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The Vanishing White Man:
Myth and History in Guyanese Culture
Lee Drummond, Center for Peripheral Studies
This essay is a somewhat revised version, with added Postscript, of one
originally prepared for the international symposium, “Symbolism through Time,”
organized by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.
number of the symposium contributions were later published in book form, Culture
through Time: Anthropological Approaches. My little piece did not make the cut.
The Vanishing White Man:
Myth and History in Guyanese Culture
Lee Drummond, Center for Peripheral Studies
We do NOT know the past in chronological sequence. It may be
convenient to lay it out anesthetized on the table with dates pasted on
here and there, but what we know we know by ripples and spirals
eddying out from us and from our own time.
— Ezra Pound
The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than
we can suppose.
— J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Papers
The sources of this essay are a bias. a puzzle, and a sense of dissatisfaction.
The bias is simply my present assumptions about the topic of this symposium —
the relation between symbolism and history — which inevitably surface in
writing and are therefore best to note at the beginning. The puzzle is an
ethnographic one, the result of some fifteen years of working in and writing about
Guyana and the Caribbean. My sense of dissatisfaction is over the present state
and past direction of the anthropology of the Caribbean, particularly as it has dealt
with the phenomenon of cultural change. The bias, the puzzle and the sense of
dissatisfaction have proved impossible to segregate in my recent work on
Caribbean topics, and I therefore welcome the opportunity to work through some
of their mutual implications in this forum.
The Bias
I have to confess at the outset that I find efforts to reconcile symbolic and
historical studies fundamentally misconceived. Although the dialogue/dialectic
between synchrony and diachrony, paradigm and syntagm, myth and history, culture
and praxis, and structure and process has been a mainstay of theoretical debate,
the basic arguments regarding the much sought-after reconciliation have been in
place since Durkheim and Mauss's essays on symbolic classification.
As befits pioneers, they presented their case in stark fashion, unencumbered
by decades of qualification and elaboration: Our remote ancestors developed a
concept of time — began thinking of themselves as naturally living through tine —
because they were so ci al b ei n gs anx i ous t o r e gul at e a nd ce l e br at e t h ei r
effervescent group awareness. Time was a feature of the natural world only
because it represented a feature of the social world. Extreme as their social
determinism was, Durkheim and Mauss provided the basis for later work in
symbolic analysis that has modified their ideas while remaining true to their
inspiration that humanity has constructed its categorical home from
experiences it creates of itself. Durkheim and Mauss's original insight into the
symbolic nature of time has been amplified masterfully in Edmund Leach's
articles on the symbolic representation of time and Marshall Sahlin's extensive
treatments of interwoven cultural and historical processes. Since I am simply
admitting a bias here, and not trying to embroider on the work of previous writers,
let me state the case as simply and directly as I can.
History is not an obstacle for cultural analysis, since the underlying notion of
history — time — is itself an eminently symbolic construct. Time and
symbolization are inseparable because time is our most immaterial concept: it
exists always in representations. English and the Romance languages betray
etymologically the paradox that our ideas about time and its sacrosanct nature were
originally fused with our ideas about the sacredness of place. “Time,” “temps,”
“tempo,” “tiempo,” and a host of related words derive from the common Latin
roots, tempus (something cut off or marked out) and templum (a place set apart, as
in the dwelling of a deity). The Romans measured time by erecting a wooden pole in a
sacred place and observing the movement of the sun's shadow on the hallowed ground
(much as they wove cloth using the loom's wooden purlin, or templum, to keep the
fabric stretched). Tempus was inseparably bound up with templum; time was an attribute
of a holy place and all its mythic associations.
Time and space, history and myth are two pertinent instances of our civilization's
penchant for first creating dichotomies and then soberly and methodically studying their
interrelationship. Our obsession with “measuring” time down to the last nanosecond with
a series of increasingly sophisticated instruments reinforces a deep-seated prejudice that
favors a scientific approach to time and historical process and frowns on a supposedly
mystical invo1vement with now-ness and the mythic process that encourages that
involvement. History is or can be made to be scientific and materialist; myth is
inevitably sentimental and fictional, forever divorced from the real world of historical
The bias I parade here runs exactly counter to this prejudicial endorsement
of dichotomies. I submit that the privileged position accorded the concepts of time and
history in our thought is a fluke — an “historical” accident, a peculiar tale (histoire) —
that occurred in large part as a result of the human sciences developing in the shadow of
a persuasive but immature physical science which, in its newborn exuberance and
ignorance, grossly misinterpreted the so-called “laws” of the universe. However, as
classical physical science has matured or morphed into the fields of relativity, quantum
physics, and complexity theory, these new fields of enquiry have dislodged and
complicated the tidy Newtonian concept of time as a fundamental absolute of physical
existence. Consequently, old assumptions regarding a natural fit between history,
the study of the human career, and classical science, the study of a determined
and determinate natural world, must be abandoned in favor of an entirely new
way of looking at the world.
Those who founded and perpetuated anthropology — that “queen of the
human sciences” — were so accustomed to thinking of the exotic doings they
described as discrete events occurring in fixed time and space that it seemed a
perfect congruence of reason and common sense to search out the
interrelationships between the organization they discerned in those doings and
their place (another effortless analogy) in an historical process. Their bias, like
my own, was the result of diffuse influences from a variety of fields that came
together in a theoretical perspective and research program. Whether we call this
congruence a Kuhnian paradigm, a Foucaultian epoche, or just a plain old
Californian mind set is immaterial, since I am attempting here to defend and
promote a bias and not to explain it away.
If I am on the right track here, I believe a new paradigm/epoche/mind set is
now taking root, one that knits together the concept of time and other fundamental
ideas into a unified theory of history-cum-myth and myth-cum-history. A clue
that this process is underway is the fine irony that has been served up to those
social scientists who unimaginatively and often pompously endorse a natural
scientific, quantitative orientation and reject as soft and subjective the kind of
qualitative cultural analysis that is anthropology’s distinctive contribution to les
sciences humains. These social scientists, practitioners of a craft Richard
Feynman (a real scientist) derisively called “cargo cult science” (because their
wishing would make it so) have been so busy parading their “scientific”
methodology that they somehow did not notice that physical theory had moved
on, leaving them holding an empty bag.
Contemporary theoretical physicists have found the cause-and-effect
determinism of Newtonian mechanics inadequate to account for the highly
peculiar processes of the physical world. In its place, they have advanced a
wide range of concepts, formulated in relativity theory, quantum mechanics,
and complexity theory, which assign priority to some exceedingly odd
(non)entities: the emerging portrait of the universe is one of virtual particles,
oscillating voids, multiple realities, chaotic creation, and, perhaps strangest of
all, dark matter and dark energy. “Scientifically”-minded anthropologists have
not followed, and quite likely not noticed, the dramatic twists and turns
physical theory has taken during the past several decades. Instead, they cling
to now-hackneyed concepts which they vainly refer to as “hard” science. In
the context of physical theory which routinely describes the indeterminate and
undecidable nature of events, their grotesque miscalculation renders them
downright unscientific. The mind plays tricks on one’s categories.
A principal casualty of theoretical physics’ seeming and often-remarked
dalliance with mystical forms of thought has been the classical concept of time.
Although our elementary and high school students are still taught to construct their
graphs with time as one axis plotted against, say, velocity, physicists have dropped
time from the fundamental variables of matter/energy (charge, spin,
momentum, “color”) that constitute the terms of their quantum field equations.
