Cultural Forms

If the export of sugar and rum changed African, Indian and European lives in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the most important Caribbean export in the 20th, (and ought to be in the 21st century), has been its culture. In no other aspect of Caribbean existence has its creativity, its refusal to accept marginality or external domination been so manifested as in its cultural production. Yet the parallel export of some of its most talented cultural producers to diasporas with inevitably decreasing connections with their countries of origin, and the increasing marginalisation of the region in political and economic terms in the global economy, means that the Caribbean’s former cultural productivity cannot be taken for granted. Too often, key productive and distributive facilities have existed only outside the region. Only in fairly marginal ways have Caribbean governments acted on the potential of the creative economy to bring value to the region, though the current growth of literary, music and other cultural festivals (Calabash, Bocas, Bim, St Lucia Jazz festival), largely in the non-governmental sector is a hugely positive development.

This overview sketches a framework for thinking about the making of Caribbean culture and its relationship with literature. The latter is seen both as a particular instance of the former and as its interpreter. It looks at how imaginative writing has brought a variety of cultural forms into closer view and revealed aspects of their meanings; used particular cultural forms in symbolic ways (e.g. the house and masquerading) and suggested ways of reading the region through its cultural forms (e.g. cricket or carnival). This article also looks at how writers have gone to non-literary forms for inspiration with respect to developing nativist and autonomously Caribbean aesthetic frameworks for literature (e.g. from reggae and calypso).

Any framework for thinking about Caribbean culture must deal with questions of origins (since almost all cultural forms have some element of their origins outside the region); historical circumstance of introduction, change and transmission (since what has happened to particular cultural forms within the Caribbean is in the end more important than where they came from); and participation (since most aspects of Caribbean culture have primary connections with one particular social or ethnic group and only some can be regarded as common property). Even where aspects of culture are widely shared, one cannot assume its meanings are common to all groups. C.L.R. James Beyond a Boundary makes this evident in the earlier development of cricket, where Whites, Blacks and Browns all played cricket, but with different roles and at different clubs.

Thus, for example, attempts to create a ‘heritage’ industry will always be highly ambivalent. Architecturally splendid houses such as Devonshire House in Jamaica or Nelson’s dockyard in Antigua cannot be separated from their associations with slavery, white privilege and imperial conquest. Kwame Dawes’ ‘Excursion to Port Royal’ in Progeny of Air makes just this point.

In terms of origins, there are forms that have survived beyond the survival of the originating group. Though there is now a significant Amerindian population only in Guyana (and significant vestigial presences in Dominica and to a lesser extent Trinidad), aspects of Amerindian culture such as food (cassava, casareep, pepperpot), hammocks, place names (Xamaica), mythology and art forms have a much wider distribution.

There are forms that are no longer associated with the originating group such as the drum and fife music from the British soldiery of the 18th century that is now only found in African-Caribbean events such as the Jamaican Jonkonnu festival. There are forms that have disappeared (e.g. South Indian firewalking) because of colonial prohibitions and forms that have stayed within one particular group and are largely unknown to others, such as chowtal singing or maticore which remain solely Indo-Caribbean.

There are forms that have spread from the originating group to the wider population such as anansi stories, folk beliefs (jumbies and duppies) and a wide range of foods (Chinese, Indian, African, Portuguese). There are forms which were metropolitan imports but whose reception and use has taken on particular Caribbean stylings (e.g. carnival, cinema, horse-racing and cricket) and, most importantly, there are forms that are purely Caribbean creations, though some of their elements may be traced elsewhere, such as steelband, reggae and calypso and chutney. Even here, though, there may be different levels of ethnic participation. Whilst many Indo-Trinidadian participate in carnival, others regard it as a display of conspicuous waste that absorbs energies better spent in more productive activities. There are, too, continuing contacts between nativist Caribbean forms and their ancestral co-parents: reggae has travelled to Africa and the USA, and rumba has moved in an Atlantic circuit backwards and forwards between Cuba and the Congo. Sometimes the relationship with origins is ambivalent. The ‘Coolie Art forms’ movement in Guyana in the 1970s-80s, for instance, stood for the valuing of local forms against the tendency amongst the Indo-Guyanese political elite to value only imported contemporary Indian forms, including Bombay filmi music.

