He made it his business to be well informed concerning everything that went on in the office. His ears were perpetually on the alert, for the fear was always with him, that, despite his efficiency as a bookkeeper, he would one day be thrown out. He had been brought up to feel that an East Indian’s place was in the field…shovelling and weeding. An office was meant for white people and good class coloured people.
– From A Morning at the Office by Edgar Mittelholzer
EDGAR MITTELHOLZER’S iconic book A Morning at the Office is considered by many to be a literary masterpiece. Set in a typical government office in Trinidad in the 1940s, he explores human relationships, gender, sexuality, class, colour and race through well-written prose, humour and witty sarcasm.
When it was published in 1950, our twin-island nation had already undergone just over 60 years of British colonial rule, as Tobago was merged with Trinidad in 1889.
Tobago was ceded to Britain in 1814 under the Treaty of Paris, so by the time the islands came together as one colony, Tobago had already experienced 75 years of colonialism. Trinidad meanwhile had undergone 155 years of British colonial rule, dating back to its conquest in 1797.
What is the significance of this colonial past and the Mittelholzer book, particularly in light of the fact that we are celebrating our independence today?
It must be understood that colonial values were all-pervasive and perhaps even more insidious than the influence of American pop culture or Jamaican dancehall today. Colonialism “occurs when one nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.”
In the 21st century one still has the option to switch television channels or stream preferred content. But in the 1950s, the values of Britain and Western Europe not only dominated, but established a standard by which colonial subjects thought, learned and behaved. “... many locals in the colonies surrendered to, and assimilated the imperialist definitions and concepts. And the way to rise in social mobility was through recognition and acceptance of the imperialist culture ...”
Indeed, literary genius George Lamming has often commented that colonial education was designed for “the specific purpose of sneering at anything that was made on native soil.”
Fortunately, the 1950s were also a time of considerable flux within the Caribbean, at home and across diaspora. A Morning at the Office was a critical addition to the creative voices speaking out against the negative effects of colonialism on indigenous cultural forms. In many respects, Mittleholzer’s government office represented a microcosm of the complex human relations of the time, but it also dealt with another relevant concept – identity.
As the debate over the rendition of our national anthem at the Carifesta closing ceremony has shown, we take the various representations of our independence seriously.
Almost 60 years, or two generations after formal separation from the British Empire, a clear TT identity is still in the making. Carifesta unveiled our struggles to the world. The fact that we had to agitate for our national instrument to be given pride of place, whether in the overall festival schedule or in the promotion of the event. Or the lack of clarity over the programme for TT night, and even the treatment of our artistes.
Of course, we have made a great deal of progress. But the key to understanding and finding our identity undoubtedly lies in how we educate our citizens.
Guyanese writer Michael Gilkes is quoted as saying that “schools in the colonies were designed to provide a level of basic educational competence among the poor as potential workers, but they were also designed to nurture a subservient educated class...Our school systems still bear the marks of their colonial origins. The role of art was never central to a colonial education, nor is it today, for very similar reasons.”
As we celebrate another year of being responsible for making our own decisions, there is also a need to reflect. We debate the effectiveness of public servants, but have they evolved sufficiently from Mittelholzer’s office? When will civics be reintroduced into institutions of learning? How long before our indigenous Carnival is respected as an art form with the power to educate and transform our population?
Perhaps, two generations are not enough to treat with the challenges of race, colour and identity. Perhaps, as Mittelholzer may have written, we still need to grow up.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN