A crisis of national identityA crisis of national identity
Independence is about celebrating Barbados. Celebrating who we are and what it means to be Barbadian. Celebrating our freedom from colonial rule and oppression. Celebrating the birth of the nation state of Barbados which gave us self-determination in the conduct of our affairs. Celebrating our achievements in pursuit of the overriding national development objective to make Barbados a progressively better place.
The celebration, however, should include sober reflection on our shortcomings to gain a balanced picture and better appreciation of our overall progress since Independence. Engaging in such an exercise can be a humbling experience. It would serve to remind us that no matter how good we think we have become, there is always room for improvement and still considerable way to go towards becoming the good society which we aspire to be.
When Barbados became independent on November 30, 1966, Independence as a concept had more relevance and significance. While it was always practically impossible for any country to achieve full independence, a reasonable degree was possible. The global environment at the time was more conducive. The world today, however, is a fundamentally different place. Globalization fundamentally challenges the meaning of Independence, especially the sovereignty aspect.
At the time of Barbados’ Independence, the world was divided into two rival blocs which were equally as powerful, at least from a military perspective. One bloc, led by the United States, was known as the West. Affiliated countries had democratic political systems and economies based on capitalism. The other bloc, known as the East, was led by the former Soviet Union which had political and economic systems based on the Marx and Lenin-inspired model of communism.
It was then a “bipolar” world. Today, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent demise of the East a quarter century ago, we live in a “unipolar” world led by the United States as the sole superpower, but with declining influence. A reconfiguration of global power has seen, for example, the rise of China to international prominence. In 1966, China was basically a poor, isolated, relatively unknown country.
Besides the two blocs, there was a smaller group of countries – still in existence today but no longer as active – which called itself “non-aligned”, meaning countries took their cue from neither the Soviet Union nor the USA. So that when the Right Excellent Errol Walton Barrow, our first prime minister, addressed the United Nations on behalf of Barbados for the first time and boldly declared that we would be “friends of all, satellites of none”, he was essentially articulating a non-aligned position.
I was just six years old when Barbados became independent. However, I vividly recall the great excitement which prevailed at the time, at least in my St Philip community. Barbados brimmed with optimism about the future. Barrow’s inspiring leadership gave Barbadians the confidence that, despite our island’s small size and associated limitations, we had what it took and were resourceful enough to make the Independence project a success story. We generally did, as any critical assessment of the past 49 years would confirm.
As we look towards next year’s milestone 50th anniversary for which Government is planning a year-long celebration, the generally downbeat mood in the country stands in sharp contrast to 1966. Much of the pessimism stems from a fairly wide perception that the country is adrift because it no longer has inspiring and effective leadership to show the way as Barrow did. Such leadership is critical given that Barbados currently stands at a crossroads in its development journey.
Perhaps the biggest challenge which Barbados faces today relates to what has become a somewhat blurred sense of identity. There is an abundance of evidence suggesting that Barbadians today, unlike at Independence, are confused as to who we are and what we represent. If you observe the behaviour of some of our young people, for example, especially their style of dress, their language of communication, their fascination with drugs and the tools of violence, you easily form the impression that they somehow see themselves as belonging to some depressed US inner city or Jamaican ghetto.
Adults, many of whom adopt a holier-than-thou attitude when criticizing our young people, are in some ways no better. Their obsession with materialism – acquiring the biggest house, the fanciest car and brand name consumer goods which they somehow believe define who they are but land many in needless debt – reflects the North American lifestyle being vigorously peddled around the world under the aegis of globalization.
It is a lifestyle which Barbados, on its limited resources, cannot sustain. We had a clearly defined sense of identity in the first 25 or so years after Independence. It was given strong expression, especially at a cultural level, in the form of Spouge – our abandoned national beat –, a vibrant music industry that was supported by numerous bands across the country, regular indigenous theatre productions, and the writing of poetry, plays, short stories and books which captured the Barbadian experience.
“Know thyself,” advocated Socrates, the famous ancient Greek philosopher. Knowing who you are, resulting from a clearly defined identity, can be a source of immense power. When we know who we are, we are sure about ourselves, what we stand for, and what we want. With a strong sense of identity, we can effectively resist attempts by others to define us to suit their agenda and have us sing according to their tune. In many ways, this is the predicament facing Barbados today.
Clearly defining ourselves can only come from a profound understanding and appreciation of our history, so that we are certain about who we are, where we have come from, where we are at, and where we are going. We are in the current predicament because, in our quest for modernization in the name of development, we effectively turned our backs on what traditionally defined Barbados, especially the standards and values which underpinned village life.
Retention of these good practices – showing love for each other, practising thrift, doing a lot with a little, practising self-sufficiency, supporting each other to advance our mutual development, etc. – would have provided a strong platform for moving Barbados to an improved level of development. Integrating these features into our development model would have allowed it to be a true reflection of the Barbadian spirit and character.
My prayer, on this 49th anniversary of Independence, is that we will be led by the Lord who “has been the people’s guide for past 300 years” to rediscover our soul, which is the essence of who we are, so that we would not wish to be anybody else in our quest for improvement. Being the overarching institution which sets the national tone, Government must take the first critical step.
It must come up with a clearly-defined national information and cultural policy which we have never really had. Why is it necessary? It will provide the necessary framework for returning to our traditional roots and rebuilding the Barbadian identity. Identity – how we see ourselves and how others see us – is essentially a reflection of what we have been told about ourselves, both the good and the bad, arising from our history. Such exposure, at an individual level, has the most enduring impact if it occurs during the formative years.