And, perhaps more unsettling to us mere mortals, they have made time
reversible: a positron is simply an electron traveling backwards in time.
Multiple realities, reversible time, action-at-a-distance, virtual particles and
other highly exotic notions drawn from quantum physics violate common sense.
The message I draw from all this is that a cultural anthropologist who is a genuine
thinker, and not just some squawking parrot, must now incorporate into his analysis
of human culture a vision of reality as a bizarre complex of ideas and actions which
may possess radically different structures as an integral feature of its make-up and
which may transform itself in abrupt and seemingly random steps. In a curious,
provocative way the impenetrable (for me) math of quantum physics leads to a quite
plausible notion of time, though perhaps not one we typically bring to mind. If we
are forced to abandon the world of classical mechanics — that universe of
“real,” physical objects possessing but. not being energy and moving in a constant
temporal framework — then we may be amenable to a notion of the world
conceived as a synthesis of the here and now. After a fashion, we may return to the
union of tempus and templum which the ancient Romans envisioned as one of the
first fundamentals of Western thought. “Time” cannot be retained as an elemental
physical constant, but it can be apprehended in its highly intuitive, nonrepresentational form as the sense of now-ness or, better, here-ness, that pervades
The Moment. That sense of being or being-here ultimately defies representation
and enters the field of social action only through our shared implicit understanding
that each of us is enveloped in a film or aura of here/now-ness. As Ezra Pound
notes, any time-keeping or measuring we do is simply a mechanical exercise. It is a
reflex of the mind’s penchant for bestowing systematicity, whether through the
practice of Trobriand calendrical rites or the manipulation of laboratory
instruments. Apart from that practice, in which we all routinely engage, is
the individual’s inviolable sense of here/now-ness, the root from which
experience grows, the anchor of the world's events.
Nietzsche expressed this notion far better than I, and for that reason (among
numerous others) I have advocated that we adopt a Nietzschean anthropology to
succeed the pointless wrangling now characteristic of cultural analysis (see
“Culture, Mind and Physical Reality: An Anthropological Essay;” and “Shit
Happens: An Immoralist’s Take on 9/11”). One of the grand ironies of Nietzsche’s
thought is that this incomparable master of language was led, towards the end of
Thus Spake Zarathustra, to renounce language in favor of the immediacy of the
experiential world inhabited by his only companions, the eagle and serpent. Their
“language” in Baudelaire’s phrase, exemplifies the temple où de vivant piliers
resonate without the linear thought of speech.
“O Zarathustra,” the animals said, “to those who think as we do,
all things themselves are dancing: they come and offer their hands and
laugh and flee – and come back. . . Everything parts, everything greets
every other thing again; eternally the ring of being remains faithful to
itself. In every Now, being begins; round every Here rolls the sphere
There. The center is everywhere. Bent is the path of eternity.” [[1888]
1954: 329-330]
It is this concept of “time” defined as that sense of here/now-ness which is the
bias I want to confess and recommend in this essay. Every other means of
expressing the concept is confounded by the regressive act of framing a
representation of a process that is already representational. The intuitive sense of
being-here may not seem like much, but I would argue it is all we have as a
foundation for building a model of a synthetic myth/history, structure/process.
But how, having come perilously close to committing pop science, evoking
mystical presence, and dragging in Nietzsche’s enigmatic notion of eternal
recurrence, do we proceed to build that synthetic model? A start might be found in
a variant of that comfortably worn heuristic device, “If I were a horse. . .” In
keeping with my evoked quantum bias, we will not worry much about horses
and will ask instead, “ If I were a photon. . .” If we all were photons, the
topic of this symposium would be quite incomprehensible, for photons — even
more than the biased anthropologist I have been describing — disregard time and
its attributes. Traveling along the relativistic continuum at the speed of light, the
photon does not experience the passing of time; every event — whether the birth
of our galaxy, of our planet. or of individual organisms — is now (and,
therefore, here). The sense of here/now-ness that forms the basis for our
representations of time is an all-embracing reality in the world of photons (and it is
a tempting speculation to claim that our being able to sense here/now-ness at all
must be tied to the fact that our physical selves are products of the same matterenergy interactions that have produced the time-denying photon).
Even resisting that speculation, it is still possible to conclude from this
little masquerade that rejecting time and history as elementary constituents of a
“real” world does not automatically drive one into the camp of mystified Omchanters, psychics, and burned-out druggies — demons that every right-thinking
social scientist attempts to exorcise from the tender undergraduate minds placed
under his tutelage. When that exorcism is accomplished (as it all too often is), the
real world of virtual being and indeterminate action — the world described by
quantum physics — is veiled by a wistful, confused version of reality that
elevates common sense impressions of things happening one after another to
the status of scientific, authoritative truth. That tidy picture of a world ordered
by causality and its pale shadow, the “statistically significant relation,” cannot be
sustained, however, in a universe which, as a recent contributor to quantum theory
has remarked, “may just be one of those things that happen from time to time.”
The bias I am describing is a virulent one: if supplied with any nourishment
whatsoever it soon consumes the false dichotomy between symbolism and history
and invades deeper, more vital tissue. Conventional notions of history and social
science agree in maintaining that what the two disciplines reveal is the
underlying pattern of the succession or correspondence of events. Something
happened, then something else happened — how are the two happenings, the two
events, connected? The historian relies on assumptions about temporal succession
and process in seeking the connectedness of events; the social scientist on
statistical laws of association. But in searching for the connectedness of events,
they ignore the fundamental question of what an “event” is in the first place, and
particularly whether an “event” is the kind of thing that readily lends itself to
substantiation or identification prior to sorting out how Event A is connected to
Event B. As heirs of an incompletely assimilated classical mechanical worldview
— itself incomplete and inaccurate — our stalking horse historian and social
scientist wrongly suppose that “events” are neatly isolated facts, like beads on a
string, that can be lined up, counted and marched off to the cadence of a more or
less positivistic methodology.
Quantum theory dissolves this tidy notion of event and substitutes a
model of a physical world where what happens depends on who or what is
looking: event and observation, action and interpretation are indissociable
concepts in the quantum mechanical world. It is useless for us, right-thinking
social scientists though we may be, to demur on this issue, to claim, for example
that we would rather go about our specialized task of observing and analyzing
societies and leave the dilettantish business of popular science to less
professional colleagues. Every sentence in every anthropological monograph
published is infused with assumptions about the nature of the event and the
observer's place in relation to it.
Ethnography, however, is not the great event-maker of our time: the
ethnographer's arcane writings, secreted away in journals or university press
books of a few hundred or a few thousand copies each, are rarely infused with the
sense of everyday life pulsing around the observer. For the illusion of events in
the raw, one must turn on a TV set or glance at a newspaper; there “what
happened” is served up as straightforward, two-dimensional fact and very little
room is left for the play of interpretations that more literary ethnographers now
embrace. But modernity is difficult to escape: the ethnographer's subject — his
“natives” — the inspiration of his cloistered writings, persistently appear on those
TV screens and front pages. They assume a life and importance that owes little
or nothing to his professional imprimatur; they become, for a few brief days or
weeks, not ethnographic subjects but Dan Rather objects. And the “events”
constructed around them — breathlessly reported by anchormen wearing safari
outfits and standing before iconic sites — become immediate, presentational
truths to the viewing audience, although what the anchormen think is important
might be quite irrelevant to the people involved in those “events.”
