Dom Basil Matthews: God’s Pedagogue

By Winthrop R. Holder

“The country … seems to be trapped in a state of in-betweenity.” —(DBM)

Finding, the almost-hidden, “Dom Basil Matthews: Nihil Omnino Christo” in the back of the CD stack in a music store and reading the linear notes, I wondered how could the producers, Gil Figaro and Joe Brown, pull off the improbable: use a mere CD to celebrate/commemorate the life-work of such a multi-faceted personality as Dom Basil Matthews. Since I dropped Latin in high school, the “Nhili Omnino Christo” made me cringe and wonder if a lot of ‘speaking in tongues’ and sermonizing awaited me. So the CD stared at me for more than a month before I opened it one Sunday morning. And what an educational, musical, and, yes, spiritual uplift! This prompted me to reflect even further on the subject. Who, then, was this man and from which well springs his source? Why/How (if at all) should he be remembered and celebrated?

On entering the serene and pious setting of the Seminary at Mt. St. Benedicts in 1928, at age 17, and being repulsed by the rampant poverty and illiteracy that plagued San Juan-his birthplace-and surroundings areas, the young Dom engaged in deep contemplation as he set out on a pilgrimage to self-knowledge that would take him from the Mount in 1933 to the Benedictine College of Theology in Belgium. Returning home after being ordained, in 1935, as the first Benedictine priest of color-about which he later quipped, “[the masses] probably liked the idea of some chocolate topping on all that vanilla ice cream”-in its fifteen hundred years of existence, he began recasting his ministry as a powerful instrument to mitigate the prejudices and social inequities which bedeviled both the Catholic Church and the wider society.

It may have been in Trinidad during his first ‘official’ stint of teaching, counseling, and ministering in the parish of the poor that his distinctive strand of critical pedagogy took shape as he began going beyond the dogma of the traditionalists to more fully engage the whole student or worshipper. Blending The Scriptures and formal/book knowledge with his own informal knowledge and, as his philosophy evolved, becoming a man of action committed to transforming the world around him.

By fashioning a pedagogy that positioned the oppressed and downtrodden at the centre of the struggle for social justice and educational equity, the Dom, as he was affectionately called, employed The Scripture and education—that privileged students’ lived realities—as his weapon to engender personal, ethical, and societal transformation. Thus, before entering the minefields of segregated America in 1941 he was already a practitioner of liberation theology, even before it would emerge later as a movement in the 1950s.

While earning a doctorate (1946) from Fordham University he was also a lecturer of Religion at Manhattanville College, and Philosophy at Katherine Dunham’s School of Dance and Theatre. Apart from his pioneering work on the Crisis of the West Indian Family, he was also one of the earliest researchers (1942) to critically examine the calypso. In addition, his analysis of the ravaging effects of the plantation system on society highlighted the pressing need for restructuring the social order and this further fired his passionate commitment to spiritual and social transformation.

It was in the 1950s through his ministering to rural communities in San Fernando and its surroundings that his unique brand of critical pedagogy took flight. Little wonder, then, that in 1956 when he founded St. Benedicts College in La Romain, he did not blindly follow the grammar school model but understood, intuitively, the power of sports, and the need for vocational and cultural development which he fused with the traditional curriculum. By creating (arguably) the first senior comprehensive school in the region he provided a blueprint for the upliftment of students who were normally kept beyond the fringes of education.

Affirming this view 55 years later, former student, Mungal Pastasar, who is now Artist in Residence at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, notes: “Dom Basil Matthews… dedicated his life to educating the poor from the rural districts in South Trinidad. Many of these young boys would not have seen the inside of a college or university.”  At the base of his praxis, then, was creating pathways to unleashing students’ hidden potentials through dance, music, religion, sports and, like a bricoleur, anything close at hand which would foster moral upliftment, self-fulfillment, and a deeper sense of  humanity.

