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#BTColumn – Lamming: Essayist and social critic

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by Ralph Jemmott

I admit that my knowledge of George Lamming as a novelist is regrettably quite limited. I read his classic ‘In the Castle of My Skin’ some time ago but has never managed to return to it.

I came to Lamming’s work rather late perhaps because as an undergraduate I was obsessed with the writings of Vidia S. Naipaul and admittedly and perhaps regrettably bought into his compounded alienated vision of Caribbean history and culture as expressed in ‘The Middle Passage.’

When I awoke to Lamming, it is his contribution as an essayist and social critic that would later catch my interest. In fact that interest would focus primarily on the very small text entitled ‘Coming, Coming Home, Conversations II’ published by House of Nehesi Press in 1995.

The book contains two Conversations. The first is ‘Western Education and the Caribbean Intellectual’ and the second is ‘Coming, Coming Home’ which is the title of the entire publication. There is an interesting four page introduction by Rex Nettleford, then Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies.

The book is a masterpiece of intellectual discourse and reflects the core of Lamming’s thinking on Caribbean and Black history or what Nettleford himself calls, “the region’s diverse historical experience and textured existential reality.” In relation to that reality is Lamming’s statement that “we labour under the antagonistic weight of the past.” This is followed by what he termed “the most urgent ta

sk and greatest intellectual challenge” which was “how to control the burden of this history and incorporate it into our collective sense of the future.”

Negro slavery was not the only type of enslavement in human history, but the antagonistic weight of trans-Atlantic enslavement has proven more burdensome and pervasive than others. More burdensome than white bond servitude or Indian indenture. Its legacy lives on in the mind of the children of the enslavers and the enslaved.

On an episode of CBC TV’s ‘Book Talk’ where the panellists were discussing a text by Guyanese author Keane Gibson, David Comissiong remarked that wherever he travelled in the world, he observed that other races within the human family see themselves as superior to black people.

Black people cannot ignore the past because “its antagonistic weight” is still with us and we ignore it at our peril.  In the United States there is a concerted effort by white supremacist elements to roll back the civil legislative gains of the 1960’s particularly with regards to voting rights.

Lamming explained that the term emancipation means “to take out of the hand,” that is, controlling hand of superordinate power.

It is of course easier to gain political emancipation than to emancipate oneself from mental slavery. That is an on-going generational struggle.

There are three existential forces operating in human life at any given time. There are the forces of reaction or extreme conservatism that would seek to turn the clock back. That, black people cannot afford. Then there are the forces of stasis or continuity that seek to hold circumstances steady for fear that things might fall apart.

Thirdly, there are the forces of progress that seek to push things forward in the hope of improving the human condition and creating a better brighter future. Some of these progressive forces seek radical revolutionary change, some would chose to temper radicalism.

Revolution can never be ruled out for we are all the beneficiaries of ‘Revolution,’ be it the French, the American or the 1816 Slave revolt.

George Lamming was without doubt an intellectual revolutionary although it cannot be said as was said of Walter Rodney that he was an active revolutionary academic.

Rodney so defined himself and he paid an awful price for his activism.

Lamming, for all the force of his perception, was in many ways a reclusive intellectual to be found mainly in his writings, in his speeches by those who went out to hear him or the few who would gain access to him.

I first met Lamming at a Teachers of English group at The St. Michael School, where he was the guest speaker. In the voice that seemed to match the gravitas of his thoughts, he spoke on the virtues of the collectivist socialist society.

During question time, I made the error of stating my disagreement, repeating a phrase that I had come across in a recent reading. That phrase stated that: “The individual is of eternal moment.”

It might have come from Ayn Rand whose work celebrating individualism, ‘The Fountainhead’ had recently caught my attention.

He was rather dismissive of my contention and I regretted the mention. Funny thing is that four decades later I am of the same opinion. That the intellectuals on the far ideological left have been in retreat, but that is a subject for another article.        

Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and regular contributor on social issues.

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