Indo-Caribbean Leaders Hope it Will Improve Ethnic Relations!
By Dr Tara Singh
Two prominent Indo-Caribbean scholars and community analysts, Dr Kumar Mahabir of Trinidad & Tobago and Ravi Dev of Guyana, have expressed their deep admiration for the historic and remarkable production of the movie, Black Panther, which is breaking records at the box office.
Black Panther has surpassed Beauty and the Beast to become the “ninth-highest grosser in North America of all time in only 18 days of release.” The massive production and advertising cost of over $(US) 300 million is also helping to provide astronomical returns of over $(US) 1 billion in less than 3 weeks.
A movie like this is a producer’ dream of ecstasy, and Marvel-Disney has struck gold with this masterful production, starring Chadwick Boseman and directed by Ryan Coogler. More important though is that the movie highlights and intensifies, as no other movie has done before, the cultural and ethnic pride of the Blacks in the Caribbean, the United States, and elsewhere. One reviewer said that the movie satisfies “an audience hungry to see itself represented on the big screen in a way it seldom has before.”
At the Black Panther’s premier in Trinidad at the IMAX cinema, Dr Kumar Mahabir notes that there was great pomp and ceremony with the beating of drums, the ostentatious display of African traditional wear and chanting. Observes the Cultural Anthropologist, “There have been much energetic excitement by Africans in the Diaspora at the release of the Black Panther… At the film’s premier, there were African drumming, chanting, singing and dancing by participants who sported ethnic clothes, headdresses and accessories.”
Enthusiasm in Trinidad and Tobago for the film was particularly high as the film features Trinidad and Tobago-born Winston Duke as the antagonist, M’Baku. In an interview on Black Panther, Winston Duke said: “For me, it’s definitely something that allows me, and I hope a lot of other people of color, to see themselves reflected in the media and the things they consume.” As an aside, Mahabir lamented that despite their professional competence, Indian actors are often ignored and given marginal roles. He says that this type of discrimination against Indians must be corrected.
Ravi Dev states that because it is the first time that a film was produced in which African audiences “could relate to, primarily as it appeared to them to be authentically African.” He further indicates that the exuberance and cultural pride that Blacks have displayed towards the Black Panther movie might augur well for race/ethnic relations in Guyana, Trinidad &Tobago, and elsewhere. Ravi’s premise is based on the idea that once Blacks become immersed in their own culture and ethnic pride, they will also develop a better understanding or appreciation for other ethnic groups’ embrace of their culture. Blacks would also view “creole” culture to which they have been wedded, differently.
Ravi claims that Indians in Guyana have been criticized for not assimilating to the creole culture model (a mixture of White and Black cultural values) and for their continued attachment to their own Indian cultural heritage and practice. Now that the Black Panther movie seeks to promote an authentic Black culture and associated ethnic pride that is not rooted in creole culture, Ravi hopes that Blacks will get a better understanding of their (Blacks’) own cultural authenticity, as well as, that of other ethnic groups. “Maybe local people of African origin will appreciate the point I made two decades ago that creole culture was an “abomination” that must be re-evaluated by its adherents.”
The prevailing ideas of assimilation to western cultural values (simply meaning the taking up of the dominant western cultural values and the shedding of traditional cultural values) had taken a firm grip in the Caribbean and elsewhere, and some writers and researchers have tried to apply it (the assimilation model) to Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, and other Caribbean countries, but were astute enough to present it with modification or even re-interpretation. They realized that plural societies, characterized by social cleavages and cultural diversity, could not fit into an assimilationist model of change. They therefore invented the hybrid term called “creole” culture (mixture of White and Black cultural values, with elements of syncretism). This concept represents a loose type of integration (people mix but do not combine). As early as the 1970s, researchers such as Dr Arenta and Professor Singer had identified limitations in the creole model when they argued in the case of Guyana, for example, that creolization led to the prevalence of a negative trait called urban psychosis. Creole culture or creolization has been viewed as a perversion of social reality by a large segment of the Guyanese and Trinbagoan population. Let’s hear what Ravi Dev has to say about creolization.
“I have written on the proclivity of groups placed in the same social space to compare themselves to each other. In the Caribbean, people of African origin had implicitly, if not explicitly, insisted that the “Creole Culture,” formed out of the White-African encounter when the former had enslaved the latter, was the “national culture” and relegated Indian cultural expressions as retrogressive. In this comparison, to be “Guyanese” or “Trinidadian,” the Indian had to jettison his “Indian-ness.” But a group with a rich cultural heritage spanning thousands of years could not be easily de-cultured. Not only do Indians prove this to be true but also other ethnic groups. For example, the African Siddi tribe (numbering about 40,000) which lives in the mountainous forest of Karnataka, India, has preserved their rich cultural heritage although they were taken there by Arab slave traders over 500-600 years ago.
Smart people have given up on the idea of the “melting pot” theory of culture. They are now giving up quickly on the “creole” model of culture, too. Everywhere one goes, one hears about cultural diversity, and cultural sensitivity training to make officials more aware of differences that are interesting and not pugnacious among people which must be respected. Creolization is giving way to cultural diversity. The former has been losing whatever cogency it has had. Black Panther has helped to put the gear in the right direction.
We note that the feeling of cultural deprivation could be intense and this could be expressed in various ways, including socially distasteful attitudes. In our research a number of years ago, Blacks of Guyana had stated that when they observed other ethnic groups’ displaying their respective cultural values and art forms, they (Blacks) felt that they were in a cultural vacuum and that here was no hesitation to blame (rightfully) the Europeans for not only de-humanizing but also for de-culturing their fore-parents, as part of their technique at social control for advancing the productive forces of plantation society.
In addition, Blacks’ feelings of being at a cultural disadvantage had been reinforced when they observe that other ethnic groups’ cultural events (Diwali, Holi, Youman Nabi)) had been recognized nationally. “How could we feel happy when we do not enjoy any such privilege?” To help compensate for this apparent disadvantage, the Guyana government has recognized Emancipation Day (the day when slavery was abolished) as a public holiday. Also, the Mashramani Festival that occurs in every February is largely perceived as a Black cultural festival. Indians do not in general identify with this festival, and their participation level is very low. The Trinidad & Tobago Carnival could be classified as part of creole culture. It has a fair representation of Indians as revelers, although we understand that for 2018 the Muslim community did not support it. The challenge for Blacks now is for them to promote authentic African cultural art forms. We wonder: “do the Blacks view Carnival as an African art form or as part of the creole culture?”
The ethnic pride that the Black Panther generates or intensifies would position Blacks to better understand the feelings of other ethnic groups and therefore lay the foundation for improved ethnic relations. Mahabir states that in the movie the Queen Mother Ramonda told the audience, “I am here with a message from the ancestors. Embrace and celebrate your Africanness. Be proud of who you are. Wakanda is more than a place. Wakanda is the manifestation of the dreams and hopes of every little black boy and girl.” Mahabir then notes “this is the same pleasure Indo-Trinidadians experience when they see themselves in movies and advertisements.”
Ravi Dev optimistically notes; “It is my hope that … movies of this kind, affirming the humanity of people of African origin, will continue to be made. I believe it will go very far in improving relations between the two major groups in Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago – of African and Indian origins.” Black Panther would also help Blacks to analyze the deficiencies of the creole culture model and re-invigorate as well as exalt their traditional cultural values and art forms.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.