Reflections on the 1970 Trinidad and Tobago Black Power Movement in Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie
Reflections on the 1970 Trinidad and Tobago Black Power Movement in Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie
In January of 2011 Trinidadian author Earl Lovelace’s latest and much-anticipated novel, Is Just a Movie, was published.1 This year, 2012, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence as a nation. The following interview with Earl Lovelace touches on his views on the nature, meaning, and ongoing significance of one of the defining events of the decade following Trinidad and Tobago’s independence: the 1970 Black Power Movement that, for a short while, almost brought the government to its knees. This event and its wider historical significance lie at the heart of his latest novel.
On Lovelace’s veranda, amid the Trinidadian birdsong, foliage, and voracious mosquitoes, with bright sunshine one minute and lashing rain the next, we discussed the role of the movement in his work.2 We talked of its continuing meaning and legacy for contemporary Trinidadian society troubled simultaneously by different and similar sociopolitical divisions to those that characterized the post-independence era. As we talked, Lovelace kept a lookout for his car to go by; it transpired the car had been stolen the night before, and he was holding out hope that someone might yet drive it by. We laughed and cussed over this—yet it was a stark reminder of the troubled, crime-ridden society that contemporary Trinidad has given rise to, and the continuing importance of seeking change and renewed social consciousness. Recognizing that Trinidad is still haunted in many forms by its many historical demons, the continuing concerns with enslavement, indentureship, colonialism and the responses to them, Lovelace’s novel implores his countrymen and women to acknowledge and work through, with a fresh perspective and renewed vigor, the Black Power and independence era in order to move forward together as a society.
Sophie Megan Harris: The character of the “PM” is a figure that comes back time and time again in your work. In your novels, and in Is Just a Movie in particular, how much does this figure parallel that of Dr. Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, who was in power throughout the post-independence era and in 1970 when the Black Power Movement arose?
Earl Lovelace: Well the “PM” character is not a direct representation of Eric Williams. It is kind of an embodiment of the qualities of all the political leaders in Trinidad and Tobago since independence. Yes, he mirrors Williams to a certain extent, but it is not solely representing him, but all of them.
SMH: Do you think that the way that Williams and the PNM [People’s National Movement] ruled helped to generate the powerlessness of the Black Power Movement in the end?
EL: Right, well, Williams’s agenda was really a centralization of power. [Pause] How do you see Williams and how is he represented in the novels?
SMH: It seems to me that he started out with the best intentions for Caribbean people, declaring that “massa day done!” but then it all collapsed. He’s represented as very complex. Yet you also seem to satirize him and reflect on his innate paradoxical nature. He comes across in all the books as wanting everything exactly his way, with no patience for anybody standing in his way.
EL: Or perhaps he had a vision, his own vision. I think he was part of the colonial system; he was himself colonial. That was what he was, and to ask otherwise would be asking him to be not himself. This was how he did things.
SMH: There is this idea running through much of your work, your essays in particular, that certain Afro-Caribbean people have a tendency to act “Self for Other” as a result of their historical development under the colonial system. That is to say that they have an instinct to behave as though their actions, judgment, and selves can only be legitimately seen, evaluated, and valued by some outside force, a more powerful Other contrasting with the Caribbean Self’s position of “lack” or powerlessness, rather than by themselves and for themselves. Do you think that the Black Power movement of 1970 was perpetuating this dynamic, looking towards the government to change things and value their cause, towards the external rather than the internal? How do you deal with this in your new novel?
EL: I think that when one looks at the movement, one has to realize that this was a movement that was trying to answer certain questions in order to achieve what it wanted, “What was power?” being one of the most important and troubling of them. Perhaps at the time we did not have enough distance from the events to answer those questions, and that is what the new book is doing: looking back with a new perspective, in order to take it at some distance, to ask certain questions again.
SMH: Questions about independence?
EL: Yes, because I mean the movement happened eight years after independence. People were looking at what we now had and were asking, “Where we goin’?” The movement itself was talking about Africa for the first time and seeking to fill the gap of information about who we were.
