Recently, there have been many discussions surrounding art and culture in the Caribbean circulating on social media as well as in my personal life. I've heard a number of opinions about Caribbean culture that are believed to be based on facts. Those opinions are centered around two core ideas that the opinionated person will never put as bluntly as I will:
Culture in the Caribbean is "dying". (It's implied that we cannot resuscitate it.)
The Caribbean has no culture (but it did in the old days).
Interestingly enough, the old days when we "had a culture", according to those people, were the years spent underneath colonial rule. Ah, the good old days where only wealthy landowners could vote! I guess without the presence and control of the British/French, a huge swathe of our population feels our existence cannot be meaningful. We cannot have a culture. Nothing we do can be worthy. We must feel ashamed. At least that's how they behave...I'm sure you've encountered one or two people like this yourself...
The idea that without European or American approval our culture is invalid is an ultimately racist idea. We cannot continue to seek validation from people who have consistently denied us our humanity since we were brought to the Caribbean as chattel. Or indentured servants. Our ideas about the value of our culture need to be centered within our nations, within our majority black populations. Our mere existence is enough of a testament to our ability to overcome oppression and genocide. Our rich culture is the icing on the cake.Another idea that we would be wise to challenge is the idea that the parts of our culture that are not consumable are also not valuable to our existence. For example, I have heard a number of people suggest that carnival is "all" we have to offer that could possibly be worthwhile. According to them, our music or art is nothing worth speaking of because it hasn't "gone global". The West Indians who assume that carnival is "the only thing" we have to offer are looking at culture as something that is a good to be consumed. The underlying idea supporting their statements is that if black people are not producing something that "the world" (but really, only the white part of the world) is not interesting in buying, we are unworthy. It's a belief as old as colonization itself and it denies our people the right to define their own value and to define their self-esteem outside of the colonizer's view.
Of course our culture is more than carnival. And that's because culture is not only music and food. Culture is not static either; it's dynamic and the changes we see in culture over time are not representative of cultural death. Our culture includes our customs surrounding humor and laughter. Our culture includes our bilingual capabilities and unique slang. Our culture includes our traditions surrounding birth and death. It encompasses herbal medicine and spiritual knowledge that exists outside of religion. Denying ourselves this definition of culture only sets us up to accept the way foreign countries define us as inherently true and they will never define us as equal or worthy of respect.
We need to start making changes to the colonial lens through which our peers view our culture now. We need to acknowledge that what we were taught about our supposed lack of a culture is only a lie that serves the powers that wish us to devalue ourselves and our home countries. If we feel there is nothing worthwhile, we will not be motivated to protect and conserve our natural resources or our people. We need to start telling other young people that describing the Caribbean as a place void of culture is an act of verbal violence against our people that does not serve us. We may critique the aspects of our culture that we wish to change. We may even dislike certain aspects of our culture entirely.
But despite that, it is unfair to condemn all the people who have fought for us to be independent and free to our opinion that we are too vapid to be worth fighting for. Caribbean people from every island are filled with a cultural richness that personally I have been able to find few other places. We need to find ways to acknowledge this richness in our daily lives. Our survival and our self-esteem as a region relies on how we value ourselves and we need to change our perceptions now.