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A regrettable account of Guyana’s missed opportunity

Book cover of A Dream Deferred

In A Dream Deferred: Guyanese Identity and the Shadows of Colonialism, academic Stephen Spencer examines Guyana’s squandered economic and political opportunities. There was a time writes Spencer that Guyana stood at the cusp of a robust identity, with an array of enviable accomplishments – the literary arts, sports, and economic sustainability. Now the South American nation is a mere skeleton of itself. What went wrong? This is the $64,000 question that continues to tax the most noted of highbrows. Spencer attempts this onerous task, using a historical paradigm. His work is succinct, pointed. He explores the colonial area – slavery, indentureship, and the creation of a plural society. His work is well annotated and based on qualitative research conducted in the 1990s.

He reviews the concept of pluralism through the prism of many sociologists, citing the instrumentalist’s view that people with the same material interests will band together, and the primordialist’s contention that ethnic groups coalesce against change that may endanger their culture.

He adds that pluralism as a social construct is not monolithic, but is in a state of flux as circumstances periodically fashion individual and group dynamics.  A Dream Deferred comes alive with Spencer’s findings on race relations in Guyana. He corroborates the nation’s deep divide – driven by naked distrust and entrenched prejudices between the Indo and Afro Guyanese.

In one anecdote, he recalls interviews with Indians that paint blacks as drug pushers and thugs (the choke and rob people), who intimidate and assault their (Indian) community. “Now, they cutting your finger off and they walking aside

you on the pave…very bully. They arlways (sic) shart (sic) of money and they need music…”

Indians, on the other hand are seen by blacks as niggardly, unrepentant hoarders of money, conniving, and chronic wife beaters.

Arguably, these perceptions continue to linger a decade after Spencer’s research. The author traces these prejudices to the influx of Indians as indentured servants, a development that threatened the economic viability of blacks, who saw their earning power threatened due to cheap labour. The marginalization of Indians to villagers also contributed to deteriorating race relations.

But racial strife can be attributed to more than colonial designs and manipulation. Spencer cites authors who posit that economic factors aside, race relations were doomed from the outset, due to sharp cultural differences. The caste system based on colour, birth, customs and habits, long impacting intra Indian relations, automatically relegated blacks to the lowest rung of the social totem pole. That blacks were cosmically connected to the black (evil) god Ravana may have added to the seemingly irreparable damage to communal relations.  

Quite telling is a Hindu legend explaining the origins of blacks' physical characteristics.  The author cites Kusha Haraksingh: “They (blacks) were supposed to have been adherents of Ravana in his inglorious struggle against Rama. The money god Hanuman, faithful servant of Ravana tied a burning cloth to his tail and swished it through the air. The flames darkened the Negroes’ skins and curled their hair.”

It is against this backdrop of supposed Indians exclusivity and resistance to creolisation, coupled with blacks’ overall distrust and disdain for Indians, that a national political framework was established. Despite these antagonist historical and religio-cultural

forces at play, there was hope with the formation of the PPP (Peoples Political Party), where Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham shared influential positions.

The embryo of a distinct Guyanese identity based on economic justice and social reform was being formed, and a national identity seemed imminent. But the audacity of hope was undermined by colonialists, exploiting that ubiquitous racial albatross.

Race riots in the early 1960s, the stranglehold on political power by the Burnham government through electoral rigging, mismanagement, corruption, and cronyism, impacted against national growth and homogeneity.

Not surprisingly, the game of cricket, long used to bolster regional identity and cohesion became another point of contention among Indo-Guyanese, who felt their presence on the national team was intentionally marginalised.

While Spencer's work paints a picture of racial duplicity, replete with conspiratorial agendas, his injection of foreign involvement in exacerbating racial distrust is essential in understanding the complexity of Guyanese society.

That Cheddi Jagan pointed a finger at CIA complicity in that nation's deadly racial imbroglio is instructive and essential in understanding social dynamics, regionally and globally. "What is the trouble in Guyana?" Jagan asks rhetorically. He answers his question: "It's foreign intervention, and if you don't deal with that question you can't understand the racial problem or how this society evolved."

Unfortunately, stirred by propaganda that feeds on insecurity and fear, elements on both sides of the divide, continually stoked the fires of dissension and hatred. Does the future augur well for Guyana?  No one can offer a definitive response. What is certain is that beneath the veneer of normality simmers the embers of racial distrust. Interestingly, the rise of Dr Walter Rodney's ill fated Workers Peoples Party in the late 1970s, may at least serve as a blueprint for discourse.

WPA's ability to galvanise support among both ethnic groups demonstrates that meaningful reconciliation is possible when political and community leaders are sincere and reject politicisation of race and culture for power and control. Spencer writes: "This challenge struck at the heartof PNC support...Such threats from a multi-ethnic party (articulated by a black man) could not be easily deflected by appeals to communal solidarity, as when there was an identifiable ethnic enemy."

The author also lauds the clarion call by Jagan for inclusion and partnership when he assumed power.

Today, more than ever, the future of Guyana depends on impartial leadership that guarantees equal access to opportunities, power, and resources. Further, in a world torn by ethnic discord, the integral role of interfaith dialogue in ethnic healing is well documented, and cannot be dismissed. Guyana's leaders must heed every viable measure

at their disposal.


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Dr Glenville Ashby, literary critic - Caribbean Book Review A Dream Deferred: Guyanese Identity and the Shadows of Colonialism by Stephen Spencer


ISBN 1870518772

Hansib Publications Limited

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Rating: Highly recommended