President-elect Donald Trump (left) and outgoing President Barack Obama shake hands in the Oval Office post-US elections. Much will need to be forgiven for their country to heal its rifts, though not forgotten. Photo by Michael Reynolds/EPA. Copyright © 2016.
AS THE HEAT of the US elections was lifting November 9, the morning after, Barbados was finally cooling down. Temperatures dropped from unbearable highs to tolerable lows; and then it rained for a week. We had entered our Independence month, too: fifty years not out. The world felt a different place all of a sudden, with Donald Trump’s win at the polls.
The present situation leads me to reflect on the state of democracy in Barbados, especially as we may be entering an election year in 2017, or the preamble to one. I’m not just talking about what is working in the nation but what’s failing us.
Protest looks appealing. Revolt is romantic. But to what purpose? White supremacy or anti-establishment rhetoric? Old-fashioned middle-class American values? What was the vote in the US for? Republican rule? Given the tallied popular vote, it was also for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The vote in the US seemed a protest vote, an electoral revolt. My older brother Pat, who has resided in Missouri for over thirty years, felt Trump could have been revealed to be a serial killer (as well as a misogynist, bigot, and vulgarian); he would still have been elected. There’s a lesson in there for Barbadians, a foretaste of the discussions and decisions that await us as few say they are overly keen on Barbados Labour Party Opposition leader Mia Mottley for PM, yet even fewer seem able to fathom another five years of Democratic Labour Party indifference under Freundel Stuart.
Does the US vote bring us (or any other nation around the world) any closer to an understanding of who we are as a people? We keep saying, “We’re not like them—we’re not like those crazy Americans.” Then who are we like? What are we like?
In giving the 41st Sir Winston Memorial Lecture late November, Guyanese-born historian and Rhodes Professor Richard Drayton reminded an overflowing audience at Frank Collymore Hall of a few facts they can claim. For one, if Barbados gave anything to the New World, he told them, it was the means to legislate and manage institutionalized racism…and perhaps other forms of prejudice. (I’ve found myself asking committed Christians: Shouldn’t you be praying for the US president-elect’s deliverance and wise stewardship, not his rapid demise by impeachment or sniper fire?)
My eldest brother, Cal, ever a student of political science, wishes people would truly get to know the US by travelling it more, talking to real people, as he has over the years. Trump, imperious as he is, is not all of America—must not be allowed to be seen as all of America, which would be a perilous thing indeed. “There is much to see and experience that most would not expect,” says Cal. “If you travel safely. Get off the road by nightfall, motel doors locked…as you would do in any other strange land you roam.”
At least one Barbadian writer I know, currently at a residency in Vermont, has been in a position to do just that. This is what Heather Barker wrote to me three days post-US elections: "The community has been quite good also, though with all the unexpected election results, some of the black folks here are not feeling great about it and are finding it hard to express that in a gathering that is mostly white.... I've also had time to go for long walks, read books in the library here, do live drawing classes as well as interview some of the folks of colour here about their experiences in the US. It's been great getting to know them more in this way because I don't think they would have felt 'safe' doing so otherwise."
Trump’s win has loosed some familiar, old demons. If the news is not all bad, it’s not all good, either. For anyone, including Barbadians. Because our anxieties look much like theirs, and in the story collection Heather has been revising while in Vermont, the parallels are ever present.
Noted Caribbean writer John Wickham often suggested that art makes a people free, but what makes them independent? Where’s our choice? Our pride? Put another way, what does our literature, visual arts, philosophy, history, and aesthetics tell us about ourselves that no one else’s can? It’s not too much to ask that our tax dollars pay for more than roads, clean water, garbage collection, and health care.
Yet another colleague and friend wants to write about what happened in the US happening in Barbados. She was so excited at the possibilities, ready to push out that novel the day after the elections. Who would be our populist hero? What would that national campaign look like? How would it triumph?
At the end of the day, even in a protest vote, a vote against one candidate is still a vote for the other. We need to think deeply about our position. We need to be vigilant, too.
My cobbler is right, though. Trump has been and still is a distraction to the world—entertainment, sport. A way for many of us to avoid answering our own tough questions at home. Glossy idealizations about our own people are hobbling our progress. He’d prefer if this were an occasion to see about what we need to get right in our country rather than an opportunity to feel superior because of everything the Americans "clearly" got wrong.
From where my cobbler stands over his anvil on the outskirts of Bridgetown, hammer in hand, nails tucked between pursed lips, every country has a myth about itself in which its self-regard is aggrandizing. Barbados is no different. I would add that every country must have one to survive, to legitimize its pursuits, to distinguish itself, and give its people a sense of identity and purpose.
We are who and what we are. But I hope we all still have the ability to change. For the better.
Doing better, of course, for ourselves or others, doesn’t mean always getting what we want or doing what we want. It is strange to match this thinking against the rise and rise of the cult of Trump, and its gathering hordes. It is stranger still to watch it unfold at this time in Barbados, as our country contemplates its next half century and beyond engaged in its own process of independence.
How will we all, not just our pundits or journalists, our artists or academics, continue to respond to what is happening in our world, meaning also those parts of it we just don’t happen to occupy? What truths will we need to rediscover about ourselves, what trusts reaffirmed, to make us believe we can all get along, feel whole again and unafraid, safe in our sleep, in the coming weeks and months?
I'm watching to see, vigilant and expectant.