“We write our name on history’s page
With expectations great
Strict guardians of our heritage
Firm craftsmen of our fate.”
National Anthem of Barbados
Composer Irving L. Burgie (1924-2019)
The death on the eve of Independence Day of the renowned Barbadian-American composer Irving Louis Burgie closes yet another chapter on the individuals and ideas that form the pantheon of the great and good who contributed to our first fateful steps to full internal self-governance, self-determination and nationhood in 1966.
We are in his debt for his gifts as one of the greatest composers of Caribbean music, his achievements no less significant than the prose and verse of Lamming, Brathwaite, Clarke and Marshall.
But anyone fortunate enough to have made his acquaintance would doubtless imagine an immediate rebuttal to these bouquets: “No, man, the gratitude is all mine”. Such was the measure of the man whose humility made others shine on stage and screen and vinyl.
But, truth be told, his passing signifies not merely the ending of an era but the opportunity to usher in a new age where the Burgie marque of excellence, enterprise and ethic may yet form the bedrock for a nation renewed.
Regrettably, it is a sobering axiom that there are a great many Barbadians by descent and design who have had more time for this people and nation than we have had time for them. They should not continue to go without honour for what they wrought and wrote on history’s page.
This little isle has spawned some of the greatest Americans, Britons and world citizens in the modern era, some of whom remain strangers to schoolchildren’s lips.
Few have ever heard of Walter Tull, one of the first people of colour to play professional football in the English Premier League. And on the outbreak of the Great War, where he would score the greatest triumphs and make the ultimate sacrifice for king and country, Tull, scion of a Barbadian carpenter, became the first person of colour to serve in the regular British Army.
Then there is ‘Barbados’ Joe Walcott – born in British Guiana but bred a Bajan. A professional boxer in the United States, Walcott in 1901 became the first black man to become the World Welterweight Champion, reigning for five years.
Norma Adele Miller would have turned 100 on Monday had she lived past May 5. This Harlem-born daughter of Bajans – a shipyard worker and a charwoman – revolutionised the popular dance of the Swing era of Jazz with the gravity-defying ‘lindy hop’. A choreographer, author and comedian, she became known as the Queen of Swing.
And few would question that the American political landscape was forever altered by Shirley Anita Chisholm – who as a young girl in Barbados attended a school than ought now to bear her name rather than the plantation that enslaved her forebears, Vauxhall.
Unbossed and bought, Chisholm would rise to become the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, the first black US presidential candidate for nomination of a major political party and the Democratic Party’s first woman candidate for nomination – blazing a trail for Jesse Jackson, Geraldine Ferraro, Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama.
The lesson of these great lives is of the enormous gift this land has made to the world.
Many of these illustrious sons and daughters of the soil owe their origins to their enterprising immigrant parents. Many others also became Barbadian after falling in love with an island and its people. They have looked out for Barbados and have done credit to our nation wherever they went. Witness the labour of love of broadcaster-social activist Olga Lopes-Seale, artist-educator Karl Broodhagen and musician-mentor Doris Provencal to name but a few.
The entire social and education policy geared towards developing future citizens through preschool would be nought but a politician’s promise were it not, for example, for the commitment and support of Maria Holder.
We would do well to remember that many of Barbados’ best friends do not hold Barbadian birth certificates. But if there be such a thing as an honorary Bajan, then those who keep this nation’s best interests at heart have earned that title.
We should treat with unconditional positive regard rather than scorn those of us who, having made us proud abroad, return home to make good here.
Beginning next month. Barbadians and descendants are being urged to ‘gather’ here and join in the collective effort of not only celebrating our plenty and supporting this nation in its time of need.
This should be an opportune time for all Barbadians to do more to embrace those whom we cavalierly dismiss as foreigners but who are not foreign to our way of life or to our dreams and aspirations for our children.
If this country is to survive its current crisis and thrive as an economy and society it must release its death-grip on who gets to be more Barbadian than another – particularly given our falling birthrate and when it is clear that as a going concern, Barbados needs more not fewer numbers.
We need to be more embracing of a multicultural, multi-faith society. It is quite conceivable that the physicality of the Barbadian will change. This is not a bad thing. A nation that has suffered under the cruel burden of racial separation and supremacy cannot forge ahead with hide-bound ethnic and racial stereotypes posing as criteria for belonging to Bim.
Irving Burgie was not born in Barbados, but he did more than vast numbers of people born here to tell the story of Barbados to millions abroad.
His music of the 1950s in particular, did much to spread the story of Island culture and West Indianness. Thanks to him, millions who could not find our islands on the map now knew us by hearing our song.
He put this country on a map with his ‘Ballad for Bimshire – a new musical for Barbados’ in 1963, starring the late great Ossie Davis, to say nothing of the countless calypsos sung by Harry Belafonte.
The words of the Barbados national anthem penned by Irving Burgie contain a simple creed, by which all of us should live – faith, fortitude and freedom. The lesson of his life and his work should be an inspiration to us all together to bring out the best in us for the sake of all Barbadians now living and those yet to be either born or bred Bajan.