Questions for CSA Past Presidents
Responses by Linden Lewis
CSA President 2009-2010
How did you come to specialize in Caribbean Studies?
I did my undergraduate work at the University of the West Indies at the Cave Hill Campus in Barbados. It was there that my intellectual interest in the Caribbean began forming. Not only was I studying the region from different disciplinary perspectives, but for the first time I was interacting with people who were neither Guyanese or Barbadian – the two Caribbean people I knew best. I was becoming familiar with my extended family from around the region in a concrete way that I had not even imagined before.
How did your interest in and commitment to Caribbean Studies evolve?
Having been born in Guyana and moving to Barbados at an early age, from very early, my thinking about the region was never really contained by the usual narrow nationalism. I have always seen myself as having a regional perspective, however, when I left the Caribbean in 1980 for the United States, my sense of the geography of the area certainly expanded conceptually. I began to read more about the region as a whole. I began to think of the region beyond the Anglophone area, and in several different ways, I would say without fear of contradiction, that I became more Caribbean in the United States, than I had ever been when I lived in the region. Discovering the broader Caribbean region is one of those wonderfully epiphanic moments afforded through the space of the Diaspora.
When did you first join CSA and what did it mean to you then?
My good friends, Hilbourne Watson and Dion Phillips, were members of the organization and had anticipated that once I had completed my graduate work that I would join them in attending Caribbean Studies conferences. In addition, I learned very early that this was the premiere organization for any serious student of the Caribbean. It is at the CSA that your ideas about the region are tested, refined, and it is where you join the network of like-minded people with whom you could dialogue. I was eager to join the organization. I graduate with my Ph.D in 1988. I missed the Barbados conference in 1989 because I had not yet returned to the region, so my first official CSA conference was in Trinidad in 1990. I have been a member of the organization from that time to the present.
What were your goals for CSA the year of your presidency?
I wanted to make sure that we had a theme that was inclusive, that everyone could feel that they could approach it from their perspective. I wanted to have a well organized program and I wanted it to be substantive. I also wanted to have more contact with the broader society. I wanted to ensure that what we were doing could be easily translated into publishable scholarship, or into regional or country policy, and that we could we could open up a space of dialogue for activists from around the region.
What did you recognize to be the greatest obstacles facing CSA and Caribbean Studies during your presidency?
Well, it was clear that we were operating in one of the worse economic climates in a long time. The global economic climate not only affected the amount of people attending the conference, but the number of donors to conference. It was a more difficult time to get people to commit to funding the organization and we depend on such financial contributions to underwrite the costs of putting on the conference, of determining the venue, or mounting certain types of program. I was also mindful that in some ways, Caribbean Studies programs were under siege in some locations. The Caribbean often only becomes sexy, intellectually when something momentous is occurring, otherwise we are simply exoticized as a place of rest and relaxation or as George Lamming once said of tourism and cruise ship travel in the region: “As a place of loitering”. It was therefore important that we envisioned CSA as a vehicle through which we could channel rigorous academic material to contribute to Caribbean Studies programs in the US, Canada, the UK, and of course to strengthen programs in the region.
What did you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of CSA that year?
I guess my greatest satisfaction is the feedback that we got from so many people who wrote to the Chairs of the Program and Local Organizing Committees, and to me, that they thought the conference was well organize and substantive, and that they were very pleased with how things had turned out, not least of which was the quality of the accommodation. I was also pleased by the contact we were able to forge between CSA and UNESCO, UNDP, The Caribbean Development Bank, CARICOM, the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center and some of the Non Governmental Organizations of the region. I would hasten to say that only some of these contacts were made by me, but that efforts of Alissa Trotz, the Program Chair, were invaluable in this regard. I think that we have an opportunity to make these links sustainable, so that CSA would eventually live up to its expectations of being a forum for cross-fertilization of ideas and actions of academics, policy analysts, artists and activists.
Why did you choose the location you did for the CSA annual conference that year?
