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A Beacon of Caribbean Culture and Identity

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Human-Written

Words: 2456 |

Pages: 5|

13 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

Words: 2456|Pages: 5|13 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

Beryl McBurnie is a Caribbean figure who has contributed greatly to Caribbean culture and identity. The text, Beryl McBurnie, is written by Judy Raymond, a senior journalist and editor based in Trinidad. She is currently editor in chief at the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday. The book is a part of the Caribbean biography series which enlists the life of other cultural activists such as: Marcus Garvey who promoted pan-Africanism and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association; and Derek Walcott who was a poet and playwright. In five chapters the book relates Beryl Eugenia McBurnie’s life. Beryl, born on the 2nd of November 1914, a few years before World War I, was a Trinidadian dancer. She founded the Little Carib Theatre used to promote the culture of Trinidad and endorsed Trinidad’s unique culture up until her death on the 30th of March 2000. Judy Raymond memorialised her as she is a great influence on Caribbean culture and should be remembered for her contributions, namely causing cultural awakening, establishing folk culture and encouraging the independence movement in Trinidad. Judy Raymond gives an idea of Trinidad’s history and societal structure during Beryl’s life and information about Beryl by exploring various themes, mainly culture, identity, slavery and freedom using narrations and quotes, which also helps to comprehend the book’s value to understanding Caribbean society today.

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Before one begins to understand the book, it is necessary to know Trinidad’s society during when the book is set. It is first important to note that Trinidad was the first crown colony and not yet independent. When Beryl was born, indentured Indians servants were still entering the island bringing along their culture. In 1930, the great depression, characterised by high levels of unemployment, poverty, unrest and anti-colonial settlement took place. She left Trinidad in 1938 to pursue an education in dance in New York while calypso was growing in Trinidad. Also, due to World War II, many American bases were built in Trinidad and the soldiers loved all forms of entertainment. Calypso eventually made Trinidad known internationally but, this faded after some years and Beryl believed that Carifesta could redeem it. In New York where studied and performed, a few years before World War II, the American Negro Theatre was founded. Lastly, in both places, women were expected to be docile and do domestic work, but successful gender movements were taking place, an example being that women eventually achieved the right to vote. Finally, in 1962, Beryl choreographed dances for the newly independent island. These dances would have been one aspect of Caribbean culture.

The theme of culture can be seen throughout the text Beryl McBurnie. Culture may be defined as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. (Tyler (British anthropologist) 1870: 1; cited by Avruch 1998: 6)” (Spencer-Oatey , Helen 2). It also shows how Trinidadians viewed their culture and origin. Beryl’s dances and songs incorporated the varied cultures. For example, on page twelve of the text, it is stated that Beryl combines African and European cultural elements as well as Indian practises. This shows how diverse Trinidad is as its people comprise of three main ethnicities. By this she decided against showcasing the beauty of only the already accepted and known European dance and songs and instead showed the cultural minorities, an act of resisting cultural assimilation - “the process in which a minority group or culture comes to resemble a dominant group or assume the values, behaviours, and beliefs of another group (“Cultural assimilation”). Beryl also resisted acculturation because while she did adopt and blend different cultures, she did not adapt the dominant culture, British, but instead used mostly African aspects despite the stereotypes. Her aim was to help develop and preserve the culture of the indigenous people and blend them together in order to create “unity in diversity” (Raymond 91), a unique blend that can make Trinidad independent from colonial influence. Trinidadians did not embrace their culture and preferred the Europeans’. An example is seen in on page twelve as Molly Ahye, a principal dancer at the Little Carib, stated that Beryl had a dance group prior to Little Carib’s existence but kept it out of the public’s eye as her form of dancing was mostly African. During that time, this dancing was unacceptable and considered “slave activities” by intellectuals and “primitive” by the general majority. The semi-literate and illiterate persons were the ones unashamed of their origins and continued the Shouter and Shango practices out of which steel-bands emerged. Ironically, the steel-bands are now where Trinidad turns for their unique cultural identity. Then on page twenty-eight, a quote from Schwartz and Schwartz stated that one of her performances expressed the Caribbean’s history showing sacrifice and sorrow and cultural mix including dances of Spanish, French, English and African roots, including Voodoo and Shango which were performed in the more rural parts of the country away from the public as it was considered satanic. Thus, calypso, a perfect blend of all these cultural art forms, developed. The text continues to enlighten readers as seen on page seventy-six where readers learn that she opened the ‘Folk House’, her homed turned training centre for the Little Carib that once was her family home. Through this institution she honoured great cultural artists and persons who contributed to the Little Carib, hoped to train more and its events displayed persons and performances from most cultures. Another theme seen widely in the text is identity.

