Thursday, February 26, 2009

'If' and if not?

By Biko Agozino

The poem, ‘If…’ by Rudyard Kipling was one of my favourites in High School after I saw a copy on the wall of my English Literature teacher. I copied it by hand on a large poster and kept in my room at home as an inspiration. However, another literature teacher from a girls’ school near home visited me at home once and saw the poem and immediately critiqued my poor handwriting. True to Kipling’s advice, I accepted the criticism and gave as my excuse, the fact that the civil war led to the loss of all the furniture in our school and at the end we sat on the floor and used cement blocks as writing desks with which to learn how to write. The teacher accepted my excuse but encouraged me to work on improving my handwriting.

That should have been the end of the matter but one of my cousins was furious with the teacher for trying to disrespect my prized poster poem. He challenged the teacher to look beyond the handwriting and see the philosophy of the poem as a guide for a young man growing up. Before I knew it, we were engaged in a heated debate about the contents of the poem.

The teacher said that it was actually his original intention to call attention to the content of the poem and that he was glad that my cousin raised it. He said that he did not trust an English man to provide the philosophy with which young African men should guide their lives long after the end of colonialism. He called it an example of colonial mentality. We all disagreed with him and said that it does not matter if a poem is written by an African or by a European, a good poem is a good poem.

The teacher disagreed with us and insisted that what is good for the rat is not always good for the cat and vice versa. So we challenged him to say exactly why he was against the poem. He invited us to read the poem more closely with him and ask the author, ‘What if not’ at every line, would you not be a man still even if you lived your life in a different way from his colonial prescriptions?

First of all, keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you could be a very dangerous thing especially if you are the one responsible for them losing their heads. In that case, you are not likely to keep your head for much longer. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, then you must be smoking or drinking something that you should not be smoking or drinking. When all men doubt you, it is not just some men, say a minority or even a majority, but all men, then you had better re-examine your own confidence for signs of false confidence. Otherwise, you might just come across as an arrogant aristocrat who does not care about what everybody thinks.

Waiting and not being tired of waiting could be simply a sign of lethargy and a dangerous one at that especially if you are talking about decolonization and the colonial masters want you to wait because you are not ripe for independence, as if you are some kind of bananas. Sometimes, waiting is not a virtue if you have waited centuries already, sometimes it is good to say that you are indeed tired of waiting and it does not follow that you will be less of a man when you tell the colonial overlord to get off your back, the teacher reasoned and we nodded.

How about not telling lies even when people lie about you or not hating people who hate you and yet not looking too good nor talking too wise? We asked him, trying to salvage something from my prized poem. He sucked his teeth at us and said that those are not prescriptions for being a man but prescriptions for being a good child. A good man will clear his name when people lie about him and a good man would hate it when the strong oppresses the weak. Who is to say what is too good or too wise? He asked us and without waiting for an answer, he told us not to mind the English man who thinks that he will always be better than us. Instead we should try to be the best that we could.

The next stanza got even worse as the teacher queried who Kipling thought that he was addressing anyway. Why was he saying, ‘If you can dream, if you can think…’ Of course, we can dream and think because we are human just like him and a colonized people do not need to be reminded that dreams are no masters for they still struggled against the nightmare masters that they wanted to free themselves from. We reminded the teacher that maybe he was the knave who was twisting the truths of Kipling to make a trap for us fools but he fired back that we were no fools but free men and that poetry is not truth but arts. As for watching the things you gave your life broken, he said that a good man would at least try to protect or defend the country he gave his life to instead of just standing there and waiting for the invaders to destroy it before meekly trying to rebuild with, of all things, worn out tools. How pathetic, the teacher sighed.

The next stanza is all about gambling and the teacher advised us to avoid that kind of mentality if we ever hope to grow up as good men. We must never gamble all our resources away in one heap and hope to start again at the beginning because there may never be another beginning but a sad end. Instead, we should learn to invest our resources wisely and spread our investments rather than leave all our eggs in one basket. If it only takes a will to serve your turn when your body is tired, remember that you are part of a team and not just a selfish individualist poet. When you are tired, the teacher advised us, take time out and get some rest and let another member of your team continue.