Whatever the ethnographer may think of all this, he is powerless to decree
an authoritative version of the natives’ truth, to insure that the tangled issues
surrounding a colony’s independence, a religious war, or even an isolated and
traumatic “event” such as Jonestown will receive their due in the sixty-second spot
on the evening news (see my “Jonestown: An Ethnographic Essay”). As modernity
slips inexorably into postmodernity, any chance of redeeming a naturalistic, self-
contained concept of the event disappears in the heavy folds of thick description.
Quantum theorists may be skirting mysticism in their frontal assault on
commonsense, but the beleaguered ethnographer has no choice but to follow them
into the thicket.
The Puzzle
The concepts of time and event, while partly obscured by the murky waters
of quantum physics, are not so removed from the concerns of cultural
anthropologists that we can simply let them slide off our field-weary backs. Still, it
is refreshing to turn from those ponderous topics to a concrete ethnographic puzzle.
The puzzle first confronted me in 1979, in the middle of my third research trip to
Guyana. My previous work had been in the interior of that country, where I was
interested in the cultural dynamics shaping notions of ethnic and tribal identity
among the heterogeneous and shifting populations of Arawak, Carib and Warrau
Amerindians, Afro-Guyanese prospectors and timber workers, Indo-Guyanese
farmers, and the general Creole mélange of the frontier. The particular problem
that had captured my attention was the fate and role of Amerindian myth in this
rapidly changing, ethnically diverse new nation. I was fresh from graduate
seminars in symbolic anthropology; the volumes of Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques
were rolling off the presses at a dizzying rate; I was headed for South America
to study Amerindians: my interest in Amerindian myth owed little to my own
powers of imagination.
Amerindian myth in a context of Third World political and cultural upheaval
— as I drafted my dissertation proposal the topic seemed to pose what had already
become a classical problem in structural studies. As we all know and have been
reminded too many times, Lévi-Strauss approached the whole corpus of
Amerindian myth as one would an enormous clockwork, intent on observing how all
the pieces fit together and operate. But what happened to this indigenous clockwork
when energetic conquerors and colonizers — those entropic beings spun off from
the “hot,” thermodynamic, historical societies of Europe — arrived on the scene?
Or, more to the point of my own research, what conceptual residue of indigenous
Arawak and Carib myth remained to impact their lives in any significant fashion
after three hundred years of contact and change?
Investigating the dynamism of myth turned out to be a difficult task, for it
soon became evident that a study assigning myth a generative role in cultural
change ran counter to established views. Curiously, Lévi-Strauss posed a
major impediment here, for his insistence on separating myth and history was
like the kiss of death to the sort of myth analysis I was attempting: each new
volume of Mythologiques was another requiem for an extinguished pensée sauvage.
When hi s followers sought to apply the structuralist approach to obviously nonindigenous myths which Amerindians tell (the coming of the whites, the story of
Jesus, Brer Rabbit stories, etc.), they remained true to his dichotomous turn of
mind and described the new quasi-historical narratives as corruptions, acculturative
assimilations, or even “anti-myths” (Roberto Da Matta 1971). At the same
time, the large contingent of self-styled anthropological positivists (remember, the
ones who think they have “science” on their side) adopted a line similar to the
structuralists they opposed and explained changes in myth as yet another
demonstration that those imaginative narratives were merely the tail wagged by the
dog of social action, of “real” historical processes. If Amazonian peoples began
narrating the story of Jesus rather than or even integrated with that of the creatorspirit Makunaima, it was because political, economic and cultural forces had
combined to produce a historical situation of assimilation to Western society.
Both approaches to this question of myth’s role in cultural change struck me
at the time as inadequate; and my opinion has only hardened over time.
Structuralism’s capitulation to a notion of history fashionably allied with Marx
is at best intellectual trendiness and at worst simple dishonesty. The positivists, at
least, are true to their own teaching: myth was never of critical importance in their
understanding of how a society works (read functions), and its malleability in
contexts of social change only demonstrates its secondary role in human affairs.
The gaping hole in the positivist’s conception of myth, however, is their bland
assumption that the whole complex network of actions, beliefs, artifacts, etc. that
make up culture somehow takes shape independently of symbolic processes
whose form is articulated and transmitted through myth.
I voiced these criticisms in an earlier essay (“Structure and Process in the
Interpretation of South American Myth: The Arawak Dog Spirit People”) and
attempted to back them up with a demonstration of the resilience and
contemporaneity of a particular myth told by Guyanese Arawak. The myth,
known in several variants throughout the Guianas and northeast Amazon, is the
story of an Arawak man who discovers that his dog is a spirit which turns into a
white woman and secretly does his domestic chores. Surprising her in his camp
one day, he snatches the dog's skin that hangs on a peg and hurls it into the fire,
condemning her to remain human. They then live together as husband and wife, and
she becomes the ancestress of the matrilineal dog-spirit-people clan.
The intriguing thing about the dog-spirit-people myth is that it has a double
edge. While it appears to be a Malinowski-style “charter” for a particular clan
(with, perhaps, strong overtones of sexual fantasy – with which Malinowski was
also familiar!), it is also the basis of a derogatory story about ethnically mixed
Arawak. Members of the dog-spirit-people clan are also known as the “changed
ones” (ebiswadu) in the ethnic mosaic of the Guyanese interior. This a pointed
reference to their intermixture with escaped slaves, black woodcutters, prospectors,
and other refugees from the coastal British colony who lived among and mated with
Amerindians from the late 17th century onwards. Thus, the myth cannot be
interpreted either as a rationale or charter for clan organization or as an “anti-myth”
that chronicles the disintegration of indigenous society. It is a simultaneous
affirmation and denunciation of intergroup marriage, and so provides a fittingly
ambivalent portrait of contemporary Guyanese and Guyanese Arawak society.
The argument I developed in my earlier essay still seems valid: a principal
role of myth is to articulate a model of human distinctiveness conceived as a system
of differences (between one human group and another, between people and
animals, between people and their artifacts) which sometimes unify and sometimes
divide individuals. Arawak myth, and quite likely all myth, provides contrasting
images of situations which the Arawak, like most of us, would like to have both
ways if they possibly could. In multiethnic Guyana they identified themselves with
their white colonial mentors and guardians (who indulged their own
mythologizing bent to the fullest by thinking of “their” Amerindians as
politically and culturally naive “children of the forest”). However, the Arawak
found themselves at every turn involved with the black and East Indian Creoles
who comprised their wider social world. The paradoxical result of this
unsolvable quandary has been to transmute Creole behaviors and attitudes into
“white” or “English” ones using the dialectical resources of mythic thought. As the
Arawak were drawn into the complex interethnic milieu of the interior, they adopted
the ways of blacks and East Indians yet, because those customs were generically
alien, stereotyped them as “white.” The sharply contrasting interpretations of clan
origin – association with a spirit versus contamination by distrusted outsiders –
articulate the Arawak’s impossible task of making whiteness out of blackness.
