Antidote: George W. Lamming’s ‘Sovereignty of the Imagination’

Dear Editor,

  Professor George Lamming’s powerful little book, Sovereignty of the Imagination: Language and the Politics of EthnicityCONVERSATIONS III (House of Nehesi Publishers, 2009) is an antidote to the poisonous politics of ethnicity, a social-political phenomenon, a kind of corrosive social virus that has plagued humanity through the ages.

  This virus lies dormant for long periods in varying degrees and features, but it never sleeps soundly; it can easily be nudged out of its slumber, ready to engage in attack when the defense of the body politic, for whatever the reason, becomes weakened and vulnerable. There is a virulent, revengeful strain of this virus that has been summoned out of its light sleep and is active in the USA nowadays. It might become quite dangerous, even deadly contagious, if the so-called Democrats succeed in defeating the supposed Republicans in November of this year.

  George Lamming’s robust little book remains as pertinent and timely today as it was when it was published ─ in Philipsburg ─ 11 years ago. If democracy continues to flounder or to be perceived as floundering in the USA, this vile virus, the politics of ethnicity, will most likely be nudged and awakened worldwide.

  Professor Lamming’s book informs on this social-political phenomenon that has ravaged the Caribbean from the annihilation of its original people to and through the eras of colonialism and imperialism. To varying degrees, this phenomenon is ongoing in the Caribbean since independence. The politics of ethnicity is corrosive; it has been destructive whenever and wherever it has raised its angry, hateful head.

  The legendary Barbadian novelist and social critic, one of the Caribbean’s most eloquent, most experienced and well informed literary and social spokesmen, has gauged the nature and danger of the politics of ethnicity. He argues for “a way to immunize sense and sensibility against the virus of ethnic nationalism … to negotiate the cultural spaces that are the legitimate claims of the Other, and to work toward an environment that could manage stability as a state of creative conflict. … Creative conflict is the dynamic which drives the Caribbean imagination” (pages 78-79).

  Lamming, who has travelled extensively and has lived and worked abroad in Trinidad, in England and in the USA, discusses the politics of ethnicity in the context of the Caribbean in general, and specifically, as it relates to Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana. But wherever it has raised its poisonous head, in the Caribbean as elsewhere in the world, the politics of ethnicity has had the same effect of contaminating the body politic by stifling debate, blocking compromise, inciting disorder, violence, injustice, chaos and death.

  Professor Lamming reminds us that “Hegemony like Imperialism [and we may add Globalism] is the domination of one class over another or all others, and not necessarily through force but through a process of social, political, and ideological indoctrination in order to achieve the consent of the dominated class” (pages 21-22).

  He quotes Dr. Eric Williams, the imminent historian and the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago: “Education in the modern world is, more than anything else, education of the people themselves as to the necessity of viewing their own education as part of their democratic privileges and their democratic responsibilities (pages 23-24).

  Lamming explains that, in the Caribbean, “Independence has not yet won the right to sovereignty,” that “Grenada was both a heroic and tragic suicidal experience,” that “Guyana emerges as the least worthy of respect,” that “Michael Manley was the victim of external pressure in the form of national sabotage, which was the weapon the privileged classes of Jamaica used against his administration” (page 16).

  Lamming praises Dr. Walter Rodney, the Guyanese political activist and historian whose “scholarship helped to dismantle a tradition that, before and after Independence, has used the device of race to obscure and sabotage the fundamental unity that married the destinies of Indians and African workers through their common experience of labor” (pages 44-45).

  The author quotes a fellow Bajan, “the journalist Robert Goddard, a member of a very powerful white Barbadian merchant family [who] makes a charge of Afrocentrism and its debilitating effect on the project of regional coherence: Black nationalism in the region is predicated on the idea that the West Indies is actually black, and by implication, racially black as well. To be black is to be authentically Caribbean. …”

  Lamming adds that he offers this quote as “an example of the truth we are very reluctant to accept; that race and ethnicity are socially constructed categories. Mr. Goddard’s voice on the telephone is ethnically black. …”

  Lamming heralds the “novel kind of generosity, the possibility to which Derek Walcott refers in his 1992 Nobel speech: Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love that took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. … This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles.” (pages 68-75).

  It is obvious that although George Lamming is reviewing what we may refer to as Caribbean governance, Caribbean social/political realities, this well-informed witnessing, these observations can enlighten people worldwide on the politics of ethnicity, a phenomenon that is human, all too human.

  People worldwide, and in the USA particularly, may do well to consider and ponder the exceptional witnessing of this most senior and distinguished Caribbean novelist, this social-cultural critic whose long quest for freedom and a sovereignty of the imagination has been intimately linked, intrinsically connected to education, to language and politics, and to democratic privileges and responsibilities.


Gérard M. Hunt