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Finding the right story

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Last week, I wrote about confronting the stories that still determine how people see us and how we see ourselves. The questions of identity and image are at stake. I am suggesting that although a lot has changed since Independence, much is left hanging as we try to avoid confronting them. Slavery is still a bad word and we fail to grasp how much of the colonial child we still are. But really, how do we see ourselves? Are we still dependant on foreigners telling us who we are and appreciate what we have only when they have sounded their approval?{{more}}

I first became conscious of this issue when, as a student in Canada, we Caribbean students were expected at outings to limbo and to sing ‘Yellow Bird’ and all of those songs that seemed to define who we were. I remember our first activity when we were called upon to do the limbo, but none of us had done it before, because it was something associated only with the tourist spots. On one outing, we sang ‘We Shall Overcome One Day.’ I don’t know if this was done consciously, but it would appear that we were trying to redefine ourselves and present a different image.

I had read Derek Walcott’s Acceptance Speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Something he said has always resonated with me. It had to do with how tourism was defining us. Derek stated: “… in our tourist brochures the Caribbean is a blue pool into which the republic dangles the extended foot of Florida as inflated rubber islands bob and drinks with umbrellas float towards her on a raft. This is how the islands from the shame of necessity sell themselves; this is the seasonal erosion of their identity, that high-pitched repetition of the same images of service that cannot distinguish one island from the other, with a future of polluted marinas, land deals negotiated by ministers, and all of this conducted to the music of Happy Hour and the rictus of a smile. What is the earthly paradise for our visitors? Two weeks without rain and a mahogany tan, and, at sunset, local troubadours in straw hats and floral shirts beating “Yellow Bird” and “Banana Boat Song” to death. There is a territory wider than this – wider than the limits made by the map of an island – which is the illimitable sea and what it remembers.”

This I found very profound. ‘This is how the islands from the shame of necessity sell themselves.’ Our islands are a paradise for visitors, acquiring a mahogany tan and listening to our local troubadours belching out the irrepressible ‘Yellow Bird,’ among others. He maintains that there is a territory wider than this. Walcott goes on to say that the Caribbean is not an idyllic for its people. In other words, it is not a paradise for most of us. We seem to be forgotten in the whole equation, as we take fourth place to the sun, sea and sand. So, we import white sand. Apparently, visitors cannot enjoy our black sand. Our people work hard trying to survive, so although the Caribbean might be a paradise to some living on it, for the majority of us it is not. It is said that beggars can’t be choosers. The beggar will have to cast off that image and be guided by a different story, or he will always be denied a choice. He might not be able to do it by himself, but he is part of a society, isn’t he!

All of this is not meant to be a criticism of tourism per se, but a comment on how we go about selling ourselves and preparing to welcome the tourists. I hate it when people say that we have to keep Kingstown clean for the tourists and that we need to have toilet facilities so that the tourists can be comforted. We need to have these without doubt, not for the tourists, but for ourselves. Once we put things in place to make our country more habitable and satisfying to ourselves, the tourists will come and enjoy what we have.

I came across this piece recently. It was an advertisement inviting people to come to SVG to lime. It states, “Actually whether you opt to lime on a powdery white beach, around the pool or in a hammock shaded by palm trees there is nothing really serious about liming.” Sometime last year there was an effort to push ‘liming’ as a serious tourism product. Do we want to create an image of welcoming people here so that they can do something that is not really serious? Are we the world’s plaything?

Let us listen again to Walcott: the Caribbean’s peasantry and fishermen “…are not there to be loved or even photographed; they are trees who sweat, and whose bark is filmed with salt, but every day on some island, rootless trees in suits are signing favourable tax breaks with entrepreneurs, poisoning the sea almond and the spice laurel of the mountains to their roots.” Then he says something which might mean little to politicians fixed into a five-year time slot but which should be the concern of anyone thinking about the future of our Caribbean civilization.

Here is Walcott again, “A morning could come in which governments might ask what happened not merely to the forests and the bays but to a whole people.” Can we not create positive images and ‘stories’ that will dignify our civilization and form a base for our survival in a globalised world? Do we have to prostitute ourselves in order to find a place in the global village?

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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