In My Own Words: Olivier Stephenson
“ When I was asked in 1977 to contribute a piece to the souvenir journal by my dear friend, the late Valerie Mullings of the Jamaica Progressive League, she wanted me to write something and wanted it, like, yesterday! I didn’t know what I was going to write, and then I was forced to think about what was one of my peeves or major concerns regarding the so-called cultural arts in the Caribbean. I then sat down at my old manual Olympia typewriter and wrote this piece in one sitting in a fit of passion. It is, however, a subject that I still feel very strongly about.” – Olivier Stephenson
This article is not meant to be a detailed discourse on the failure of the Caribbean to give greater focus and recognition to its cultural arts, but to point out briefly and illustrate once again, this pressing need. Indeed, this is a subject that for many, many years has been crying out for attention – only to fall, it seems, repeatedly on deaf ears.
We all know that the Caribbean is a vibrant place, a well- spring of cultural wealth. We know this. We seem to accept this with aloof, casual grace. Our cultural experience has from time to time been co-opted and exploited from abroad and we nervously chuckle or become profusely angry at the affront. We see these images quite often in the cinema, TV, radio and trendy magazines.
The image, of course, is a stereotype.
The most common stereotype is of the kind willing, happy, singing, dancing, limboing, lovable “natives.” There are those of us who feign anger, jump up and down and carry on for a while then forget about it. These are quite often our bourgeois – intellectuals – they love to make empty noises.
Yes, indeed, we are born noise-makers, shouters and complainers; it is said that the reason why some West Indians are so argumentative is because of our atavistic link with slavery and certain tribal behavior patterns. It is also said of West Indians that when we are abroad we are “aggressive” and “pacesetters.” Is this another stereotype? Back home it seems, we are procrastinators oozing with nonchalance. “Cho, dat can wait till tomorrow”; “Me soon come, yah.” How often have we all heard that? Quite often.
Our politicians are born “sweet talkers” who never seem to quite fulfill the dreams they fill our heads with. Is it the hot sun that drains us of our impetus that makes us appear to be lackadaisical? It is for certain we positively do not lack stimulation in our creativity. We seem to abound in producing naturally talented and creative people; we are probably one of the most creative set of people in the world!
Go anywhere in the Caribbean and one will witness our cultural arts in full swing, in the streets, in bars, seemingly everywhere! One can witness theatre, song, dance, paintings, musicians, people we know have never been formally schooled in their talents.
The tragedy, however, is that these talents are often negelcted by our wider society – this includes also our artists who have attained formal training and who have also achieved levels in their work par excellence. They go ignored till they die – then we typically eulogize them for their greatness.
The question is, when will we start to recognize the power and wealth in our cultural arts? Hasn’t history taught us anything? How long are we going to dwell on “a prophet is never appreciated in his own lifetime?” Indeed, our artists are truly the visionaries,, of any society.
How much longer are we going to dwell solely on bauxite, tourism, cigars, rum and ganja as our mainstay? There should really be no excuse for any talented West Indian to be wandering the streets of Port-of-Spain, Kingston, Georgetown, Kings Town or Port-au-Prince neglected.
An initial incentive must be given to the cultural arts for our artists and would-be artists. Not just a shoddy cultural arts program, not lip-service, but something solid and tangible that one can actually experience in its reality. Scholarship programs should be offered by foreign investors, like the scholarship programs that some bauxite companies offer to those interested in engineering and chemistry. The same should be done for the arts.
In Jamaica, it is true that there is a new cultural arts center where people are being trained in dance, music, drama and painting, but then where do these people go with their acquired skills after they have left the institution? Where do the musicians, singers, dancers and playwrights go? They either take the sheet of paper that they have received to try and find your standard 9-to-5 job, or they go abroad.
We in the Caribbean treat our cultural arts with such condescension that it is not only heart rending, but pathetic. Our artists in the Caribbean suffer whether we want to accept this or not, it is fact.
In the prologue to Dream On Monkey Mountain, Derek Walcott speaks despairingly yet eloquently on the condition of the arts, in running a theatre company, teaching drama and the tedious politicking that he’s had to put up with just to accomplish something positive and beautiful. He was writing about this just seven years ago – recently, Derek Walcott resigned from the Trinidad Theatre Workshop.
Right after the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959, it was Fidel Castro who approached that country’s prima ballerina, Alicia Alonso and asked her in just what way saw sees herself and her dance company fitting into the scheme of the new order in Cuba. What is so striking about this act was that with all that was going on around him at the time, Castro seemingly had the sensitivity and consideration to wonder about a dance company. It is only to say that Fidel Castro realized that art, like anything else is as much an integral part of our daily lives.
Quite a few of us would like to refuse an act such as Castro’s by saying he would only use art as another form of propaganda for his own political use; but art and the level of art that is coming out of Cuba today, as we understand it, is not only innovative but of an increasingly high standard. We in the rest of the Caribbean seem to be either chasing away or stifling our creative wealth.
