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In Pursuit of Caribbean Excellence

By Alissandra Cummins

In today’s society, the goal of achieving higher individual standards, in any field of endeavour, can easily come into conflict with a wider national agenda. For while the individual must be encouraged to excel, in a situation of structural inequality many others must also be encouraged simply to survive. The factors by which we recognise success (education, performance, experience) have to be weighed in the balance with imponderables (chance, opportunity, luck).

Excellence is not as easy to recognise as we assume. It is perhaps easier to say what it is not. For example, it is easily confused with productivity and, by extension, with success, fame, and wealth. These outcomes may demonstrate the presence of excellence, but they are not excellence in themselves. Is there a threshold or benchmark of excellence, then? Or are some simply more excellent than others? What are the indicators of exemplary achievement?

Innovation would certainly be on everyone’s list. Another critical element may be the ability to constantly adapt and re-adapt (even re-invent) ourselves and our environment. But the decisive factor may be the “added value” which is the positive effect of a individual’s work. True excellence may lie in value and relevance to society: the ability to empower, motivate and inspire others to move beyond their limitations and improve their circumstances and those of others around them.

In this way, we could say that excellence – social and cultural value – lies in the ability to influence people positively; to enable them to achieve specific outcomes; to motivate others in their endeavours; to engender real insight and action, not merely imitation. Caribbean nations have expressed and recognised excellence in a number of ways in the post-independence era. The region has established its own standards of excellence by selecting and promoting national heroes. These figures, often historical, serve as national icons of excellence, since by their heroic actions they helped to achieve nationhood and independence. They reflect the journey of our people from the struggle against slavery and self-doubt to the achievement of self-respect and self-governance. They have been resistance fighters, political, social and economic leaders, union representatives and sportsmen: individuals who unquestionably wrought a new image of who we were, for others as well as ourselves.

But perhaps this leaves something out. Our notions of heroism, our traditional standards of excellence, have naturally been influenced by received ideas: not simply because these ideas did not seem so foreign at the time, but because many icons were successful opponents of the norm. They have been recognised not for who they were (their essential selves) but for what they did or achieved. They were doers, not thinkers. Our icons have been leaders, not followers or supporters. There have been far more sporting icons than creative ones. Actions are easier to record, to document and quantify.

One can understand this as a necessary phenomenon in newly emergent nations. But the Caribbean has continued to move forward without deepening its vision of a pantheon of excellence. What does excellence mean in a Caribbean context? And is excellence absolute, independent of context? Societies, individuals, and institutions have struggled to answer the question, without consensus.

First, we must recognise that those who are appreciated or acknowledged at a national level are not necessarily exemplars in a regional context. It is rare for the greater glory of the Caribbean to be a goal, rather than national pride and loyalty. And when it is, the effort has usually involved a temporary cobbling together of a team, which lasts no longer than the event. The only sustained examples of Caribbean cohesiveness have been in the areas of religion and education.

These lie at the heart of Caribbean excellence. In a Caribbean context, excellence is the ability to see others the way you see a fragmented region – as having a whole identity. In our region, so much of human existence and experience has not been recorded, documented, commemorated or celebrated. So much of our history remains unspoken, unappreciated, hidden and repressed. Some people have the ability to uncover, elucidate and articulate who we are because of who we were – the ability to help us reinvent who we wish to be, and help to address the needs of displaced and dispossessed. They can best be said to demonstrate excellence in a Caribbean context.

Within the heritage sector, visionaries have recognised this gap in the national/regional landscape, and have dedicated themselves to filling it. In telling the story of Caribbean existence, they had first to face the challenge of educating themselves in archaeology and archives, history and linguistics, art and architecture, as well as heritage resource management and interpretation. They collected artifacts and interpreted history and earlier lifestyles, and put the pieces of fragmented cultures and shattered lives back together, openly communicating and sharing their information.

We need to celebrate those who have dedicated their lives to accumulating and conserving collections and creating museums, libraries and archives where none existed before, applying professional and ethical methods of heritage practice where neither official legislation nor policy had been articulated. While our newly independent nations went about the business of establishing the infrastructure of statehood, they quietly reconstructed missing or hidden heritage, conserved traditional knowledge, and provided access to Caribbean culture, art and heritage for children and others.

They have influenced the production and rewriting of our histories to create national and regional identities. They understood that regional integration has been the norm rather than the exception since the prehistoric era, and that the Caribbean sea has bound the region together as one entity rather than fragmenting it into different environments and cultures. The ability of these unsung icons to see beyond the shore to the shared has done as much as anything else to make today’s “Caribbean” possible.

Alissandra Cummins is Director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society

The first Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence, each valued at around US$80,000, will be presented in October.

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