by Jamaican-ness and Guyanese-ness leads to a war. Cuffy, the revolutionary leader of the Berbice Slave Rebellion, Marcus Mosiah Garvey and our King “Prince Klass” Court would die a thousand times over.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch of that man who comes to my country and becomes momentarily decerebrate and “lick-rish” and fast with his name calling, accusing us of xenophobia. Is there a word for what happens when someone else’s love for my country forces me to finally and demonstrably love what I have always taken for granted? Some might jester and say that this long awaited Antiguan-ness is actually “xenophilia”, the love of foreigners, because of the nationalistic lessons they are teaching us. But whatever that word is, my welcomed gentleman guest, it is not, cannot, and will not be xenophobia.

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