CLERIC, CALYPSONIAN AND CARIBBEANIST- "SKYLARK" AUSTIN
TUITT PREACHES A GOSPEL OF CARIBBEAN UNITY
By Caldwell Taylor
"In a divided world that don't need islands no more,
Are we doomed for ever to be at somebody's mercy?"
David Rudder: "Rally Round the West Indies"
Austin "Mighty Skylark" Tuitt, a Brooklyn ( New York)- based cleric and calypsonian, is preaching a gospel of Caribbean unity. This is by no means a new gospel, for the idea of a single Caribbean nation is something that has taxed the political imagination of the so-called "English speaking Caribbean" for more than a century. It is an idea that is at once a logical response to the tyrannies of both geography and history, and a struggle against the evils of more than five centuries of foreign domination. Though it faces many formidable odds, Tuitt's ministry of unity is another hopeful beginning that is unashamedly inspired by the 1958 West Indies Federation.
Everybody knows that the 10-member West Indies Federation (Antigua-Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St Kitts-Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and Trinidad-Tobago) did not last as long as the proverbial Red House fire. Launched on April 22,1958 the much- heralded experiment in regional integration came undone in September 1961, in the wake of Jamaica's decision to pullout and go it alone. Jamaica's decision to leave prompted Eric Williams (1911-1981) to propound his new arithmetic. "One from 10 leaves nought", deadpanned the then Premier of Trinidad and Tobago. The collapse of the Federation dealt a crushing blow to the fragile psychologies of ten small islands which sought a collective path out of British trusteeship, but it was not enough, mercifully, to cancel the dream of a single Caribbean
And so within three years of the May 31, 1962 dissolution of the Federation CARIFTA ( the Caribbean Free Trade Association) was inaugurated by Antigua , Barbados and Guyana. By August 1968 CARIFTA hosted the ten islands that once made up the ill-starred West Indies Federation plus Guyana. (You will recall that Guyana ,then known as British Guiana, British Honduras, now Belize, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Turks and Caicos, the Caymans and the British Virgin Islands all refused to answer the British Colonial Secretary Arthur Creech Jones's call for a "federation in the Caribbean, enjoying internal self-government within the British Commonwealth"). CARIFTA grew into CARICOM (1973), and a little more than thirty years later CARICOM continues to be a major institutional expression of this ancient dream that is meant to rescue us from our stifling insularities.
Why the West Indies Federation collapsed is not a matter within the scope of this essay. But even so, it is well worth noting that many have asserted that, the failure of the 1950s federal enterprise had much to do with top-down architecture imposed on the union by its British principals. Orders, these critics say, came from the British Colonial Office, which backed federation only because it was a means of administrative economy.
The opponents of top-down federalism propose a bottom -up alternative. In other words, a federation that is driven by what economist C.Y Thomas has described as " a resolute and relentless pursuit of the interests of the poor and powerless".
Thomas and other exponents of the bottom-up approach say integration will succeeed only to the extent to which it finds favour with internal social (class) forces in the region. Calypsonian "Atilla the Hun" (1892-1962) anticipated Thomas and company, when he captured the flavour of this 'popular' brand of federation in a 1933 song entitled "Expedite Federation". He sang:
We know that federation means Emancipation So let us start to co-operate, agitate and educate.
The second line of Attila's couplet was borrowed from T. A. Marryshow (1887-1958), the widely-acknowledged "Father of West Indian Federation". Always a savvy political actor, Atilla used the word "Emancipation" in his song in order to bring attention to what he viewed as the real purpose of the integrative effort. Besides, he was also drawing attention to the fact of the
centenary of the abolition of slavery. The bard had such an exquisite historical sense; 'reading' Atilla tells us why the calypsonian is the most organic of our poets and public intellectuals.
Atilla's interest in Caribbean unity has been embraced by many calypsonians, including Sparrow, King Fighter, Small Island Pride, Melody, Bomber, Chalkdust, Stalin, Valentino, Ipa, David Rudder, and latterly Mighty Skylark Austin Tuitt, founder of the Brooklyn ( New York ) -based Global Caribbean Representation (GCR). The New York birth of the GCR is probably a good omen as New York-based West Indians have played crucial roles in the struggle for Caribbean nationhood.
Back in the 1930s, New York's West Indies Defence Committee (led by Hope Stevens, Augustin Petioni , Richard Moore, W. Adolphe Roberts, Reginald Pierrepoint and Wilfred.A Domingo, among others) backed the integration efforts at home and provided solid ideological, organizational and financial support for the radical and anti-colonial movements throughout the region. The scholar-activists of the West Indies Defence Committee and the West Indian National Council are among the key builders of a Caribbean intellectual tradition.
The call to create a single Caribbean nation was the originating theme of the GCR but that was the easy part, for now the organization must go from the call for unity to the realisation of unity in what is doubtless the most 'balkanized region on earth'. How do we attain unity in a region where, according to Christin Girault, "elements of diversity tend to overshadow the trends towards unity"?
Tuitt and his GCR have their wuk cut out for them: They must help us to understand the historical forces that have balkanized the Caribbean region, and as well they must create the conditions that will help us overcome balkanization and envision a Caribbean citizenship that will include Aruba, Cuba, Haiti, Martinique and the rest of our Caribbean family. This new federation will be based
on our historical and cultural affinities.
As a practising calypsonian,Tuitt is well aware of the healing power of music and, in particular, of the calypsonian's historical role as teacher. He must know that the calypso is a true 'pedagogy of the oppressed' , a nationalist poetry that has the power to repatriate alienated souls. Tuitt's recent release of a CD- "Theme Songs for Promoting Global Caribbean Representation" suggests that he plans to use calypso and his Christian faith as his principal instruments of political and moral mobilization.