I had only recently set up residence in New York in the early Sixties when I eagerly accepted an invitation to lunch on a Saturday with my publisher and mentor Joe Weider, alas now dearly departed. Afterward, he purposefully offered to drive me to my Columbus Avenue apartment aboard his recently acquired cerulean Caddy convertible, via that section of lower Manhattan known as the Bowery—named for the street that in the late 1600s had been the road to Peter Stuyvesant’s bouwerij (farm).
As we approached a particular set of traffic lights Joe casually, and without a word, lowered the car’s roof and raised its tinted windows. I soon discovered why. The lights had barely turned red when, seemingly out of nowhere, like Hollywood vampires, a dozen or so black-fanged, filthy hirsute bodies descended upon us, hammering the vehicle’s windshield, its sides and hood with clenched fists, most of them clutching in their free paws brown paper bags of different dimensions, out of which poked dripping beer cans and bottle tops, capped and uncapped.
“What the . . .” I started to shout as the lights changed again and the Caddy got underway. “What was that about, Joe? Who are these people? Is that what you New Yorkers consider street theater?”
Joe chuckled. “Welcome to the land of the free!”
“And the home of depraved . . .” I muttered.
With just a hint of a knowing smile, Joe went on: “Ever heard the Janis Joplin line about freedom being ‘just another word for nothing left to lose?’ I wanted to give you a glimpse of total freedom. Rockefeller, with his countless millions, is not nearly as free as those bums. They could’ve smashed my windshield or spat on my car or broken bottles on the hood . . . what could I do? Stop and make a report to the cops? To what avail? What’s left to lose when already you’ve lost your soul, whether to drugs, cheap booze and God knows what else?”
Joe had his own peculiar way of teaching me life’s important lessons: mostly by affording me the opportunity to live them. If over the years I had forgotten a couple, rest assured my long ago discovery of the worm at the heart of Mayor Lindsay’s polished Big Apple was not among them. Over and over during the recent holiday weekend the worm wriggled in my head as I stayed in touch with the official activities to mark the birth of Saint Lucia as a free nation (thanks to Da Jade’s on-the-minute social media dispatches and to live coverage provided by our notoriously analytical TV and radio stations. “Bravo to the media!” squealed the prime minister’s ever-ecstatic press secretary at one juncture. “All roads lead to Independence City.”)
What a numbing irony that the 36th year of our Independence had found our tribe as much at war as we had been throughout the years leading up to the unforgettable explosions of 18 July 1979, barely 90 days before our advertised second emancipation from foreign domination.
Power to the people who had dreamed up the clever theme for the nation’s latest birthday party: “The Journey.” Undeniably the journey continues, I dare to say, with the unwitting sacrificial lambs of our two political parties still hell-bent on hell-bent on wiping out one another, at every opportunity shamelessly declaring themselves murderers, thieves, rapists and child molesters!
The war casualties had never mattered. Not in 1979 and most certainly not now. Only winners-take-all ever did. The same caring citizens who had inspired anti-Independence chaos including the near burning down of the island’s only prison in its earlier location, and set off bombs in the night; who had not-so-subtly threatened the safety of the royal visitors and residents on the big occasion, yes, these same costumed characters could barely wait to shed their secondhand US Army fatigues in favor of expensive Savile Row suits, the better to impress Kurt Waldheim (later to be declared a Nazi sympathizer!) at the UN ceremony to mark Saint Lucia’s newly bestowed independent-nation status.
This was independent Saint Lucia’s foreign affairs minister (earlier leader of the island’s anti-Independence movement) addressing for the first time the General Assembly of the United Nations: “My delegation wishes to extend the sincerest thanks of the people and government of Saint Lucia to all those who were so instrumental in making it possible for Saint Lucia to take its seat within the portals of this august body. We are aware of the obligations and responsibilities that are attendant on membership and are fully committed to upholding the ideals of the United Nations and pledge to continuing to foster the spirit of good-neighborliness and international cooperation in a peaceful world for the betterment of the peoples of the international community.”
