Anthropological Quarterly 77.4 (2004) 831-834
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Race and Religion in the Caribbean
Philip W. Scher
The Caribbean as a region for anthropological study has always attracted those interested in hybridity, cultural transformation and syncretism. Indeed the word itself gained its academic currency through the work of Melville Herskovits, much of whose research was based in the Caribbean. In fact, one of the reasons the Caribbean was so relatively neglected by cultural anthropologists for so long was because of the glaring absence of cultural "purity," and a radical, satisfying alterity upon which so much of the anthropological mystique was founded. The Caribbean defied categorization, being neither Other nor the Self of Western society. But as the recognition of the fluidity of culture came to greater importance within the discipline and as the search for purity became not only outmoded but politically suspect, the Caribbean became of increasing interest to social scientists. Thus, now, Caribbeanists, who have always had to wrestle with issues of modernity, migration, cultural "mixing" racial and ethnic conflict, and the like, are often in an excellent position to speak of these issues to a wider audience.
In that tradition, Aisha Khan has, yet, found a woefully under-explored topic and one that is a welcome addition not only to Caribbean literature, but to the general field of the politics of identity. Thankfully, her skills as an ethnographer and writer are up to the task. Khan focuses her study on the descendants of [End Page 831] Indian indentured laborers brought to the island of Trinidad in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These workers were both Hindu and Muslim and they arrived in a colony that was largely populated by people of African and European descent practicing, for the most part, some form of Christianity. Trinidad has subsequently evolved as an independent nation state whose informal motto is "all o' we is one," and whose national anthem contains the line "where every creed and race finds an equal place." The rhetoric of national unity from cultural diversity is everywhere perceptible and functions as a kind of automatic description of the national ideology. Given that, the realities of interethnic interaction, including the concept of "mixing" whether it be biological or cultural are far more complex. A great deal of scholarly attention has, as I have mentioned, been paid to relationships between Europeans and Africans in the Caribbean. Less attention has been given to Indian-African relations and even less to the idea of identity formation amongst Indians themselves. This work, along with the recent publication of Viranjini Munasinghe's Callaloo or Tossed Salad? tries to redress that balance. Yet unlike much other work on East Indians in the Caribbean, these recent publications are centered on the concept of Indian identity as fluid, discursively constructed, often tense and sometimes contradictory.
Toward that end, Khan has gone to great lengths to outline her theoretical orientation. In the opening chapter Khan establishes her goal to "treat race and religion as 'articulated discourses,'" and to focus on metaphors of mixing within the Indian population to highlight the concept of categories of identity as "generated within certain kinds of power relations, rather than as prescriptive, predicting a priori what those relations ought to be." (5). This approach serves her well, as it opens up to broader examination the idea of the multiethnic state as a space wherein, as Khan puts it, "the boundaries of orthodoxy can safeguard a political constituency and yet veer dangerously close to being 'racial' (racist); on the other hand, the ambiguities of heterodoxy and syncretism ideologically resonate well with the callaloo nation but ostensibly jeopardize group cohesion" (13). I understand this to mean that an official discourse of multicultural-style tolerance (and even encouragement) create a kind of pressure on corporate groups to be just that: corporate, while at the same time, the metaphor of callaloo (a Trinidadian dish made of many different ingredients that, cooked together, create...