As I discuss presently, this conception of ethnicity as a residue of dialectical
and ambivalent thought articulated in myth runs counter to the direction of much
Caribbean anthropology — and to much popular and official discussion of
“race” in Caribbean societies. But when I was well into my 1979 research it
was not these theoretical issues that captured my attention and started me
wondering about the ethnographic puzzle I now present to you. Guyana, a tiny
colonial society throughout most of its history and, like the British West Indies,
firmly rooted in traditions of “Britishness,” had apparently undergone a major
cultural transformation in less than a decade. White people were vanishing. They
were vanishing, and not only from the streets of the deteriorating capital,
Georgetown, but from the minds of those Guyanese who did not themselves join
the flood of British and American evacuees. As a major ethnic category in
Guyanese culture (romantically stereotyped in the colonial literature as a
picturesque “land of six peoples”), the ethnic identity “white” or “British" was
slipping into oblivion. I had gone to Guyana initially in 1969 to study what I
fancied would be the “vanishing red man” in a multiethnic new nation rapidly
developing its frontier; ten years later I found myself puzzling over the enigma of
the “vanishing white man.”
The puzzle emerged directly from interviews four Guyanese research
assistants and I were conducting, and came as a complete surprise to me. The
research project we were engaged in was designated by me as a “cultural analysis
of ethnicity” and was intended to provide a wealth of detail about what Guyanese
themselves thought about “race” and its manifestations in their daily lives. As a
means of getting the interview underway, the respondent was asked to describe or
comment on photographs of twenty Guyanese, most of them assembled from a
publication of the Guyana Ministry of Information (definitely not a repetition
of Marvin Harris’s highly suspect study of Brazilian ethnic categories in which he
employed a Dick Tracy-style Identi-Kit). See Appendix 1, “Photographs of
My first surprise upon beginning my own interviews and listening to
interviews recorded by the research assistants was that none of the twenty
photographs elicited the category, “white,” “British,” “European,” or
“American,” although I was fairly confident that one or two of the twenty
photographs was of a “white” person. This turned out to be a fabrication on my
part, a result of a North American reflex to see pinkish skin, straight hair and green
eyes as “white.” The Guyanese eye, however, is far more discerning — or
imaginative — and searches relentlessly for the slightest trace of ethnic mixture
that would situate an individual in the complex multiethnic society of
Perhaps, then, my set of photographs was unrepresentative and
compromised the results of the project. I prefer to think, though, that the absence
of a bona-fide, fresh-off-the-Pan-Am-flight-from-New-York “white” person in my
sample was one of those felicitous accidents of experimentation that open new
avenues of research. For later in each interview we asked the respondent, after he
or she had described or commented on the photographs, whether any “race” or
ethnic group found in Guyana was not represented in the photographs. This
provided my second surprise: in fewer than half of sixty-seven complete
interviews (which averaged about three hours each) did the informant call the
interviewer's attention to a missing category or group of “white people.” Even
these corrections undermined the importance of “white-ness” in the eyes of our
respondents, for they were made in the spirit of completing an assignment: our
respondents had also read or assimilated the colonial stereotype of Guyana as the
“land of six peoples” and were apparently merely parroting that lesson back to
interviewers who must have seemed more than a little like schoolmasters.
That “white people” as a principal category of Guyanese ethnicity were
vanishing along with the expatriates who once ruled British Guiana was
underscored in other parts of the interviews. These “interviews” often became
rambling, anecdotal conversations — and intentionally so, for they sought everyday
accounts of what it was like to live in a multiethnic society. Respondents were asked
to recount memorable stories of their friendships, hostilities, or other involvements
with members of the ethnic groups they previously identified. The absence of
whites from these stories was striking. Only three respondents volunteered an
account of a personal relationship with a “white” person, and none was particularly
detailed or intense. For the other respondents, who talked on and on about
childhood friendships, adolescent adventures, and adult love affairs and conflicts,
whites were definitely on the outer fringes of their lives. Object neither of desire
nor dread, the “white man” has ceased being the aloof but ever-present colonial
master or even tourist (Guyana has none; there is nothing to attract them) and
become simply a phantom who doesn't matter in the turbulent reality of Guyanese
If my earlier essay was correct in claiming that Guyanaese ethnic categories
form a cultural system which incorporates a great deal of ambivalence and
trans-valuation — of Creole behaviors being interpreted as attributes of “whiteness” — I now believe it erred in clinging to a sense of orderliness and
continuity which this episode of the vanishing white man dispels. In the 1977 essay
I tried to document the working of what I termed “syncretic transformations” in
myths which bear the imprint of contact and colonization — and thereby draw these
“contaminated” myths into the domain of a semiotic analysis of myth. The
1979-80 research indicates that the reformulating powers of myth operate within a
wider and conceptually more volatile field than is acknowledged by conventional
cultural analysis. If myths ponder differences between human and animal,
nature and culture, black and white, they do not regulate the pace of social change
nor — as we know from Lévi-Strauss — do they actually succeed in resolving
what are often fundamental antinomies of human experience.
Will the puzzle of the vanishing white man be solved only by abdicating the
position that myth/history is an irreducible feature of culture and assigning a
priority to material, temporal processes over the catch-up ideas of mythic
narration? I think not, although I have just tried to establish that cultural
systems — at least the Guyanese variety — are more deeply transformational than
the familiar notion of “structural transformation” would allow. The solution of the
puzzle rests in discovering what Guyanese culture, in David Schneider’s phrase, is
all about.
If the culture and its formulation in myth (which I find
indistinguishable, as interlocked as sign and referent) are not in part about white
people, if the mythology of ethnic categories does not include “whites” as an
elementary unit, then what are its fundamental, organizing principles?
The Sense of Dissatisfaction
Stumbling over the puzzle of the vanishing white man in the field
exacerbated a number of doubts I had held for some time about the anthropology
of the Caribbean and its fit with cultural theory. Schneider’s straightforward
question, when applied to Guyanese culture and its Caribbean setting, illuminates
those doubts by posing them against the backdrop of what others have written or
implied about the nature of Caribbean societies. There are two sources of doubt
which I now realize account for my initial surprise about the vanishing white man
and my sense of dissatisfaction with the going theories of Caribbean culture: (1) the
bloodless accounts of Caribbean marriage and family life that dominate the
literature: (2) the prominence accorded European and North American institutions
and values in determining Caribbean social structure. In short, the vanishing white
man was so much a puzzle because so much of Caribbean anthropology insists on
his presence.
Situating the puzzle in its topical literature does not, however, dispel its
enigmatic, probing appeal. One can — and must (there is no alternative) — ask
what Guyanese or Caribbean culture is all about without expecting a tidy,
unambiguous solution. Guyanese, Caribbean and, I strongly suspect, all
culture is more about questions than answers. The ethnic categories my
Arawak acquaintances and I found so intractable on close inspection turn out
to be parts of a mythology of ethnicity, a shifting theory of belonging and not
belonging, that grapples with contradictory principles of identity and ambivalent
desires. That my ethnographic work should come up against a puzzle is an
indication that things are on track; it is only when the correlation coefficients
are unimpeachable and the hypotheses crisply confirmed that we know something
is surely amiss.
The long chore of loosening the grip of healthy-minded empiricism on
cultural anthropology, undertaken by Leach, Wallace, Geertz, Comaroff, Sahlins,
and others is succeeding in dismantling the concept of a society/culture as a
cohesive, internally consistent system. We have learned from often forced and
painful lessons that integration and continuity are not hallmarks of those
entities we are pleased to describe as “societies.” Understanding cultural
change — regardless of whether we choose to view that phenomenon as a product
of temporal and economic processes — depends on our early recognition that “a
society” (like the quantum physicist’s “elementary particle”) is never
conceptually transparent, never fully determined and waiting, as it were, for the
methodical fieldworker to set about cataloging its intricacies. Puzzles — at least
the edifying kind James Fernandez discusses — are a key ingredient of cultural
processes because what we call “societies” or “cultures” are in reality systems of
difference and uncertainty. The way things don't fit together is what keeps people
constantly at work trying to rearrange the conceptual pieces.