Question: Why is it that so many of our writers have left the Caribbean over the past 20 years? And some of the best we boast: Andrew Salkey, V.S. Naipaul, Roger Mais (who died in England), Orlando Patterson, Evon Jones, Errol Hill, Michael Abbensetts, Lennox Brown, Samuel Selvon, Wilson Harris, Edgar Mittelholzer (suicide in England), the list is almost endless. Why?
Answer: (a) no monetary incentive, (b) no incentive period. Or, (c) lack of appreciation. There are a number of variables to this answer.
Yet, however, we unabashedly proceed to hail these people as our own and proudly stick by it. What an affront. What baldfacedness! We literally chase these people from our shores to go abroad and fend for themselves and as soon as they achieve some recognition and are rewarded by foreigners, we immediately stake our claim in to them. We were not with them when they had to endure body and soul with blood, sweat and tears, the pain of their achievements. We just want to edge our way on to the rostrum with them to receive some of the acknowledgement, “Oh, yes! This is a child of West Indian soil!”
In a strange way, though, there is really nothing wrong with that; probably, if we didn’t force that writer to leave and achieve such worldly acclaim we would probably never get the chance to praise and stake our claim in him/her.
We should also consider ourselves very fortunate that these same authors did not forget from whence they came and wrote about the Caribbean so sweetly and poignantly from afar. Thank them. Be grateful to them. We can now boast of having our own true-to-life official West Indian – or Caribbean – literary experience to speak about.
Long live Roger Mais! A man castigated in his own country for telling the British government exactly where to go. What did we do? We threw him in jail for sedition – speaking out against “the Crown of England.” They said Roger Mais died of cancer; however it would be a little more accurate if it were said that Roger Mais died of a broken heart as well as cancer. Shame on us!
Long live Carl Parboosingh! He eventually resorted to drinking himself to death after realizing over a long agonizing period of time, that being an artist (painter) in Jamaica was an act of sheer futility.
It was Parboosingh who brought forth the idea of creating an artists colony in Jamaica where painters and sculptors alike could go and be free to create. It’s a dream that shall remain for a long time – unfulfilled.
We should truly thank our lucky stars that quite a number of our good, talented artists have chosen to remain in the Caribbean and work. Very lucky, indeed.
Oh yes, we love to brag about our Caiso (calypso) and Reggae, our dance and our theatre and how we have such a rich cultural heritage.
What are doing to maintain these people and their function is a completely different matter entirely. What we really do is to cheat, rob and deny them a proper right to make a decent living. We should really stop to reassess and re-analyze our whole position on the creative arts.
In New York City, Caribbean people are striving to maintain their cultural heritage; it is being done with music, theatre, dance and remote facsimile of Carnival. This is very healthy indeed; and what is beginning to happen is a gradual process of appreciation from New Yorkers for West Indian culture. We already have our radio and television programs going with time and room for improvement – efforts toward this improvement have already been initiated.
We all know quite well that everybody in is entitled to the right of earning a decent living. The same thing applies with art. Many of us however, have a tendency to look upon the arts as something of a luxury, a thing one does in their spare time.
We also know quite well that in the Caribbean any child that tells his/her parents that they want be a playwright, poet, novelist, singer, painter or dancer is usually looked upon with considerable displeasure and is encouraged to think more along the lines of something more prestigious like that of a doctor or lawyer.
Certainly, we will agree that an individual that has chosen the arts as his/her profession, has assumed a very heavy burden. It is one of the hardest avenues anyone could choose to make a living, yet more and more people still choose it. Sometimes one doesn’t choose art, but that art has chosen them. Some of us are born with a natural talent to be an artist and there are others who work at being one. Artists are primarily a giving breed of people. Their gifts are usually that of a pure, honest, beautiful and healthy nature and oft’times we never seem to receive these gifts with a similar heart. What we like to do seemingly is back in the darkness of the audience snicker, sneer and destructively criticize that gift.
That quite often is our thanks. We love to be entertained. What we seem to believe is that the process of thinking is something that is left purely to scholars and academicians. Once the artist assumes a more serious visage, we become irritable and uncomfortable, look to either wing of the stage and then say to the artist at center stage, “Next!”
Finally, it must be said that and repeatedly said, that we must stop ignoring our cultural arts and face up to the fact that it is an exceedingly vital organ to the anatomy of our society. Our governments in the Caribbean must really once and for all wake up and stop pussyfooting and paying only lip service to that which is not only important to one, but all.
They surely can implement not just piecemeal programs to the arts but to creatively devise new methods that can benefit our artists so that they can not only be appreciated – while they’re still living – but also that they may be able to function adequately in their own country. This is a wish, alas, a dream, that can come true with some considerable effort.
Originally published in the Jamaica 15th Anniversary Independence Celebration Week of August 1-7, 1977 souvenir journal of the Jamaica Progressive League, Inc.
Olivier Stephenson is a poet/playwright/screenwriter/journalist who was the first executive director and founding member of the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre in New York City and Los Angeles, California. He currently resides in South Florida. His manuscript, In Their Own Voices, a compilation of fourteen major English-speaking Caribbean playwrights is being edited by poet/ playwright/editor/professor, Kwame Dawes, for publication by Peepal Tree Press.