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Midnight's Children and the Legacy of Nationalism

From: Callaloo
Volume 20, Number 4, Fall 1997
pp. 737-752 | 10.1353/cal.1997.0080

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Callaloo 20.4 (1997) 737-752

Midnight's Children and the Legacy of Nationalism In preparation for independence in 1962, we were introduced to a new flag, the significance of the colors red, white and black meaning nothing to us then; it was not explained to us, nor the watchwords, Discipline, Production and Tolerance. Our primary school teachers labored at teaching us new songs, including a national anthem which we sung in parrot-like fashion without any appreciation of its chorus, "Here, every creed and race find an equal place." It took many years, and my own study of a social history of Indians in Trinidad society, to begin to grasp the complex relationship between Williams' writing of Capitalism and Slavery, his perceptive understanding of politics through historical knowledge, his experiences of study and sojourn abroad, and the way all of these nurtured the ideas which helped to formulate a concept of nationalism for this society.

Salman Rushdie's brilliant novel Midnight's Children, from which I have crafted a title for this essay, is about the birth of a child and a nation. Saleem Sinai is born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the very instant that India attained independence. In Rushdie's novel, nation and child go through the pangs of birth, the tantrums of childhood, the traumas of adolescence and the anomie of adulthood. This essay is a different but parallel investigation about the birth pangs and growth of nationalism in Trinidad, viewed from the perspective of a young girl of Indian descent, born shortly before Williams came to power in 1956. My generation was just old enough to experience the remnants of the colonial state evident in early self-government in Trinidad, and to begin absorbing the new messages which nationhood brought. This essay is therefore a personal and political analysis of Williams' contribution to nationalist ideas, to the way nationalism was perceived, and was directly or indirectly beneficial to many of my generation, ethnic group, and sex. Rushdie's phrase "midnight's children" is also applicable to my examination of nationalism in another sense, one which is consistent with the verbal double entendre characteristic of a Trinidadian mode of humor and social commentary. "Midnight's children" evokes the idea of blackness and therefore the question of negritude, which was confronted in the nationalist movement. Secondly, the darker shades of gender oppression would remain submerged despite the affirmations of equality, but in time these ideas would surface with the growth of the nation and its peoples.

Childhood

Capitalism and Slavery was completed as a doctoral dissertation and submitted to the Faculty of Modern History of Oxford University in September 1938. It was published as a book in 1944 during the time Eric Williams lectured at Howard University in the United States. In the Preface to the book Williams writes: "Every age rewrites history, but particularly ours which has been forced by events to evaluate our conceptions of history and political development." Eric Hobsbawm describes the first few decades of the 20th century, the period in which Williams was engaged in evaluating past history, as both the age of catastrophe and the age of total war. In the third decade of the 20th century when Williams began his rewriting of history, the first world war had ended and the events which would begin the second were already in motion. When this book was being published, the different empires which had sliced up the West Indies and divided the region among themselves since the 15th century were at war. Williams' attempt to grasp the relationship between slavery and capitalism contained both a personal and political goal. My perception of this period for Williams is that it was his way of understanding the motors of history which shaped his lived experience as a black man in western society, and of deciphering the economic processes which led to the actual creation of a colonized West Indies. Williams himself explains in the Preface that Capitalism and Slavery is not "a study of the institution of slavery, but of the contribution of slavery to the development of British capitalism. . . . It is strictly an economic study of the role of Negro slavery and...


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