Lloyd Best: a tribute
By Gordon Rohlehr
The educated West Indian elite of the first half of the twentieth century used to be told, as their countries crept towards the franchise, self-government and the dangling carrot of independence, that they would be the ones to shoulder the responsibility of leading their old societies into new nationhood.
Lloyd Best, who died on 19 March, was a product of this promise. He shared, with the emerging post-war intellectual elite of which he was a part, the cultural duality of the Afro-Saxon and Indo-Saxon caste; the ambivalence of having sprung and grown away from the grass roots of their survivalist society; and the pioneering spirit of a group chosen by both history and fate to name their new world and define the terms and values by which they hoped this world would operate.
Best emerged a generation after Eric Williams, at a time when an earlier version of island scholarship winners had just assumed the burden of self-definition and national self-validation. He was, in other words, born into an Oedipal situation in which a “son” is destined to question, revise, challenge and confront the definitions and ground rules of a “father” whose authoritarian face the son also wears.
So Best, himself the product of an educational system that had created egocentric authoritarianism throughout the colonial world, questioned the “doctor politics” by which the new nation of Trinidad and Tobago was being governed. If Williams celebrated the histrionic walk around the Savannah in the misnamed “March on Chaguaramas” in 1960, with the famous speech “From Slavery to Chaguaramas”, Best would undermine and invert Williams’s rhetoric with his first great essay: “From Chaguaramas to Slavery”. In the process of creating a counter-discourse to what had rapidly become a Williams monologue, Best became a generator of names — “Doctor Politics”, “the validating elite”, “the parasitic oligarchy”, “Afro-Saxons”, “a big macco Senate”, “localisation”, “screwdriver industries”, “industrialisation by invitation”— as he relentlessly questioned the foundering structures of the floundering fathers.
Together with a cadre of other Caribbean intellectuals, and in the wake of the break-up of the West Indian Federation and the disintegration of Guyana into warring and desolate ethnic factions, Lloyd Best pioneered the New World Movement. New World was regional in scope: a sort of federation of minds, sharing a concern for the archipelago, whose visible or absent ruins they undertook to reconstruct. Out of this movement of minds, and the difficulties encountered publishing the dozen or so quarterlies and the fifty journals in Guyana, emerged New World’s crucial dilemma: that of defining the terms of its proposed engagement with the Caribbean people, and that of determining the nature of its inevitable intervention in the turbulent, murderous and bizarre politics of the region.
When New World foundered in 1969 on this last issue, Best founded Tapia which, like its predecessor, was a movement and a journal, but which was forced by the urgency of circumstances to evolve in 1976 into a political party. While Tapia as a movement of minds remained regional in scope, Tapia as a political party was, quite naturally, rooted in Trinidad and Tobago, where the problem of communicating its ideas and inspiring real “flesh-and-blood” people with its ideals soon began to assume crisis proportions.
Ultimately, both New World and Tapia became dreams smouldering in the minds of those who had shared them; buried seeds of ideas awaiting resurrection in some as yet obscure future time.
Best as an inter-generational intellectual tirelessly explored that ambiguous space between the colonial and post-independence eras, and mercilessly exposed the shortcomings of the incumbent regime of those whom he termed Afro-Saxons and “doctor politicians”. But in probing their flaws, he was painfully aware that he had himself been a product of the same system of intellectual elitism and authoritarianism, and that all of his fundamental recommendations needed to serve the primary objective of placing checks and balances on authoritarian leadership. Thus, a certain implicit self-questioning lay at the root of his formulations for constitutional reform, the empowerment of local agencies, and the transformation of the entire education system. By 1970, Best had devised a counter-curriculum which he wanted UWI lecturers to teach as a public service, and the University to legitimate by offering certification, thus forcing the State to do likewise.
Best was bold, visionary, compelling, and quixotic. He was also courageous, headstrong, tenacious, and passionate, in his desire to pool the energies of the intellectual caste towards public service. He set no limits on the variety of forms such service might assume. The poets, the playwrights, the novelists, the economists, the doctors, lawyers, taxi-drivers, pannists, workers, and farmers, all had parts to play in the making of the new world he envisaged, and in contributing to the dialogue upon which democracy and a civil society were to be established.
My impression of economists is that they are usually tough practical people, attuned to the hard dry nitty-gritty facts of life. Lloyd was one of these. But he was also essentially a dreamer, a man of imagination who relished poetry, music, fiction, and drama, and generously catered for culture and the arts in Tapia and the Trinidad and Tobago Review. He had an almost inexhaustible faith in the capacity and goodwill of people, and in his power to make others share his dream.
In the heyday of Tapia, he once told me, smiling that broad generous smile of his, that his home had become a target for thieves who, after several visits, left a note that read: ”What? Nothing left?” This story appalled me, and I read it as a sign that all his words and ideas had made no impact whatsoever on his immediate neighbourhood community. Yet Lloyd Best was chuckling, taking his licks and pressing on in his faith in the people.