If puzzles do have this important role in cultural process, then it surely will
not work to explain away the puzzle of the vanishing white man by appealing to
the demographics of Guyana over the past twenty years. That whites, along
with many Portuguese (whom the cultural system of Guyanese ethnicity
discriminates as non-white), and Afro- and Indo-Guyanese have abandoned this
devastated land does not close the chapter on the cultural implications of their
departure. Their going actually heightens the drama of changing ethnic relations
and provides new material for the expanding corpus of racial myth that is at the
cultural core of Guyanese life.
How do the puzzles persist, and in what sense are they fundamental to
Guyanese culture? The two dissatisfactions I voiced earlier — with prevailing
anthropological accounts of Caribbean marriage and kinship and with the place
usually accorded “white-ness” in Caribbean cultural systems — provide important
The Arawak myth of the dog-spirit people and respondents’ dismissal of
whites, while appearing to go in different directions — a wishful identity and
incorporation versus segregation and neglect — are imbued with a common
property: the passionate interest and involvement Guyanese have with the whole
topic of interethnic relations. My analysis of the dog-spirit people myth aimed to
demonstrate that it and numerous other South American myths engage the theme of
metamorphic unions — conjugal relations that bring together distinct groups or
species and sometimes result in the emergence of a new group. The actual
characters in the myth, whether it features a human falling in love with a dog, a
monkey, a serpent, or simply another human, are not so critical for purposes of
cultural analysis as its fixation on the generative power of intergroup or interspecies
Guyanese who participated in the 1979-80 research project, while mostly
non-Amerindian and unaware of Arawak myth, repeatedly demonstrated an
intense personal involvement with members of other ethnic groups. All this has
led me to conclude that if Guyanese culture is “about” anything in Schneider’s
sense, it is the consuming passions of interethnic attraction and repulsion.
Throughout my periods of research and writing on Guyanese topics, I have been
impressed and often overwhelmed by the casual pervasiveness and burning
intensity of Guyanese ideas about race. While educated North Americans and
Europeans have learned to treat the whole topic of race with extreme
circumspection and downplay its role in personal relations, Guyanese routinely
employ ethnic ascription and dwell on its effect on their lives. From tender
accounts of intimacies (real and fantasized) with someone of another race to
chilling tales of race war, mutilation and murder, they give their personal lives and
cultural surroundings a powerful ethnic charge.
In its brief history the anthropology of the Caribbean has shown a distressing
tendency to blunt the emotional edge of interethnic encounters.
This is
accomplished in two ways, which are the sources of my current dissatisfaction with
the field: (1) the most personal and emotional topics — sexuality, marriage, and
child-rearing — are given the most arid treatments; (2) the complex and moving
sentiments which fuel the culture of race in these multiethnic societies are forced to
fit a constraining theoretical model in which whites, far from vanishing, are
accorded an undeserved pre-eminence.
A crippling paradox of Caribbean anthropology taken as a coherent subject
(which may well be unjustified) is its fixation on studies of kinship and marriage
and its simultaneous avoidance of any fundamental theoretical consideration of
desire (this criticism probably holds for anthropology as a whole). For
example, the sexual curiosity and longing Guyanese display toward men and
women of other ethnic groups — in their folklore, music, jokes. everyday
behavior, and even recorded interviews with our project’s research assistants —
find little voice in the literature. Anthropological studies of family structure are
typically bloodless, jargon-ridden affairs. Young men and women, bursting with
desire, are said to enter into “visiting unions,” which may progress to
“consensual cohabitation,” and these arrangements may eventually be sanctioned by
formal “marriage.” Along the way, many of these unions drift into a muchdebated “matrifocality.” The requirements of dispassionate analysis of even the
most visceral subject do not altogether justify this transformation of lust and love
into the stuff of an all too self-consciously “objective” social science. Nietzsche’s
criticism of philosophers who preceded him applies with equal force to most
anthropologists of the Caribbean: “nothing real escaped their grasp alive.”
I believe that the social-science literature has taken pains to cloak itself in
authoritative discourse partly because its practitioners sensed they were
working with a deeply emotional and disturbing topic: black sexuality and its
potential eruption into a supposedly orderly white culture. Rather than confront the
topic of sexual desire in these first colonies of the colonial era, researchers have
attempted to wall it off and codify experience that is the historical residue of
tempestuous and horrible circumstances. Mating, parentage, and what passed for
marriage were conducted against the plantation background of the atrocities of
slave rebellions and the butcheries of their suppression by European masters.
The heirs of this bloody legacy, while generally taciturn — it is often remarked
that there are no more conventional, respectable people than West Indians —
possess a rich and highly ambivalent set of ideas about race and sexuality. These
ideas find expression in a tremendously diverse corpus of narratives and
behaviors — from Arawak myths about white dog-women to rum shop humor
about the sexual equipment of representatives of Guyana's several races. All
contribute to a cultural system in which race and sexuality are inextricably tangled
and which requires, not a recitation of the petit-bourgeois virtues and fallibilities of
Caribbean lovers and families, but something like a Foucaultian treatment of
Caribbean sexuality as an organizing principle of experience and a residue of
other ideational/ideological constructions that together comprise the cultural
system. As a start, anthropologists might consult Edgar Mittelholzer’s Kaywana
trilogy, a gripping saga of interracial lust, love, and violence in Guyana from the
time of the earliest Dutch settlers through the plantation era.
The enigma of the vanishing white man becomes especially poignant when
considered in the context of prevailing theoretical approaches in Caribbean
anthropology. If the category of “white-ness” appears to be losing its importance in
people’s lives, it is firmly enshrined in anthropological writings about those people.
Despite the existence of competing theoretical approaches and a heated
ongoing debate over the applicability of “plural society” models, Caribbean
anthropology is surprisingly uniform in the central position it accords whites and
Plural society theorists such as M. G. Smith and Leo Despres emphasize the
importance of a colonial presence in holding together, through direct or lightly
veiled coercion, the disparate ethnic “sections” of a multiethnic society like
Guyana, which would otherwise fragment into distinct cultural communities. In
their view, white people and their values provide the social glue that sticks these
fragments together. Alternatives to a plural society approach, offered by R. T.
Smith, Sidney Mintz, and world-system or dependency theorists generally, embrace
a muted but still recognizable form of anglocentrism. For R. T. Smith, Guyanese
society is functionally integrated — not plural — and its source of integration is an
internalized set of British ideas, values and attitudes. In the manner of Durkheim,
plural society theory advances a mechanical and coercive notion of whites
providing a social glue, while its opponents identify an organic form of
integration/solidarity. In both, however, the linchpin of Caribbean societies remains a
white, British presence. For Sidney Mintz, Caribbean social structure derives from
the shared institution of the plantation and indirectly from the world historical
forces that led Europeans to colonize the islands and plant them in sugar. On a
less topical level, world system and dependency theorists would whitewash the
Caribbean with their insistence on discovering global economic forces to
account for local level situations.
Notes by Way of a Conclusion: Life in the Ruins
Throughout the essay I have been mindful that mine is the only
contribution to the symposium that deals with a society of the Americas. Caught
between treatments of the old worlds of Europe, Africa and Asia and the new, new
worlds of the Pacific islands, these concluding notes on symbolism and history in
the New World society of Guyana are perhaps the place to broach an issue that
makes itself felt, consciously or not, in the work of every writer on the Caribbean.
