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The great believer in a Caribbean civilisation
It was late one night in the 1990s. I was sitting in the back seat of a car. Lloyd Best was driving with his two little girls in tow and he was giving me a lift back east, after an evening of laying out the T&T Review, where, for a very brief time, I had worked as a part-time designer/sub-editor after my regular day job at the Guardian. One of his fiesty little girls (maybe five or six at the time) suddenly cracked a joke. I laughed; Mr Best paused, as if faced with a delicate, fascinating puzzle; his brows knitted quizzically; then he said: “Ah! Humour!” smiled and continued driving.
There seemed a strange gap, sometimes, between Best’s big ideas, and his ability to express them clearly and simply to ordinary, non-academic mortals—which presumably is your audience if you write in a newspaper. I’d sometimes (like several others) find myself perplexed or downright impatient at the cliff-like blocks of dense language Best sometimes used in his Express newspaper columns, and I’d wish for more rope bridges to be slung across the chasms.
Yet even though the style could be challenging, the themes of his columns were interesting, spirited, and very thought-provoking and if you didn’t always quite get a point, why, speculating on what he might have meant could still be a worthwhile philosophical exercise.
In person, Best always talked to you as if you mattered, and his interest was genuine, whatever your station in life. He was one of those rare beings who made you want to be a better person.
From reading his columns and the T&T Review, I learned of Best’s passionate commitment to the notion of a Caribbean identity and space and a Caribbean way of doing things. I admired this.It reminded me of the idealism of many men of his generation, including my father, who were young men at the time of independence in the 1960s, and who had a strong sense of public service.
My brief time at the T&T Review also opened my eyes to a whole new world of regional writers and thinkers whom I’d never, until then, encountered in T&T, either in school or at university in the 1980s. These voices from more than 50 years ago, whom I first met in the pages of the T&T Review, seemed to believe in something more important than the pursuit of dollars, or metropolitan approval.
Last week saw Convois 2017—a week-long series of events to mark the work of Lloyd Best, the T&T intellectual, newspaper columnist, former UWI Economics professor and aspiring West Indian social reformer with a passion for Caribbean freedom and self-determination. He died in 2007.
The Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies on Tunapuna Road organised the memorial events and was the venue for a series of interesting evening lectures recalling its founder’s ideas and ideals.
As part of the activities, Caribbean Yard Campus, an educational enterprise to network traditional knowledge systems in the Caribbean, organised daily trips and sessions to some T&T centres of indigenous excellence. These included a Carnival Fancy Jab whipmaster in Couva, a demonstration of growbox horticulture in Caura, and a session on spiritual rites of passage at Renegades panyard in Port-of-Spain.
Other Convois 2017 activities included a play, We Breakin’ Biche, and a public exhibition on Lloyd Best at the National Library.
One of the several highlights of Convois 2017 was the Wednesday, March 22 lecture session, facilitated by the Friends of Biswas, sponsored by the Cropper Foundation and hosted by the Lloyd Best Institute. It featured three speakers: Bridget Brereton, UWI professor emerita of history, speaking on Best as a public intellectual; Kenneth Ramchand, literary critic and UWI professor emeritus of English, speaking on Best’s interest in the arts and humanities; and land planner Ivan Laughlin, speaking on Best as his mentor in the heady days of Tapia’s activism.
Best the intellectual
Prof Brereton spoke on Best as a public intellectual.
She said: “The public intellectual is the one who fails to mind his own business. He is a thinker who engages in discourse in the public sphere of his region; usually he has formal academic qualifications...But he transcends both his particular discipline and academia in general. He’s a creative thinker.”
Best, she noted, taught at UWI and was a development economist in demand by bodies like the United Nations. But neither his discipline nor the demands of academia ever imprisoned him, said Brereton.
“In fact, when I thought about it, I wondered if Best wasn’t something of an ‘anti-academic.’ He never completed a graduate degree; he was reluctant to write up The Plantation Economy theory which he and Kari Levitt developed in the 1960s. He frequently poured scorn on the idea that we should publish in ‘reputable’ journals, as opposed to his own journal, the daily newspaper. He never published a book on his own. And again, he frequently derided the idea that one ought to put out books. His favourite mode of writing was the famous working notes. And as is well known, Best took every opportunity to attack UWI and all its work,” recalled Brereton.