He possessed boundless self-confidence and a certain arrogant innocence, and imagined that others shared his idealism. In 1970, during the dusk-to-dawn curfew, Lloyd at 9.00 p.m. one night chugged up the driveway of friends of mine in St Augustine in his white Volkswagen. When they asked him if he didn’t know there was a curfew, Lloyd replied: “Curfew? What curfew? This Government has no moral authority to impose a curfew on anyone.”
Conscious of the fact that some people, regardless of the scope and depth of their engagement with society, are due to leave only their words to posterity, he strove to have as many of his words and those of his contemporaries chronicled. Hence the extraordinary energy that for forty years produced journals such as New World, Tapia, and the Trinidad and Tobago Review. The latter two survived the devastation caused by two fires: the first in 1969 destroyed the building in which New World used to meet in Port of Spain, and an even more terrible one in the mid-1970s in Cipriani Boulevard reduced an entire archive to ash.
Best emerged from those catastrophes, as he did from the lost deposits of the 1976 general elections, scarred, but not losing hope; exhausted, but stubbornly refusing to give up. For him, the New World was still new, the task of naming and illumination still incomplete. The constitution awaited revision, the society transformation. There were words to be written, there was work to be done, a new society to be dreamed into existence. I suspect that it is this quality of endurance, this refusal to be overcome by the machinations of man or fate, that I have most admired in Lloyd Best. Long may his spirit endure.
Thinking about Lloyd
Like many Trinidadians, I knew Lloyd Best before he knew me. When I was a young man, before I went away to art school, I used to visit a designer colleague, Eric Macallister, after work in the evenings. He was designing and pasting up the Tapia newspaper on Cipriani Boulevard. In those days, Lloyd was a robust man with a heavy commanding voice, wearing some kind of West African sarong under his t-shirt or shirt-jac — but in local terms, it was a skirt! — and, of course, sandals to match.
He was an intellectual. In the late 1970s, this was not always a compliment — perhaps not even today, in a place like Trinidad. He always challenged you to have an opinion, or provoked questions. “What’s your position?”
As a youth-man then, I was always bit circumspect about the shirt-jac posse. Other shirt-jac men, like Burroughs, Coard, and Burnham, or just ordinary territorial civil servants, were already playing themselves in the region, or about to. But, to me, Lloyd represented something different — something that shaped the way I used my first opportunity to vote in 1981, for example.
When I returned to Trinidad from studying abroad, in 1989, a brief comment I wrote about an artist doing something other than rendering birds, boats, shacks, and tracks slipped through and was published in one of the dailies. Shortly afterwards, Lloyd called and offered me space to write about art in the Trinidad and Tobago Review. Again, he was questioning and provoking me into public debate. People began to ask me if I was a Tapia man. This was all very confusing to me.
Lloyd, unlike the rank and file operators within the various cultural territories or properties we have in Trinidad, never questioned my right to have a say or an opinion. I could never imagine Lloyd as just another appointed or aspiring estate policeman.
I proceeded, with his support and encouragement. He corrected my spelling and grammar, but never encroached upon my point of view. I had permission to have and to express ideas! Of course, I was one of many. I wonder how, over the years, he maintained this optimism and commitment in a place like Trinidad, and survived.
This is not characteristic of senior generations, in this post-post-Independence era. They mostly talk to each other about each other, and their academic or pre-Independence accomplishments, or the list of 1970s disenchantments. One gets the impression that subsequent generations came into existence merely to listen. The world was already made. The sermon already scripted.
But many of us live in another space now, of trans-shipment empires, daily murders and kidnappings, and the occasional queen show. Right before my eyes, as in a B-movie, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly had now transformed into the Greedy, the Anxious, and the Desperate. The listeners in “house” began to shift in their seats, those in “pit” were out of their seats and out of patience, and “balcony” had bodyguards, or had already left.
While other artists were questioning my entitlement to have opinions, or threatening to break my fingers, the phone would ring every month and Lloyd would say, “We are waiting on your piece — we cannot go to press.” The schoolmaster had called, and homework had to be done. Sometimes I would be nervous to pick up the phone — was it an artist calling to cuss me for my last article, or was it Lloyd calling to keep me to my deadline? He was one of the most encouraging voices in my life then.
He made me feel normal for having ideas, and for wanting to express them. I never assumed he was interested in my artwork or agreed with my thoughts. It was the principle of providing a platform for ideas that concerned him most. So, by example, and as a matter of principle, Lloyd was asking: who gets permission to participate and to dream in this space that we have been in the process of constructing so far? What would be the best indicator that real democracy, or the prospect of it, was our business or concern?