Last September marked the centennial of the birth of Dom Basil Matthew and also of our first Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams (the Doc). While the historic 1954 public debate between “The Doc” and “The Dom”, which attracted thousands of people of ‘every creed and race’, is credited with ushering in the idea of mass popular education in T&T, one shudders thinking of the state of debating in today’s parliament. One commentator even equated this historic debate with the famous Lincoln-Douglas (1858) debates in the U. S. Yet, after 50 years of independence, too much cant–politics, sophistry, mamaguism–and the ole talk of traditional intellectuals hinder a disinterested evaluation of  this landmark event in the nation’s history.

Some claim that though the Doc was a brilliant historian, and understood the need for critical discourse in the polis, he nevertheless acted like a ‘badjohn’ – often attempting to silence those who challenged him, as he perceived the Dom did by ‘pushing’ the Catholic Church’s position in the Great Debate. Who can forget Williams attempt to muzzle and isolate CLR James-even putting him under house arrest– and the Doc’s dismissively referring to CLR as a ‘mere pamphleteer’?  The Roaring Tiger was another victim of Williams’ wrath. Rawle Gibbons’ No Surrender: A Biography of the Growling Tiger, not only helps us remember and cement Tiger’s place in history but also relates how this calypso icon was also targeted by Williams merely for parodying the Doc’s ‘one day marriage’ in a calypso. It’s uncertain if Williams ever viewed the Dom’s quip, “Common law marriage isn’t common and it isn’t law, it’s just common”, as being aimed at him or as too traditional and too Catholic. Still, there is the sense that our renowned historian may well have dismissed the Dom as a ‘mere Catholic’. Interestingly, in a recent article in BigDrumNation, (bigdrumnation.org/notes/dombasil.htm), Caldwell Taylor contests the simplistic and reductionist view promulgated of the Dom as only being remembered for “a cameo appearance in the meteoric rise of Dr. Eric Williams in the 1950s.”

It is against this backdrop that “Dom Basil Matthews: Nihil Omnino Christo” is welcomed as it disturbs the silence and lack of critical discourse surrounding the Dom’s true legacy beyond his influential role in national soccer. This CD, then, is a really a clarion call for the ‘professional’ academicians to revisit the Dom’s contributions to national development rather than projecting this thread of our ‘history as absurdity’ or erasure.

Nihil Omnino is a stellar production with the inventiveness of some of the best Caribbean artists–The Mighty Sparrow, Chalkdust, Mungal Patasar, Tabou Combo, George Victory, Charmaine Yeates, and Designer-lending their voices to help in remembering and repositioning the indomitable Dom in the historical register.

By skillfully samplin’ and repositioning the Dom’s voice, as intro and outro to each song, the producers extend the bounds of the call-and-response by creating a communicative community between the performers and the spoken word from some of the Dom’s most memorable, yet unheralded, speeches. This deft blending of voices prompts one to re-imagine the Dom as the quintessential spoken word artist. Perhaps this is best captured in the give-and-take with Sparrow which begins with the Dom’s sonorous voice:

How can we win a piece of the world and yet keep our soul? This is what true education is all about; this is what life that is worth living is all about. 

Evoking the feel of a mock duel in a calypso tent, Sparrow responds with his timeless classic

Education, education this is the foundation/ Our rising population need sound education/.. Knowledge is the key to success…

And, as the final bars, Education would light up your way….Don’t allow idle companions to lead you astray/ To earn tomorrow you have to learn today, of Sparrow’s education road march ring out, there’s the feel of a muted duel over message: Does Sparrow’s seeming pragmatism encapsulate the Dom’s vision of education for spiritual and moral upliftment?  Were the alchemists able to prevent open conflict from breaking out between voices and message?

As Sparrow’s voice fades and the Dom frees himself from a time outside of time, filtering through the speakers, one hears:

St Benedicts College was put down to help students find answers to …questions and to live with success.

Extending the dialogue over time and space, former student Stephen James testifies:

The Dom… inspired me to say WHEN rather than IF.

