ONE OF THE unintended outcomes of the celebration of the 50th year of Barbados’ Independence is that it has reopened an important, and perhaps inevitable, debate on the question of the “identity” of the nation.
First it was the negative reaction to the official description of Barbados as the “freest black nation” by a Euro-Barbadian businessman, Ralph Williams, who claimed that the reference reflected a denial of the contribution of “Whites” to Barbados’ development.
This was followed by the condemnation by Barbadian historian Trevor Marshall, of an officially published calendar of “Barbadian Icons” which included among the featured personalities the psychologically damaged, self-loathing, impoverished black street character “King Dyall” who was “tolerated” in his habit of valourising European domination and for publicly referring to Afro-Barbadians, including children, as “black cattle” and “black rats”. Marshall’s pertinent question was why should such a character be included among the “icons” acknowledged in a 50th anniversary commemoration document?
Add to this the recent insistence by a female spokesperson of the Muslim community that some national regulations pertaining to the wearing of body covering violated her individual rights.
All of these questions revolve around the issues of the identity of the independent state, which are largely cultural, psychic and deeply spiritual questions. Such questions were ignored under formal Independence, which was concerned only with legal and institutional issues. These issues point to the real meaning behind Errol Barrow’s “mirror image” question, which has been avoided by the many politicians quick to repeat the phrase in its more mundane interpretation, to suit their narrow purposes.
Barrow’s question can best be answered by Benedict Anderson’s insistence that all nations are “imagined communities”. Anderson understands that there is nothing “objective” about who is included or excluded in the definition of national identity, but this is always determined by the subjective power of the groups who do the defining. Thus, nice-sounding notions of “out of many one people” are mere propaganda phrases designed to “imagine” a commonalty, when in reality some states have clear majorities suffering obvious marginalisation.
Perhaps the best answer to this question can be found in Walter Rodney’s Groundings With My Brothers, which argued that while countries like England may contain large majorities of Africans, Pakistanis and other groups, no one calls England a multi-racial society, but a society like Barbados which is more than 80 per cent African, is ideologically described as “multiracial” to deny the black majority its identity.
In short, the identity question is essentially a question of economic, political and cultural power. Perhaps the most useful thing that can come out of the reflections on 50 years of Barbadian Independence is for the question of the political, economic and cultural reconstruction of the society in the image of the majority, as recommended by Rodney, to be openly discussed and actively championed.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, specialising in regional affairs. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.