Carolyn Cooper | George Lamming out of the Chattel House of history
George Lamming, poet, novelist, essayist, political philosopher – one of the Caribbean’s finest writers – joined the ancestors on June 4. Born in colonial Barbados on June 8, 1927, Lamming intimately understood the racial politics of his times. A child of the chattel house, he knew he had no natural right to the great house. That was the domain of the landed white elite in Little England.
The traditional chattel house, a legacy of plantation slavery, symbolises the vulnerability of poor people who cannot afford land. The small wooden houses, put together without nails, are not fixed to the ground. They are set on blocks and can be moved from place to place as fate and fortune determine. The mobility of these chattel houses can also be seen as a sign of the ambition of the disenfranchised. They can eventually uproot themselves from the ground of poverty that keeps them in their place.
Lamming’s first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, brilliantly records the coming of age of the central character G, who, like George himself, must confront the complexities of identity in Little England. The title of the novel is taken from a poem by Derek Walcott: “You in the castle of your skin / I the swineherd.” There is a moment in the novel when black people waiting to be served allow a white man to step ahead of them. He “makes no demand, but accepts a privilege which they offer”. He is secure in the castle of his skin. Subverting this power dynamic, Lamming claimed the fortification of his own origins in the chattel house.
In 2003, The University of the West Indies, Mona, hosted an international conference in honour of Lamming. It coincided with the 50th anniversary of the publication of In the Castle of My Skin. The Trinidadian Kenneth Ramchand taught the very first course on West Indian literature at Mona in the 1969/1970 academic year. I was fortunate to have been introduced to Lamming’s classic then.
In debates on Caribbean popular culture, I’ve had occasion to brandish this novel with great effect. Mr Lamming may not have approved of the way in which I used his work. But the reach of great art exceeds the grasp even of its own creator. Several years ago, I gave a public lecture in Barbados on Jamaican dancehall culture and took part in a lively ‘Talk Caribbean’ television programme on the subject. It was all too much for the Barbados Advocate which published a combative editorial, “Vile Vocals: Undeclared War in Bim.”
In my militant response, “War on Ignorance”, which the newspaper did publish, I invited Bajans to study In the Castle of My Skin. The novel was described by the New Statesman as “the fundamental book of a civilisation . . . Mr Lamming captures the myth-making and myth-dissolving mind of childhood”. This revolutionary novel anticipates the “myth-dissolving” transformation of Barbadian society, independent of any influence of ‘vile’ dancehall lyrics from Jamaica.
In the novel, Lamming’s schoolboys brazenly imagined the possibility of stoning the school teacher. But they were socialised to fear his authority. None of them could yield to temptation and cast the first stone. Similarly, rebellious villagers who contemplated stoning the exploitative landlord Creighton did not dare lift a finger. Nowadays, the teachers-turned-politicians who betray the people are no longer blindly revered. And the treacherous Creightons of Little England can be toppled.
Rebel music is often the medium through which revolt is expressed. G’s childhood friend, Trumper, becomes a migrant labourer in the US. When he returns home, he initiates a conversation with G about identity. Trumper plays on his tape recorder Paul Robeson’s rendition of ‘Let My People Go’. He no longer defines himself in village-bound and purely nationalist terms. He has become an Afro-cosmopolitian. G’s provincial discomfort is evident in the temptation to mock what he does not understand: “Who are your people? I asked him. It seemed a kind of huge joke.” Trumper responds, “The Negro race.”
Trumper represents so many Caribbean youths who find in the musics of the African diaspora a language to express their sense of alienation from their societies. In the words of Bob Marley, “So feel this drumbeat as it beats within/ Playing a rhythm resisting against the system.” This music, including dancehall, gives black people the power to say, ‘let my people go’. Admittedly, the tempo and lyrics of dancehall music are not the same as those of the negro spirituals Trumper reveres.
All the same, the dancehall drumbeat evokes a similar sense of “my people” and expresses a global African consciousness. Throughout the Caribbean region, the diaspora and far beyond, young people respond to the pounding boom box and megawattage sound system of Jamaican popular music. They find joy in the rhythm of the word and the potency of the beat. And they learn the compelling Jamaican language in which the message of the music is communicated.
FROM WEST INDIAN TO CARIBBEAN
It was to Big England that Lamming went to become a writer, a profession that seemed impossible in Little England. In addition to In The Castle of My Skin, Lamming wrote five other philosophical novels: The Emigrants; Of Age and Innocence; Season of Adventure; Water with Berries; and Natives of my Person. In The Pleasures of Exile, a collection of his introspective essays, Lamming acknowleged that it was in England that West Indians came to recognise their shared identity:
“No Barbadian, no Trinidadian, no St. Lucian, no islander from the West Indies sees himself as a West Indian until he encounters another islander in foreign territory. It was only when the Barbadian childhood corresponded with the Grenadian or the Guianese childhood in important details of folk-lore, that the wider identification was arrived at. In this sense, most West Indians of my generation were born in England.”
Lamming also claimed the wider, multi-lingual Caribbean: “I find that I refrain from saying that I am from the West Indies, for it implies a British colonial limitation. I say, rather, I am from the Caribbean, hoping the picture of French and Spanish West Indies will be taken for granted.” Freed from the insularity of monolingual English culture, George Lamming created a lasting body of visionary work that manifests, in his own words, “sovereignty of the imagination”.