This Thing Called Culture

This thing called Culture, and why we need to preserve it

(Previously published in The Analyst, a business-focused magazine, December 2012)

Ask anyone in the Caribbean region if they are proud of their culture and the likelihood that the answer is yes is very high and not at all surprising. Ask many of those people what they think culture means – whether West Indian culture, Caribbean culture, Trini culture, Lucian culture, Bim culture, DA culture – and the populist response, while nuanced, will also prove unsurprisingly similar. Most people will talk of the food and conversation, the tropical location and warm air (a major token of nostalgia for the emigrants in Northern metropolitan cities). They’ll talk of Carnival, the costumes, dance, and the overwhelmingly vibrant, colorful and musical melting pot. Most of all, across age, class, gender and personal interests, from Caribbean person to Caribbean person, within and outside of the region, a sense of national and regional pride in a history of individual and collective resilience and resistance takes primacy in the contemporary definition of Caribbean or West Indian culture.

That national and regional pride stands firmly in a persistent, almost naturalized, awareness of the conditions of slavery and colonialism and the effects of those histories of systemic violence on the performance of everyday life in each nation. That’s why celebrations of independence and carnival take prominent positions in the vernacular or commonplace definition of culture. Even according to major government initiatives and policies, a clear definition of that term is elusive,[1] leaving it always already understood according to the sum of its various elements, those elements that get included that is. For example, countries like Dominica and St. Vincent devote many of their cultural resources to awareness, preservation and promotion of the still-remaining indigenous people – Karifuna/Garifuna and Kalinago – who were the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the land. Other projects linked to the physical preservation of forts and other monumental edifices comprise some of the historical reflection on slavery, mercantilism and colonial settler culture as well. Then we have the things that sell: music, beaches and food. All these aspects of culture present a vision of the region that is at once rich in history and variety, but also marketable in a global tourist economy. Such a dynamic leaves Caribbean culture scholars, like myself, to ask some sobering questions about the definition and value of this thing called culture. What pieces of life matter in the cataloging of our history? And what tools and people make a reflection on collective consciousness possible?

For the past six months, I’ve spent a lot of times wandering through university and national libraries and archives in the Caribbean trying to uncover symptoms of a culture of reading being alive in the early 20th century Caribbean. As I worked so diligently to compile archival material from before World War 2 that would elucidate communities’ attention to reading, I was reminded more and more about why I was drawn to advanced study and professional life in a humanities discipline and in Caribbean literary and cultural studies. I wanted to know more about the place and the people that had so strongly shaped my own personal and intellectual perspectives. As I moved through different islands, including Barbados and Dominica, through university collections or national archives, I noticed that while the officials responsible for the preservation of Caribbean culture were ardent and genuinely invested in the contextual value of the work they preserved, that attention to ways to both collect and continue to preserve those collections into the future, especially in the digital age, were grasping for a more clearly defined vision, and increased resources, knowledge and excitement. I saw the source of this struggle in two dominant areas. First, institutions charged with the preserving and disseminating national and regional history must become more technologically in tune with long-term access and preservation methods.

Second, nationally-supported institutions, like libraries and museums, have yet to fully embrace and enact a view of history that is truly public and accessible to all types of communities[2]. I’ve written before about the ways that the classed access to literacy in West Indian colonial life has impacted the ways people engaged with literature and leisurely reading. The community’s experience with valuing elements of our political and cultural history is no different. Those working to draw attention to the influence of trade unions or the West Indies Federation on contemporary public service system (or events like uprisings in Dominica (1979) and revolutions in Grenada (1983), or the impact of the migration of West Indians to Latin America, or the impact of Marcus Garvey on islands that are not Jamaica) are among a minority of scholars, intellectuals, and enthusiasts who promote a broader definition of culture that wrestles with the populist version I’ve described earlier.

What can be done about this? Two words: technology and money. Both scholarly and corporate environments have models for digital preservation that create not just long-term preservation options for documents, but also generate opportunities for the public to become engaged with the process and products of historical preservation. UNESCO is a leading global organization spearheading site preservation, and supporting individual nations in their archival venture through initiatives like World Heritage Sites and Memory of the World in the Digital Age.[3] Very recently, the papers of renowned Caribbean author Sam Selvon, housed in Trinidad’s National Archives, were accepted into the Memory of the World Register, providing much-needed awareness to the author’s contribution to Caribbean and postcolonial literary and political development.[4] Given that some of Selvon’s titles may be in danger of out-of-print status, this is both a financial and marketing move that highlights the singular power of a small-island writer to modern British and Caribbean culture, but ignites renewed investment in teaching and learning about the author in CXC classrooms and US graduate school seminars alike. Yet works of lesser-known visionaries like Dominica’s J. Ralph Casimir, a pan-Africanist and poet who was closely aligned with the Garvey movement, are housed thousands of miles away from where locals can access records of his contributions. The prestige and rigor of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies in New York City is surely a privileged position for the Casimir collection that validates his contribution to black culture.[5] However, the fact that his name remains largely unfamiliar among the Dominican public, outside of the cultural elite, means there are questions about access and dissemination of history that require attention and commitment from those with the intellectual and material resources.

But attention to the archives – whether in government documents, slave registries, newspaper collections or small family or personal photos and letters – need not begin with a massive initiative like UNESCO. There is a role for the private sector to play in helping the relevant government and local units to build their collections from the ground up and to host events that ask for community contributions to various collections. Moreover, the investment in digital preservation technology, paired with programming and library science and archival training for existing and incoming staff, is the most important type of investment in which donors should look to support. It is critical to recruit a team of cultural scholars, IT specialists and community activists to collaborate on the vision and mission for saving cultural artifacts in national and regional contexts. It is imperative that this team has the structural and financial means to create a complex and nuanced narrative of our local histories – where do we come from, who are our unsung heroes, what stories have been forgotten, and how can we re-tell them. It is most important for the business community to help make it a truly public endeavor, helping each person in every household find some part of herself reflected in this history and use it as motivation to participate in future Caribbean development.

[1] See Bully, Anita et al. National culture policy of the Commonwealth of Dominica. Dominica: Ministry of Community Development, Gender Affairs and Information, 2007. Accessed at Digital Library of the Caribbean, http://www.dloc.com/CA00100648/00001. December 8, 2012.

[2] See “The Future of Caribbean Reading.” The Analyst. April 2012. http://www.analystmagazine.com/education/11-the-future-of-caribbean-reading

[3] For more information, see http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/register/

[4] “Sam Selvon Collection placed in Memory of the World register.” The Trinidad Express. December 7, 2012. http://www.trinidadexpress.com/news/Sam_Selvon_collection_placed_in__Memory_of_the_World_register-182620501.html. Accessed December 8, 2012.

[5] The catalog record for this collection is available at http://catalog.nypl.org/record=b11524019~S1

CC BY-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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