But I believe there was something behind everything else, a deeper tradition and heritage of Afro-Caribbean resistance against oppressive powers from above. As such, the 1970 movement was part of a larger movement which had a much larger set of expectations related to this deeply entrenched heritage.
SMH: You mentioned that in 1970 one of the principal shortcomings of the movement was the fact that it was centered around an idea of “lack.”
EL: Yes, it was about what Black People “lack,” as opposed to what they had done and I think that was one of the problems. I think it was probably one of the central problems. Even in Is Just a Movie, though a lot has been made of this preoccupation with “lack,” I don’t think as much has been made of what we have done as it could have. It’s an important point that and is something that requires a whole lot of thought. So when we are talking about Black Power, we should look at what people have done, not only what we lack. At the time we were all happy to say what we lacked, because we knew what we had—the steel band, carnival, etcetera—and who we were talking to. But I think we underemphasized the value of our own achievements at the time.
The thing is, how do you help people to see themselves as human?
SMH: Isn’t that one of the central themes in your work?
EL: I don’t know if I have ever said this before. But I can now see that carnival, for example, is not just to help you see me. It is to help you see yourself.
SMH: In Is Just a Movie Dorlene starts to throw herself into the music—into the steel band—and when people in the community hear it they come to realize, “Oh, this is me!”
EL: That is part of it. There is more than that, but it’s definitely along that line. “This is me. But who am I?” I think that is important, the idea of helping you to better see yourself, and that is one of the offerings I make in the novel.
SMH: Do you think the rhetoric of the movement lost momentum as the time went on? For example, in Is Just a Movie, in the scene where Clayton Blondell arrives in Cascadu and tells Dorlene that he founded the Black Power Movement. It is some years later and here comes this man trying to revive some of the old slogans and messages, with a strong preoccupation with the “back to Africa” notion of the old movement. It seems as though the language is being recycled, repeated, that it has all been said before.
EL: Well, what was Clayton Blondell’s rhetoric for? It seemed to me it was for self-advancement. And I think that, perhaps, is the point, that we need to reorient ourselves in the right way.
SMH: Right, and even if he is espousing this Black Power rhetoric, do you think he is opposed to the character of Sonnyboy in Is Just a Movie? Does Sonnyboy represent something else?
EL: I think Sonnyboy is going somewhere else. In fact I want to believe that the whole community is going somewhere, is trying to get somewhere, right from the very start. I mean, they might have taken the wrong alleys, you know, or been frustrated in terms of where they are going or want to go. But I think Sonnyboy wants to go somewhere, in the same vein as people in the Caribbean who have been engaged in rebellion and revolution against the status quo from the beginning.
And whilst we want a settled society and all the rest of it, we also have to acknowledge resistance and rebellion in its many forms. If we don’t acknowledge it then we have no explanation for certain forms of what is perceived as anti-social behavior from black Trinidadians, or the only way we can explain that behavior is as crime.
SMH: Not as resistance.
EL: Right, and then we lose all other benefits of resistance within this society, and the whole society remains simply a colonial construct. All the things that have developed as part of resistance, which is to say the steel band, the carnival, the language, all these things that help to articulate a vision of another, a more human world, all of it becomes something for a joke, only entertainment. So I think it is very important that we acknowledge that resistance for what it truly is. Once that is acknowledged, let’s say somebody like Sonnyboy in Is Just a Movie is on a revolutionary path, then, and has to think, “Well, where am I going?” The Black Power Movement had the potential to give us a vision of a better world.
But what happens in the book is that the Black Power Movement is stymied and seems to have nowhere to go. As such, many of its proponents seek refuge in a return to Africa. So Clayton is not so much about Black Power; he is about returning to Africa. And this sense of returning is, in my view, locking off the potential for building something here in the Caribbean, for everybody. So now we have to ask how we can navigate through that.
SMH: Sonnyboy is a very interesting character, because there is this constant line between him being a revolutionary, a warrior, and him just being a “badjohn.” Is he trying to straddle that line in the book?
