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The challenge of national identity

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The month of January each year brings memories of an important aspect of our struggle against colonialism and to reclaim our national identity. January is significant in that it marked the branding of our country under the name St Vincent. Colonial mythology had it that our country was supposedly “discovered” by one Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) on January 22, celebrated in Spain as the feast day for St Vincent of Saragossa.{{more}} Irrespective of the fact that evidence to support this January 22 “discovery” was non-existent, the brand was stuck on us to this day.

While we have found it convenient internationally to retain the name St Vincent, adding the Grenadines on accession to independent status, no such benefit derived from the January 22 shame of a public holiday to celebrate our discovery. A greater affront to the original inhabitants and the heroic Callinago and Garifuna people could not be imagined. Yet for years, the very idea of removing this stigma, as advanced by early patriots, was met with virtual hostility, not only by colonial authorities, but especially from those amongst us dearly enamoured by the trappings of colonialism.

Fortunately, the local anti-colonial movement persisted in a relentless campaign against not just the “discovery day” holiday, but the very concept itself. It forced concessions out of the Mitchell government, which ended up in the ridiculous situation of renaming January 22 as “St Vincent and the Grenadines day” or “National day” whilst retaining the shameful January 22nd holiday. It took the coming to power of the ULP administration in 2001 before that veil could be lifted.

The flip side of that struggle to erase January 22 from our patriotic calendar was an equally titanic battle to recognize March 14, the date of the death of our only National Hero, Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer, as a national holiday. That too was accomplished in 2002, with March 14 officially declared as National Heroes Day and Chatoyer given his rightful place at the head of the pantheon of our heroes. These were notable achievements in the ongoing struggle of our people to reclaim our heritage and re-instil national pride.

But there remained a lot of unfinished business. Vincentians still had the challenges of national identity to deal with, such matters as an agreed national dress, consensus on a national dish and a host of ancillary matters being unresolved. One sore thumb, in the form of the original one-sided independence flag, had been partially addressed by the Mitchell government in 1985. Unfortunately, as in the case of the “discovery day” fiasco, the project was again botched.

In January of 1985, a Committee charged with the responsibility of conducting a process for the selection of a new national flag, began its work. That Committee, chaired by “Bassy” Alexander, solicited designs from the public for a new flag, and, at the end of that democratic process, a winning selection was made. That design was done by former national calypso monarch, Sulle. But in typical autocratic style, then Prime Minister Mitchell, embarrassed the committee and insulted the nation by rejecting the choice of his own Committee, choosing instead to get a Canadian designer to re-design our flag, the one we fly at present.

So, we are saddled with a national flag designed by a non-Vincentian, implying that all those tendered in the process by Vincentian designers, including the winning one by one of our cultural icons, were simply not good enough. Is that not a blow to our national identity? We can also add that there are legitimate concerns expressed about the words of our national anthem as well, which seem to bear little correlation to our struggles for national liberation.

A spin-off from all this is the continuing public debate over the retention of awards given by the Queen of England as the pinnacle of national recognition. It is one of the areas in which there has been some indecision by the Gonsalves administration. Processes have been set in motion via committees on national awards, on national heroes and even on national dress. There has been as yet no clear conclusion.

The irony of it is that this administration, which has led the way in reclaiming national identity, is now being accused of “clutching and clinging on” to the coattails of colonialism, to quote from a section of the local press. Yet, when that government made extensive proposals for far-reaching constitutional reform, which would have enhanced the decolonisation process in a profound manner, all kinds of red herrings were strewn across the trail. We cannot eat our cake and still have it.

One can only urge the government not to abandon the constitutional reform process, to take up again and lead the march towards reclaiming national identity.

Renwick Rose is a

community activist

and social com-mentator.