Free at last! Free at last! Free to deliver hollow speeches before condescending white audiences; free to borrow till the chickens came home to roost; free to purchase expensive real estate in the world’s most expensive cities; free to maintain useless armies of vultures at overseas missions beyond our means; free to pretend we are what we know we are not and can never be; free to party nonstop, all of it paid for with borrowed money, the borrowers oblivious of that inevitable day of reckoning.
We were also free to come together as never before, free to unite our efforts at making something of our newly independent nation. We chose instead to exercise our freedom to be drunk and disorderly; to mislead the maneuverable uneducated and deprived and hungry; to permit every once revered institution to wither and die from the effects of official denunciations. Not even church leaders were safe from our nation’s post-Independence leaders.
Recently I rediscovered among my papers a document in the form of an exercise book, conceivably published in commemoration of the 1971 equivalent of Independence Day—a gift from a generous someone long forgotten but now more than ever appreciated. Its front page featured against a green backdrop what today is an amateurish rendering of the pre-Independence flag of Saint Lucia, under the capitalized word: DEVELOPMENT. At the bottom of the page, in deep red and also in caps, ST. LUCIA! The introductory message was by none other than the recently departed Hunter J. Francois, Minister of Education & Health in John Compton’s UWP government.
It began this way: “Development Day! Mighty highways, modern bridges, harbour and airport expansion, huge luxury hotels, numerous factories, rising trade, new housing estates, increased agricultural production . . . are all immediate images conjured up by the term development. It may be timely to remind fellow St. Lucians that the ultimate goal, and that which gives legitimacy to the sacrifices made in the interest of development, is human welfare.
“It is the welfare of the people that gives meaning, purpose and point to these. They are mere indices, the measure of whose worth is to be found in human happiness and the extent to which they help to alleviate misery and suffering and to minister the fulfillment of the aspirations of our people.
“If Development Day is a mark of our increasing maturity and greater self-confidence, we should never forget that development is a means to an end—the emancipation of ourselves from the chains of ignorance and superstition, poverty and penury, disease and dependence. What we seek is a finer quality of life for everyone; and this occasion emphasizes that the groundwork has been laid; that the opportunities are here, and he who fails to grasp them must not be heard to grumble.
“When the hustle and bustle, excitement and hilarity of Development Day shall have long been forgotten, when the many booths depicting St. Lucian efforts in the field of agriculture, industry, education and health have been demolished, one little gem will remain to remind us of this memorable occasion: this Development Day booklet . . . The articles that follow tell a tale, not only of economic growth, but also of a culture rich in folklore, poetry, music, painting and drama, a vernacular with a wealth of idiomatic forms and usages.
“To have produced a Sessene to give new life to our folksongs, a Walcott to give international recognition to our poetry, a Simmons and St. Omer to remind us of the beauty of nature and our homeland is an achievement worthy of the Helen of the West Indies.”
Fellow contributors to the Development Day booklet of 1971 included the legendary local (white, by the way!) historian B. H. Easter; newspaper editor J. H. Pilgrim; music teacher and folk singer Joyce Auguste; Jones Mondesir; the Bishop of Castries Charles Gachet; Archdeacon Harold Stead; the Rev. Errol C. Wiltshire; Father Charles Jesse—who penned the lyrics to our national anthem—and Dunstan St. Omer who needs no introduction. As for the island’s economy in May 1971: “St. Lucia has experienced an average annual growth rate of 10 percent,” (yes! yes!) according to the Development Day booklet of 1 May 1971.
Fast-forward to sixteen years later, to the 1987 budget presented in the House by Prime Minister John Compton. (The Labour Party had returned to its opposition home 1982—a disgusting story of deceit and self-destruction and betrayal of trust!) The island had registered a growth of 6 percent, “the highest since 1979 and one of the highest in the entire CARICOM region.”
There were also the storm clouds: Observed the prime minister with obvious great concern: “Honorable Members will note the already high cost of administration continues unchecked, and demands completely unrelated to this country’s ability to pay continue to be made. Since 1981 the cost of administering the public services has risen from $39 million to $97 million, an increase of $57.7 million, or 145 percent over a six-year period, this at time when all other countries are reducing cost . . . Since 1979 the governments of both parties have been attempting to buy industrial peace by borrowing ourselves into bankruptcy, the consequences of which we will suffer.”