Caribbean  discourse on the region’s culture, whether by academics, politicians or the man or woman in the rumshop (mostly, it has to be said, the man…), has had several angles of view. The anthropological study of particular groups has, for example, tended to focus on the themes of cultural persistence and cultural loss in evaluating how far groups remain connected to origins, how far they have ‘accultured’ to Caribbean ‘norms’. Much of this focus has been on Indo-Caribbeans. (See Indian Caribbeans for references). For Africans in the Caribbean, the approach has tended to assume a background of massive cultural loss, and focused on tracing survivals that were, in the past, ignored or denied. Cultural survival/loss approaches have differed over thinking about the relationship of parts to the whole: wondering whether a ‘world-view’ can exist only as a total system, (where the loss of one element is the loss of the whole), or whether the survival of some elements is more significant than the loss of others. For example, does the fact that Hindi ceased to be the mother tongue of most Indo-Caribbeans by the late 1940s mean that there was also the inevitable loss of connection to an ancestral Indian world-view? There have also been major arguments (mostly in the past) about the extent to which particular cultural patterns should be seen as existing within ancestral or predominantly Caribbean contexts. Are African-Caribbean patterns of mother-headed families African in origin or a response to the economic marginalisation of underemployed men?

The most productive approaches have bypassed polar absolutes, such as in Jean Besson’s cultural human geography (Martha Braes’ Two Histories) or in the fiction and cultural/historical writings of Erna Brodber that portray a world-view which is both distinctively African and uniquely Caribbean.

Within more sociological contexts, the debate has been about whether cultural heterogeneity is simply concerned with surface variations on top of a common social structure (where groups are integrated into key social institutions such as education and class), or whether the existence of ethnic groups with diverse cultural practices (formerly held in place by external colonial rule) threaten the postcolonial state with division. Whether in the work of VS Naipaul (The Middle Passage (1961) The Mimic Men (1967) and George Lamming (Of Age and Innocence) or in more recent work by Raymond Ramcharitar (The Island Quintet), fiction has asked searching questions about the fragmenting tendencies of ethnically plural societies such as Trinidad. 

More recent academic discourse about culture has been located within a cultural studies or semiotic framework, with a focus on signification, grammars of cultural elements and on the pragmatics of particular cultural manifestations. At the heart of this debate have been two key questions. One is about the way particular cultural forms mediate the fundamental divide between ruler and ruled. Richard Burton’s Afro-Creole: Power, Opposition, and Play in the Caribbean questions, for instance, whether carnival is a form of resistance or a safety valve, a form that facilitates accommodation to power. The second kind of focus is on the possibility of identifying certain principles or ‘master tropes’ as definers of Caribbean cultural distinctiveness. The processes of hybridisation, synthesis and the transformation of borrowed cultural elements have been seen as one way of defining the region. The hardening of this process into the ideologies of Creolité, mestizaje or the concept of douglarisation has been fruitfully examined in, for instance, Shalini Puri’s The Caribbean Postcolonial where she questions the blurring of class and cultural inequalities embedded in many uses of these concepts. As the novelist Neville Dawes frequently reminded in his critique of the tendency to reifying the process of creolisation, in comparison to the rebelliousness of African slaves, Creole slaves were already colonised persons.

Master tropes have been found in seminal studies such as Roger D. Abrahams’ The Man-of-Words in the West Indies (and more recently Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism) as part of an argument for seeing the performative, and the logocentric at the heart of Caribbean culture, rather than technology and material production. Similarly, Peter Wilson’s Crab Antics, with its argument for an overarching dialectic between reputation and respectability, has been seen as providing a key to understanding the deep grammar of Caribbean culture. More recently, discussion has focused more closely on the gendering of the meaning of cultural forms (see for instance **), and since Benitez-Rojo’s The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Post-modern perspective, it has become a credo of cultural studies discourse to distrust totalising views and hold instead that Caribbean cultural forms are inevitably unstable and fragmentary in their meanings across competing ethnicities and social formations. This is undoubtedly a positive corrective to earlier Creole nationalist versions of national culture (which tended to exclude, for instance, Indo-Caribbean cultural forms as ‘foreign’).