Caribbean history is a curious, thoroughly reflexive topic, for it is really in
the Caribbean, or more specifically in the islands of the Bahamas, Hispaniola,
Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica that modern history began. There Columbus and
his men learned for the first time what was involved in contacting and subjugating
peoples who had been isolated from the great movements of populations,
inventions and ideas that bridged Europe, Asia, and Africa. And the Arawak and
Carib inhabitants of the Bahamas and Antilles who received those Spanish
explorers and conquerors learned the first and fatal lesson of the colonized. In less
than a quarter of a century hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million Arawak died
in the Greater Antilles, scrubbing the land of a complex society in a genocidal and
ecocidal disaster whose proportions are only now, with the five hundredth
anniversary of Columbus's landing upon us, becoming established (Carl Sauer,
Henry Dobyns). The blood and ghosts of those Arawak clung to the Spanish as
they penetrated further into the New World, visiting now familiar horrors on
the Amerindian societies and civilizations of the mainland.
Behind the waves of conquistadors the Caribbean remained, devastated,
unrecognizable, swarming with the vermin (human and animal) of Europe, the
cultivations of its former inhabitants choked by weeds of European soils. The
Caribbean had become a kind of social and cultural Ground Zero, the point of
impact of a destructive civilization that proceeded to reshape the two American
continents in the image of its accomplishments in the Antilles. When Magellan
sailed, when Cook went ashore, when Livingstone traveled, they took the
Caribbean experience with them. As the first killing ground of Western
colonialism, the Caribbean established a precedent for events that followed. It
witnessed and shaped the birth of modern history.
The Spanish quickly used up and abandoned the fragile islands, but
what followed continued the desolation and disequilibrium they left as their
heritage. The buccaneers, slave masters, rum runners, refugees of North
American wars, and today’s drug and gun smugglers, offshore bankers,
revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and tourist hordes have maintained the
fragmentation of the area as though it were a cherished institution. From the
disdain of early travel writers to Naipaul's heartsick portrayal of his island home
as a place of shipwreck, the Caribbean has consistently been described as a ruined
land. Its unshakable forlornness has even cast a pall over anthropologists’
descriptions of its societies.
Until fairly recently, Caribbean anthropology was a part-time or temporary
undertaking for scholars who were either just finishing graduate school in North
America and needed a convenient place to practice or who were completing
one field work phase of their careers and wanted to move on to study the “root”
cultures of Africa and the archives of Europe. The fragmented and ahistorical
societies they had studied in the Caribbean field would give up their secrets by
placing them in an orderly, historical context — whether that be the living history
of African tribes or the documentary records of European colonial administrations.
I believe this trend in Caribbean anthropology (which is alive and well:
prominent scholars are busily publishing the results of their archival searches)
skirts the most intriguing feature of Caribbean societies: they are lands whose
people have turned their backs on history. The past was too chaotic and painful
to remember, and even if forgetfulness itself works to bring it back (but recall that
it was the Reverend Jim Jones who nailed that particular adage above his jungle
throne) people would rather think about other things. With the past forgotten or
ignored it is possible for Caribbean peoples to give all their attention to the principal
mythic undertaking of any culture: creating the present; embroidering that world of
here-nowness discussed earlier in this essay. It is the very fragmentary,
incomplete, and transient nature of Caribbean societies — features that have
caused historian, anthropologist and novelist alike to turn away in despair — which
reveal themselves as generative devices that impel what Roy Wagner has called the
“invention of culture.”
But what do the mythic processes of Caribbean thought keep inventing?
Surely not repetitious versions of tired old themes — the institutions of colonial
society, the oppression of black by white — nor even the political and cultural
formations of the present. “Guyana,” “Jamaica,” “Trinidad,” “Barbados,” “Cuba,”
and two dozen other names of sea-washed, sun-bleached scraps of land may well
prove as mutable and therefore forgettable as the social worlds of buccaneer
encampments or sugar plantations (many of the latter have already been converted
to tourist resorts, their stench of blood masked by the perfume of sun tan oil).
These tiny societies are the stuff of processes of cultural identity formation today,
but what will guarantee their place in “history”? Nothing.
Guyana in particular, probably because I know it better than other Caribbean
societies and have chronicled the comings and goings, the appearances and
disappearances of its red men and white men, strikes me as highly unstable and
likely to become a relic of history alongside its predecessor, British Guiana.
Abandoned by its whites and abandoning them in turn — remember that the
ethnic category is dropping out of use — the social discourse of the country
has become at once listless and shrill. While those who can go (the most
productive members of society) get out, leaving the poor, the elderly, children, and
the government’s henchmen behind, State repression and petty meanness ride a
wave of propaganda that tirelessly boosts all things “Guyanese.” The nation is
bankrupt, its cynical politics in disarray, and Venezuela waits in the wings,
nourishing an old claim to two-thirds of Guyana’s present territory.
The mythic processes that generate cultural and national identity and, along
the way, constitute history, take back as much as they give, eradicating systems of
difference and propping up new ones in their place. Guyana, and too many
places like it, are mythic constructions that appear to be cultural dead-ends,
societies that are simply not working out and whose driving force, in this case
the intense tension of desire and repulsion among the races, will come to seem as
curiously antiquated as Arawak myths of clan origin. One system of ethnic
sensibility may be replaced rapidly by another, as evidenced by the phenomenon of
the vanishing white man chronicled here. Cultural change sometimes occurs
quickly, and sometimes the change just doesn’t take. Tiny, impoverished nations
like Guyana, whose people are evacuating them and whose remaining citizenry is
held captive by cynical and greedy rulers, have little chance of lasting very far into
the next century. If they do survive, it will be as relics of a past world, as life in
the ruins.
In its tragic, and rather pathetic flirtation with oblivion, however, Guyana
offers its most significant message to the world at large (and to anthropologists,
those watchers of miniature social worlds, in particular). The metaphor of the
Caribbean as a cultural Ground Zero applies to the future as well as the past: the
short-lived, bizarre social mutations that occupy the region today have experienced
in concentrated form the forces of colonialism and nation building that have
gradually shaped all of the modern world, and they therefore hold clues to what is in
store for the rest of us. The pervasive sense of dislocation, the intense feelings
about ethnic identity and intermixture, and the certain knowledge that things are
changing forever are features of everyday life in Guyana and much of the
Caribbean that may well portend far more than the disappearance of a few
insignificant national boundaries. As one of the more vulnerable and
preposterous societies in the world today, Guyana reveals the inevitable outcome
of every nation-building process: dissolution.
For where, if one truly has to pinpoint it, is this country named “Guyana”? It
is not simply that strip of drowned coast and ragged jungle perched on the hump
of the South American continent. “Guyana” is a welder in Toronto, a
schoolteacher in Los Angeles, an illegal immigrant in Bedford-Stuyvesant just as
much as it is a cane cutter in Bush Lot, a rice farmer in Elmira Village, a prospector
in Paramakatoi. Like the quantum particle I have argued that it resembles,
“Guyana” is not a fixed, determinate entity occupying a particular time and
place; it is rather smeared across a swath of the cultural universe. Those who
have fled and those who remain do not stand on opposite sides of the boundary of
Guyana; together they constitute its non-spatial, non-temporal social and political
reality. They, and the mercurial polity they represent, are paradoxically bound
together by the thought that “Guyana,” along with its white spirits and white men,
is vanishing from a world in which the whole enterprise of “nationhood” has just
about exhausted itself, reduced to absurdity with the advent, on one hand, of giant
corporations operating on a global scale and, on the other hand, of dozens of island
states, microscopic in size yet containing people from all over the world.