EL: Well, yes, because what is a revolutionary? When a revolutionary is not acknowledged as such, he is seen by the society he is seeking to change as a kind of renegade too, you know?
SMH: I suppose it is a fine line.
EL: Well, it’s not so much a fine line; it’s somebody who says “no.” A revolutionary says, “I’m not going down this road, and on behalf of some higher ideas, not because you’re not paying me. It’s because you’re not acknowledging me, or you’re debasing me . . .”
SMH: Trinidad has two major ethnic groups, among other various minorities: Afro-Creole or black, and East Indian. What about the role of Indians in the Black Power Movement of 1970?
EL: It’s been a different experience; they’ve had a different experience of the place. I think the movement was more African, but there were Indians involved, and there were Indians who sympathized quite apart from those who were actually involved. I mean, you don’t get up one morning, just so, in a society that has had a certain history, say “Black Power” and everybody jumps. I mean, the people who jumped had a whole historical connection to the lacks that were being articulated by the people who were seeking this. Indians themselves weren’t concerned at a certain point, because nobody was articulating the interests of Indians. But soon the Black Power militants began to say, “Africans and Indians unite,” and the effect of that was to invite the Indians to what they perceived as a common struggle.
SMH: Do you think it is necessary in Is Just a Movie to revive not the movement perhaps but its sentiment? Do you think time has erased that?
EL: No, I don’t think it is gone. I think it needs to redefine itself. What is it now? I mean, Black Power then was also part of a global movement, of what people lacked. In our context now, when we begin to look at the achievement, there have been things done to combat some of the things that we were against—the discrimination against Africans, the assumption that we should occupy some kind of lesser place, not having access to certain things—all that has gone. I think a big point for me, which is the point of Is Just a Movie, is that the resistance and rebellion have not really been acknowledged in the whole society, and this has prevented the society really from coming to grips with itself and with its history, and therefore from being able to move forward. Imagine, it’s only last year that we had a conference on 1970 in Trinidad and Tobago. After forty years. This book was begun, you know, a little while ago [laughs], and I had been thinking about revisiting all this, in a kind of way, to see and show where we had come from.
SMH: And this is what you are trying to deal with broadly in the novel?
EL: Yes. What is Black Power now? What new society are we about? This is what, in a kind of way, I have been writing about: What is this new society and how are we going to shape it? What do they mean when they say a ‘human society’ and all this old talk, what does it really mean? We need genuinely to revisit these things again and again, and genuinely to reformulate again and again what it is to be human and how we are progressing. And that is why I am revisiting Black Power, looking again to see where we have arrived, how we have addressed it and what the fallouts from that are.
You know, I was in the United States when Black Power began to take hold in the late sixties [1966–67] amidst the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, and the likes of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. It was quite exciting. It was different from Trinidad, but with the same basic emphasis on what had been done to and taken away from black people, or what they had been kept away from. It was about “lack,” without emphasizing too much the things that people had done. This was also linked to a lot of other things like the Hippie movement, which was about white youth making a more human address to living in general. It was a lot of words ultimately, but it was important, you know, for people to feel it in a personal way. Both when I was at Howard University there and when I came back to Trinidad after that, somehow it wasn’t all thought out, but people were feeling for something to change. However, when you went back to the US a few years later, you were shocked at how conservative they had become. The forces of the status quo are very powerful. They don’t sleep. They don’t rest.
Sophie Megan Harris earned a BA in Modern Languages at the University of Cambridge and an MA in Caribbean and Latin American Studies from the University of London. She completed her dissertation, “Re-Imagining the Independence Experience in Trinidad and Tobago: The Black Power Movement in the Work of Earl Lovelace,” in September 2011.
1 Earl Lovelace, Is Just a Movie (London: Faber and Faber, 2011). Lovelace is the author of the novels While Gods Are Falling (1965), The Schoolmaster (1968), The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979), The Wine of Astonishment (1983), and Salt (1997; winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), in addition to volumes of short fiction, plays, and essays.
2 This interview took place over two days: 14 June and 24 June, 2011.