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  • The Culture of Williams: Context, Performance, Legacy *
  • Gordon Rohlehr (bio)


“The Culture of Williams: Context, Performance, Legacy” invites one to consider: (a) the society that produced Williams, its values, patterns of behaviour, stratification, lifestyles, major issues, limitations and possibilities; (b) the cultural situation of the society to which Williams returned in the mid-1950s; (c) Williams’ intervention as scholar, messenger, articulator of new and alternative visions and values, some of which were summarized in the watchwords of the National Motto, “Discipline, Tolerance and Production,” and in the sentiments that are enshrined in the National Anthem.

“Performance” I have taken to mean the active measures adopted by the five successive governments over which Williams presided, to translate watchwords and nationalist slogans into lived cultural reality, to grow flesh and solid body on the skeleton of ideas and ideals. Such performance took place in several interrelated contexts, such as the changing and fluid context of first anti-colonialist, then neo-colonialist politics and economics. There has also been the context of international geopolitical forces constantly impacting on the cultures, politics and lifestyle of the young multiethnic, multicultural, newly-independent state.

“Legacy” is what has emerged from the confluence of forces: that is, the individual cultural initiatives of Williams as maximum leader, philosopher-king and, for some citizens, “father of the nation”; the internal and external contexts within which such initiatives were enacted; the multiple gaps between whatever Williams planned and what he managed to implement, and between the latter and the quite different directions in which the society was moving; and the reactions of the various publics in Trinidad and Tobago, who were both the targets of schemes for cultural change and actors in the initiation of their own desire for cultural transformation, or for the retention and renewal of the complex of cultures that they had inherited.

This paper will, therefore, place particular emphasis on cultural change through the eyes of its poets, novelists and those visionaries and philosophers from the grass roots: the calypsonians in whose social commentaries over the nearly twenty-five years of his dominance the figure of Williams looms largely and ominously, an [End Page 849] ambiguous blend of conqueror, deliverer, benevolent patriarch, godfather, patron, sinister autocrat and reincarnated colonial governor capriciously lifting up this one to throw down that one, puppet master with one finger controlling the national purse strings and another directing a nation of animated puppets in what some have portrayed as a danse macabre and others as a theater of the postcolonial Absurd.

In the Beginning

The most intimate portrait that we have of the society that produced Williams is C.L.R. James’ warm depiction in Beyond a Boundary of the aspiring and respectable puritanical black lower-middle or upper-lower class of the 1920s, whose avenue towards self-betterment was education. 1 As James portrays it, this class was tough, stoical, rigidly moral and powerfully focused in its drive towards excellence. It would produce both stiffly starched colonials and, in a younger generation, either latent black nationalists or the variety of socialist ideologues who began to appear between the 1930s and 1940s and whose ideas and energies would be absorbed in the nationalist movement that Williams was to lead in the mid-1950s.

In his description of the spectrum of sports clubs of the 1920s and 1930s, James shows how race and color factors were paramount features of social stratification in Trinidad. A picture of cliquism and snobbery also emerges from Ralph de Boissiere’s Crown Jewel (1952) which explores in great detail the factors of race, class, color, hunger and oppression that contributed to the 1937 Riots. 2 Of particular interest in that novel is the evolution of its young nearly white French Creole protagonist, Andre de Coudray, from the cocoon of his St. Clair upper-class family, whose greatest efforts have been to exorcize all vestiges of the blood of a black African slave ancestress, towards a partial self-identification with the lot of the mainly black working class.

This dual pull of race/color and class considerations was a major feature of the multiethnic society that produced Eric Williams and that he returned to govern. Lloyd Braithwaite...

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