“Guyana” is history in the making, myth in progress.
Postscript: The Ethnographer’s Eye
I believe it is often true that an anecdote or joke may reveal more about a
subject, in this case the fundamental nature of Guyanese / Caribbean culture, than
a five-hundred page monograph authored by some posturing hack claiming to be
doing anthropology. Such is the case with a little story Sidney Mintz relates in
Working Papers in Haitian Society and Culture about Haiti’s notorious former
dictator, François (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier. Like most such stories, it may well be
at least in part apocryphal, which only adds to its appeal (I once had an
opportunity to ask Mintz where he had heard the story, but at the time he couldn’t
remember). At any rate, here is the anecdote:
An American journalist had come to Haiti to do a story about the country
and its president. This journalist wasn’t too cosmopolitan, but rather a typical
American: mid-Western, corn-fed, rosy-cheeked, secure in his limited knowledge
of the world. Walking around Port-au-Prince a couple of days before his
presidential interview, the journalist was surprised to see that most of the people
on the street were very dark-skinned Negroes. He was surprised because on his
first trip to the Caribbean he had expected to find a country full of Harry Belafonte
look-alikes: handsome, light brown-skinned, Caucasian-featured types with broad,
white smiles playing in the sand and surf or carrying picturesque market baskets
on their heads. Now, Duvalier made quite a contrast with this journalist. He held
a medical degree and had spent a year or so in the late 1930s studying at the
University of Michigan, where he doubtlessly learned something about American
race relations. He had been editor of an intellectual journal and, when he wasn’t
busy reading chicken entrails or torturing folks, did ethnological research on the
local Vodun religion. When the appointed time for the interview arrived, the
journalist was anxious to clarify his puzzlement over the predominantly Negroid
population. He asked Duvalier, “I’ve noticed almost all the Haitians I see are
Negroes; do you have a white population at all?” Duvalier feigned surprise at the
question, and replied, “Oh, yes. Almost ninety per cent of our people are white!”
The journalist expressed his bewilderment at this reply, and Duvalier continued,
“But, tell me, how do you know if someone is a Negro?” The journalist, a bit
taken aback by this question, gave what he felt was the obvious answer: “Well,
anyone with Negro blood is Negro.” Duvalier gave a rather evil grin and
responded, “Why, that’s exactly how we tell when someone is white! Anyone
with white blood is white.”
The anecdote as Mintz told it does not provide the journalist’s response, but
we may suppose Duvalier’s remark went right over his head. Growing up in the
American mid-West, or just about anywhere in America, involves assimilating a
system of ethnic categories which are starkly rigid and unforgiving: “black” and
“white” are mutually exclusive designations, which generally carry a great deal of
cultural baggage in the form of presumed personality types, intelligence, sexual
habits, and more. Our journalist was simply unprepared for his sudden exposure
to a much different system of ethnic categories, one shared, in various forms, by
most everyone who has grown up or lived for long periods in the Caribbean. In
that system and its variants, the biological fact of ethnic intermixture (which is
somehow suppressed in the American system) is given its due, so that one and
generally more “mixed” categories are recognized. Duvalier’s joke was to turn the
American system of categories on its head, to insist that an absolutist concept of
Negritude demanded an equally absolutist concept of white-ness.
If the American system of ethnic categories is incredibly simplistic, to the
point of ignoring biology, it distinguishes itself as being perhaps the most
hypocritical in existence. Consider, American blacks were still being lynched in
Mississippi and Alabama well into the 1960s, when Bull Connor was loosing
attack dogs on black civil rights marchers in Birmingham (see photograph below),
yet today the great majority of educated Americans pretend that racial differences
are virtually non-existent, and most certainly not to be mentioned in polite society.
Social discourse in Guyana and throughout the Caribbean would be neutered if one
were to exclude or forbid the countless references to race in everyday life. In
twenty-first century America, on the other hand, to mention race in a negative way
is to invite the condemnation of the politically correct – who somehow manage the
moral juggling act of not noticing that Bull Connor and lots of present-day Bull
Connors are a repugnant fact of American life while affecting an ever-so warm and
cozy attitude toward race.
Even now, with a racially-mixed President, Americans persist in living in a
social world of white-or-black. Their polarized conceptual lenses often lead them
into making absurd claims and observations of the sort our journalist committed. I
found myself involved in one such incident, an experience which, again, taught me
more about the subject of race than could any tome of social-science mediocrity.
It was 1984, and I had been back, not in the U. S. but in Montréal, for a
couple of years following the fieldwork portion of my “Cultural Analysis of
Guyanese Ethnicity” project. In a fashion, I had been “working up the data” as
social-science types like to describe it – spending lots of hours listening to tapes of
Guyanese describing the twenty photos shown in the Appendix. Those interviews,
as I have been at pains to describe, contain the most intimate, intricate, and
complex accounts of individual Guyanese experiences with members of Guyana’s
ethnic groups and intermixtures. Their accounts, their Guyanese Creole speech,
were swimming in the back of my mind when the following event occurred.
It was early evening, I was at home slouched in an easy chair, casually
regarding that hallowed TV institution, “The Evening News.” I gave the program
a bit more attention when the anchorman composed his anchorman features in the
“Momentous Event” look, which is entirely different from the Face he adopts to
announce the latest carnage in a foreign war or the latest abduction of a white girl
(non-Causasian girls are seemingly immune to abduction). The Momentous Event
he proudly proceeded to report was that the Miss America Pageant had just
crowned its very first “black Miss America” and the screen switched to a
photograph of Vanessa Williams.
Disconnect, vertigo, bewilderment – my senses were assaulted by the incongruity
between what I was hearing and seeing. Immediately the language of the
Guyanese streets and ferry boats welled up inside me, demanding almost to be
spoken aloud: “E wha de man seh? He call she a black gurl? Bahy, she ent no
black gurl! She mix, mix, mix. An look she hair – it fine like enyting. An she eye
green! She wan high-cula gurl, fo’ true, true, true.” [What did the man say? He
called her a black girl? Boy, she ain’t / isn’t a black girl! She is mixed, mixed,
mixed. And look at her hair – it’s fine like anything. And her eyes are green! She
is one high-color (light brown-skinned) girl, for true, true, true.]
The network anchorman, icon and spokesperson for an entire nation’s grasp
of events, here parades the same cultural bias as our bush-league journalist in
Haiti: people are either black or white and Vanessa Williams, with some degree of
African ancestry, is clearly black. And we can congratulate ourselves on having
come so far over the difficult terrain of race relations in the United States to anoint
her with one of the highest honors American popular culture can bestow on
American womanhood. Here she comes, Miss America.
Culture shock. It is a concept originally employed by anthropologists to
describe their sense of dislocation and disorientation upon taking up residence
with an indigenous group in some far-off corner of the world: the Amazon, New
Guinea, the heart of Africa. Their language, dress, food, and other customs are so
very different from one’s own that the overall effect is an assault on one’s senses.