This returns us to the point that culture in the Caribbean is always in the end political and potentially divisive. For example, for Creole nationalist Trinidad, the trinity of carnival, calypso and steelband formed the core of a national culture that defined the country’s difference. These were, of course, the manifestations of an Afro-Trinidadian Creole culture. Indo-Trinidadians could not but feel excluded from the symbols of nationhood.

For Caribbean imaginative literature, Caribbean cultural forms constitute, in the first place, a rich textural resource for writing and provide the signifiers that denote the location of character, narrative or poetic discourse within distinct zones of time and place. Indeed, together with Caribbean nation language and Caribbean English, the texturing presence of cultural reference constitutes the most visible difference that makes Caribbean writing Caribbean.

At the most basic level, Caribbean fiction, drama and poetry contains, as a body, some of the region’s most observant and subtle ethnography. George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin, Beryl Gilroy’s Sunlight on Sweet Water, Rooplal Monar’s Backdam People and Jan Shinebourne’s The Last English Plantation are, in addition to their value as literature, essential portrayals of the culture of the village and the sugar estate. Indeed, it is the literary shaping that makes their value, as the success of the quasi-literary form of John O. Stewart’s Drinkers, Drummers, and Decent Folk: Ethnographic Narratives of Village Trinidad suggests.

Secondly, Caribbean writers have been no less concerned than cultural anthropologists with the changing characteristics or identities of their own (and sometimes other) ethnic groups. The article on Cultural Loss, discusses the prevalence, for instance, of an elegiac tone in the work of Indo-Caribbean writers from Seepersad Naipaul through to Rooplall Monar.

But Caribbean writing has gone beyond the recording and use of such observations of culture as a contextualising, texturing mechanism. It has, for example, focused forcefully on the political debate over cultural difference and national and sub-national identities. George Lamming’s Of Age and Innocence and VS Naipaul’s The Mimic Men are both foundational texts in the examination not only of how cultural difference feeds political division, but of how ethno-cultural ways of seeing are constructed. These issues have also been explored more recently in Sasenarine Persaud’s The Ghost of Bellow’s Man and Harischandra Khemraj’s Cosmic Dance. In a similar way, Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants is, amongst many other things, a powerful argument for recognising the centrality of the African presence in pan-Caribbean culture. It is also a work (along with his critical writing) that placed Brathwaite at the heart of a cultural war fought by some Caribbean academics in the 1970s who were uncomfortable with his emphasis on the centrality of Africa, around a false opposition between himself and Derek Walcott and his ‘Creole twilight’ thesis (See What the Twilight Says), a war documented in Brathwaite’s LX, the love axe/l. The issue of who can presume to speak for the region has by no means gone away.

Cultural forms have also been fashioned by writers into structural metaphors and structuring elements in fiction and drama. (See the articles on Houses and Yards, Carnival and Tricksters, for example.) In each case the focus works in multiple ways: as a defining background (the houses of Mr Biswas each place him within a particular time and cultural and social location, as do the houses visited by June Lehall in The Last English Plantation), as a formal element (in the way, for example Sam Selvon uses the three days of carnival to provide the dramaturgical stages of I Hear Thunder, or the way, for instance, that Kwame Dawes explores the persona of the trickster in Jacko Jacobus as a trope that links God, the Biblical Jacob, Jacko as a Caribbean ‘wit’ man, and reggae artists such as Burning Spear and Lee Perry as manifestations of an archetype with deep roots in Caribbean reality).

Finally, Caribbean writing has made analogical relationships to other Caribbean cultural forms as the source for both a critical and a creative aesthetic. Kamau Brathwaite’s focus on jazz, Gordon Rohlehr’s on calypso, Anthony Kellman’s work with Tuk and Kwame Dawes’ work on reggae (see Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic) are discussed in separate articles.