Monday, January 09, 2006

What does "Caribbean" mean? What a vast weight of confusion & possibility & debate those four little syllables have to bear. Is "Caribbean" a geographical region defined by proximity to a body of water, by insularity (in the literal sense), by lines of latitude? Is it a group of nations or proto-nations defined by a common history or culture, or by political links? Is it an aspiration, an attitude, an illusion? Is it a definition--&, if so, is it defined by presence or absence, positive or negative?

My brain has been picking away at this knot of questions lately as I try to complete an essay for the Guyana Arts Journal tentatively titled "What 'Caribbean' Can Mean"--an essay, actually, about Caribbean Beat (one of the magazines I edit) & how it shapes & is shaped by evolving notions of Caribbean identity (i.e. another grand ratch). And, as it happens, two ostensibly unrelated blog posts I've read today seem pertinent.

First, Oso, a.k.a. Global Voices Americas editor David Sasaki, announced that Georgia has been added to the roster of Global Voices editors, with responsibility for the Caribbean--the only trouble being that they can't quite agree on which countries, for GV purposes, are Caribbean & which aren't:

You'd think it'd be easy enough. It's not. For example, with great diplomacy we arrived at the agreement that she would cover Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.... She had also convinced me to hand over Belize and Guyana ... but then I started to question ... am I getting taken advantage of here?

Sure, Belize, Guyana, they speak English. They're part of CARICOM. They have "Caribbean culture," whatever that means. But if those are our criteria, then shouldn't Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic be part of Latin America?

Oso then asked his readers for input, & the comments began flooding in (well, there were a dozen last time I checked). Many actually focused on the question of whether Mexico ought to be considered North American or Central American--a debate in which I remain studiously neutral. But I put in a claim for what I consider a broad but not unduly broad definition of "Caribbean"--incidentally, the same rule-of-thumb definition I use in my professional life--including the Spanish-speaking islands as well as Belize, Guyana--& Suriname & French Guiana. (A definition I suspect most people in the Anglophone Caribbean would agree with, but how about the other language groups?) Of course, for immediate purposes, Oso & Georgia & the GV administrators will come to some kind of compromise, & the wider question is in no danger of being answered any time soon.

Then this: in the course of a rambling post about quality of life, sustainable development, & other concerns, Taran mentioned the phenomenon that some call brain drain & others call the diaspora:

Sir Isaac Newton once said that if he saw further, he could because he stood on the shoulders of giants. But to stand on those shoulders, one must have giants. While I could focus on the lack of a public domain to lend shoulders to the Caribbean, or other Global Challenges of the Caribbean, the real issue is that the Caribbean doesn't grow giants - it exports them.

Forcefully put, & undeniably the emigration of many of our best & brightest continues to be a major problem for the region--a problem I'm super-aware of, as a citizen who has made a conscious decision to stay, while I watch friends, colleagues, & old schoolmates head off for colder, richer, more developed places. (Just last Friday night I was at a farewell party for a friend who's migrating to New Zealand.) But--with all the above convolutions in mind, with the concept of "Caribbeanness" appearing more fluid the closer I scrutinise it--I wonder if a shift in perspective might not be helpful.

What if we managed to look at this outward movement not entirely as a loss, but also as a gain? Remember Louise Bennett's phrase for the migration of the Windrush generation: "colonisation in reverse". What if we managed to convince ourselves that were aren't losing our bright young people--we're sending them off to centres of power to represent us, to spread the messages of our culture & in turn transmit to us certain tangible & intangible commodities (ideas, remittances)? What if, further, we noticed that it's not just colonisation in reverse that's going on, but also a new form of creolisation, as elements of an already hybrid Caribbean culture go forth to negotiate with other (already hybrid) cultures to create new & unpredictable hybrids? But of course these aren't abstract notions, but descriptions of what's already happening.

Even further: what if we stretch our definition of "Caribbean" just a little more, & decide that those northern cities with major concentrations of Caribbean immigrants, like New York, London, Toronto, Miami, are thus distinctly Caribbean places, some neighbourhoods more than others--& since the geographical Caribbean is already so vague that the status of whole countries is in doubt, why not circle those aforenamed cities on the map too? (Half of London is built on West Indian sugar capital anyway, & New York started out as a trading port valuable for its sea links to Bridgetown and Port Royal.)

So, in summary, & before I get carried away into even dizzier convolutions of cultural idealism or syntax, I propose we consider that: 1. a Caribbean person is any person who thinks he or she is Caribbean, & 2. a Caribbean place is a place where a Caribbean person lives, & the more Caribbean people that live in a place, the more Caribbean it is. Which would make Flatbush more Caribbean than most islands of the Lesser Antilles, but we'll leave that quibble for another night.


Anonymous said...

For another angle on the issue, see this post by Bahamian blogger/columnist Nicolette Bethel:

And welcome to Commentsville! I think you'll love it here.


Dylan said...

great post. I think about those things all the time and then throw in the bit about being born and bred in a 'Colonial centre' which only clouds the matter more. I think your last comment is close to the 21st century truth - although the quibble space will no doubt always persist. "1. a Caribbean person is any person who thinks he or she is Caribbean, & 2. a Caribbean place is a place where a Caribbean person lives, & the more Caribbean people that live in a place, the more Caribbean it is."

Anonymous said...

Absolutely right. This is one of the things that was discussed in the original CARDICIS - the 'Caribbean Identity', or lack of said subject thereof.

Myself? I'm getting ready to leave by the end of the first fiscal quarter... Once I tie up some loose ends, there is nothing tieing me here and I can easily go where interest in progress is made more concrete. The crime helped that decision, but it was really the technological, cultural and economic inertia which makes it implausible to actually move forward.

Sure, I like a mango tree in my yard, but when faced with prioritizations in what I want out of life, I want the mango tree but not at the cost of everything else. I've put in 5 years in the region, and while I may not return to the U.S., I can go to other countries even within the region which would not suffer a resident these choices.

No big loss for either myself or the country, I suppose. But after leaving Trinidad in a threadbare shirt in 1988, building myself into someone who can *do* things, I returned in 2000 - to find the fetters has actually tightened in my absence.

The wild bird dies in a cage.

Christopher said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Christopher said...

Well, I think it has more to do with how we view our island. We're not raised to view the value of our land the way I think we ought to. So those who stay and work don't have the drive to rise above mediocrity and those who leave do so because of that mediocrity and because they've the resources to do. It's a grass is greener situation.

That's why I think that those who think of leaving or those who've left and are thinking of returning should embrace technology and free software as a kind of liberation from constraints that may have drove them out. Think of how much cheaper a movie would be if was edited on oss. Maybe an author would actually stay if his books were published in e-book form or printed on-demand.

Anonymous said...

Chris... in my case, the only case of which I can speak - it's not that the grass is greener, but that the soil is more fertile.

Alice B. said...

Apparently, Harvard Jamerican sociologist Orlando Patterson has placed Brooklyn and the East Coast of the United States and the Caribbean in the same cultural cosmos.

Patterson, Orlando. 1994. “Ecumenical America: Global Culture and the American Cosmos.”World Policy Journal 11(2):103-117.

You can find it online I think but I don't know where. Gtear post!