George Lamming, poet, novelist, essayist, political philosopher – one of the best writers in the Caribbean – joined the ancestors on June 4. Born in colonial Barbados on June 8, 1927, Lamming had an intimate understanding of the racial politics of his day. Child of the chattel house, he knew he had no natural right to the big house. It was the domain of the landed white elite of Little England.
The traditional chattel house, a legacy of plantation slavery, symbolizes the vulnerability of the poor who cannot afford to buy land. The small wooden houses, assembled without nails, are not fixed to the ground. They are placed on blocks and can be moved from place to place by fate and fortune. The mobility of these movable houses can also be seen as a sign of the ambition of the poor. They can eventually tear themselves away from the soil of poverty that keeps them in their place.
Lamming’s first novel, In the castle of my skin, brilliantly records the coming of age of central character G, who, like George himself, must grapple with the complexities of identity in Little England. The title of the novel is taken from a poem by Derek Walcott: “You in the castle of your skin / Me the swineherd”. There is a moment in the novel where black people waiting to be served let a white man beat them. He “makes no request, but accepts a privilege they offer”. He is safe in the castle of his skin. Subverting this power dynamic, Lamming claimed the fortification of his own origins in the chattel house.
In 2003, the University of the West Indies, Mona, hosted an international conference honoring Lamming. It coincided with the 50th anniversary of the publication of In the castle of my skin. Trinidadian Kenneth Ramchand taught the very first West Indian literature course at Mona during the 1969/1970 academic year. I was lucky to have been introduced to the Lamming classic at the time.
In debates about West Indian popular culture, I have had occasion to brandish this novel with great effect. Mr. Lamming may not have approved of the way I used his work. But the reach of great art exceeds even the reach of its own creator. Several years ago, I gave a public lecture in Barbados on Jamaican dancehall culture and appeared on a lively “Talk Caribbean” TV show on the subject. It was too much for the Barbados lawyer who published a combative editorial, “Vile Vocals: Undeclared War in Bim”.
In my militant response, “War on Ignorance”, which the newspaper published, I called on Bajans to study In the castle of my skin. The novel was described by the new statesman as “the fundamental book of a civilization. . . Mr. Lamming captures the spirit of childhood making and dissolving myths”. This groundbreaking novel anticipates the transformation of Barbadian society’s “myth-dissolving” independent of any influence from Jamaica’s “vile” dancehall lyrics.
In the novel, the Lamming schoolchildren brazenly imagine the possibility of stoning the schoolteacher. But they have been socialized to fear his authority. None of them could give in to temptation and throw the first stone. Likewise, rebellious villagers who considered stoning exploitative landlord Creighton dared not lift a finger. These days, teachers-turned-politicians who betray the people are no longer blindly revered. And the treacherous Creightons of Little England can be overthrown.
Rebellious music is often the medium through which revolt is expressed. G’s childhood friend, Trumper, becomes a migrant worker in the United States. When he returns home, he strikes up a conversation with G about identity. Trumper plays Paul Robeson’s rendition of ‘Let My People Go’ on his tape recorder. It is no longer defined in village and purely nationalist terms. He has become an Afro-cosmopolitan. G’s provincial malaise manifests itself in the temptation to make fun of what he doesn’t understand: “Who are your people? I asked him. It sounded like some kind of big joke. Trumper replies, “The Negro race.”
Trumper represents so many young West Indians who find in the music of the African diaspora a language to express their feeling of alienation vis-à-vis their societies. In the words of Bob Marley, “So feel that drumbeat as it beats inside / Play a beat that resists the system.” This music, including dancehall, empowers black people to say “let my people go”. Admittedly, the tempo and lyrics of dancehall music are not the same as those of the negro spirituals Trumper revered.
All the same, the rhythm of dancehall evokes a similar sense of “my people” and expresses a global African consciousness. Across the Caribbean region, the Diaspora and far beyond, young people are responding to the boom box and megawatt sound system of Jamaican popular music. They find joy in the rhythm of speech and the power of the beat. And they learn the fascinating Jamaican language in which the message of the music is communicated.
FROM THE ANTILLES TO THE CARIBBEAN
It was to Great England that Lamming went to become a writer, a profession that seemed impossible in Little England. In addition to In the castle of my skinLamming wrote five other philosophical novels: The emigrants; Of age and innocence; Adventure Season; berry water; and Natives of my Person. In The pleasures of exilea collection of his introspective essays, Lamming acknowledged that it was in England that West Indians came to recognize their common identity:
“No Barbadian, no Trinidadian, no Saint Lucian, no West Indian Islander considers himself a West Indian until he meets another Islander in foreign territory. It was not until Barbadian childhood corresponded with Grenadian or Guyanese childhood in significant details of folklore that a broader identification was arrived at. In this sense, most West Indians of my generation were born in England.
Lamming also claimed the wider, multilingual Caribbean: “I find that I refrain from saying that I am from the West Indies, as that implies a British colonial limitation. I rather say that I am from the Caribbean, hoping that the image of the French and Spanish West Indies will be taken for granted. Freed from the insularity of monolingual English culture, George Lamming has created an enduring body of visionary work that manifests, in his own words, “the sovereignty of the imagination”.