The last thing I think of is a dream I once had in the mid 1990s, a time of much confusion in my life. It was Carnival, but in the past, near the bleachers in the Savannah, where I saw mas in the 60s with my parents — it was Lloyd as a gladiator! He was playing an individual. He had net, axe, leopard-skin coat, and a Ken Morris breastplate, with a series of people, who I cannot recall, keeping his cape off the ground.
I was about to acknowledge him, but he held his hand up and said he could not recognise me. “Who are you? What are you playing? Go home and get your costume and then we could talk!”
In other words: what’s your position?
On Lloyd Best: a personal note
By Nicholas Laughlin
When I heard, in the second week in March, that Lloyd Best was “on his way out”, I was not immediately perturbed. He had been despaired of before — often — in the six or so years since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He himself liked to tell the story of the deathbed vigil he abruptly broke up when he opened his eyes and announced to his grieving daughters, “Rejoice, for I am the Lloyd!”
But this time there was no resurrection, and on the afternoon of Monday, 20 March, the news came: one of the great men of the Caribbean was gone.
Some years ago, I began writing book reviews for the Trinidad and Tobago Review, at a time when Lloyd was particularly unwell and not involved in the day-to-day editing of the “paper”. One day, after my second or third review had appeared, I got an unexpected phone call. It was Lloyd. He had been reading my pieces, and thought it was time we spoke. He was charming but matter-of-fact; he asked questions; he wanted us to meet; he wanted to know what I was writing next. He asked me, as though it were something I could toss off in the few days before the next deadline, to write a survey of Caribbean literature over the last quarter-century. I told him that, to fulfil the commission, I’d have to take a year off from everything else and do nothing but read. It says something about the scope of Lloyd’s own intelligence that he’d think to ask someone to do such a thing. And it says something about his generous faith in his much younger colleagues that he’d ask someone like me.
I’d been reading Lloyd’s essays and articles for years, of course, and I knew about the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his comprehension, the high grandeur of his sentences. In the too-short time since that first conversation, I also got to know a little of the man behind the formidable public presence: his humour, his gentle thoughtfulness, and his genuine interest in the people around him, in people he’d never met — even in me.
No one has understood the Caribbean, its special privileges and special plight, better than Lloyd. His knowledge was hard-won but worn lightly. He had a novelist’s acute insight into character, whether of an individual, a community, a nation, or a civilisation. He had a philosopher’s clear understanding that our great and still incomplete task is “epistemic sovereignty”, knowing ourselves in and on our own terms. He had a poet’s instinct that this required a fresh vocabulary; that the Caribbean is, as Walcott writes, “a green world, one without metaphors”. No other prose writer, and few poets, have so enriched Caribbean English with phrases instantly defining aspects of ourselves, our history, our culture, our psychology, that we could not apprehend until they were named. “Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom” is not just the name of his most famous essay. It was his ideal, his goal, his project — and, if we could only want it enough to earn it, his legacy to us.
But there are dozens of people better qualified to write about Lloyd, who knew him longer and more intimately, understood his work better, had more time to grapple with his profoundly radical ideas. What I can offer is a personal note on the two of his qualities that have mattered the most to me.
The first was his optimism, which he proclaimed at every opportunity, which survived nearly fifty years of the “fragmentation, segmentation, and disarray” of Caribbean public life, as he described it in 1971. He never ceased to believe in the potential of ordinary people to overcome that disorder — given the chance to express their needs and wants honestly, engage each other in real conversation, find common ground, find ways to agree. “That is all we have to do, we have to talk, we always have to talk.” Lloyd’s clear-eyed hopefulness continues to inspire and encourage me in this prolonged dark time, this time-out-of-joint that is Trinidad in the twenty-first century.
And this is the second remarkable quality: his real and abiding interest in me, my experiences, my opinions, my plans. I was not unique in this way. There must be hundreds of others who felt the same surprise and pleasure that Lloyd Best, one of the great minds of our place and time, wanted to talk to them, truly wanted to listen to what they might say. Lloyd took me seriously in a way that made me take myself more seriously. It gave me a new confidence in my own powers and possibilities, such as they might be. And that confidence, I can see now, is one of the things that made the revival of The Caribbean Review of Books seem not just desirable, but achievable, and necessary.
I write this note just four days after Lloyd’s death. On Sunday, 25 March, his funeral will bring together many of the Caribbean’s brightest and most creative men and women. I won’t be there. I’ll have started on a long-planned expedition through Venezuela’s Gran Sabana to the summit of Mt Roraima. I thought about postponing my trip so that I too could pay tribute to Lloyd with my physical presence. But I didn’t know him to be a sentimental man. I suspect he would tell me to head off without delay, explore this new landscape, keep eyes and ears open, ask many questions; use my new knowledge to understand the world a little bit better, then turn that understanding to some truly good use.
I will try.
— 23 March, 2007