He offered a breakdown: monthly-paid employees: $3.5 million. Daily-paid employees: $3.486 million.
“Loans have to be repaid,” said the prime minister. “We have now a situation in which two of our CARICOM countries are unable to borrow from the Caribbean Development Bank of which they are members. I am sure no Honorable Member, indeed no one in Saint Lucia, however ill-disposed toward this government, will wish this misfortune upon our country. But this can happen unless firm action is taken to restrain public expenditure. The cost of servicing the public debt has risen by $8 million in one year from $15 million in 1986/87 to $23 million in 1987/88.”
Say no more. I need not remind of the nightmarish insatiable fiscal predator that long ago broke away from Compton’s chains to prey on the defenseless populace. Already we are only too familiar with the details. So what does our prime minister tell us over the generated irrational exuberance at the heart of the recent Independence celebrations? I warn you, dear sensitive reader, hold your nose.
He begins with a long drawn-out account of our bloodline: “Dutch, English, French, Irish,” [which makes us all white to some degree] Yoruba, Fang” blah-blah-blah. “We are a fine blend of global heritage and today we hold hands proudly as one people, one Saint Lucia. On this day, let us together with one mighty voice shout Happy Birthday Saint Lucia.”
For a while I got the feeling our prime minister was reading from a script written for Ezi Hall. “Today Saint Lucians around the world, in every city, in every state, can join us and proclaim with good reason: ‘I love the land that gave me birth, I love the land that gave my parents birth [not all of us, some of us had parents who came from Sussex to operate local plantations!], I love each village . . .”
Yes, a silly condescending speech, more appropriate to Emancipation Day, that was about to take a vicious turn: “And so our sons can say it with song and our daughters can celebrate with dance and all of us can show it in our brightest and most elegant of national colors, all can salute our flag and say Saint Lucia is truly love.”
On the other hand: “Some of us may wish to remain stuck in the negatives; in the divisions. But we cannot and must not be a nation of despair and depression, as a few would want us to be.” It would not do simply to say, in the name of national unity, that although we may have our differences we share a common goal that we should all strive for. Oh, no. Not with general elections in the air . . . at any rate, the sound of general elections. Not with the nation over-run by “the economic class.”
Embracing the high-school lecturer in his soul, the prime minister went on: “Man was built for walking; built to journey. We walked out of Africa and conquered the world.” And all this time we’ve been telling our kids how their ancestors were dragged in chains aboard slave ships to work like mules on massa’s plantations, whether in Alabama or in River Doree or Dennery.
He went on: “Today is a special day and many of you have made the journey here this afternoon to celebrate Saint Lucia and many more will flock to these grounds to party.” Of course, some of us were inexplicably losing their young lives in the nearby ocean but with the party mood dominating the atmosphere, who knew? Others in places without water, places with roads built only for walking and for bikes—not fire trucks—were soon to lose their homes to mystery fires destined never to be resolved.
But about such “despair and depression” the prime minister knew nothing. So in relation to the drowned four-year-old the prime minister had nothing to say: Not a word, not a word, not a word! (By Wednesday he had once again gotten the hell out of Dodge, and left Sheriff Emma in charge. Chances are he had no idea how many at Lastic Hill had suddenly been rendered homeless.)
He addressed instead Independent Saint Lucia’s dependence on Bolivia and Venezuela and Iran. “For those who have come to Vieux Fort along the East Coast Road,” he went on, “you would have crossed the newly completed ALBA bridge built by the generosity of the Venezuelan government . . . We received 7,000 laptops for our children and it was a joy and an honor to witness” the handing of the handout to students at a Grand Riviere school.
Yes, a joy and an honor! But enough. Already you must’ve compared our prime minister’s Independence Day address with that delivered by Hunter Francois on the recalled Development Day. And doubtless you’ve arrived at your own conclusion about how far we’ve moved since 1971—forward or backward!