THE WEST INDIAN PEOPLE

First isolated by a lack of common idiom, this humanity made a bid for possession of the language, exposed utterly and naked to the process of being possessed by all the conceptual and poetic possibilities of the language that would become their new possession. Supervising this complexity of learning to be a new man in a new place, was an authority whose home was elsewhere, be it England or France. Hence the additional isolation increased further by the arrangement whereby islands under the same European powers were breeding political institutions which represented different stages of development. A fictitious and calculated difference! And feeding on this spiritual swamp was the inevitable virus of class, breeding another fiction of distance within the same island.

This political isolation of territories, matched by an inward exile in each, found a common and contradictory frame of reference. Deprived of the reservoir of history each had in common with the other, all in their different ways entered into a psychology of expectations whose melancholy rewards had to be sought outside. Herein lies the seed of a psychic shame; and shame is a revolutionary sentiment. Those who talk easily about the complacency of the West Indian middle classes should pause and reflect. I think there are insane tensions contained under that exterior of a leisurely and frivolous assurance. I am sure the strangest demons patrol their sleep.

Speaking from the detachment of four thousand miles the young writer, Orlando Patterson, has observed that the insecurity of this class derives, not merely from a defect of colour, but is based “more on the complete lack of anything positive in their lives; on the boredom of their bureaucratic occupations; and on the gradual realisation that the status symbols they have acquired with such zest from Europe and more recently from America can never make up for the nullity of their existence”.

What activities make up this existence? In recognition of some service, we must remark that they are also the class who heal our sick and teach our children. Many are trained, it is true, to encourage the poor in expensive dramas of litigation; while there are others who earn their living by the art of removing human teeth. In other words, they are the examples of whatever education and skill we may have; and it is common knowledge the world over that they are excellent raw material for training. They often do very well in whatever departments of study they choose. But as a class they own nothing except their brains. In Europe or North America, their equivalents are directly connected to the pipelines of power. There, they may own banks and the machinery of public services, they may own the factories and the fields. In the West Indies, this class cannot add these things to their list of possessions. Alienated by the psychological demands of their education from the masses below them, they are also exiled from the regional peaks of the economy, from whatever fruits of wealth their brains and training would have earned them in different circumstances. And so, their only castles are the limousines that get longer with each increase of income, and all the other apparatus of convenience which makes for modern living.

In their own home, they have had to take not a middle but a back seat while other men, in no way superior to them in fact or potential, give the ultimate directives about petroleum and bauxite and sugar. Here is a humiliation that goes deep; a humiliation which no abstract independence can heal. No change of flag or anthem can stem this spiritual bleeding of men who have nothing to celebrate but a raise in salary. Hence Derek Walcott’s cry:

I cannot right new wrongs

Waves tire of horizon and return

I watch the best minds root like dogs

From scraps of favour.

The vocabulary of politics has changed but the politics of their lives remains the same. Conditioned by the laws of charity, they have never truly believed in their right to the authentic seats of power. They have been pleased to trespass within the orbit of power; but to seize that power itself is a matter of fear and trembling. What journeys have they ever made, what journeys are they likely to make that would demand the exercise of personal discipline, a discipline at once exacting and consistent. Is my ration of faith too large if I say that here is no cause for despair? If the tragedy of this class – for it is a predicament which, however rich in occasions for anecdote is not at all funny – if this tragedy can be charted and located in their historical development, then their redemption may also be won by the future history of our national choices.