The Dragon Can't Dance written in 1979 by Earl Lovelace examines the Trinidadian society a decade after the British colonial rule had come to an end. Trinidad, represented by Calvary Hill, had faced a vast political and social turmoil in the 1970s.
The novel explores the on-going struggle between the self and the other in the construction of identity among Trinidadians/the residents of the Cavalry Hill. The writer presents a series of identity crisis which leads to a feeling of alienation that creates a desperate need for bonds and roots among a group of urban Trinidadians in his novel. Identity crisis, an issue that touches all the characters in the novel, is a result of displacement, slavery, colonialism, missionary movements, and the demands made on the characters by the dominant socioeconomic forces of the capital.
The ancestors of the characters in the novel had been brought to the Caribbean as either slaves or indentured servants from Africa and India. The harsh frontier atmosphere of their new ‘home’ becomes a melting pot in which different ethnicities lose their identities as distinct groups. Trinidad receiving independence from the British Rule in 1962 leads to an exodus of these melted people from the rural agrarian hinterlands into the capital. Ironically, these self-exiled people who leave their hamlets in search of the proverbial greener pastures are forced to settle down in the teeming slums in the outskirts of Port of Spain. Once again displacement results in the disintegration of the socio-political and economic structures these people have constructed for themselves in their rural homes. Furthermore, in the city the activities of the missionary movements and the assimilative forces of the dominant white culture accelerate the blurring of the improvised identities of the self-exiled. These forces also encourage people like the dwellers of the Cavalry Hill to relinquish the dim yet essential memories they have harboured of their distant African homes for the sake of cultural assimilation.
Identity being an essential component of their makeup, communities and individuals tend to create new identities in their absence. The carnival, the yard, steel band, gangs, battles, church, the police, cowboy movies obtain a symbolic value in the eyes of the slum dwellers of Calvary Hill in their search of a new personhood. “These daily police raids they see as much an acknowledgement of their presence as an effort to wrench from them sovereignty of these streets” (25). The men of the Hill imitated “Western movies of the gun talk and the quick draw and the slow crawl, smooth grand gestures … so exquisitely as though those gestures were their own” (26). “At the Corner, power lay not so much in the might of the small company as in their steadfast pose of rebellion, in their rejection of the ordinary word, its rewards and promises” – on which rested their identity as the hoodies (172).
The carnival specifically gives the residents of Calvary Hill an unparalleled opportunity to create an alternative self/reality and form a link with blood memories. The writer, commenting on a faint memory of the importance of the masked dancers, says, “(B)ack across the Middle Passage… maskers were sacred and revered, the keepers of the poisons and heads of secret societies” (134). Therefore, being a masker is an identity of great honour. Consequently, the Hill dwellers come into tacit compromise with the dominant socioeconomic institutions that saw the mask as primitive and invent a new use for it in form of the Carnival. During the Carnival Hill people redefine themselves with the use colourful costumes and masks. They come to like what they felt when they wore masks and danced so much so that “they wished every day was carnival” (137). But the question the writer raises with regard to the use of the mask is the validity of the use to which the Aldrick the Dragon Man puts his mask[y1] . However, with the passage of time the Carnival too fails to live up to the expectations of some of the participants: “Once upon a time the entire carnival was an expression of rebellion” (135).
Let us look at how the individual the characters grapple with their identities. Aldrick, the protagonist, has made his alternate identity as the Dragon Man the total focus of his existence. “Just the thought of not playing dragon made him feel naked and empty” (164). His preoccupation with himself as the Dragon Man is narcissistic as well as escapist to the extent that he is reluctant to commit himself to a relationship with a woman. Aldrick lives the entire year preparing for the day of the Carnival on which he thought he could display his real self to the rest of the world (58). However, as the story progresses Aldrick develops cracks in his constructed personhood. He desperately fights to retain his hold on his identity as the Dragon almost to the end of the story. When a man comes to collect his overdue rent and complains about Pariag Aldrick says, “Listen man, I is still Aldrick. I is still the dragon. I could turn beast in a minute” (123). Yet, towards the end almost against his wishes he develops a social consciousness that forced him to abandon his self-absorption: “It was like everybody, people, felt they were running out of time, and they had to have something to show for being here. People were losing patience with the promise, with the hope, with the dreams, with the battle” (127). This new awareness makes him want to redefine his role. Expressing his change of attitude to Prisoners, Aldrick say:
So many things we coulda do, and all we wanted was to attract attention! How come everything we do we have to be appealing to somebody else? Always somebody to tell us if this right or wrong, if it good or bad … Is like we ain’t have no self. I mean we have a self but the self we have is for somebody else. (202)
Ultimately, he concludes, “We is people…We have to act for we” 203. Instead of being a beautiful front for a lost man to hide behind, the dragon becomes a rallying call for his people.
Fisheye derives his identity from the band, gang battles, and cowboy movies. “In this war, in this army, Fisheye at last found the place where he could be a man, where his strength and quickness had meaning and he could feel pride in belonging and purpose to his living” (68). Fisheye’s hat with a bullet hole served the purpose of reinforcing this self-created tough-guy personhood (70). Samuel Sampson self- Christians himself as Philo and acts the clown to escape the cruel taunting of his schoolmates and to disconnect himself from the grim realities of his life:
All his life he has managed in such ways to disconnect himself from things which he couldn’t escape and which threatened to define him in a way in which he didn’t want to be defined, and go on untouched, untouched by things that should have touched him, hurt him, burned him. (145)
Philo’s greatest fear is of being forgotten. Therefore, he tries desperately to be a calypso king. Philo commenting on himself as the axe man and his desire to be the Calypso King says, “So that people would write down my name, man. So my name could be somewhere” (127).
Pariag is a son of an indentured Indian labourer. Out of all the characters on the Hill he is the only one who actually goes back to visit the village he left behind. But upon going back to visit his relatives at New Land this is how he feels: “He walked back to the house, feeling funny, feeling alien” (158). Yet, in the city no one wants to know his real name; he is called Bottles, Channa Boy, or Crazy Indian. Even Aldrick the man who is obsessed with the idea of identity cannot remember his name. When Pariag goes to meet the Dragon Man for some assistance this is what Aldrick says to himself, “It was the Indian fellar, Parry or Singh or something-he never could remember his name” (88). Desperate for some form of recognition, Pariag is glad to be fleeced by Fisheye as the very act of fleecing demands an acknowledgement his existence by the one who fleeced him.
Cleothilda derives her identity from her colour and her fast fading beauty: she struts “about the yard with her roughed cheeks and padded hips, husbanding her fading beauty” (31). She considers herself the Queen of the Hill:
Her long hair plaited in two plaits, like a schoolgirl, choking with that importance and beauty which she maintained as a queenship which not only she, but the peoples who shared the yard with her, had the duty to recognize and responsibility to uphold” (31).
Guy, the slum landlord, uses his well pressed clean clothes as an extenuating factor for being a Negro. “He wore his cleanness as compensation, so that the world would say; ‘He is black, but he [is] never dirty’” (122). Sylvia, Dolly, Terry, etc. too struggle with issues related to identity. In conclusion, the issue of personhood clouds all the decisions made by the characters and the events that occur in the novel The Dragon Can’t Dance.
Lovelace, Earl. The Dragon Can’t Dance. Essex: Longman, 1989.