Raymond incorporated the theme personal identity which includes the concept one develops about oneself that changes over the course of one’s life. She presented Beryl’s character by her friends and colleagues’ narrations of her, snippets from Beryl’s interviews and articles on her, mostly in chapters one and three. Through these mediums the readers can clearly picture Beryl and what her personality was like. According to Khan, Beryl’s identity was very elusive as she did not share personal information loosely and when she did, she was vague. What persons did learn about her however is that she was very aware of her African/European identity as seen in her performances. Additionally at age of 7/8 her backyard concerts consisted of European songs and dances, an aspect of eurocentrism, but this changed as she started conducting research on indigenous Caribbean dances. Beryl was not only elusive but was also filled with ideas and eccentric as stated by Betty Reef, an American reporter. She was also well-known for her bright, extraordinary outfits that made her stand out amongst crowds. From her friends’ reminiscing, the readers are also made aware of her resourceful, influential, assertive, intelligent, humorous, grateful and humble nature. Beryl was also beautiful and adored by many despite her flaws such as being temperamental. Although a kind soul, she could be intimidating when need be. Beryl displayed a split personality at times such is seen on page forty-nine, she was said to be “volatile and tempestuous” which shows that her mood will change suddenly and she had conflicting emotions. Her identity was shaped by society as she gained confidence and status from her fair complexion, an important class distinction, and her family’s middle-class status. This also allowed for her to receive an education up to the tertiary level as after completing Tranquillity Girl’s School, she went on to study dance at Columbia University, New York, under Martha Graham. However, in New York, this proved naught as persons were either black or white, with no in-between. From here, however, she went on to meet the prodigious black American actor, Paul Robeson, who later made permanent the Little Carib. Beryl was aware of her double diasporic consciousness, in which persons leave their home country and struggle with the decision whether to conform to their new place of residence or stay true to themselves, and she chose the latter. This shows when, in New York, she represented her roots in dress and performance and boycotted the chance of fame to come home and help Trinidad. She was also resistant to colonial rule as seen when she defies the Shouter Prohibition Ordinance by including their practices in her research and choreographies performed internationally and locally and performed dances for the appointment of the federal government of the West Indies Federation whose aim was to help Caribbean countries gain independence. Beryl’s work also involved her family, for example, her sister Freya performed with her on occasions and her aunt and/or mother cooked and aided with costume at the Little Carib which started and developed around the family home. Also, her nephew became chairman of The Little Carib Theatre. Beryl can also be seen to be somewhat religious as her family attended the Tranquillity Methodist Church which was brought to the Caribbean by whites that sought to help the recently freed blacks. Thus, was not against all things European. Additionally, on page seventy-eight she stated that through love, as Jesus stated to love one another, she freely gave her Folk House and Little Carib theatre to her country. Lastly, the readers are also made ware of Beryl’s habit of being ‘out of the norm’ by the theme gender. For example, few respectable, middle-class girls would dare to pursue a career in dance and conduct research all over Trinidad (Raymond 16). This is due the stigma surrounding women who pursue this career that they were expected to be seductive in their movements and dress as stated on page thirty-three of the text. However, she resisted this and placed a different view on Caribbean women and culture in the minds of persons who see her perform. Beryl was rightly honoured for her great contributions as she received:

the Order of the British Empire in 1959; two national awards from Trinidad and Tobago – the Humming Bird Gold Medal in 1969 and the country’s highest award, the Trinity Cross, in 1989; and an honorary doctorate from the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies in 1976. (Raymond 74)

And the Little Carib also hosted numerous anniversary celebrations inclusive of well-known musicians, dancers and writers. It is then no surprise that when she died of old age, her funeral was filled with many people including family, friends, politicians, the Invaders -popular steel-band she promoted, Rex Nettleford - then the head of the Jamaica National Dance Theatre Company and vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies - who paid a tribute to her and some of her former dancers danced for her, as seen on pages eighty-five and eighty-six. Her work and contribution to the Caribbean is also taught in schools as a way of honouring and remembering her. Raymond also uses the theme of slavery and freedom in her book.