What is far less widely publicized, however, is reverse culture shock: having spent
a year or two adjusting to life as lived by the “natives” the ethnographer, if he has
truly accomplished what he set out to do, has assimilated enough of the host
culture to discover upon his return home that his own people and their ways appear
odd, unreal, sometimes actually repugnant. Reverse culture shock is not an ongoing thing; in my experience it comes at you all of a sudden: you are going about
your daily routine when you are blindsided by an experience those around you find
perfectly natural. The everyday world becomes suddenly alien, vertiginous,
Kafkaesque. Quite literally, you see things differently from those around you;
your very perceptions are altered; the world has become a different place from
what it was. Such was my experience with the news broadcast. I did not sit there,
an armchair philosopher taking in the broadcast and reflecting in a rational manner
on the variety of conceptual systems to describe race or ethnicity one encounters
from one society to the next. My experience was of an entirely different nature: it
was at once perceptual and visceral. I immediately saw something and reacted
emotionally to it.
My experience, what I saw, gives the lie to the current popular
understanding of race in America. Having done, for the time being, with its
lynchings and attack dogs, the refined, educated, oh-so politically correct
American now maintains that “race” is merely a residue of particular social and
historical events (colonialism, slavery, class structure), and how unfortunate it is
that the unenlightened among us cling to that anachronism in evaluating the worth
of other persons who may have a rather different appearance but are just like us,
under the skin.
Even so august and knowledgeable an organization as the
American Anthropological Association has given its imprimatur to this bit of
hypocritical posturing.
How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given
society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The
“racial” worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low
status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth.
The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices
stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal
populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African
descent. Given what we know about the capacity of normal humans to
achieve and function within any culture, we conclude that present-day
inequalities between so-called “racial” groups are not consequences of their
biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social,
economic, educational, and political circumstances
— American Anthropological Association, Statement on “Race” 1998
The tragedy or, really, farce here is that the Association can disavow the
importance of race or ethnicity only by repudiating the very concept which is the
fundamental basis of anthropology: culture. Of course “racial groups” are
“products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political
circumstances”! As human beings our very essence is shaped by culture, in other words, by
that set of “circumstances” which the Association’s Executive Committee finds, well,
circumstantial. The question that must be put to this group of distinguished scholars (which, in
their zeal to produce politically correct intellectual pabulum, they did not bother to pose
themselves) is which definitive attributes of humanity are not products of those circumstances
they name.
Race or ethnicity is a product of circumstance in just the way that one’s religious
beliefs, notions of the beautiful and the ugly, hygienic standards, dietary preferences, and
marriage practices are, all of which carry profound meaning and all of which serve as the basis
for often drastic social action. In becoming fully human, the individual has internalized those
meanings and rationales for action to such an extent that it is impossible to separate his actual
perceptions of the world from his conceptualizations of it. Race or ethnicity is real; its
perception is an immediate visceral response to phenomena. It is pointless, and entirely
mistaken, to attempt to separate percept, seeing someone as such-and-such, and concept,
situating that person within a classificatory system (“black,” “white,” “mixed,” etc.). The two
are components of a single act. It should therefore not be surprising, though deplorable, that
racial or ethnic ascription triggers powerful emotional responses. Compare what is and has
been done in the name of race and in the name of religion. On a more mundane level,
consider a typical American’s reaction, having just finished dinner, to being told the meat dish
he consumed with relish was in fact cat meat. Visceral, to put it mildly. Or, at a level at least
as deep as that of race, consider Oedipus’s horror on discovering that Jocasta was his mother.
Why should incest be horrible? Just a matter of those “circumstances” the American
Anthropological Association is eager to dismiss. All these fundamental ascriptions point to the
critical truth that the transient phenomenon we call “humanity” is a set of systems of difference
which operate to assign or deny identity or belonging to individuals, groups, or classes of
actions. “Culture” is all about establishing and transgressing boundaries that are as real in
percept as in concept. It is a species of gross intellectual dishonesty to claim that Bull Connor,
with his attack dogs and clubs, did not perceive a world of white and black, good and evil at
the very depths of his being, to claim that he was simply and unfortunately misled by social
and historical circumstances. It is equally dishonest and mistaken to deny that an Islamist
terrorist, such as Mohammed Atta, does not take with him into Allah’s embrace an allconsuming hatred of what is different from himself and his kind.
Although hardly a form of solace, in concluding it is useful to recall the episode which
inspired this essay. I was profoundly puzzled, even shaken, at the rapidity with which the
category of “white man” seemed to drop out of the Guyanese system of ethnic categories, with
which that identity, so important in past times, seemed simply to fade away. Few places in the
colonial world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries matched the atrocities the Dutch
and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the English committed against the African slaves on their
plantations. And, if we can credit the passionate accounts of lust and love among Guyana’s
ethnic groups in Edgar Mittelholzer’s imposing corpus, few places rivaled the colony’s history
in the intensity of its interethnic relations. Yet now, where whites are concerned, all that is
pretty much gone, forgotten. The lesson I take from this dramatic transformation of a society’s
cultural values is that it is mistaken to search for a continuity or consistency, and certainly for a
set of causes in the history of a social group (and, quite likely, in an individual’s life history).
The barbarities on the Dutch plantations of Essequibo are gone forever, as are the Dutch and
much of the memories associated with them. Bull Connor, we may hope, is burning for all
eternity in his Christian Hell; the lynchings and attack dogs have disappeared in that darkness
of the past which enveloped the Dutch plantations. And things keep changing, in profound
ways. Today many of us view the Islamist activist as a living embodiment of bigotry and
hatred, someone who is prepared to kill other human beings indiscriminately because of their
perceived difference from himself. Yet a few centuries ago “we,” that is, we Christian
Westerners were burning witches and vampires at the stake, along with “heretics” who did not
subscribe to some minor doctrinal pronouncement of the Pope.
Now we produce and
consume supergrosser movies about them. Could it be that future Islamic societies will come
to view Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta as bizarre and regrettable curiosities, much as
we denounce and dismiss figures like Cotton Mather, and even Bull Connor? Perhaps.
Perhaps not. But what may or may not come to pass is not determined; no astute young
scholar is going to devise a “research protocol” to read those tea leaves. We are left, in the
end, to contemplate once more a world of here/now-ness, of a reality smeared across a
conceptual landscape to such an extent that just about anything can happen. And does.
“O Zarathustra,” the animals said, “to those who think as we do,
all things themselves are dancing: they come and offer their hands and
laugh and flee – and come back. . . Everything parts, everything greets
every other thing again; eternally the ring of being remains faithful to
itself. In every Now, being begins; round every Here rolls the sphere
There. The center is everywhere. Bent is the path of eternity.” [[1888]
1954: 329-330]
Appendix 1.
Photographs of Guyanese, used in Cultural Analysis of Guyanese Ethnicity Project.
(Except as noted, all photos are taken from Guyana Ministry of Information booklet,
circa 1978).
Photo #1
Photo # 2
Photo # 3
Photo #4
Photographs of Guyanese, continued
Photo # 5
Photo # 6
(personal photograph)
Photo # 7
Photo # 8
(personal photograph)
Photographs of Guyanese, continued
Photo # 9
(personal photograph)
Photo # 10
Photo # 11
Photo # 12
Photographs of Guyanese, continued
Photo # 13
(personal photograph)
Photo # 14
Photo # 16
Photo # 15
Photographs of Guyanese, continued
Photo # 18
(personal photograph)
Photo # 17
(personal photograph)
Photo # 19
Photo # 20
(personal photograph)