She went on to describe a public intellectual as a knowledge/ideas entrepreneur, who tries to create a public market for his ideas.
Best, she said, tried to create “institutions and conditions in which engaged intellectuals could work outside the constraints of academia—himself particularly, but others too. So he founded the new World Group in the 1960s, Tapia House in 1968, and then the T&T Institute of the West Indies (now the Lloyd Best Institute)... to facilitate study and analysis.”
She said Best also founded journals to disseminate his and others ideas—New World Quarterly (1963), Tapia (1969), and its successor the T&T Review (begun in 1977). He also wrote many newspaper articles in what he called “retail communication.”
She commented on the “dense, difficult, and some say impenetrable prose style” of his newspaper writing, which “on the face of it were counterproductive for a public intellectual.” But she noted Best’s defence of this: that he wrote for ordinary citizens who were interested in it.
She praised Best’s wonderful, inspired facility for inventing phrases which summed up a whole world of local concepts: “industrialisation by invitation”, “Doctor Politics”, “maximum leader”, “East-West corridor”, “validating elites”, “Afro-Saxon” are just a few, which have since passed into popular use. These terms allowed us to name and speak of local phenomena, she said.
Best’s core idea, Brereton said, was that close, empirical study of the realities of the Caribbean condition, observed and analysed on its own terms, had to be the foundation for worthwhile thought and action. Any useful theories, policies or prescriptions had to be built on good local knowledge.
“We must start by studying 500 years of social and cultural creation in the region”, quoted Brereton of Best. In his classic exploration of this core idea, the 1967 essay Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom, Best wrote: “Our ignorance about our own historical experience is a most damaging thing.” Brereton commented that today, this may well be still true.
She noted Best rejected all imported, ready-made ideologies, as reflecting someone else’s experiences and not our own: Marxism, European socialism, Western liberalism, revolutionary populism, Black Power – he rejected them all. He rejected any Grand Theory which claimed to provide universal, one-size-fits-all explanation for everything; theories were only useful if they arose from our own reality, said Brereton of Best.
Best believed that the long view of change was the right one, she said. She noted that Best always rejected the victimhood discourse. And unlike Vidia Naipaul, with whom he had a lot in common, Brereton said, Best was an optimist about the region.
She added: “Best wasn’t a revolutionary; he may not have even been a political radical. But he was clearly radical in his basic purpose, which was to decolonise Caribbean thought.”
Best became famous for some key concepts here, Brereton said.
First, was the idea of a “party of parties” – a coalition political party of national unity, made up of valid interest groups based mainly on ethnicity and geographical origin; he famously said
T&T had nine tribes, Brereton recalled.
Second, Best had the idea of the Macco Senate – or the House of Parliament – where civil society groups would be elected as part of a House of Parliament. This would overcome authoritarian “Doctor Politics.”
Third, on constitutional reform, Best argued that amending the text of the document was far less important than transforming the political order and the political culture, Brereton said.
“You could debate endlessly how much influence Best had on the course of Caribbean economic development since the 1960s. You could debate endlessly Best’s influence on T&T’s political history since the 1960s. But what is not debatable is that Best was a genuine public intellectual. He dedicated himself to the life of the mind – the critical and even speculative life of the mind – while at the same time, fully engaging in the public sphere. He was the least cloistered intellectual you could imagine. Best had a genuinely unfettered and unbridled mind; he always fought against the prevailing orthodoxy, and he was consistently fertile in his insights and creative in his life. We do miss Lloyd Best.”
Prof Gordon Rohlehr perhaps captured Best’s qualities most keenly in his 2007 remembrances reproduced in the magazine Caribbean Beat the same year Best died:
“Best was bold, visionary, compelling, and quixotic. He was also courageous, headstrong, tenacious, and passionate, in his desire to pool the energies of the intellectual caste towards public service. He set no limits on the variety of forms such service might assume. The poets, the playwrights, the novelists, the economists, the doctors, lawyers, taxi-drivers, pannists, workers, and farmers, all had parts to play in the making of the new world he envisaged, and in contributing to the dialogue upon which democracy and a civil society were to be established.”
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