Is there a benefit to be gained from efforts to “make America great again”? Evidently, in the view of presidents number forty and forty-two and again, of president number forty-five there is, and it is important to pursue that benefit. Now that the unique president number forty-four has given way to a forty-fifth president, this blog reflects on the way Caribbean states continue mirroring greatness.
First, it is useful to note that greatness is not to be confused with large size. As in the case of Great Britain. When the king of those islands in the North Sea owned the New England plantations then known as British North America, size did not define greatness. Also, it is useful to bear in mind greatness may be reversible, as in the eighteenth century when France exchanged Canada for Martinique, while Spain traded Florida for Cuba. Such was the wealth and prestige of islands lying between North and South America that the reward for successful governors in the New World was promotion from Maryland or Pennsylvania to Barbados or Jamaica.1
Furthermore, it is helpful to remember that greatness extends beyond considerations of size and wealth. Long after the Caribbean stopped generating great revenue, it continued mirroring greatness, in its own way. During the Second World War, defense requirements meant that every fourth person in Trinidad and Tobago was American. Yet in those circumstances, the calypso “Rum and Coca Cola” not only recorded embedding of an American military presence in the region. In turn, as if to balance matters, the calypso embedded itself in American entertainment and – for good measure – also in American case law.
In an entirely unexpected way, the Caribbean mirrored greatness by raising standards. For over half a century, American athletes dominated the prime global showcase of nationalism, the Olympics. Then athletes from colonial Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago began “lighting up post-war cinder tracks” in Britain. Athletics changed the moment they entered the Olympics. They challenged American supremacy in what commentators remember as “the closest (100m) finish in Olympic history.” 2 Post-war amateur and professional sport changed as by the 1960s, Britain even created a Sports Council and appointed a Sports Minister.
Within three decades, Caribbean athletes confirmed their challenge to great powers in the Olympics. Trinidad and Tobago took gold in the star-studded 100m event in 1976. Sweeping change followed that extraordinary success. In the United States, an Amateur Sports Act mandated reorganization of track and field and other sport.
Naturally, the region’s spirited approach to mirroring greatness in sport appeared elsewhere, most visibly in entertainment and the media. Hazel Scott of Trinidad and Tobago was among the best known entertainers in America during the 1940s. She pioneered as a television presenter in 1950. Like Hazel Scott, Sidney Poitier, born in the Bahamas and Harry Belafonte, of Jamaican upbringing and descent struck down barriers to become recognized as great in their own right.
The way the Caribbean mirrored greatness was less visible outside entertainment. Yet, the region is disproportionately represented in professions including, above all, education. As an observer pointed out, it is difficult to find a prestigious university in the United States without at least one faculty member from the Caribbean. One example in the savvy Pacific Northwest of America illustrates this Caribbean mirroring:
Edward Miles (1939–2016) left Queen’s Royal College and Trinidad and Tobago for the United States where he rose gradually, by 1973, to the level of Warburg Fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs and at the same time was Senior Fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In 1974 Miles proceeded to the University of Washington’s Institute for Marine Studies (since renamed School of Marine and Environmental Affairs). He served as Director of this institution from 1982 to 1993, helping push the University of Washington to the front lines of climate-change research.
Miles studied oceanography, fisheries and the atmosphere, subject areas in which, reportedly, he never obtained formal diplomas. Nevertheless, his research received broad recognition, so that in 2003 Miles became one of the few individuals without a science degree to be inducted into the American National Academy of Sciences.
During his sixteen-year tenure as Virginia and Prentice Bloedel Professor of Marine Studies and Public Affairs at the University of Washington, in his words, Edward Miles walked “a fine line between advocacy… and education” as he influenced growing global concern about climate change.
Nothing better mirrors the declared purpose of a new administration to make America great again than achievement in the Caribbean. In athletics more than in any other area, Caribbean success brings perspective to prospects for return of the America that reigned supreme at the Olympics in the first half of the twentieth century. For if, as in ancient Greece, athletic success is to confirm national greatness, American President #45 faces a singular challenge. To prove that it can be great again, America must recapture the iconic 100m sprint from people who, remarkably, make no claim to greatness.
1 William Halsey and Emanuel Friedman, Eds. Collier’s Encyclopedia, Vol. 4 (New York: Macmillan Educational Corp., 1980), 594.
2 D. Wallechinsky and J. Loucky, The Complete Book of the Olympics, (New York: Aurum Press, 1996), 9.