Richard Drayton: “George Lamming (1927-2022)”

[Many thanks to Richard Price for bringing this item to our attention.] In the series, “In the Diaspora,” Richard Drayton writes a tribute to George Lamming, concluding that, “Wherever we work for the liberation and unity of the Caribbean, the spirit of George Lamming will be our companion.” Please read the full article at Stabroeck News. (Richard Drayton, born in Guyana and a citizen of Barbados, is a Professor of Imperial and Global History at King’s College London.)

With the death of George Lamming on June 4 (he would have been 95 today, June 8), we lost our last living connection to the generation who laid the spiritual foundations for Caribbean independence. Lamming was born in Barbados on 8 June 1927, but he understood that rock as only one parish of a scattered nation.  He belonged to the entire archipelago and its diaspora, and the loss of his mighty voice, a cerebral troublemaking voice, a steel band of a voice which unravelled complexity through a logic of tones, is felt as bitterly in Port of Spain and Havana, London and Toronto, as in his island.

He was the only child of Loretta, who in a familiar pattern, sacrificed alone to raise her son in an urban village near Bridgetown.  It was an education in the violence of race and class.  To cross a narrow street from Carrington’s Village to middle-class Belleville, was to arrive on pavements where guards and dogs were free to bully small boys. At ten, he witnessed the eruption of the 1937 riots, and when a scholarship to Combermere School divided him from his working-class childhood, he carried the village with him, and he would wrestle with those memories and the unsettled business he had left behind, for the rest of his life. 

At Combermere he was discovered by the teacher Frank Collymore, who encouraged him to find in the power of words a vehicle for his hopes and anger. Collymore from 1942 had edited the pioneering literary journal Bim, where Lamming, like Derek Walcott and so many others, would first experience writing to be read.  Lamming could have been a cricketer, he was a promising batsman who played once for Empire, but Colly made him want to make writing his life.

After Combermere he went to teach at school for Venezuelan children in Trinidad.  There he became comfortable in Spanish, which later made him one, sadly, of a tiny number of anglophone Caribbean intellectuals who could speak to Nicolas Guillen and Fidel Castro in their own tongue. But in a much larger sense, Trinidad, as Lamming later said, “completely changed my head”. In Port of Spain he was swept up in the extraordinary intellectual, political and artistic life of what was really the cultural centre of the anglophone Caribbean. He met calypso, steelband, Shango, Marx and Lenin, keeping company with the dancers, actors and painters, sculptors, Eric ‘Bill’ Williams and Paul Robeson who circulated around the Belmont and Woodbrook homes of people like Beryl McBurnie. He met there the artist Nina Ghent, the only woman he married, with whom he would have a son Gordon and a daughter Natasha. He had arrived in Trinidad an anxious Barbadian poet, but he left in 1950 as a man who thought himself a West Indian, a Marxist, and wanted to write a novel. 

He shared a cabin and a typewriter on the sea voyage with another man with similar ambitions, Samuel Selvon. Arriving in London in April 1950, he began feverish work, which would yield, over two decades, the body of novels and essays for which he would be most famous: In the Castle of My Skin (1953), The Emigrants (1954), Of Age and Innocence (1958), The Pleasures of Exile (1960), Season of Adventure (1960), Water with Berries (1971) and Natives of My Person (1971).  In London he had a second apprenticeship, learning to use the full power of his voice as a reader for the BBC. He muscled-up before British microphones, the rhetorical arts of what he later described as trying to make thinking feel, and the legacies of that training would remain to the end of his days, and not only in the slashes and BBC reader’s marks of the manuscripts of his speeches and lectures. In London too he began his important friendship with C.L.R. James, and a discerning eye will find Lamming’s mark in the famous appendix to the 1963 edition of Black Jacobins. The anchor of these decades was his long relationship with the South African Jewish political exile Esther De Keyser, who he met at the first meeting of Anti Apartheid Movement, and they came to share a home in Hampstead.

Castle’s fame catapulted Lamming to a new international trajectory.  In 1956 at the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, he met Cesaire, Senghor, Fanon, Glissant, Jean Price Mars, Cheik Anta Diop, Richard Wright, Jacques Roumain, and de Beauvoir and Sartre (who had parts of Castle translated into French).  He came to a new understanding of himself as part of a global Africa, even as part of a whole colonial world, in insurrection against material and moral dispossession.

In Haiti in 1956, he had a life changing religious experience. He was ushered into a Vaudou temple.  There he was part of a celebration of the Ceremony of Souls, the ritual where the living enter into a conversation with the dead, seeking to liberate them from all pettiness, and to rescue for eternity, the highest moral purposes, the gwo bon anj, to guide the future of the community.  He came to understand the Christianity of his Bajan childhood, the transhistorical ambitions of his politics, the aching fracture in himself between the village which had made him and his sound colonial education, his work as a writer, with a new clarity as a task of struggle and reconciliation, a battle of the living against all the waste of mortality, of poverty, of that alienation of hand and mind which he thought was the cardinal evil of Capitalism.  He returned again and again to the meaning of this experience, especially in the novel Season of Adventure (1960).

Season offered a dark prophecy about the West Indies Federation, and indeed about Caribbean political independence. It warned of the danger of the chasm in language, culture and power which separated the educated elite of “Federal Drive” and the working masses of the “Forest Reserve”, whose creative energies were as overflowing in the steel band as they were in the politics of insurrection.  The material poverty of the masses was entangled with the colonized spiritual poverty of the elites.  Later, when receiving his honorary doctorate from UWI in 1980, he would reflect on “the old white planters who derived their power from what they owned” vs. “the new black planters who derive their power from what they know”. Of course, as Andaiye explored in a brilliant essay, the quality of this betrayal of a new political elite of those who produced and followed them, had already been explored in the character of “Mr Slime” in Castle. Lamming’s later decades might be seen as a long war against this chasm, this colonial legacy of alienation. He took onto himself the work of being a kind of secular Houngan, who would engage the liberating power of the Ceremony of Souls, that work of struggle against silence and alienation, in every theatre to which he was given access. 

As the season of political independence opened in the Caribbean, Lamming spent increasing periods back in the Caribbean. At the Mona campus of UWI in the early 60s he kept company with Sylvia Wynter, and the then undergraduate Sandra Williams (later Andaiye), while in 1966 editing the extraordinary Guyana and Barbados Independence issues of New World Quarterly. He built a web of correspondence with West Indian writers and intellectuals everywhere, becoming their most important common point. I was not yet two when he came to stay at our house. He was sought out by Eric Williams of Trinidad, Forbes Burnham of Guyana, and especially Errol Barrow of Barbados. It was then too in the early 1960s that he first visited revolutionary Cuba, beginning a relationship with its poets and novelists like Guillen, Carpentier, Morejon which would endure in his role in Casa de Las Americas.

[. . .] At the same time, in Havana, he collaborated with Garcia Marquez, Juan Bosch, and others in the Committee for the Cultural Sovereignty of the Americas.  In this period too, he ghost wrote speeches for three Caribbean Prime Ministers.

[. . .] Lamming received many honours at home including the Companion of Honour of Barbados in 1987 (he, with Kamau Brathwaite, having indicated privately that they could not accept a knighthood), and an honorary degree in 1980 from the University of the West Indies. Internationally he won many distinctions including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1955), Somerset Maugham Award (1958), the Langston Hughes Medal (1998), Fellowship of Institute of Jamaica (2003), and the distinction of which he was perhaps proudest, The Order of the Caribbean Community (2008). [. . .]

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