External influences permeating almost every aspect of life in the Caribbean threaten the uniqueness of the region’s identity, warns Antigua & Barbuda Minister of Education, Gender & Youth Affairs, Dr. Jacqui Quinn-Leandro.
“There is evidence that Caribbean national sports such as cricket and soccer are losing ground to the National Basketball Association (with more young people following the game) and hip hop, rap and American-type genres are fast becoming more popular than reggae, soca and calypso which are the indigenous musical genres of the region,” she said in her keynote address at an Antigua & Barbuda forum last Saturday at the University of Toronto.
“In the diet of our youth, the most popular fast foods are French fries, pizza, Kentucky Fried Chicken, hamburgers, Coca-Cola, Sprite and Pepsi and not roti, ackee and salt fish, a cold glass of lemonade, coconut water or ginger beer. Our young people have been so influenced by the attitudes of North America that our heritage is in danger of being sucked out. In fact, we are so influenced that it is widely believed by some that all things North American are better and therefore should be aspired to.
“Just as the deliberate and chemical disfigurement of beautiful Black skin for no other reason but to make it lighter suggests a feeling of inferiority, so too does the tampering with our culture. Heritage and culture are unconditional. Otherwise, it’s like calling rice without pigtail seasoned rice.”
Quinn-Leandro, who graduated from McGill University with a PhD in Communications, challenged nationals in Canada and the rest of the Diaspora to continue to celebrate the islands’ rich heritage and keep it relevant.
“There are schools full of Antiguan & Barbudan children who, if you listen to them speak, you could not distinguish them from North American children,” said Quinn-Leandro, who holds a Bachelors degree from the University of the West Indies and a Masters from Cambridge University. “There is no trace of that sweet, rhythmic and textured Antiguan accent. They can’t speak a word of Creole and our dialect is looked upon by some as a language for inferior or less educated people.
“How we speak is not an indication of our intelligence. Language is a great part of what makes us uniquely who we are. Our dialect is rooted in our beginnings as a people and is indeed a precious gem to be cherished and not thrash to be discarded. Dialect is, in fact, the first language of many of our people and the only language of some. It is our language and we should be proud of it. There are stories that simply cannot be told in English because the flavour and essence get lost…A culture under attack is a people under attack because our heritage is what defines us and sets us apart…Our culture is our nameplate and our identifying badge.”
The first and only female elected to the Antigua & Barbuda House of Representatives, Quinn-Leandro said developing a unique and distinctive sensibility capable of coping with difference is the greatest challenge facing the Caribbean.
“Critical skills for decoding and deconstructing the media are going to be quintessential,” she said. “So too is going to be self-preservation and a healthy respect for traditional cultures, educating younger Antiguans and Barbudans about our tradition, our Creole food, music, our “Antiguaness” and loving and appreciating the “Antiguaness” that makes us uniquely Antiguan & Barbudan.
“It’s clear that the new social practices are been constructed around new technologies, therefore Caribbean people must participate in the global conversation that generates such practices.”
The forum was organized to coincide with the twin islands’ 30th independence anniversary on November 1. The theme was Caribbean Roots, Caribbean Branches: Reflections on our Caribbean Heritage & Development.
Several Canadian-born children of Antiguan & Barbudan parents participated in the dialogue which impressed Quinn-Leandro.
“It’s clear that Antiguan roots have produced fruitful Canadian branches,” she said.
Quinn-Leandro also recognized the many nationals who are making significant contributions in their adopted homeland.
“Never underestimate the importance of your contribution and the power you have as a Caribbean people to Canadian society and culture,” said Quinn-Leandro who was the first woman appointed acting Prime Minister in her homeland. “You influence Canadian elections and you have a say in the direction of this great country.
“As Caribbean people and people of Antigua & Barbuda, you have added to the diversity of Canada’s cultural landscape and you have defined the term melting pot because our particular Antiguan flavour is a key ingredient in that pot. I so admire the national who lives in North America, Europe and Asia, but whose heart beats to an Antigua & Barbuda rhythm and whose soul exists in the spiritual realm of everything that Antigua & Barbuda is.”
The Caribbean Studies program at the U of T’s New College supported the forum which was organized by the local independence anniversary planning committee and the Consulate General of Antigua and Barbuda.
Dr. Alissa Trotz, the director of the U of T’s Caribbean Studies program, said the university did not hesitate to host the event because it takes public intellectual engagement very seriously.
“One of the things we also take quite seriously here is ensuring that our role at the U of T deepens our knowledge of and engagement with the Caribbean,” she said. “Independence for individual nation states came at the expense of a regional dream which we have been struggling with ever since. As we reflect on Antigua & Barbuda’s independence and next year’s 50th independence anniversary of Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, we should try to think about an independence in which a regional identity, an understanding of what it means to be part of a Caribbean family, is always and inextricably a part of that equation.”
Antigua & Barbuda’s consul general in Toronto Janil Greenaway said the forum provided an opportunity to highlight the connections that exist between Canada and Antigua.
Other forum participants included Antigua & Barbuda’s Director of Education and House Speaker Gisele Isaac-Arrindell, Dr. Keren Brathwaite and Dr. Carl James.
As part of the weekend activities, Antigua & Barbuda’s writings were showcased last Friday night at a literary event titled Telling Our Stories. Antigua-based author and freelance writer, Joan Hillhouse, whose new novel – Oh Gad – is scheduled to be released next year, took part in the event.
The Antigua & Barbuda Association of Toronto’s annual banquet to mark the independence anniversary takes place on November 19 at St. Clement of Ohrid Banquet Hall, 76 Overlea Blvd.