Raymond incorporates slavery and freedom entwined with civilisation into her book, Beryl McBurnie, in order to develop the readers’ knowledge on past Caribbean society. She does this for the readers to better understand the importance of what Beryl did and what may have motivated her actions and inspired her vision. Slavery is the forced labour of persons without compensation while freedom is the act of not being enslaved and civilisation is a collective expression of a group of people through the unique way in which they perceive the world. It is highlighted that villages in which freed slaves first settled eventually turned into “narrow streets with tiny shacks where whole families lived in one room” (Raymond 5), this would explain why she was so family-oriented as more than one generation would co-exist along with her being raised with many siblings and cousins. There was also labour unrest and perverse poverty in Trinidad despite the discovery of oil and thus, funds would have been hard to acquire in order to build the Little Carib. Enslaved persons normally held dances during weekends, although the ‘masters’ feared rebellions after Haiti’s success, which the oppressed used to psychologically escape and forget about their struggles as stated in chapter one, page fifteen. This would have influenced Beryl to use dance and songs to tell their story and express herself and was a form of passive resistance The people were also desperate for their independence as expressed by Albert Gomes on page eight in which he encourages black persons to seek their independence.

All these considered, it is no surprise that Judy Raymond’s Beryl McBurnie is very valuable in understanding Caribbean civilisation. Firstly, her work in research and being adamant to preserve and make Caribbean dances known inspired Rex Nettleford to start the Jamaica National Dance Theatre Company. She also aided Nobel Prize writer, Derek Walcott, in his years in Trinidad and influenced Louise-Bennet who are both arguably cultural revolutionists. She also the trend for generations of dancers. Her dream of a theatre was materialised by Paul Robeson who started the building of Little Carib Theatre at Roberts St, Woodbrook, the first theatre and dance company in the island. The book also gave insight, examples, and descriptions of the dance moves unique to the Caribbean, some of which are not present today but have influenced the more recent dances. It aided in understanding Caribbean societal structure using various themes which explains a lot of Caribbean society today such as why most families live in one big yard, why women in dancehall dress the way they do and so on. The text also showed a Caribbean community characteristic, such as the whole community being involved in projects showing that this has been the way for a long time. It also explains the history behind Jamaican dances as it highlighted that Beryl influenced Jamaican dances by making ‘Caribbean dance’ official (Raymond 96). Her theatre housed and taught many famous Caribbean artists that influenced and popularised the Caribbean. The readers also come to understand how dance theatres have become so popular in the Caribbean as Beryl’s was the first which then motivated other persons, some of which danced with her, to form their own.

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The text does indeed extend my knowledge on Caribbean Civilisation. As I learn how Caribbean culture was viewed due to eurocentrism, why dance is so important and why so many theatres exist in the Caribbean. Additionally, I learnt why Beryl McBurnie is such an important figure and the bases behind the works of Rex Nettleford and others. The book focused on Beryl’s character which we learn was bold, kind and assertive but also temperamental. Also, it shows the struggles she faces such as lack of funds and her own temperamental attitude. Lastly, it tells of her achievements such as popularising Caribbean dance. The text is well-written as it uses various themes and styles that help the readers to understand the type of person Beryl was, what motivated her and her contribution to Caribbean society.  

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Oliver Johnson

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A Beacon of Caribbean Culture and Identity. (2024, February 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 18, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-beacon-of-caribbean-culture-and-identity/
“A Beacon of Caribbean Culture and Identity.” GradesFixer, 13 Feb. 2024, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-beacon-of-caribbean-culture-and-identity/
A Beacon of Caribbean Culture and Identity. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-beacon-of-caribbean-culture-and-identity/> [Accessed 18 Jul. 2024].
A Beacon of Caribbean Culture and Identity [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2024 Feb 13 [cited 2024 Jul 18]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-beacon-of-caribbean-culture-and-identity/
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