The final stanza warns about the danger of losing your virtue when talking with crowds as if the masses are vile and would pollute your good qualities. At the same breath, the imperialist Kipling advised that we should walk with kings and retain the common touch as if people who live in republican democracies must be pitied for not having kings to walk with. If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, then you are dead already, cried the teacher. Finally, he intoned, what counts is not how many seconds you put into your minutes but how many miles you put into your minutes if you are a long distance runner. So do not let the devil fool you into thinking that yours is the earth and all that is in it, you are already a man my son and you will have to share the earth with billions of other men and women. Kipling is simply crazy, he concluded. I got up and tore off the poster from my wall and shredded it.

Monday, February 23, 2009



When I arrived in Trinidad newly, a student told me that if I had dark glasses on top of my white jacket, I would have looked just like the Doc. Like who? Dr. Eric Williams, he explained. I thanked him for the flattery but thought that I am not that short or that bald. Of course, I admire Eric Williams as an intellectual and as a nation-builder but I did not know much about his life.

An opportunity came when I was asked to facilitate a television studio panel discussion on ‘Democratic Fatherhood’ for NCC channels 4 and 16 that was broadcast on Independence Day 2008. I had read a speech by Erica Williams in which she paid tribute to her father even while admitting his shortcomings. I wanted the studio panel to read that speech before the programme but the producers said that they could reach Erica by phone and I was able to interview her on what type of father he was. We concluded that he was a democratic type of father.

Recently, I met Erica for the first time and while we had lunch in Movietown, she shamed me by asking if I had visited the Eric Williams Collection in the Main Library of UWI? No, I had not and she said, ‘shame on you’. I decided that I would go and see it and she told me that there was a seminar coming up with international participants and that it was going to be a good opportunity for me to see the collection with a group. I agreed.

I was amazed to discover how much I had in common with Dr Williams. The documentary, ‘The Will of the People’, produced by Che Rodriguez, opened with the unforgettable statement that Williams was a wizard and that like all wizards, he was regarded with awe, not always with love but always with respect. I often felt that that was how some people regarded me but I also wondered why the producer used the word wizard instead of the Trini creole equivalent, obeah man.

I also heard the voice of Williams, not for the first time for it has been played on radio before, but it struck me that he never raised his voice and I am told often that I am soft-spoken myself but not while I am on a stage. I could bawl when I am performing on stage but that is perhaps because I still need to attract attention whereas Williams was so sure that his audience was listening to every word he spoke. Although in one of the clips, two people were whispering to each other as he spoke.

Then he walked and I sat up instantly. In that clip of his visit to China that was repeated in the short documentary, Doctor Williams walked just like I do. He walked as if he was floating the way that the big masquerade would float during carnival rather than walk like the little mas, floating with the legs stretched out in front of him in short confident strides without bending the knees. What a strange coincidence for that is exactly how I walk, making some women in the village in Nigeria where I grew up to nick-name me Oje la nwayoo (the gentle walker).

I am not bragging but the similarities are startling to me. Eric Williams studied with scholarships and so did I, he got a first class honours degree and so did I, he got his PhD from the UK and so did I and his dissertation was published to wide acclaim and so was mine, he left the UK to teach in America at a historically black university and so did I and he relocated to Trinidad from there and so did I after roughly the same amount of years in the US. I was still thinking of these similarities when the film ended and we walked downstairs to the second floor of the library to view the Eric Williams Collection.

I could not believe my eyes when I saw his desk the way it was when he left it. The desk was chaotic, crowded with papers and books, files and folders exactly the way my table usually looks all the time! He was as messy as I am, no more, no less. Now I know that I am in good company and so when next a bossy cleaner tries to straighten out my desk at the office, I will tell her to go and see the Eric Williams Collection!

Of course, I am no Eric Williams and there would never be another one like him. For instance, I have no series of heavy industries that I established to build a new nation, I have not liberated any country from colonialism and I have not headed any state or government. Moreover, I do not own a collection of tobacco pipes or nicely carved elephant tusks nor will you find a picture of a group of children and I with a stick of cigarette between my lips.

Health education has enlightened us more on the harms of tobacco and environmental awareness has taught us not to display elephant tusks but in this case, it is a piece of history given to him on his state visits to African countries and the way he treasured the tusks shows his warmth towards mother Africa, though he swore allegiance to only one mother – Mother Trinidad and Tobago (two mothers?).

Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology, Coordinator of Criminology Unit, Department of Behavioural Sciences and Deputy Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, Faculty of Social Sciences, UWI, St. Augustine.