Is There a Caribbean, Culturally?

January 14, 2021

This inaugural round-table discussion explored the provocative but fundamental question how the Caribbean and its Diaspora can be defined culturally, in terms of commonalities and disjuncture, and asked whether the case can indeed be made that there is a distinctive and functional (Global) Caribbean cultural sphere.

Panellists: Maria Elena Ortiz (curator and director, Caribbean Institute, Perez Art Museum, Miami, USA); John Hunte (dancer-choreographer and artistic director, Barbados Dance Theatre Company, Barbados); Edouard Duval-Carrié (artist and curator, Miami, Haiti/USA); Ariel Camejo (literary and cultural scholar, University of Havana, Cuba); Deborah Hickling-Gordon (creative economies and policy scholar, University of the West Indies-Mona, Jamaica).

Discussants: Erica M. James (art historian, curator and academic, University of Miami, The Bahamas/USA); Simone Harris (Maroon, dancer-choreographer, and artists’ manager, Jamaica); Omari Ra (artist and head, Fine Arts Department, Edna Manley College, Jamaica); Courtenay Williams (lawyer, art collector and arts patron, Trinidad and Tobago); Dionne Walker (film-maker, UK).

Moderator: Veerle Poupeye (lead researcher, CCF Feasibility Study, Kingston, Jamaica)

Key points in the discussion were:

1. There are multiple Caribbeans: There was consensus among the presenters that multiplicity and a lack of fixed definitions is a defining characteristic of Caribbean culture. Caribbean culture is continuously negotiated between its heterogeneity and homogeneity; between its physical, linguistic, political, and social (class) fragmentation and its shared experiences, expressions, historical and political moments, and regional and global interests. The importance of the “small,” marginal stories and identities that elude dominant, homogenizing cultural definitions was also emphasized – for instance, queer identities – reminding us that culture is always created and renegotiated by its margins, as much as by its centres. We were reminded that the focus in discussing Caribbean culture should be on the people and not on abstract theoretical or political constructs. It was also noted that the covid-19 crisis had, as a positive side-effect, demonstrated that the virtual realm can be an important platform to speak across the fragmentation of the Caribbean and to foster a greater sense of cultural unity, and that this has already made new conversations possible.

2. Definition fatigue: Erica M. James lamented the constant pressure for the Caribbean to define, and justify, itself, which she associated with the external gaze on the region and which, she argued, exists in tension with the Caribbean’s own knowing sense of itself, in which such questions do not urgently arise. She however stressed the importance of mobilizing this sense of self through knowledge-production, critical engagement, artistic expression, and public scholarship – a position that was shared by the other discussants and supported, in practice, with the professional ventures in which they are involved. While the importance of who the Caribbean speaks for and to, culturally, was emphasized, participants also cautioned against insularity and advocated for global connectivity. They pointed to the fact that the Caribbean has been a potent, resistant cultural voice in the global arena and that asserting and supporting this global reach has an important role to play in resisting problematic externally imposed constructs.

3. Caribbean culture as strategy/power: There was a strong consensus about the strategic need to make the Caribbean culturally visible, in a global context where it is often disregarded and marginalized as a sub-region of larger world areas, and about the importance of such strategies to the ongoing decolonization processes. The initiatives to assert the diversity of Caribbean culture in the Cuba-dominated Miami context, through exhibitions and programmes at the Little Haiti Cultural Centre and PAMM, were cited as examples. While there was general agreement with Omari Ra’s assertion that “culture is power,” the question of sustainability was also raised, along with the need to deal with this on a practical level, for instance by addressing issues of mobility and social inclusion, and by facilitating the circulation of Caribbean cultural products, first and foremost, in the region itself. It was noted that addressing these practical issues is unlikely to come Caribbean governmental politics, as these have often been myopic and culturally divisive (e.g., the racial-ethnic politics in Trinidad and Guyana, or between Haiti and the Dominican Republic), but that this needs to be agitated for and initiated by the cultural community.

The video below is an edited excerpt of what was a 2-hour Zoom conversation.