Tue | Dec 11, 2018

For the Reckord | Sylvia Wynter offers a new understanding of humanity - Pt 2

Published:Friday | August 31, 2018 | 12:13 AMMichael Reckord/Gleaner Writer
Antony Bayani Rodriguez holds up a sign from 1946 in the Emrie James Museum at St Andrew High School.
Dr Anthony Bayani Rodriguez peruses a copy of Sylvia Wynter's novel The Hills of Hebron in the Emrie James Museum at the St Andrew High School for Girls.
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"Professor Sylvia Wynter is offering us in the early 21st Century, her vision of a new understanding of what it means to be human," says Dr Anthony Bayani Rodriguez - Scholar-in-Residence (2017-18) at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York.

He and I were talking on the grounds of St Andrew High School for Girls, while he was in Jamaica conducting research for a biography of the distinguished Jamaican. Professor Wynter, recipient of the Order of Jamaica, is a University of Stanford professor emerita, and a woman renowned for her unusually wide range of interests. She has been a novelist, playwright, dancer, actress, critic, educator, philosopher, and essayist.

Rodriguez continued, "She doesn't prescribe what exactly a new humanism would be. What she does is to ground it in the theories of Caribbean anti-colonial philosophers like Franz Fanon and Aime Cesaire. Her ideas are challenges to the traditional thinking of what it means to be human that are based on European, Western modern theory."

Rodriguez explained that Wynter 's argument is that being human is not just based on biology, but is rooted in storytelling. In "our capacity as a species to narrate our social worlds and bring them into reality and existence."

 

Misconceptions

 

He pointed out that though the argument is not new, "Professor Wynter has activated the origins of our misconceptions of what it means to be human, and has spent decades reiterating the historical urgency of moving beyond this kind of humanism that structures our politics, our institutions, our economy."

He stressed that she thought we needed to move beyond this to something new. "The seeds of that humanism are in the traditions of the formerly enslaved people - the black peasants, the poor, folks who have been structurally marginalised."

As we spoke, Rodriguez and I left the school which Wynter attended and from which she got a Jamaica Centenary Scholarship in 1946 to study Spanish at King's College in London. We moved into the school's Emrie James Museum, which is dedicated to the work of past students, where Rodroguez found a sign declaring a school holiday on the day in June on which the scholarship was announced, and a copy of Wynter's novel, The Hills of Hebron.

The novel, Rodriguez said, started off as a radio play for the BBC's Caribbean Voices when Wynter was living in London. It reflects on the uncertainty of the future of the Caribbean that West Indian intellectuals like George Lamming and Jan Carew (whom Wynter married) felt in the pre-Independence era. The novel asks, as the intellectuals were asking, "What will Independence mean for Jamaica, especially for the ordinary people?"

In 1950s London it was unusual to be identified as a West Indian, but Wynter was "forward thinking, 100 years ahead of her time." He added, "To write fiction was a politically conscious endeavour. Storytelling for Wynter has always been an anti-colonial, or decolonising act."

Rodriguez told me that his biography will begin with Wynter's birth up until her retirement from Stanford University in 1995. He called her time at the university, "the most heretical phase of her thinking," and said that at 90, she continues to push her ideas, to invite people to think more radically.

"My biography's main objective is to trace the development of her ideas and her life. It's an intellectual biography and my intended audience is the folks familiar with her, folks who know just her name, folks interested in the Caribbean or black intellectual history."

He added, "It's a very broad audience. Part of my job is to help people to understand her ideas through her life, for those ideas can be quite dense." The book will have 10 chapters, he said, and should be published by 2020.