Cultural Festivals, Racial Healing, and Divided Loyalties in Cold War British Guiana, c. 195764

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Ramaesh J. Bhagirat-Rivera, Boston College
This paper examines the use of state-sponsored cultural festivals as a tool for racial reconciliation in Cold War British Guiana. By the mid-1960s, British Guiana seemed to be on the brink of racial war. The emerging nation became a hotbed of British and American Cold War interventionism due to the socialist orientation of both of its major political parties. Despite their espoused socialism, both parties represented specific racial groups – Cheddi Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party represented the slight majority of South-Asian-descended Guianese, and Forbes Burnham’s People’s National Congress represented the slight minority of African-descended Guianese. While scholarship has focused on Cold War interventionism and the racial violence it engendered, this paper instead focuses on how these global Cold War politics shaped the process of Guianese nation-building in response to the racial tensions that ensued.

Within this context of heightened tension, everyone from political leaders to cultural activists envisioned the festivity of performative culture as the means to end racialized violence. In particular, British Guiana Festival Week became the main state-sponsored cultural festival that aspired to be racially inclusive, instill pride and loyalty to the emerging nation, and forge cross-racial unity. These cultural spaces were mobilized in attempts at racial amelioration during tense times, reconciliation after particularly explosive times of racial violence, and as preemptive measures to prevent future tensions. While on the surface these festivals perpetuated the rhetoric and ideals of national inclusion, the practice of nation-building reinforced the bonds of racialized patronage between political leaders and their constituents while exacerbating racial divisions on-the-ground. Racialized participation in nationalist festivals largely reflected partisan loyalty, thus naturalizing and reinforcing racial separation within the national sphere. State policies that were originally intended to unify the nation became sources of disunity.

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