We had seriously considered going to Guyana, largely because CSA is yet to be held in Guyana, one of the area’s most committed members to the regional project. We learned however, that it was exceedingly difficulty to stage a conference of that magnitude in Guyana, without massive support from the ruling administration. In the past, we have not had to rely on government support in order to put on our conferences, and we did not want to be establishing this type of precedent. We didn’t think that we wanted to establish such a close political link to any political party, which might affect our status as an independent organization. Barbados was always my back up location, primarily because of all the contacts I had there, and also because of the tremendous experience of that country in hosting such conferences. Moreover, Barbados had the infrastructure in place to facilitate the logistics of such an event. Furthermore, there is the fact of the country’s accessibility for most people, plus the last time we were in Barbados was 1989, which means that the last time CSA held its conference there was 21 years ago, we thought it was time to revisit the country.
Where do you hope to see CSA in the next ten years?
I would like to see CSA as a more self-sustaining organization in ten years. I would also like to see us produce more scholarship out of our conferences. We have enough people doing really good work, but we just seem to go back home and get on with our own business, without putting together these panels into books. We should be the reservoir from which people looking for Caribbean scholarship could turn with confidence. Our broader concern should be to make sure that Caribbean Studies does not become a marginalized area study, but a vibrant field of inquiry.
What is one of your fondest CSA memories?
In 1996 Hilbourne Watson organized a panel, I think it focused on some aspect of globalization. I remember, Alex Dupuy, Emilio Pantojas, Cecilia Green, Hilbourne and I were on that panel. Our panel was the last panel, on the last day of the conference. Before the event, I remember turning to Hilbourne and saying, this time slot is a kiss of death. We will have no one in this room. Most people are getting ready to leave, they are out shopping, or they are on the beach. To my surprise, when we entered the room it was packed to capacity. Quite a part from the disaster I was anticipating, we had a good session and a robust Q & A session followed.
What are you doing now in terms of the Caribbean?
Well, the Caribbean is my principal area of study, so I continue to do research in that area and I also teach a couple of courses on the Caribbean. I am hoping to complete three projects in the coming year, all of which are on the Caribbean. I remain excited by all the research prospects afforded by the Caribbean as an area of study. I hope that over the years I would have made a small contribution to providing some understanding of the region.
Where do see the future of Caribbean Studies?
I have mixed feelings about the future of Caribbean Studies. I should hasten to say that I am thinking specifically about Caribbean Studies in North America and Europe. I think that Caribbean Studies in the region will continue to capture the imaginations of all those who attend the University of the West Indies, the University of the Antilles, the University of the Virgin Islands, the University of Guyana, etc. You cannot be in a Caribbean university and not learn about yourself, so understanding the region socially, politically, culturally, anthropological, legally, etc. is a project that has to be ongoing. On the other hand, there is a shift in the thinking about area studies as a whole, and all developing regions have been affected by a tendency to think that it is no longer important to invest time, resources and faculty to the study of these societies. Of course we need to struggle against such myopia, and so our priority is or should be, how do we mount a strategy to remain relevant in the context of all types of competing alternatives. Our future then stands at the intersection of the demands of the global political economy.
What would you recommend to a young scholar starting in Caribbean Studies?
Hone your craft, whether you are in the Arts, Physical Sciences or Social Sciences. Be productive. If you want to be called an academic, produce scholarship. You have to think beyond what gets you tenured. You want to do scholarship because you love it and you think that you have a contribution to make. If this is your reason for becoming an academic, then tenure would not be an end goal, but a gateway to more productive activity. The second thing I would recommend to a young scholar is that which Walter Rodney said years ago, and a credo I like to think I live by, namely; get involved in the struggle wherever you may be located. At the moment, I work with prison inmates at the Allenwood and Lewisburg Federal Penitentiaries. I was also a founding member and co-director of a community organization in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, whose focus was on issues of racial diversity and inclusion. As George Lamming often says, our knowledge should not merely be archival. We need to put our education, our scholarship, in the service of the people. Putting our work in the service of the people means that we should contribute to understanding, not to obfuscation. The quality of our work is not measured by how impenetrable and ponderous it is, but whether it causes people to think differently about the way they view their circumstances and whether they view themselves as having hope and options. I must say however, that both at the Jamaica CSA, and again in Barbados this year, I was impressed by the number of graduate students and young academics attending the conference and asking how best they can serve the organization. This development augurs well for CSA’s future.