Still, one wonders if our spoken word artist was ribbing Sparrow or whether, in this virtual ‘tent,’ he was issuing a call to the next speech performance with:

Here is part of the answer as I see it.: Focus on the right goal and the right values/ Keep moving toward that goal and don’t block traffic/Don’t just keep moving: plan; plan every move that you make/ Pick the right tools; no tools, no job/ Push with might…/And for God’s sake, hang in there!

And, as the Dom’s voice transitions into the Mighty Chalkdust’s, the opening riffs reminds us of the stellar work of ace arranger Art  de Coteau. Chalkdust, the public intellectual, compels us to constantly question and challenge historical distortions. Through his voice, trembling with indignation, is revealed:

…Nowadays as you mention science or an invention/ Many people does feel that it come from the white man/ They feel that is whites only who created technology… but what the damn fools don’t know is that blacks created things also…

One can sense how these vibes from “Black Inventions” may have reverberated through the Dom for, as a rare black in the ministry of his time, he knew, up close, his people’s struggles to reject and escape the badge of servitude. Exploding the corrosive stigma of racial prejudice that bedeviled his people, even today, he asserts from way beyond the surrealist-like music of the CD:

It is sometimes alleged-not without some foundation in the past history of the culture-conflict of the Negro in the New World-that Negroes do not wish to be ministered to by priests of their own race. … To say that in this year of grace and achievement, 1946, is … a most vicious form of propaganda…

Propaganda? Hear Chalkie, but now more like the new Dom, as a spoken word artist, on the linear notes,

This compact disc… marks an age when British-educated sons sought through a renaissance of alternative education, to put an end to colonial and neo-colonial thinking. Dom Basil Matthews was one such person.

And before one can wonder if Chalkie, as mc in this futuristic kaiso tent-that juxtaposes voices and voice fragments and images in order to unearth new meaning–can also mediate the mock duel over educational vision between Sparrow and the Doc, we hear another line from Chalkie’s magnum opus compelling us to be the change we believe we can become….

But in books today Black people works they don’t show.

Indeed, Chalkie’s works compel us to think deeply, contest, and then correct the historical registers. How many pre- and post-secondary education textbooks mention Dom Basil Matthews–even as a footnote?  Have all the biographies of the Dom been stolen from our library bookshelves?

Each one of us has a special talent that no one else has; put that talent to work as no one else can. None of them gave that talent to you; only God. None of them can take it. Right on! 

It’s evident that this peroration still vibrates through his former students-a cadre of organic intellectuals–whose words ring through this reflective and eye-opening CD. Borrowing the mic from Chalkdust, and making a cameo-like appearance, Mervyn Francis, who attended St. Benedicts from 1966 to 1971, interjects,

I can well remember the Dom telling me in the presence of my mother, ‘If I am not making the progress that I am capable of making, it is simply because my goals are not clearly defined.’ 

The Dom intones:

Where talent is concerned there is no such thing as Common Entrance; there is only special entrance; and special entrance is you and you alone.

As the Dom’s words, with its deft turn of phrase, reverberate one reads on the CD booklet:

Goal setting is the strongest human force for self-motivation, and they work in two ways: you work on them or they work on you. 

Are the previous words the Dom’s? Or, are they from any of his former students, including Mervyn Francis? Above all, “Nihil Omnino”, provides the answer.

Though this remembrance is not an attempt to canonize the Dom, still, words alluding to human frailty ring out from the booklet: “[T]he tragedies of [the Dom’s] life in no way diminished the exuberance of his wishes.” There is no scandal here. Yet, on this montage, that is the CD, a new duel breaks out: written testimonials of former students and a cross section of the community; pictures of the school’s music band, teachers, and students–some in school uniform-where’s a picture of the soccer team that uplifted the state of the nation’s play?; and a touching collage of some of the school’s “fallen heroes”; converge and speak through the music in one voice.  One gets the sense that this work is grounded in the notion of the interconnectedness of all inhabitants-past, future, and present.

•Thanks to Gil Figaro for making the archives at The Dom Basil Matthews Institute available to the writer.

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