The Enigma of Independence
Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood
I should be ashamed to report that some years ago I asked another West Indian national if we could exchange nationalities. The negative response was not because my friend declined to accept my nationality. It was arguably that it was six of one and half a dozen of the other. We are all the same, one West Indian people with similar cultures, politics and problems. I beg to differ.
Can it be the wrong premise that to become a West Indian and embrace a West Indian nationality I have to first become and express my island nationality? As a musician, I am aware that I have to be able to express myself well on my individual instrument before I can join, understand and really enjoy the collective sound of an orchestra.
What then do I do when I find myself in need of West Indian nationality whilst I am trying to find and come to terms with my island nationality? How can I be part of an orchestra when I, like many of the other players, am still learning my basic craft? This is where many of us find ourselves on the twenty ninth anniversary of our independence. As we write and re-write our political and cultural narratives we are arguably the most assorted West Indian nation per square mile.
The struggle for nationality and its expression post-independence is being pitched against the expressions and livelihoods of the masses of West Indians and other nationalities in Antigua and Barbuda. It’s a very delicate battle that can be lost easily on both fronts. And like all battles, strategy is essential for victory.
We are upset over the way many of our guest Caribbean nationals were shuttled and chaperoned here to alter the political landscape. Ironically, many of our politicians have little regard for and pay scant regard to them, except for their voting fingers. We argue a strange logic that says essentially that we can be bribed at elections but they shouldn’t. This is probably a corrugated corollary of the warped philosophy that some parents can beat their children (almost to death) but that these same parents should not even raise their voices at strangers.
Our guest Caribbean nationals are already here, regardless of how and why some of them bang water to come here. In life and in dominoes, you have to play the hand you have. After a while, when you will have exercised and exorcised your point, you have to, as the English say, “get on with it”.
In getting on with it, we have to escape the paradox trap set for us. We cannot afford to decry and debase our guest Caribbean nationals in order to praise and purify our nationalism. If we do, we will end up losing the soul of the very nationalism we seek to find, declare and display. And then we will end up like those who set the trap in the first place; indeed worse. The plotters will laugh and point with giddiness and say, “See, they don’t love Caribbean people. They don’t even love their own selves”.
Good strategy and tolerance in a democratic state inform us that we should contend with ultra-nationalists who blindly see nothing and no one else. We will also have among us our native, Caribbean nationalists who by dint of travel, family, thought or otherwise will tell you that they have long gone beyond island nationalism, to the greater, more laudable, aesthetically enriching and economically rewarding Caribbean nationalism. But what of those, like swing voters, caught between two extremes, in two minds or with no mind on the matter at all?
National identity (and indeed West Indian nationality) begins in the mind and becomes culture when the expressions of the mind lead us to create, modify and inhabit the world around us. If this identity is perceived to be under threat, nationals will rally around it. Many Antiguans and Barbudans fear that we will end up last and lost as we redefine ourselves as the greatest assortment of Caribbean nationals in the smallest place. But rallying around the West Indies will force us to more clearly identify and crystallise who and what we really are. Maybe in doing so we will disabuse ourselves and others of idealistic notions of nationalisms, island and West Indian.
In the orchestra, steelband or other, there is constant dissonance and consonance (musically and otherwise) to remove inertia and give momentum to the music. It is within the orchestra that the true musician really begins to find and harness that individual voice. You are forced to listen to all others as well as your insular instrument, at the same time. This dialectic gives birth, with all its pangs and damns, to the epiphany that you can only find yourself in others. Independence becomes meaningful only when you selflessly accept this enigma.