What we don’t know can hurt us!

Have you ever had the feeling—I’ve lived with it for at least the last thirty or forty years—that this place I often refer to as The Rock of Sages (for reasons unrelated to the Nobel) is at its core just another lump of volcanic vomit hardened by the elements and by time immemorial, and was never designed for prolonged human habitation?
Has it ever crossed your inquiring mind, as it has mine, that if in his presumed limitless divine wisdom the maker of all things great and small had created this place for other than as a stopover for birds on long-distance flights, a relief station for turtles, a playground for their friends and relatives, he would’ve provided the creature comforts still to be found lying around in great profusion in what is generally regarded as the real world? Not even when it came to the seasons did we get our fair share. We were handed just one, a leftover at that—unless of course you count hot and hotter as two.
Where other regions were blessed with manna from heaven, frankincense and myrrh, silver and gold and precious stones, what do we have? We have boulders. Monster rocks that at the smallest provocation roll down from above onto the huts of sleeping innocents below. I ask you: Why are there no deer here, no bison, no wild horses and buffalo roaming our roads, only mad cows?
Why is it that the offspring of Noah’s bipeds and quadrupeds never settled here? Even our snakes and mongoose, manicou too, our history assures us (and you may be certain we did not write it!), had to be shipped in—disease-carrying fleas, ticks and all. Also arrived here by boat were such current staples as cocos nucifera and mangifera indica (commonly known as coconuts and mangoes), not to say colocasia esculenta and cajanus cajan (pigeon peas and dasheen).
Had it not been for the droppings of migrating birds we might never have known the now endangered food items annually celebrated by bibulous natives in madras and colloquially referred to as manger gens longtemps, save for the canned variety!
And now, dear reader, you’re wondering where all of this is headed, why I am only now unburdening myself. Well, I, too, have a question, and it is: Why not now?
From all I’ve been told by friends closely connected with the spirit world, and from all I’ve read about the hypnotically induced recollections of alien abductees, there is no better way to free up the mind than by disburdening the soul. So, to return to your “why now?” question: After poring over V.S. Naipaul’s Power!, seemingly for the millionth time, I finally am left little choice but to admit, if only to myself, that no number of nasty labels placed around the author’s neck by conveniently over-sensitive souls over the years had affected the truth, however inconvenient, at the heart of his essay, first published in 1970.
Consider the following: “The Trinidad carnival is famous. For the two days before Ash Wednesday the million or so islanders—blacks, whites, the later immigrant groups of Portuguese, Indians, and Chinese—parade the hot streets in costumed ‘bands’ and dance to steel orchestras. This year there was a twist. After the carnival there were Black Power disturbances. After the masquerade and the music, anger and terror.
“In a way, it makes sense. Carnival and Black Power are not as opposed as they appear. The tourists who go for the carnival don’t really know what they are watching. The islanders themselves, who have spent so long forgetting the past, have forgotten the darker origins of their carnival. The bands, flags and costumes have little to do with Lent, and much to do with slavery.”
And this: “In the United States Black Power may have its victories. But they will be American victories. The small islands of the Caribbean will remain islands, impoverished and unskilled, ringed as now by a cordon sanitaire, their people not needed anywhere. They may get less innocent or less corrupt politicians; they will not get less helpless ones. The island blacks will continue to be dependent on the books, films and goods of others; in this important way they will continue to be the half-made societies of a dependent people, the Third World’s third world. They will forever consume; they will never create. They are without material sources; they will never develop the higher skills. Identity depends in the end on achievement; and achievement here cannot but be small.”
And this: “Black power in these black islands is protest. But there is no enemy. The enemy is the past, of slavery and colonial neglect and a society uneducated from top to bottom; the enemy is the smallness of the islands and the absence of resources.”
Sticks and stones may break his bones, they cannot reduce the facticity of Naipaul’s observations. Unsettling though they may be for some even now, they are as true today as indeed they had been four decades ago. Equally unassailable are the cautionary words of Sir Arthur Lewis, delivered at the time of the failed Federation, again centered on our size: “These islands, taken individually, are too small for attention by the World Bank, the United States Aid agencies and other sources of international assistance.”
Whatever the ins and outs in the tides of world affairs, and regardless of how loudly we might crow about our largely imagined independence and sovereignty, we can no more pretend away our size than we can the attendant undeniable consequences.
Our size remains the enemy.  And while we are at liberty to empty-talk for as long as we choose about our freedom to do as we please, all thanks to our “hard-earned” independence, there remains Sir Arthur’s sobering reminder that back in the day “the Colonial Office was fed up with the West Indies, especially after the islands had made such a mess of federation.” Britain wanted to get rid of us “as soon as possible.”
We never broke the ties that bound us together, as the Mother Country encouraged us to believe—as conveniently many of us still choose to believe despite the acknowledged irreducible fact that we were calculatedly turned loose to play in the traffic. And for daring to hold before our eyes the mirror of truth, we turned on the bearer of bad news. We labeled Saint Lucia’s first Nobel laureate “a black Afro-Saxon.” Yeah, cute!
The bottom line, regardless of how we cut it: Independence was never what in perpetual carnival mode we pretend it is. Recent events on the world stage have rendered us more than ever dependent on the demanding kindness of strangers, whether recession escapees here to enjoy ridiculously discounted rates while their cruise ships take away our water or sashaying Sodomites on the prowl for “chicken.”
Ah, but there is someone so far unmentioned who must be brought into this discourse by whatever means necessary. Witness him in the beginning: “We would walk, like new Adams, in a nourishing ignorance which would name plants and people with a child’s belief that the world is its own age. We had no more than children need, and perhaps we have remained childish, because fragments of that promise still surprise us. Then, even the old rules were exciting! Imagination was pure belief. We, the actors and poets, would strut like new Adams in nakedness where sets, costumes, dimmers, all the ‘dirty devices’ of the theater were unnecessary or inaccessible . . .”
And finally: “Every state sees its image in those forms which have the mass appeal of sport, seasonal and amateurish. Stamped on that image is the old colonial grimace of the laughing nigger, steelbandsman, carnival masker, calypsonian, and limbo dancer. These popular artists are trapped in the state’s concept of the folk form, for they preserve the colonial demeanor and threaten nothing. The folk arts have become the symbol of a carefree, accommodating culture, an adjunct to tourism, since the state is impatient with anything which it cannot trade. This is not what a generation envisaged twenty years ago.”
I take it all back: Let others enjoy their bison and their deer and their stones, however precious. Richer by far might we be, if only we knew What the Twilight Says (quoted above) and the loves and regrets of White Egrets; we who remain largely unaware of our serendipitous connection to Omeros and a certain rock in the middle of the ocean, the habitat we unconsciously share with that universally acknowledged treasure beyond measure, Derek Walcott!

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